“A Subversive in the Royal Household”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 16, 2018
University Baptist Church
The story of Bithia
(sung) “I go to the water alone, while the dew is still on the roses and the voice I hear calling in my ear the “sun” of God discloses…”
At the water, that’s where I feel the most connected with something greater than myself. I see the currents of time pass before me. I see the circle of life, rain, evaporation, erosion, cleanliness, sustenance. I come to this water to reconnect, or to connect for the first time. I see people here, too. Not just the rich, but the poor, too. Washing clothes, drawing water, bathing, cooling off. I almost feel at home.
I also come here to be away. It’s the only place where I think people will let me be. Being the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, son of the sun god means that everyone’s eyes are on me. Everyone’s except for the king himself. I come to the water to remember that there is something greater than the palace. Something more sustaining, maybe even hopeful.
When I went there one morning, I realized I wasn’t alone. I could hear voices in the cattails. One adult, one child, and one baby. I heard them saying “there she is, put him in now.”
My dad ordered that all male Hebrew babies be thrown into the Nile and drowned. Can you imagine? This river that had given me so much life was now a grave. How could I show my face at the water again? He made me complicit. Was this another victim?
But then I saw the little straw boat. The baby was technically in the river, but the ingenious mother found a way to keep it alive and send it to me.
And so I waited and acted surprised when the baby came floating right up to me. I could hear the giggling of his sister.
I picked him up and comforted him as best as I could. This little Hebrew life spared. That would be my contribution, my act of defiance. The King could not kill a child I had adopted, even if he was a Jew. The King was happy to have my mind occupied with something else. (sung) “I think I’ll call you Moses.”
After I took him out of the basket and told my companions I was going to adopt him, his sister popped right up and said, “Do you need someone to nurse him? because there’s a Hebrew nursemaid right here.” I knew it was their mother. We were women conspiring for life. I gave her to him to nurse. He was safe in my house. I wonder what will become of him, or me. The name Moses means drawn out of the water.
I used to come to the water alone. Now I come to the water and meet his mother Jochabed and his sister Miriam. I’m Bithia, but you can call me Merris. Just don’t identify me by my father. Identify me as another mother.
(Hum the chorus to “In the Garden” as you take your seat)
The news came out last week that there was a crack in the armor of our President. Someone from within the Administration penned a scathing report of the goings on in the White House. It pointed out how people in the upper echelons of the staff were working to undermine the president-saving the country from his worst impulses. Not all of his worst impulses, but some of them. The White House erupted in predictable denials and attempts at diverging attention.
But those of us with a memory or who have read the Bible know that it is a common tale.
I thought about Bithia and her audacious and public conspiracy to undermine her own father’s rule. There was a subversive in the royal household. Maybe Esther got her audacity a bit from Bithia.
Today’s scripture continues the tale of the beginning of one famous line of the Hebrew people. And it was aided and abetted by a subversive in the royal household. Someone who spoke the truth with the power of God
Today, I want to recognize the women we were at the center of the story of Moses’ first boat ride. They were women who risked everything to save the life of Moses and the Hebrew people. They are not even given names in today’s scripture. But from other parts of the Bible and history we know them as Jochabed, Miriam and Bithia.
We’ll look at Miriam a bit more next week.
Moses was born a good 1300 years before Jesus. He was born under the reign of Rameses, Pharaoh of Egypt. Rameses, we know from the first chapter of Exodus, had forgotten what Joseph had done on behalf of all of Egypt by saving them from a famine. What Rameses did know was that he wanted slaves. He worried that as the Hebrew people grew more numerous, they would threaten the balance of power. So, ever hungry for control, he set taskmasters over them and forced them to build his cities. Exodus 1:14 says that Rameses “made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed upon them. But when such ruthlessness meets with sheer volume of the oppressed, it eventually reaches a boiling point and soon revolution is in the air. People were taking to the streets saying “Hebrew Lives Matter.” Strikes were rampant.
Pharaoh, trying to squelch a slave uprising, imposed the first slaughter of the innocents. He declared that all of the female Hebrew babies should live, but all of the male Hebrew children must be thrown into the river and killed. Can you say ethnic cleansing?
Exodus 1 speaks of how Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah committed civil disobedience by letting some boys live. If it had not been for these midwives, who were redemptively disobedient to the law to kill the male Hebrew babies, Moses would not have lived more than a few hours. If it had not been for Moses’ mother and her accomplices, Moses would not have stayed alive. If it had not been for both his mothers, Moses would not have learned to become the person that he did. If it were not for his birth mother being willing to let go of him, not once, but twice, Moses would not have turned into the one to set free the oppressed Hebrew people.
This is a story about family and it is also a story about the liberation from slavery. God was active in Moses’ convincing Pharaoh to let the people go, but it was the women in his life that really got Moses ready for his future.
