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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Jesus Gave Me Water (Artful Devotion)

Pierce, Elijah_Christ and Lady
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892–1984), Christ and Lady, 1968. Wood, paint, and glitter, 21 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 1 1/4 in. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)

Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

—John 4:7–14 MSG (read the full story)

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SONG: “Jesus Gave Me Water” by Lucie E. Campbell, 1946 | Performed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, 1951

“One of the most regarded composers of African American religious song, Lucie E. Campbell [1885–1963] was a pioneering figure linking traditional hymnody to modern gospel composition and bridging gender and racial divides in the world of gospel music. Alongside such musical peers as Thomas A. Dorsey, Roberta Martin, and fellow Memphian Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, she helped forge the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and further belongs to a small coterie of composers who have set lasting standards for religious music in the black Baptist church.” (https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/luciecampbell/)

Campbell’s song “Jesus Gave Me Water” was first recorded by Artis Kitchen in 1947. For a partial list of subsequent covers, see secondhandsongs.com. I like Sam Cooke’s version best, from 1951, when he was singing lead for the Soul Stirrers—no one can beat his honey-smooth vocals. You might know him, as I first did, as the singer of hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Twisting the Night Away,” “Cupid,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (I have fond memories of listening to Oldies 100.7 FM in car rides with my dad growing up!) But like many famous soul singers, Cooke, a PK (preacher’s kid), got his start singing at church, at age six. His leadership of the popular black gospel group the Soul Stirrers from 1951 to 1956 propelled his career, and he crossed over into pop with great success.

For a throatier version of “Jesus Gave Me Water,” which is also quite good, see the Stars of Faith’s recording from 1965.

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A self-taught artist born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Elijah Pierce began wood carving as a young child, using the pocketknife his father gave him. He knew he didn’t want to farm for a living like the rest of his family, so he left home as a teenager and eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he ran a barbershop and led a church congregation. He described his wood carvings as sermons he used to teach people about the Bible. After encountering how Pierce used art to supplement his teaching, Leroy Almon (another celebrated folk artist, unknown at the time) apprenticed himself to Pierce.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has a wonderful collection of folk art, including works by Pierce and his student Almon. Pictured below, from my visit last year, are: Leroy Almon, The Baptism of Jesus, 1983; Elijah Pierce, Christ and Lady, 1968; Ulysses Davis, Jesus on the Cross, 1946; and Leroy Almon, Slavery Time, 1990.

High Museum of Art folk art (Almon, Pierce, Davis)

Though no well is visible in Christ and Lady and the title is generic, I see it as a depiction of the Samaritan woman from Sunday’s lectionary reading, and the description on the museum’s label also interprets it that way.


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 the Third Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

Conferences, workshops, calls for submissions, etc.

The Breath and the Clay
Artists (speakers/workshop leaders/Q&A panel members): John Mark McMillan, Stephen Roach, Jason Upton, Cageless Birds, Joel McKerrow, Josh Riebock, Stephen Roach, Mykell Wilson, Ray Hughes, Gemma Bender, Taylor Johnson, Eastlyn and Joshua, Vesper Stamper, Turtledoves, Avril Ward
Date: March 22–25, 2018
Location: Awake Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Cost: $100 (but see pricing details for other options; some events free to public)
Description: “The Breath & the Clay is a creative arts gathering exploring the intersections of faith, art & culture. The weekend event includes times of worship, keynote speakers, performances, and a curated art gallery hosted by CIVA. Hands-on workshops [poetry, choreography, songwriting, painting, photography], a private luncheon and an after-party are available for additional purchase.” If you’re not able to attend, you should at least check out their Makers & Mystics podcast, which is in its third season.

The Breath and the Clay

Urban Doxology Songwriting Internship (PAID)
Application deadline: April 15, 2018
Dates of internship: June 3–July 30, 2018
Location: East End Fellowship, Richmond, Virginia
Description: “The Urban Doxology Songwriting Internship is an intensive eight-week leadership development program offered in partnership by Arrabon and East End Fellowship. Interns participate in a learning experience of the following subjects: (1) biblical theology and exposition (2) worship studies with a focus on multicultural worship (3) race, class and culture (4) songwriting and (5) community engagement. Interns will spend the remainder of their time writing songs, rehearsing music, and planning worship for a congregation in the urban context.”

“Telling Stories: A Conference of Faith and Art”
Speakers: Natalie Diaz, Barbara Brown Taylor, Esra Akin-Kivanç, Arthur Skinner, Alex Harris, Herbert Murphy, Peter Meinke
Date: April 19–22, 2018
Organizers: Eckerd College, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, NEXT Church, Image journal
Location: Eckerd College, Saint Petersburg, Florida
Cost: Free
Description: “With the theme of ‘Telling Stories’ as guide, this conference will employ discussions, poetry readings, presentations, visual arts, and theater to examine art’s power to confront current narratives, allow people to tell their own stories, and explore new ways of talking about God, faith, and social responsibility. . . . Designed for anyone interested in the imaginative and prophetic intersection of faith and arts.”

Call for Creation-Care Worship Materials
Submission deadline: April 30, 2018
Sponsor: Christian Reformed Church
Description: The Climate Witness Project and other CRC ministries are partnering to crowdsource creative worship resources that “celebrate and honor God’s creation while addressing creation-care challenges, such as climate change, facing the world.” Songs, prayers, images, videos, sermon notes, litanies, and other elements are all invited for submission and will be collated and published online in fall 2018. By submitting your work, you agree to the terms of a CC BY-NC license.

