Exodus: Subversive Women

The agents of resistance to Pharaoh’s policy of genocide are women.

Universally autocrats seem to assume that when they issue decrees, the populace will obey them without question. They can be surprised when opposition surfaces in unexpected places.

This is the case when Pharaoh issues his decree that all newborn male Israelites are to be killed. He particularly summons the midwives who attend the birth of Israelite children and orders them to carry out his policy. But they ignore his orders because, the text says, that they feared God (Exodus 1:17).

Infuriated, Pharaoh summons them again to interrogate them on the reason for their non-compliance. The two women are shrewd. They give an explanation that offers a plausible explanation, but one that hides their true motives. Learning that he cannot depend upon the midwives to do his bidding, he issues a new decree that the boy babies are to be thrown into the Nile. Pharaoh, the autocrat, is thwarted by two women. 

We then pass to chapter 2 of Exodus, which recounts the birth of Moses. The child is in extreme danger, because he is a boy. His mother, however, manages to hide the child from any prying authorities for a full three months. Once again a woman has managed to skirt around the Pharaoh’s vigilant eye.

Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it?

When after three months, it is no longer feasible to keep the child hidden, Moses’ mother comes up with another daring strategy, one fraught with potential danger. She constructs a water-proof basket, places the child in the basket, and sets the basket afloat in the Nile River among shoreline reeds. She also sets her daughter Miriam to keep watch over its fate. In some ways, it is an act of desperation, but it is imbued with hope.

Opposition Within Pharaoh’s Family

Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses. Image by Gustave Dore

By chance Pharaoh’s daughter passes by on her way to bathe in the Nile. She hears the child cry and asks a maid to fetch it. When she views the child in the basket, she recognizes that it is a Hebrew child. As a member of the royal family, we would expect her to turn the baby over to her father’s agents so it could be destroyed. Instead she takes pity on it and determines to bring it into her household and eventually to adopt it as her son. 

This is remarkable. Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it? We are not told. But opposition to Pharaoh and his policy of genocide has arisen within Pharaoh’s own household and family. And the source of that opposition is a woman.

Nowhere in these opening paragraphs of Exodus are we told of any opposition to Pharaoh arising from the men of his entourage or from the Israelite men. It is the women who work against the policy. In Egyptian as well as Israelite society women were expected to be passive elements of society. Action is reserved for men. But Exodus shows us the effectiveness of resistance that arises up from the most unexpected places.

The Book of Exodus will tell the story of a major upheaval in which the powerless will be empowered and the power of the powerful diminished. That theme begins at the very start with these accounts of subversive women. 

Author’s Note:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

One who admired and identified with these women in the Exodus story was the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 2015 she wrote a short Passover essay lauding the courage and subversive initiative of these women. She titled it “The Heroic and Visionary Women of the Passover.” She wrote of them: These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day. Framed on the wall in her Supreme Court office was a quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20 which begins with the Hebrew words Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which translate into Justice, justice you shall pursue. We see how an ancient story can continue to inspire into the present. 

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