(Moses’ Adoptive/Foster Mother)
By Stephanie Catmull
Exodus 2: 1-8
Exodus 2:1-8: Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him o longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered. And the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took and the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
Acts 7:20-22: At that Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
Do you notice that this powerful woman in Biblical history is not named? The pharoah’s daughter, seemingly one of the most influential women in Egyptian history, is not remembered for her unusual style of dynastic rule. She is not known for her reign as one of Egypt’s most dynamic queens. Nor is she signified as one of the most prolific builders of her time. According to the Bible, her most significant accomplishment was raising a young Hebrew boy, a boy that had been ordered by her father to be murdered, and providing him with a most excellent education. She is mentioned in only 5 verses in the Bible. Interestingly, God does not give her a name, nor does the writer of the book of Exodus, her adoptive son Moses.
Moses’ birth occurs against the backdrop of a horrific, recurring event in history when a power-hungry leader attempts to extinguish the Jewish nation by genocide. The infant Moses, born in approximately 1526 B.C., is placed in a basket and set into the Nile river as his family tries to avoid the Egyptian Pharoah’s orders that all boys be put to death. Why the genocide? The Egyptian pharaoh knows that the Jewish nation was becoming too numerous, and if not checked, could become a severe threat to his dynasty simply by their sheer strength in numbers. The pharaoh also was listening to his sacred counselors foretelling of a Hebrew man who would lift up his nation above the Egyptians. According to Josephus, these scribes warned the Egyptian pharaoh, “That there would be a child born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 9:2). Does this sound eerily similar to another man born nearly 1,500 years later, when murderous rampages are ordered by King Herod for all male children under 2 years of age?
Born into a Levite family, Moses’ natural parents, Jochebed (mother) and Amram (father) reared Moses until he was about 3 months old. His older sister, Miriam (15 years his senior), and his brother 3-year old Aaron were safe from Pharaoh’s edict since they were born before it was enacted. Knowing that their entire family could be destroyed if they were caught, Moses’ parents made the heavy decision to entrust God with their precious son, and sent him down the river in a papyrus basket, under the watchful eye of his Miriam, his sister.
Enter the Pharaoh’s daughter (Josephus calls her Thermuthis), who coincidentally happened to be at the river washing herself at this exact moment in time. Is this pure chance, or another part of God’s grand orchestrated plan to save the Jewish nation? And how could this one woman be the answer to it all? Just as Joseph’s rise to power with the Egyptian pharaoh years before in a pivotal time during the land’s severe famine saved Israel, so too does God bring an unlikely character to the scene: an Egyptian daughter of the pharaoh, who by virtue of her position, is the one person to set the stage for Israel’s survival (ironically since her father is the sworn enemy of the Jewish nation).
So, according to historical documents, who WAS the Pharaoh’s daughter? Based on the year that Moses was born and the ruling 18th Egyptian dynasty of the time, she is widely believed by scholars to be Hatshepsut. She was the only surviving child of Thutmose I (her other two brothers had died), whose reign began approximately in 1526 B.C. – the year Moses was born. Hatshepsut began her 22-year reign as pharaoh 14 years after her father’s coronation around 1512 B.C. She is the reigning Egyptian Pharaoh’s only daughter during the time Moses was floating down the Nile river.
During her formative years, she watched the Egyptian dynasty, ruled by her father, become weaker and weaker, since his goal was primarily to conquer other nations while putting the country’s infrastructure on the backburner. He stretched his country’s military and financial resources to the brink, and Egypt was becoming economically vulnerable to other nations. Egypt, though, still maintained a reputation as a powerhouse in education, architecture, philosophy, military, and engineering.
Hatshepsut also watched the ruthlessness of her father as his answer to governing a growing minority was not handled with political savvy or skillful maneuvering, but rather with tyrannical force. Adeptly, she already realized that her father was grasping at straws to retain his diminishing power and did so by wiping out vulnerable, defenseless, innocent children. This did not show his strength as ruler, but rather his fear and weakness as a man. This fear ruled his life as he was constantly looking over his shoulder for his throne to be overthrown. Equally important, his dynasty was also in peril since he did not have any surviving sons, only a daughter. Hatshepsut, according to Egyptian rule, must have a son or husband in order to be considered his legitimate heir and successor. She, unfortunately, had neither.
Hatshepsut, then, had every political motive to acquire a son, and it makes total sense that she whisks away what appears to be an orphaned infant boy when she sees him alone on the river. Moses, as she calls him (for the Egyptians call water by the name of Mo, and Uses because he was saved out of it), is a convenient answer to her dilemma as his basket suddenly appears before her during her ritual bathing. She has found the adopted heir that can protect her father’s dynasty and give her the legitimate right to rule.
It should concern her, though, that this is not just any child, but a Hebrew child. One that is a sworn enemy of the state. One that she could receive the death penalty for if caught raising it, princess or not. This is a baby that could be the one to overthrow her dynasty as the scribes foretold, instead of the one to save it. The pharaoh’s daughter takes a tremendous risk bringing this baby back to the palace. So why does she do it? Why doesn’t she try to adopt an orphaned Egyptian boy instead? And why, when she brings him back to the palace, does the Pharaoh allow her to keep him and go against his counselors and his own irreversible edict to have him killed?
It does say in the Bible that Moses was a fine child. Expanded upon by Josephus and other biblical translations, Moses was an exceedingly beautiful boy, and that his beauty was so remarkable that many people would stop to look and stare at him. (The Jewish Midrash suggests that he had the Shekinah surrounding him, which could be described as God’s spirit presence being seen and felt through Moses’ countenance.) The pharaoh’s daughter, prompted by the whispering of God, responds to this special baby. Perhaps she also has tremendous compassion for this crying child, alluding to a gentle nature quite opposite to that of her father, and understands what his future holds if she does not save him.
She even has the wherewithal to get him a Hebrew wet nurse (and unwittingly hires Moses’ natural mother) instead of an Egyptian one, proving that the concerns of racial bigotry and religious discrimination meant little to her. Of course, the Bible does relate that Moses would only nurse with his own mother and turned his head to all the other lactating women both Hebrew and Egyptian, but the princess could have left him to starve to death if she was truly anti-Semitic, and not give him to a Hebrew woman to nurse.
The Pharaoh’s daughter, immediately in love with the baby Moses and desirable of saving the Egyptian dynasty, brings him home. One can imagine the fear in her heart as she prepares to show him to her father. She knows she is his favorite child, and is rumored to be unimaginably beautiful, but she cannot rely upon these factors to help her in such a combustible situation. This future queen rather demonstrates how courageous and determined she is. Her remarkable behavior explains why future generations designate her as a “righteous Gentile”, since she assisted God’s people in a significant way even though she was a nonbeliever.
The sacred scribes and counselors react strongly, to say the least, when they see this Hebrew boy brought into the Pharaoh’s presence. Only Josephus gives us the clues as to what happened here. He describes the scene as these men throwing a holy fit – yelling, cajoling, imploring, and beckoning the Pharaoh to get rid of this baby at once. THIS is the baby they were warning him about, that would lead to the diminishment of Egyptian rule. But the pharaoh’s daughter does not argue with them, as she could. She does not stand by silently either, waiting for a decision to be handed down. She exhibits her tremendous wisdom and strength of character by acknowledging God’s nudging, and places this beautiful baby boy into her father’s arms. She knew that her father still mourned for his other sons’ that had died. She also knew that Moses’ Shekinah that had affected her, would naturally affect her father in the same way. He melts, much to the chagrin of his advisors, and allows her to keep and raise this baby as her own. Knowing that he was cementing the heir of his dynasty didn’t hurt matters either.
