At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Hebrews have been in Egypt for several generations, their migration blessed by a previous pharaoh in appreciation of Joseph’s handling of a food crisis. But their peaceful coexistence comes to an end when a new pharaoh comes to power and conscripts the Hebrews into hard labor. In addition to the enslavement, Pharaoh issues an imperial edict that all newborn Hebrew boys are to be killed.
In her excellent new book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, practical theologian and community developer Kelley Nikondeha talks about the exodus of the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt as a series of small rescue operations, starting with the midwives who refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s death order. Then there’s Jochebed, Moses’s birth mother, who relinquishes her son in order to save him, placing him in a basket on the Nile: Nikondeha imagines her navigating the basket across the river and placing it strategically in a thicket of reeds to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, whose pensive nature and possible sympathies she had been observing for the past three months.
Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the biblical narrative, but Jewish tradition gives her the Hebrew name Bithiah, “daughter of Yahweh” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3), identifying her with the woman in 1 Chronicles 4:18. In this verse she is called a Judahite (i.e., a Jew), which Megillah 13a says is because she repudiated the gods of her people—that when “she came down to bathe at the river” (Exodus 2:5), it was to cleanse herself of idolatry; essentially, to perform a ritual conversion to Judaism, as her loyalties will bear out. When she discovers the baby, she knows he’s Hebrew, and presumably out of compassion, she decides to raise him as her own. She hires Jochebed as a wet-nurse (it’s unclear whether she knows Jochebed is Moses’s birth mother) and, once the child is weaned two to three years later, receives him into the palace. She names him Moses, Egyptian for “son” but also sounding like the Hebrew word mashah, “to draw out” (of the water).
Scripture gives us no information about Moses’s upbringing and very little about his adoptive mother, so questions are unavoidable. Did Moses look different from the Egyptians? Did Pharaoh know Moses was Hebrew but overlook it to indulge his daughter, or did Bithiah have to hide Moses from him and others at court? When did Moses find out he was Hebrew? (The biblical narrative skips from Bithiah naming Moses as a toddler to “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people . . . . ,” meaning the Hebrews, and he clearly knew at that point. No more mention of Bithiah.) Had Bithiah told Moses about his heritage, or did she hide it from him? Maybe his biological sister, Miriam, encountered him one day and told him? Did Moses ever know his birth mother? And what ever happened to Bithiah—if Pharaoh disapproved of her making a Hebrew part of the royal family, was she exiled (as a popular rabbinical interpretation suggests), or even killed? Was she married, and did she have any other children? Did she follow Moses out of Egypt? (Jewish tradition supposes yes.) The Bible leaves room for multiple interpretations, and stories have developed in different directions to try to fill in the gaps.
I love Nikondeha’s speculative retelling of the Exodus story. (Her book, Defiant, integrates exegesis, meditation, and imagination, as she believes, as do I, that biblical study is enriched by the practice of envisioning fully fleshed narratives, including character backstories and relationships.) Nikondeha sees Bithiah as an Egyptian princess who has slowly awakened to her father’s tyranny—she sees a dead baby in the water one day, she hears the Hebrew mothers’ laments across the river. She wants to stand against the injustice but is unsure where to start, feeling overwhelmed and powerless. And then she meets Moses. The Hebrew women had initiated a strategy for liberation, and Bithiah commits then and there to become an ally, to partner with them in their freedom work. To fight the evils of empire, but secretly from within.
Nikondeha imagines that during Moses’s breastfeeding years Bithiah developed a relationship with Jochebed, which was doubtless fraught at first, but Jochebed eventually opened up, and Bithiah learned to listen. During clandestine meetings in the palace gardens and even twice in the slaves’ quarters, Jochebed taught Bithiah about Hebrew history and culture, and Bithiah bore witness to Hebrew rage, which further catalyzed her to resist her father. The two women were part of what Nikondeha calls the Nile network, a resistance movement that crossed ethnic and socioeconomic lines, operating in the shadows.
Nikondeha, who is a light-skinned American, writes not only as an adopted child but also as the adoptive mother of a Burundian son. (Her husband is Burundian.) This gives her special insight into Moses’s transcultural adoption story and Bithiah’s mindset. She describes Bithiah’s thoughts after saying goodbye to Jochebed for the last time, once Moses is weaned:
She knew relaying his full identity to him was her responsibility now. Continuing his connection to his Hebrew heritage would be her yoke to carry. Also on her shoulders: the subversive work of educating her son to see injustice from the inside and imagine something different. She would raise him in Pharaoh’s house but not indoctrinate him with the imperial values that produced endless quotas, death edicts, and dead boys washed up on the river’s shore. . . .
