Jochebed let a low moan slip through her lips as another wave of labor pain rolled through her body. Perhaps her mother or a sister or maybe her daughter Miriam wiped her face with a damp cloth as she caught her breath between contractions. Two midwives made preparations.
It was a moment that should have been brimming with hope and anticipation, but I can’t help wondering if the scene was tense instead. Surely Jochebed was aware that the new Egyptian king had ordered the death of all Hebrew baby boys. Exodus 1:9-10 tells us, “He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.’”
The first attempt had been to bear down on the Hebrews with harsh labor. Their hardship intensified, but it did not bring about the desired decrease in their population growth. So Pharaoh moved on to phase two of his plan: infanticide.
The waiting midwives had been instructed to kill the little one, should he turn out to be a boy.
Who are these midwives, Shiphrah and Puah—the king’s gentle executioners? There is ambiguity in their background. Scripture refers to them as “the Hebrew midwives” (Ex. 1:15), but scholars suggest that could mean either “midwives who are Hebrew” or “Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews.” Some believe their names are of Hebrew origin and support the former assumption that these women were also Hebrew. Others, pointing to the barbaric nature of their orders, assume they must have been Egyptian if Pharaoh expected and assumed they would comply.
When I delivered my daughter, I heard the nurse exclaim, “She’s so beautiful!” before I’d had a chance to see her. As the nurse continued to go on about how beautiful she was, I recall thinking, Hey, lady, back off! That’s my baby! When they told me my daughter needed more oxygen and then stole her away to the NICU before I’d held her, I felt fear and uncertainty as I waited to be released to visit her. Thinking of this, I can’t imagine the terror coursing through Jochebed’s veins as she labored.
Jochebed gave birth to Moses. And, as it turned out, Scripture tells us the midwives feared God more than they did the king of Egypt and therefore did not kill the boys (Ex. 1:17). They said no to an oppressive authority, and they did what was right in the eyes of God instead. Whether they were preserving their own Hebrew people or risking their lives to protect the foreigner in their midst, they made a decision to further the flourishing of an oppressed people.
But Pharaoh wasn’t finished. When the midwives explained the survival of infant boys by claiming Hebrew women gave birth too quickly, he extended his decree to all Egyptians. “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (Ex. 1:22 NIV). So Jochebed’s nightmare was not over. Now any slave master, merchant, neighbor, or other Egyptian her family might encounter could choose to murder her son without consequence.
What’s a mother to do in that situation? How do you protect your child when threats surround his very life? She and her husband Amram made a decision to hide Moses for three months. Again, I am filled with questions. Did Jochebed publicly mourn the supposed loss of her infant? Did anyone notice her nursing or see in her eyes the lack of sleep? Or did they suppose the restless nights and leaking breasts were signs of a baby-less mother in distress? Or perhaps her community surrounded her with support and encouragement as they cuddled the newborn and concealed his existence.
They said no to an oppressive authority, and they did what was right in the eyes of God instead.
After three months, however, she would have to let him go. So she made a basket out of papyrus, placed her baby inside the makeshift boat, and set it adrift in the river.
When parents are faced with unfathomable circumstances, they are forced to make difficult decisions that impact the lives of their children. When I have read stories of mothers from Central America who sent their 3-year-old toddlers northward to the States in the care of a 12-year-old brother or cousin, I think about 3-month-old Moses floating down the river, watched by his older sister following in the reeds. Parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children.
God rescued Moses and even orchestrated the recruitment of Jochebed to nurse him. At this point, typically, we move forward in Scripture with Moses’ story. But a couple of sentences in the biblical text remind us of the unbelievable courage and risk others took at the start of Moses’ life, which allowed him to grow up into the leader he was created to become.
First, the midwives. Scripture tells us God was good to them (Ex. 1:20). And then we learn that “because the midwives feared God, He established households for them” (Ex. 1:21). They were rewarded for their faithfulness, for their commitment to God over obedience to an unjust ruler. And then there are Jochebed and Amram. They pop up where we might least suspect to see them—in Hebrews 11, also called “the faith chapter.” We are told that it was the faith of Moses’ parents that led them to hide him after he was born. They recognized his uniqueness and—my favorite part—“they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Ex. 1:23).
Too often, I assumed Jochebed was motivated by fear—fear for her son’s life, fear regarding the risk they were taking to protect him. But in reality, she and her husband were motivated by their faith that God would protect their family. They, like the midwives, feared the Lord more than the king and did whatever was required to protect the child God had given them. As I read their story and witness families today making similarly difficult and faithful decisions for their children, I too am challenged to seek God first and to fear Him more than I do any earthly leader.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft