Saving babies, according to the Torah, was the first crack in the oppression of the Israelites by Pharaoh.
In the first two chapters of Exodus, the start of this week’s Torah reading in the synagogue and Jewish study cycle, two sets of people save baby boy Israelites from the death decreed by Pharaoh. First it’s two midwives, then it’s Pharaoh’s own daughter with the help perhaps of her retinue and for sure of Moses’ sister and mother.
What do we know about each of them? Their motivations? Exodus 1-2 are both very schematic and very nuanced, worth a very careful read or re-read for the way stories that might be very familiar were first written out.
The midwives are introduced in 1:15 by name as Shifra and Puah, and they are the first characters given names in the text, other than the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt generations before and had long since died. Pharaoh and all the other actors so far in the present story are described by title and role but not named. And of course it’s very unusual for women who aren’t ongoing figures in a biblical story to be named, or for women at all in the Bible.
Not only did Shifra and Puah defy Pharaoh in their actions; they also defied him verbally to his face! (Clever talk in 1:19; they say the baby boys lived because the Hebrew women are “chayot”, which Pharaoh would have heard as “wild beasts” but also means “alive/full of life.”)
The first interpretive bump in the text is a brilliant gift made out of the fact that Hebrew is an alphabet primarily of consonants, and in biblical Hebrew most vowels are implied and not written. Generally if you know the rules of Hebrew grammar you know the patterns of vowels. But every so often there are two grammatical possibilities, and Exodus 1:15 is such a case. Pharaoh spoke either “to the midwives of the Hebrews” or “to the Hebrew midwives.” One vowel in one word affects whether they might be Egyptian or whether they are clearly Israelite. The names Shifra and Puah aren’t conclusive -- they sound like they could be Hebrew names, or non-Hebrew names made to sound like Hebrew. (Today Shifra has become a good Jewish name, but that’s no proof about ancient Hebrew.)
And then the Hebrew word for Hebrew itself adds to the ambiguity. “Ivri” means the one-from-across, one-from-over-there, one-from-across-the-river. As a rule of thumb, Israelites are described in the Torah as Ivri/Hebrew either by non-Israelites, or by Israelites in the presence of non-Israelites.
And as if that weren’t enough, the Torah says that Shifra and Puah kept the boys alive because “the midwives revered God” (1:17). You could use that to argue that they were Israelites, worshippers of the One. Or you could say the language calls attention to their unexpected reverence for this particular divinity, a stretch beyond their prior identities.
In terms of what this motivation is in substance, “revered God” sounds like deep spirituality. On the other hand, in the Torah “fearing/revering God” often refers to the most minimal standard of moral decency, and the absence of “fearing God” often means the absence of any moral standard at all. Was this standing up beyond any expectation, powered a strength from deep within the heart, or what any decent person should do?
So, were Shifra and Puah Hebrew midwives, or Egyptian midwives serving Hebrews? Or as some early post-biblical legends have it, Egyptian midwives who because of this experience went over to the Israelites or at least to their God?
Whoever they were, they saved baby boys whose death was an edict of the regime. The act is the same either way, but who they were matters. Did they act because this was their own people? (Later Jewish midrash identifies them usually but not always with Yocheved and Miryam, Moshe’s mother and sister.) Was it because of their guild, their duty to all mothers and babies? Because of their spiritual depth and attunement, or a simple and profound humanity? All of the above? Exodus 1 is a different story depending on the answer.
In the next chapter (2:6), Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing by the Nile when she sees a box floating there: “And she opened it, and she saw him, the boy, and look -- it was a little one, crying – and she took pity on him, and she said, ‘One of the Hebrew children this is.’”
Unlike the midwives, she does not have a name in the Torah. She is Daughter-of-Pharaoh. (Later Jewish tradition calls her Batyah, “daughter of Yah/the Divine.”) At least part of her motivation is clear: it’s a baby! And he’s floating for his very life. “She saw him, the little one” – the Hebrew adds an extra syllable. She saw extra.
What did she mean, “one of the Hebrew children”? It’s not just a surface descriptor, one of the babies who belongs to “them”; it’s a baby her own father has decreed must be killed. Anyone who found him was required to drown him in this very same Nile. No longer only midwives were under this command. Identifying a Hebrew baby boy meant seeing immediately a baby condemned to death.