Moses’ biological parents were Amram and Jochabed. Possibly with the aid of Shiphrah and Puah, they hid their child from 3 months. But you know as well as I do that you cannot hide a newborn for very long. Their crying betrays them. And, I am sure, the neighbors wanted to know what they were going to name their new daughter. Jochabed could not reveal that she had borne a son for that would defy Pharaoh’s laws and she would have to pay the price, probably with her life.
So, she devised a plan. Her daughter Miriam must have been ten years old or so by then. Being a mischievous 10-year-old, it was common for her to spy on what was happening in and around the town. Miriam knew that Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia bathed at the river every day. Perhaps she had seen something in Bithia that made her believe that she would be kind to her little brother. Perhaps she saw Bithia’s rebellious side, which was just looking for a way to defy her father’s short-sighted rules. Bithia, after all, means “daughter of Yahwheh”
They hatched a plan to save the baby’s life. But there was a catch. The only way to save him was to give him away. Because Jochabed had the courage and the wisdom and the strength to give Moses to Bithia, she and all of the Hebrew people received freedom from slavery.
I think of biological mothers who have the guts to give their babies up for adoption in the hopes that they would have a better life.
Jochabed and Miriam conspired to create the first international adoption agency. They put the tiny baby in a basket on the river’s edge and floated it down the blue stream just at the time when Bithia was bathing. Miriam waited in the bushes. Jochabed was not far away either.
It was also a refugee resettlement program.
When Bithia heard the baby crying, she saw him in the reeds and she sent her attendants to go and get the child. The scripture says that she took pity on him. She knew that this was one of the Hebrew children. She knew that he was supposed to be killed, but somehow that was much easier to do when you did not have to look at the beautiful baby right in front of you. Reality often betrays theory. Maybe she looked into the blue water next to the baby’s boat and saw her own reflection beside the baby’s. Maybe she saw her reflection in Moses’ newborn blue eyes. And something happened to her. Whether she was led by compassion or she was looking for a way to have some say in someone’s life, she made a decision to do something redemptive. She took the outlaw baby in her arms, all the while looking at the river and her reflection and she saw her life and his ahead of her.
And right on cue, the ever-precocious Miriam, who was possible the family peddler, jumped out of the bushes and said, “Princess, shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Miriam was not only taking care of her little brother, she was also making sure that Bithia made the decision to keep the child, and to have him eventually raised in Pharaoh’s home. This baby would be the Hebrew insider.
When Bithia said, “yes,” then the plan was a success. Miriam brought her none other than Jochabed, her mother. Bithia said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” Jochabed was among the first wage-earning working mothers. Get this: she was paid to be the mother of her own child—from the royal coffers, no less!
Now Moses, as he was later named by Bithia, stayed with Jochabed, Miriam and the Hebrew people until he grew up. In those days that could have been anywhere from 7 to 12 years.
They say that our personalities are set in place in our psyches during our first three to six years. Miriam was is sister and babysitter, almost like a second (or is it third) mom.
Moses learned the slave songs from his people and felt the desire for freedom through his mother Jochabed. Jochabed taught Moses his faith long before God spoke to him thorough the burning bush. Possibly more than anyone else in Moses’ life, Jochebed was central to making him the one who would lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Because Jochabed had the strength to stand up to Pharaoh, she gave her son Moses the power to stand up to Pharaoh, too.
Bithia taught him that there were holes in the mighty armor of Egypt. She showed him that one could find ways around the rules for the sake of love, devotion and mercy. And because Jochabed was able to give Moses up not once but twice, Moses was able to give up his desire to be a shepherd in Midian in order to set his people free.
Moses spent years in the mountains of Midian. But there was something burning in his bones that would not let him go. Jochabed and Bithia, his two redemptively disobedient moms had instilled in him that core of truth in his life. They instilled in him a sense of love and nurturance that in his old age he felt compelled to revisit. Moses realized that he needed to help set his people free. It’s no accident that Miriam was by his side as they led the people to freedom. Tradition even says that Bithia fled with Moses and the Hebrew people. Take that, Dad.
These days, babies aren’t sent in baskets. Entire families make the journey across a river to another place on makeshift rafts, hoping for a safe place on the other side. Hoping, praying that someone would take them in, name them as worthy, defy the rules of the leaders and say that compassion is better than ethnic cleansing, better than war, better than hopelessness. Because there is something of God in the yearning for life and safety. And there is certainly something of God in the welcoming of a stranger, even a perceived enemy.
As we enter into this new day, may we do so remembering the Bithias of our lives: those who risked on behalf of us; those who crossed the water and took a chance on a new life. Remember those in our families who risked so much to make the crossing. And remember who took the risk in welcoming them.
We may not be in the royal household, but we can act in a way that sets people free. We can act in a way that welcomes the refugee, the stranger. We can act in a way that proves that the worst impulses of the royal household do not reflect the morality of the majority. For we march to a different drummer. We sing a different tune. And we’re far from alone.