4.1. The Birth of Moses (2:1-10)
(1) A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.
(2) The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.
(3) When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.
(4) And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.
(5) The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it.
(6) When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.”
(7) Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”
(8) And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.
(9) And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.
(10) When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”
The Jewish people are born from Egypt itself, by integrating with it – and the same thing happens to Moses on a personal level. He is a Jew by birth but culturally an Egyptian. Suckled from birth by his own mother, Moses is at the same time the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and a member of the ruling dynasty. This duality in Moses is very important for understanding the Exodus.
(1) A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman: Moses’ father’s name is not indicated here; only later from verse 6:20 do we learn that his name was Amram. All we are told here is that he is a member of the tribe of Levi. Although the Jews’ personal names – and thus their self-identification – was erased and suppressed by enslavement, the Jews nonetheless preserved their national (tribal) names, i.e., their collective memory that they were descended from the sons of Jacob.
At the beginning of this book of Exodus, moreover, all individual activity is performed by women: the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. All of those, at great personal risk to themselves, act in opposition to the authorities, who seek to exterminate the Jewish people.
The Midrash reinforces this theme (Talmud, Sotah 12a):
It is written: “And there went a man of the house of Levi.”
Where did he go? R. Judah b. Zebina said that he went in the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river’, he said: In vain do we labor. He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, ‘Father, thy decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas thou hast decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world whereas thou hast decreed concerning this world and the World to Come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in thy case, though thou art righteous, it is certain that thy decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee!
He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.
Pharaoh commands to destroy only the males, who in Hebrew are called zachar – those responsible for preserving the zecher, “the memory,” of the people. There was a certain logic to Pharaoh’s plan: By erasing the national memory, Pharaoh would destroy the Jewish people’s existence as an independent entity.
In response, the men abandoned their struggle for the perpetuation of the clan. To them, Pharaoh’s decree meant the impossibility of passing on the zachar (masculinity, memory, traditions), and thus it meant for them the end of the nation’s existence. Amram had therefore decided to completely withdraw, to stop having children before Pharaoh could actually destroy the Jewish nation.
Essentially, that decision indicated a loss of faith and, along with it, the vitality needed for carrying on with life. In this context the Midrash has Amram being challenged by none other than his own daughter; in other words, it is a confrontation of the past and the future. Miriam, despite here tender age, understands what her father Amram, an adult man and the leader of his generation, could not understand: Future life, however unfulfilling, is no less important than memory of the past, and one must fight for that life, come what may. Women belong to the future, which prevents them from losing faith. The present exists for the sake of the future; we must live, and we must fight, so that the future will arrive. We must not give up on life even in the most hopeless of situations.
(2) The woman conceived and bore a son: When the Torah mentions not only a birth, but specifically mentions the conception as well, this indicates the onset of a new stage of development. This birth is more than just an unremarkable link in the same generational chain.
And when she saw how beautiful he was: The literal translation is, “She saw that he was good.” But doesn’t every mother consider her newborn child “good”? This expression must mean something more than just “a good child.”
The Midrash notes that the expression used here to describe Moses at birth mimics the almost identical one at the beginning of Creation (Gen. 1:4) when God created light: “God saw that the light was good (ki tov).”
Moses’ most salient quality is that he strives to be the “light” of everything good, to spread that light, and to personify the intolerance of evil. Wherever and whenever Moses encounters evil, he feels an immediate need to challenge it.
She hid him for three months: The Torah is emphasizing that Moses spent the initial period of his infancy in the warmth of family surroundings.
(3) When she could hide him no longer: This means that the Egyptian persecution of the Jews was intensifying. According to the Midrash, Pharaoh’s servants counted nine months from the moment the Jews returned to their wives, and then immediately began a generalized roundup of all newborn boys. Moses was born prematurely, after six months of pregnancy; his mother was thus able to hide him for three months, but no longer.
She got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile: The basket in which Moses was placed by his mother bears a connection to Noah’s ark (Gen. 6:14; the Torah uses the same term, teivah, a word not commonly encountered, in both cases). The connection is not hard to see. Noah’s ark saves him from the Deluge, after which a new stage in the world’s development begins. And Moses is saved by the basket from the waters of the Nile, which likewise opens a new page of human history.