One view: “She saw him, the little one” – Pharaoh’s daughter immediately saw this about him, a boy not just vulnerable but a specific target of her father. She went to great lengths after saving the baby to see to its care and presumably to hide him and his identity. She broke the law right under her father’s nose. She established a relationship with the baby’s mother across a boundary both geographical (Goshen) and national.
Another possibility: Tali Adler this week wrote something interrogating the meaning of pity, the root “ch-m-l” in Hebrew. Sometimes it’s a problematic term, a selective pity or even a self-serving one. (Tali herself I think concludes that in the case of a baby, one never doubts that “chemlah” is pure compassion.)
But in her general vein -- Why did Pharaoh’s daughter save this particular baby boy? Was this just the only one Pharaoh’s daughter happened upon? Was one enough for her, or would she have saved others? Did her retinue mobilize to hold her back from putting all of them at further risk if they were found out? In any case, Pharaoh’s daughter did this one act and didn’t disturb her father’s system any further.
Or did she? At some point, she gave the boy his name, Moshe/Moses, which works in both Hebrew and Egyptian. She says it’s about her “drawing him out of water.” We know for sure that in the Egyptian language his name locates him in the family of Pharoah. But in Hebrew the name is a charge or a prophecy that this boy will become a drawer-out-of-waters. He will, in a long time.
In the next set of episodes, the text toys with us around Moses’ awareness of his own connection. The narrator and we know he is Israelite, yet we don’t know if he himself does. Read the verses in the last half of chapter 2 very carefully! Moshe is identified later by Midianites as an Egyptian (2:19), and he calls himself a “stranger in a strange land” (2:22), which could mean every place he has ever dwelled.
Was the Daughter-of-Pharaoh the one who gently set up her adopted son to “get it” on his own? Did she play a long game? Did she know how painful it would be for him to discover the oppression around him, that he would have to flee from the situation for decades and then from his own role in the revolution, until he couldn’t say no to the Divine voice any more?
“Hebrew or humanitarian” and the other interpretive questions aren’t just about nailing down the motives of these specific characters. The opening chapters of Exodus are parallel to the opening of Genesis. Genesis has 10+ chapters of creation and the origins of humanity before we get to Abraham and Sarah, the founders of Israel (and others) with their special relationship to the Divine. Exodus 1-2 are a kind of second creation saga. Idioms from Genesis 1 are sprinkled throughout. Humanity as an ethical principle prior to Israel and Israel’s Torah is in play, at least as a possibility.
Encountering this part of the Torah, we Jews are being asked whether this Exodus story is about our liberation alone, or about the nature of liberation in the scheme of the universe generally. It's about whose babies we have to see.
Can the story be ours, and also ours-toward-others, and ours-and-others’? Do we read our liberation story as something that has to finish before we can relate it to other people, or can our stories run ongoing in parallel, or are they actually interwoven?
And what if in one telling we are in a process of liberation, and in a simultaneous telling we play a role in oppression? Michael Walzer argues for this at an early stage in our history. He says that the biblical prophets saw the Israelite ruling class during the era of the kings as both beset by empires and acting like Pharaohs to their own poor.
For me, all the answers are yes. Exodus liberation is past and present, ours and others’-near-us. The first law the Israelites receive after the Ten Commandments is to liberate their own “Hebrew slaves” (21:2). I would argue this means – the slaves which are Hebrew-to-you, the way you were Hebrew-to-others.
Now for the harder part, spiritually and morally. I hope you’ll read this part graciously toward me, particularly if you’re a committed Jew or a committed Christian. I hope it might spark some one-to-one or small groups conversations; it’s certainly not my definitive word.
The story of oppression and liberation of the Jews is not over yet for us. The century or less of tremendous Jewish freedom doesn’t mean the process is complete or the book is closed.
About a dozen years ago I first articulated to myself and to the congregation I serve that Palestinian liberation should and will be a Jewish story, a part of our own midrash on Exodus. When Palestinians are free it should be not begrudgingly or in spite of us, but because of us and because of our own liberation.
