by Johnny Zokovitch
Director of Communications, Pax Christi USA
from the Peace Stories blog of PC International
Perhaps the most important—and the simplest—lesson I received during the time when I was studying for my Master’s degree in biblical studies was this: Read the text carefully, going sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, slowly, closely examining every word. Part of paying close attention to the story itself–identifying characters and what we know about them (social status, gender, occupation), the setting, the action taking place, the dialogue, and so on–helps us to often see how different the passage can be from how we may have remembered it, from how it was told and interpreted for us by our churches, family members or even in the popular culture (i.e. in movies, TV, books, et al).
The birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10 is a good example. In the opening verses of this passage, we read about how a woman had a baby boy and kept him hidden for three months (the genocide of Hebrew male babies was Egyptian state policy at this time). When she could keep him hidden no longer, she put him in a basket and … and what? The New Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures reads, “she put the child in it (the basket) and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Nearly everyone I know is familiar with this passage, remembering the story of the baby in a basket, floating down the river – a scenario found in movies from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But the text itself says nothing about the baby floating down the river; instead it shows a mother, fearing that the authorities are coming for her baby, putting the baby in a basket and strategically hiding him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Furthermore, in verse 4, the sister of the baby is “stationed” at a distance to keep an eye on the baby.
Our popular understanding of this passage, a mother putting her baby in the river and abandoning it to fate, is challenged by a closer reading of the text. What is actually communicated is that this mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child (because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives), enacts a concrete and strategic plan to protect her son–a plan which took intelligence, forethought (having the bitumen, reeds and pitch on hand; picking out a safe place along the river bank), and strength of character to carry out. The baby being placed in the reeds and the daughter keeping an eye on him (far enough away not to draw the authorities to his hiding place) suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understands what she must do for her family’s survival—she is “street-smart” and adept at finding ways to resist the oppressive system she is living under…