Compassion Turns into Defiance

Opposition to Pharaoh begins where he least expects it: in his own family.


When we begin reading the book of Exodus, we encounter an Egyptian king who is determined to eradicate the Israelites. His method: the killing of all newborn Israelite boys.

He orders the Hebrew midwives to carry out this policy. They undermine it by practicing subterfuge on Pharaoh. We are not surprised; they are after all Israelites themselves. We do not expect them to be party to the destruction of their own people.

What we don’t expect is opposition to Pharaoh arising within his own royal court. But that is what we find when we read on.

As chapter 2 begins, an Israelite couple gives birth to a son. (He will grow up to be Moses.) The mother hides him for three months. When she can no longer safely do so, she adopts a bold, risky tactic. She creates a waterproof basket, places her son in it, and sets the basket adrift among the reeds lining the Nile River. It’s risky because she seems to entrust her son’s life to chance. In the perspective of the author of Exodus, however, she is really unknowingly giving her son over to a divine plan.

The daughter of Pharaoh comes to the river to bathe. She sees the basket, hears the baby’s cries, and, the text says, “she took pity upon him,” even though she realizes it is a Hebrew child. That’s the remarkable thing about this princess. Despite her high station, she possesses a heart of compassion.

She adopts the baby as her own son and raises him in the palace. But in so doing, she must defy her own father. His policy is to destroy the Israelites; her compassion moves her to save one. Of course, she plants the dragon seed that will grow and mature into the formidable leader who will ultimately thwart her father and destroy his carefully nurtured plans.

It is easy to appreciate the courage of Moses’ mother. She risks all when she places her son in the basket and sets him afloat on the river. We seldom appreciate the equal courage of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The text does not tell us whether Pharaoh ever knew what his daughter was doing. Does she keep Moses’ origin a secret from her father? If so, she practices deceit on her father. Or does her father know, but make an exception for this child because of his special attachment to his daughter? If the latter, then we find Pharaoh, despite his fierce resolution, is at heart a double-minded man. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Whatever the case, in exercising compassion, Pharaoh’s daughter in effect defies her father just as much as the midwives and Moses’ mother.

We see in this story how the unfolding of God’s plan depends in part upon the courage of two women. Small acts of compassion can have major consequences. I find that a thought-provoking take on the Exodus’ story of liberation.

A Note:

This insight into the Pharaoh’s daughter is not original to me. I first encountered it in a Krista Tippett interview of Avivah Zornberg on Tippett’s PBS program On Being. Zornberg draws upon the understanding of Pharaoh’s daughter that we find in the Jewish midrashic tradition. The interview is well worth listening to.

Image by Gustave Doré.

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