The Women In Exodus:Two thoughts on Parshat Shmot
I. Six Women in ExodusAyala Emmett
Six women emerge as consequential political catalysts in the opening chapters of Exodus. All of them are women who make daring bold choices that move them beyond domestic/gender roles placing them in the dangerous political/religious arena. All display astonishing courage in the face of powerful threats and all underscore the value of the sanctity of life. Of the six, two are midwives, two are mother and daughter, and two are women of high rank, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the daughter of the Midianite Priest.
The number of women is significant since much of Torah is about men and the opening chapter of the book of Exodus begins with the naming of all sons of Jacob; yet Torah narrative occasionally pays attention to women, among them Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah and Dinah. Nowhere else, however, does Torah give voice in one single Parsha to six agentive women who are all connected despite ethnic and class differences.
The narrative states unambiguously that two of the women, mother and daughter, whose names we still dont know, are Hebrew women of the tribe of Levi. We learn that two are non-Hebrew, the daughter of Pharaoh who has a distinguished Egyptian pedigree and Zipporah who is the daughter of a Midianite Priest. About the identity of the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, the text is unclear; their ethnic identity has been debated, the majority of the rabbis, including Rashi the 12th century commentator, identify the midwives as Hebrew women, other sages view them as Egyptian. Their actions, however, are unambiguous, they defy Pharaohs edict to kill all Hebrew newborn boys. Commentators who believe that the midwives are Egyptians praise them for standing up for an oppressed minority. The midwives defiance, regardless of their ethnic identity has become a symbol for standing up for the powerless and they are described in the narrative as women who revere God, who follow/fear God.
The six women are all connected beginning with the midwives act of defiance. The Hebrew Levite woman could save her baby boy because the midwives refused Pharaohs decree. Yet, after three months she realizes that she could no longer hide him, and makes the most heartbreaking decision, we can only imagine the strength that a mother needs to give up her baby son in the hope that he would be saved. The Levite mother constructs a waterproof basket and places her son among the reeds on the Nile hoping for the best. The babys sister is watching from a distance.
Entering the scene is the fifth woman who immediately knows that this child is of the oppressed minority, This must be a Hebrew child (2:7) says Pharaohs daughter who without missing a beat decides to take the child. A womens conspiracy follows, the babys sister offers to find a Hebrew woman who would nurse him, the princess agrees, and the boy, still nameless is returned to her weaned, becomes her son and she names him Moses. With few words, mother, sister and adoptive mother (Egyptian) are bonded in saving Moses life in defiance of Pharaohs violent decree. Moses, as the text tells us, grows up in Pharaohs house, kills an oppressive Egyptian task-master, escapes to Midian and marries Zipporah, (a Midianite), the sixth woman in the Torah reading.
God tells Moses to go back to Egypt to free my people. A very reluctant Moses goes back to Egypt with Zipporah his wife and his sons and on the way God wants to kill him. The him that God seeks to kill is not named. The text is far from clear whether God wants to kill Moses or one of his sons, but whoever it is, Zipporah in that critical moment of facing God, acts quickly, she circumcises her son and for unexplained reason it works and He lets him go. (4:25). Zipporah closes the circle of the six women as she, like the others saves a life. While women are not major social actors in Torah, when their presence is acknowledged it is often as exceptional social agents and history shapers.
II. Three Women Save MosesMatia Kam
A certain man from the house of Levi went and married a woman a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son. (2:2)
These words open Exodus chapter two, using a sparing language to states that a son was born to a Levite woman and man. From that point on the story outlines a distinctly extraordinary person whose birth seems so ordinary. It tells the story of a Hebrew child saved from death to live in Pharaohs palace growing up in Egyptian culture who remained connected to his Hebrew origins. Moses goes out into the world and sees his people suffering and ends up accepting Gods ordained role to save the Israelites.
In the context of the Israelites suffering under the harsh Egyptian treatment and Pharaohs decree to kill all male babies, chapter two presents a family that refused to accept the terrifying situation; the family brought a son into the world and did all that it could to save his life. The names of the family members are disclosed only later in the next Parsha. The narrative uses only their tribe and kin relations, a Levite man, a Levite woman, the babys mother, his sister; the Hebrew child remains nameless, he is only a son and a child until he is named by Pharaohs daughter. This saved child became the light in the darkness of slavery and the leader who would bring his people out of Egypt.
The three women who saved Moses life were his mother who did everything in her power to keep him alive despite the decree; his sister who with courage and wisdom assisted her mother; and Pharaohs daughter who felt compassion for the crying baby and decided right there and then to adopt him.
The womens actions, defying the cruel law and using their wits and wisdom, saved the life of the one who was destined to be the leader and prophet of the Israelites