Creation-care poster (OSJ)

Call for Papers on US Immigration and the Arts
Submission deadline: May 1, 2018 (abstract)
Organization: Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies
Description: SARTS “seeks presentations by scholars, teachers, pastors, or artists that explore creative/artistic engagements with and/or responses to the reality of immigration in the United States. Topics include but are not limited to the perspectives of the various groups of people on the move, crossing and policing borders, religious landscapes of immigration, immigration and the imagination, place making, political advocacy, and activism. All forms of artistic expression are welcome.”

Hymn Society Songwriting Contest
Submission deadline: May 15, 2018
Sponsor: The Hymn Society
Prize: $500
Description: As part of the Hymn Society’s ongoing commitment to the enrichment of congregational song, the executive committee has announced a search for a new short-form song suitable for congregational singing. (Both text and tune must be original.) In addition to receiving prize money, the winning entry will premiere July 15–19, 2018, at the society’s conference in St. Louis, Missouri, and be published in the Autumn 2018 issue of The Hymn.

“Afterlives of Biblical Women in Art, Literature, and Culture” (summer course)
Instructor: Amanda Russell-Jones
Date: July 2–13, 2018
Institution: Regent College, Vancouver
Cost: Starting at Can$700
Description: The arts have profoundly shaped our interpretation of biblical characters, whether we realize it or not. In this graduate-level course, one of the learning objectives is to be able to “discuss the significance of a variety of biblical women, differentiating between the content of the biblical text and the ways later additions and interpretations changed how the woman was viewed.” How has the mirror held up to women like Eve, Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well, etc., made the biblical texts clearer, and how has it distorted them? You do not have to be a currently enrolled college student to register.

If this topic interests you but you’re not able to take the course, I’d encourage you to check out two books that came out last fall. The first is Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, edited by Sandra Glahn, which received a five-star review from Christianity Today. The second is the monograph Reimagining Delilah’s Afterlives as Femme Fatale: The Lost Seduction by Caroline Blyth, whose reflections on the topic can also be found on the Auckland Theology and Religious Studies blog—e.g., here.

Afterlives of biblical women

Glen Workshop
Faculty: Chigozie Obioma, Scott Cairns, Lauren Winner, Marianne Lettieri, Gina Franco, Lee Isaac Chung, Over the Rhine, Ned Bustard, Malcolm Guite
Date: July 29–August 5, 2018
Location: St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Organizer: Image
Cost: Starting at $1,150 (scholarships available)
Description: “Situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Glen Workshop is equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. The Glen’s arresting natural environment is contrasted by its casual and inviting crowd of artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes.” Workshops are offered on spiritual writing, songwriting, fiction writing, poetry writing, poetry reading, mixed-media art, relief printing, and filmmaking. The faculty lineup is phenomenal! And I appreciate the all-inclusive package option.

The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?

Centuries of preaching and art have led us to assume without a thought that the two disciples who traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus the Sunday after the Crucifixion, and dined there with the resurrected Christ, were men. Surely one of them was: the Bible tells us his name was Cleopas (Luke 24:18). But it leaves his companion unnamed.

Some Bible scholars have suggested that Cleopas’s fellow traveler was his wife, Mary. (N. T. WrightJames Montgomery Boice, and Jim Cole-Rous, to name just three, believe this to be the most reasonable interpretation, and many others, such as Wayne Grudem, consider it a possibility.)

Emmaus by Rowan and Irene LeCompte
Rowan LeCompte (American, 1925–2014) and Irene Matz LeCompte (American, 1926–1970), Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus (detail), 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

Their case is built by conflating the identities of “Mary, mother of James” (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10), present at the Crucifixion and a witness of the empty tomb, and “Mary, wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), also present at the Crucifixion, and then recognizing “Clopas” as a variant spelling of “Cleopas.” Alphaeus—identified in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13 as the father of James—is thought to be the Aramaic form of the name. These connections are well supported by church tradition, dating as far back as the second century.

If Cleopas’s wife, Mary, was in Jerusalem for Passover, it makes sense that she would have traveled back home to Emmaus (or stopped overnight in Emmaus en route to home) with her husband afterward. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a married couple, in this relatively private context, to converse with each other along the way about what they had experienced—the rabbi they had been following, dead, and rumored to have risen—and what it might mean.

Mary had seen the empty tomb with her own eyes and even encountered an angel who affirmed, “Christ is not here! He is risen!” But when she told the other disciples, they dismissed her account as too fantastic, perhaps instilling in her a new skepticism; she hadn’t, after all, seen the body. Or maybe her faith remained fortified, and her trip home was spent trying to convince her husband that Jesus was indeed alive.

Whatever the precise content of their discussion, a “stranger” sidled up alongside them, giving his own interpretation of the weekend’s events. They did not notice it was Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It wasn’t until they arrived home with their newly invited guest in tow, put dinner on the table, and saw him bless the meal that “their eyes were opened.”

Although artistic portrayals of the Emmaus episode overwhelmingly cast a male as the second disciple, there are a few I’ve found that turn that presupposition on its head by casting a female, presumably Mary.   Continue reading “The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?”