I feel a kinship with Bithiah, not only in her position of privilege that needed to be disarmed but also in her determination to make sure Moses knew he was as Hebrew as he was Egyptian. She didn’t erase his Hebrew heritage; she didn’t ignore it. She marked him with a name that said “you are both” and set him out on that journey of discovery. It is what I aim to do with my own son. I doubt either of us do it perfectly, and Lord knows we need help from our sisters to deepen our understanding. I think that in my own way, I, like Bithiah, set foot on a journey as a novice peacemaker that continues as I learn to navigate two cultures, various animosities, and what it means to oppose discrimination for the sake of peace for my son. . . .
Moses followed the liberation trajectory set by the mothers in his life—Jochebed and Bithiah but also all the other women who mothered him with liberative verve. (100, 104, 113)
As I read the “Bithiah” and “Mothers All” chapters of Defiant, I thought of the poem “Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner. From the collection Maya (1979), it appears in Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2017 by Eleanor Wilner (2019) and is published here by permission of Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1979 by Eleanor Wilner. (Listen to the poet read the poem.)
“Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner
Though only a girl,
the first born of the Pharaoh, I was the first to die. Young then, we were bored already, rouged pink as oleanders on the palace grounds, petted by the eunuchs, overfed from gem-encrusted bowls, barren with wealth, until the hours of the afternoon seemed to outlast even my grandmother’s mummy, a perfect little dried apricot in a golden skin. We would paint to pass the time, with delicate brushes dipped in char on clay, or on our own blank lids. So it was that day we found him wailing in the reeds, he seemed a miracle to us, plucked from the lotus by the ibis’ beak, the squalling seed of the sacred Nile. He was permitted as a toy; while I pretended play I honed him like a sword. For him, I was polished and as perfect as a pebble in a stutterer’s mouth. While the slaves’ fans beat incessantly as insect wings, I taught him how to hate this painted Pharaoh’s tomb this palace built of brick and dung, and gilded like a poet’s tongue; these painted eyes.
The epigraph of the poem is the epitaph of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah. It could mean she died in the tenth plague God unleashed on Egypt: the death of every Egyptian firstborn. While Exodus 4:23 and 13:15 seem to suggest it was only the firstborn sons who were killed, some rabbis have said that firstborn daughters were also among the victims—but that Bithiah was spared (Exodus Rabbah 18:3). The day before Passover each year, it’s customary in Jewish families for the firstborn to fast to commemorate the salvation of the Israelite firstborns; in most traditions the fast is obligatory for males only, but in some communities it is observed by female firstborns as well. Anyway, if all firstborns, regardless of gender and without exception, were struck by the plague, Bithiah, if she was Pharaoh’s firstborn and wasn’t already deceased, would have fallen.
But I don’t read the epitaph this way. I take it to mean that Bithiah rejected her despotic father and chose Israel over Egypt, which was itself a kind of death. She was “the first to die” because she “died” decades before the plagues swept through. She died to the expectations she had had for her life and, if we assume she left Egypt with Moses and the rest, forsook all the comforts and privileges that came with being a pharaoh’s daughter. One Jewish exegetical tradition commends her heroism and has God saying, “Because she caused salvation to come to Israel and brought them forth to life, behold, I will prolong her life. . . . I have made a covenant with your fathers and they followed in the path of their fathers. This woman, however, who has forsaken her royal status and attached herself to you [Israel], shall I not reward her?” (Kallah Rabbati 3:25).
“Epitaph” is written in Bithiah’s voice. She describes her boredom with pampered palace life, the emptiness of wealth (and, as her family’s was amassed through abuse of power, its foulness), and her growing revulsion for all that her father stands for. For the time being she still looks and acts the part of princess, but underneath the surface she seethes. When a Hebrew baby shows up on the riverbank, separated from his mother in a desperate attempt to protect him from Pharaoh’s genocide, Bithiah resolves to take him in and raise him—but not as allegiant to Pharaoh. “While I pretended play / I honed him like a sword,” she says, teaching him about his origin and exposing him to the hideousness of slavery while instilling in him values of compassion and bravery. She sharpened his perception of the world and of his own identity and calling.
“I was polished and as perfect / as a pebble in the stutterer’s mouth”—a reference to Exodus 4:10, where Moses expresses reticence about being God’s mouthpiece, telling him, “I am not eloquent . . . I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (The Greek orator Demosthenes was said to have treated his speech impediment by talking with pebbles in his mouth.) By raising Moses to hate oppression, Bithiah planted seeds of rebellion in him that germinated during his time in Midian, sprouted in his conversations with God, and came into full bloom in his dramatic confrontations with the next Pharaoh.
Bithiah leveraged her privilege to save not only Moses but all of Israel. Ashamed of the exploitative practices and murders perpetrated by her father, she joined the Hebrew resistance, ultimately foiling the house of Pharaoh by helping to free Israel.
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