For a Jew, this focuses the challenge of the babies in Exodus 1-2 and the account of those who first saw them and acted -- what biblical scholar Jon Levenson has called “the universal horizon of biblical particularism.” In the past month, compassion for babies has been at the center of reactions to the Israel-Hamas conflict. The horrors inflicted on babies by Hamas on October 7. The babies in hospitals and homes in Gaza killed and wounded and put at risk in Israel’s military response.
This week how can we Jews not see our own people’s babies and the babies of Gaza at the same time, as we read of Pharaoh’s decree and the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter? Which of those characters are we supposed to be?
For many Christians recently, there has been another powerful biblical anchor. So many people shared in December an image of or based on a baby doll amidst Gazan rubble set up outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as this year’s nativity scene. How could people not perceive a link between then and now, especially Palestinian Christians and those who have bonds to them?
Yet if Jews face the challenge of “the universalist horizon of biblical particularism”, Christians face the other side of that coin. Call it “the particularlist horizon of biblical universalism.” How might my friends in Christian faith see particularity, multiple particularities, in the universalism of the Christian story?
When I first saw the image from Bethlehem, I was both upset and afraid. I was upset at exclusion. Does this mean you can’t see my babies during your holy season, only yours, only theirs? And also afraid of what happens when Christians map the war this way. If Jesus represents (only?) the Palestinian babies today, then we Jews today are also the ones who are King Herod in the Gospel of Matthew, ordering the massacre of babies, Herod who is described exactly as Pharaoh from Exodus 1-2.
What would happen if this was the takeaway from Advent and Christmas this year, absorbed on social media and in churches in the United States? How would people emerge from that and look at me and my people? That’s an immediate fear. In the wider picture, what would that do to the possibility of a story where Jewish/Israeli and Palestinian liberation are intertwined?
Seeing the Bethlehem image many times, I tried not to let it disturb my own compassion for Gaza, not to let me off from my own Torah imperative to keep Gazans in my view and in my prayers, even as I was fearful and upset for myself and my own. I felt better actually after seeing a Christmas Day post from one of my religious Jewish-Israeli friends visiting the U.S.: “Where I live, we could use hope and miracles. So if you pray today, keep us all in mind.” I had thought of asking that out loud too, and wish that I had.
I know many of my Christian friends in faith did just that. I prayed that the prayers of my friends during Advent and on Christmas would be capacious enough to see the babies of Gaza these past few months and the babies in Israel who were murdered on October 7 or who were present when their parents were killed; the babies and toddlers held underground as hostages, including baby Kfir Bibas, not even a year old, who is possibly still alive in captivity. All of these babies, and older children, who lost their lives or who will have to grow up and live with the trauma of this from their youth. Not to mention the babies of Ukraine during Putin’s bombings, and other places I forget even to think about too much of the time, who need to be in our stories too.
I have a strong memory of Mrs. Nussbaum’s Sunday School class at Shaare Shalom Congregation, when I must have been in first or second grade. We were making our own cut-and-paste versions of the Haggadah, the text of the Pesach (Passover) Seder. I remember myself doing a page with babies being thrown into the Nile. I picture it in the traditional old-style Hebrew School notebook, with the picture of Rabbi Moses Maimonides on the front, though that’s probably wrong. Cutting, pasting, maybe even coloring.
We were taught about the babies and assimiliated it very matter-of-factly as Jewish kids. I don’t remember being scared about it at the time. I, who became the father who wanted to shield my own small children from violence of any kind in TV and books as long as possible, who fast-forwarded past the Nazi parts of “The Sound of Music” with my kids.
Today, it’s the story on the shore with Pharaoh’s daughter and on land with the midwives than I’m eager to cut, paste, and color in. These women will help me see the liberation stories in which I as a Jew am involved – our own story, Palestinians’ and our story with them, African-Americans’ and other American’s and our story with them. It’s not only about babies, or even just children.
I can’t say that in any of the liberation stories of our time I have been active like Shifrah, Puah, Pharaoh’s daughter. I haven't saved any babies. I am perhaps most like Pharaoh’s daughter at the shore at the first moment, trying to see extra and able to say, “One of the Hebrew babies this is.” That’s the moment I guess I have to study so I can know what’s next.
Who were Shifra, Puah, Batyah. What’s the best version of them, the best place to put the vowels and the best way to interpret their words -- and how can I become like them.