With her father’s blessing, she raises Moses as if he were her own natural child. She provides him with the finest education that Egypt had to offer in geography, history, music, Egyptian law (later influential in Mosaic law) mathematics, writing, literature, and philosophy. Incidentally, this writing comes in handy when he sits down to write the Torah many years later in the deserts of Mt. Sinai. She grooms him as a future leader and as a beloved son, inadvertently giving him the leadership tools that would serve him well during the famous Jewish Exodus. But while she is tutoring him in all the Egyptian ways, remember that she has his birth mother, Jochabed, nursing him for what is guessed to be anywhere from 3 to 7 years. Not only is Moses instructed in both Egyptian and Hebrew traditions, but she is as well.
She loves this boy, and one can assume that she grows to have an appreciation for his mother and his people as well through her contact with Jochabed. She doesn’t have the hatred of them that her father does, as evidenced by adopting a Hebrew boy, and legend has it that in 1488 B.C., when Moses is 40 years old, she converts to Judaism. Moses is torn between his Egyptian upbringing and his Jewish heritage, and ultimately turns his back on his adoptive mother. As a wise ruler, however, she has learned to appreciate a different culture, and she has the discernment to know that the pagan worship of the sun god Ra, or Isis, did not compare to the Hebrew’s one true God. While there is no direct evidence of her conversion, history does show that her successor and stepson Thutmose III, after the slaves’ massive Exodus and 20 years after his ascension to the throne, begins to obliterate all of her statues, buildings, and her name as Pharaoh. This was typical behavior if an emperor takes the throne out of revenge or spite, but this was not the case. Since Moses had fled Egypt when he had killed an Egyptian soldier, the Queen no longer had an heir and was forced to relinquish her throne to the next heir apparent – Thutmose III. Her stepson’s actions do suggest, though, that the Queen’s conversion was considered a betrayal to her family name and to the Egyptian empire as a whole. He was left with no choice but to reverse any success that she might have had.
Hatshepsut’s 22-year reign as queen, beginning around 1512 B.C., is considered to be the most successful empire Egypt ever had. She built extensively in Thebes in a style unrivaled for over 1000 years, and is mostly noted for her grandiose ancient temple Deir el Bahri. Since she promoted peace and did not try to extend the boundaries of the empire like her father, she concentrated the country’s resources into rebuilding and is thus regarded as one of the world’s most prolific builders ever. She increased the mining industry, reestablished trade networks, built a huge number of statues, and successfully funded a mission to the Land of Punt, which included 5 enormous ships. These ships brought back thirty-one live myrrh trees, which later ironically served as one of the precious gifts presented to baby Jesus, the King of Kings.
All of these accomplishments would not have been possible, except for her momentous decision to adopt a little Hebrew orphan boy. Moses would not have become the educated, militaristic, powerful leader of the Hebrew nation, and scribe of the Torah if not for her tutelage, love, and willingness to risk everything she had for him. They were an integral part in each others’ lives, and one could not have succeeded without the other. Each also enjoyed the providence of God’s protection. The pharoah’s daughter, unnamed in the Bible, ultimately becomes a huge figure in Jewish and Egyptian history, not by her name, but by her deeds and by her faithfulness to one of God’s chosen people.
Hatshepsut’s death occurred in 1458 B.C. Upon recent archaeological excavations of her sarcophagus in the 20th tomb of the Valley of the Kings (KV20), we know that she probably died of a combination of diabetes, bone cancer, and an infection from an abscessed tooth. Moses more than likely did not see her while he was in exile for 40 years in the desert. We also do not know if she was present when her beloved son, Moses, began appealing to her stepson, Thutmose III, to free the slaves. What an interesting scene that would have been, to say the least.
As Mother Rachel Midrash states, “Thus even in Egypt, the heart of darkness, light managed to penetrate. So it is sometimes that in places where darkness seems invincible, the light of mercy can break through where you least expect it, even where evil is blackest.”