In light of this parallelism, we must also take note of the details and consider their differences. Noah’s ark is coated only with tar, while Moses’s basket is smeared with both tar and clay. Tar is associated with passive protection (from water), while clay is a primary element of active construction. Noah is saved, but he is passive. Moses, who repeatedly assumes the role of a savior, is active in the extreme.
She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile: As it later turns out, this placement of the basket was not accidental; it was at the shoreline frequented by Pharaoh’s daughter. We have an impression that the entire event was staged in advance; perhaps there was even an agreement made from the start with Pharaoh’s daughter.
(4) And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him: The Jewish people in the era of Egyptian slavery owe their salvation to the women of their generation. Taking responsibility for the preservation of family values is one of Miriam’s characteristic features, and will continue to be evident in the brothers-and-sister triumvirate of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
(5) The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile: It is stressed that this location on the banks of the Nile was no ordinary place, for it was apparently reserved for royalty.
While her maidens walked along the Nile: But even so, they did not object to Miriam too being there.
She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it: In order for Moses to become a leader, it was important that he grow up among the Egyptian elite and be raised by them. A leader of the people comes not from the lower echelons, but from the top. Because a Jewish leader will be needed for the future Exodus, the Almighty, in anticipation of that, sends a Jewish child to Pharaoh’s palace. There he will receive a proper education, and assimilate essential concepts of his country’s governmental structure, its achievements, and its culture. This knowledge will prove invaluable to him later for creating Jewish sovereignty.
(6) When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it: Ultimately, it is the child’s crying that drives her decision to save him. In critical moments, human sensitivity is often far more helpful than brute strength.
And said, “This must be a Hebrew child”: The Torah does not tell us how she arrives at this conclusion. Pharaoh’s daughter realizes, apparently, that only a Jewish mother would leave her child in the Nile, because of the ongoing persecutions. This statement also expresses her indignation against her father’s evil decrees.
(7) Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: The members of Moses’ family freely communicate with Pharaoh’s daughter, which means that they are representatives of the “Jewish elite.” Later, it will become clear that Aaron, Moses’ brother, holds a position along the lines of “Chief Rabbi” of the Egyptian Jewish community. And we have already quoted the Midrash which informs us that Amram, Moses’ father, was among the most prominent Jews of his generation.
(7-9) “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse …?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me…”: Pharaoh’s daughter relates very positively to Jews and Jewishness, which further confirms the presence of a pro-Jewish contingent among the Egyptians.
And I will pay your wages: Moses is now back in the arms of his very own mother. But even better, she now earns a fee for nursing him. At the same time, this emphasizes that from this moment on Moses belongs to both of those worlds, the Jewish and the Egyptian.
So the woman took the child and nursed it. (10) When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter: That is, Moses was brought up in the Jewish community until he had reached an age of sufficient self-awareness that he would not break off ties with the Jewish people in the future.
She brought him to Pharaohs daughter, who made him her son: Moses thus received not just an ordinary Egyptian education, but specialized training befitting a future leader of state.
She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water”: Grammatically, the Hebrew word meshitihu can mean either “I drew him out” or “you (fem.) drew him out.” Who, then, is the “she” that named Moses? Who is talking here? Is it Pharaoh’s daughter, or Moses’ mother addressing herself to Pharaoh’s daughter? The Torah does not specify.
Moreover, depending on which of the two women named Moses, we would expect the name to reflect either Egyptian or Hebrew etymology. But linguistic analysis has shown that the answer to that question as well can go either way. Associations for the name “Moshe” or “Moses” can be found in both the Hebrew and the Egyptian languages.
In ancient Egyptian, the name means, simply, “son” (the same word also forms part of the names of many of the Pharaohs – “Tut-mos,” for example). In Hebrew the derivation of the name is as the text itself here states: from the verb mashah, “pull, or draw (from the water).” This duality of Moses’ name itself corresponds to his dual (Jewish-Egyptian) identity, which allowed Moses to develop in different directions, giving him great freedom of choice.