Wade in the Water (Artful Devotion)

Hambling, Maggi_Wall of Water II
Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water II, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

—Exodus 14:19–31

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SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual

There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.

A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:

A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):

Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):

The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:

According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.

It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)

In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”

There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.

“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.

For other songs based on the this week’s lectionary reading from Exodus, see my coverage of “Carol of the Exodus” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

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Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).

Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water V, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 19, cycle A, click here.

Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter

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.

Defiant book cover

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)

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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.)

The Egyptian Woman by Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950), The Egyptian Woman, 1942. Oil on canvas, 60 × 30 cm. Private collection.

“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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Take Your Shoes Off (Artful Devotion)

God Calling Moses (San Vitale)
Detail of 6th-century mosaic from the sanctuary of San Vitale, Ravenna. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

—Exodus 3:1–15

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SONG: “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses” by J. D. Jarvis, 1967 | Performed by Courtney Patton, 2014

Written by Kentuckian John Dill Jarvis, “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses” was popularized by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in the early seventies (with Keith Whitley singing lead). This performance is by country music artist Courtney Patton from Texas, recorded as part of Modern Trade’s Southern Gospel Revival project.

The first verse and chorus are taken from Sunday’s lectionary reading in Exodus 3, which narrates God’s first direct contact with Moses.

The second verse is based on a later episode in Exodus, where the desert-wandering Israelites are refreshed by water from a rock:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:5–6)

The third and final verse references an instruction given just before the parting of the Red Sea:

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today.” (Exodus 14:13)

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San Vitale (c) Paul Dykes
Photo: Paul Dykes

One of the most impressive programs of early Christian mosaic is inside the Basilica of San Vitale [previously] in Ravenna, Italy. The Moses scene is found on the right side of the choir, in the left spandrel: Moses tends his father-in-law’s sheep, then removes his shoes in response to God’s call from the burning bush—which in this artist’s conception is pockets of flame that burn all over Horeb! The prophet Isaiah stands opposite Moses on the right spandrel. Between the two, in the lunette, are Abel and Melchizedek, both understood as types of Christ, offering sacrifices to God. Flanking the mullioned window above them are two of the four evangelists with their symbols: Matthew (with [winged] man) and Mark (with lion).


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 17, cycle A, click here.