From the Margins: Pharaoh’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I was princess of all Egypt. But, powerful as I was, I could not foresee the penalties of my mercy. Had I a future vision of the Egypt I see today, would I have made the same choice? I know not, for I cannot imagine life without my adopted son. And I came to think so little, to care so little about his race or station, that when he rescued his own people, I counted myself forsaken. My son connected me with these slave people in ways I never expected. What, after all, has Power to do with weakness? We, the Egyptians, were Power. At least, so I believed until the day my eye caught something floating in the Nile River reeds.

I came down that day to bathe, accompanied by my slave girls. I was always accompanied. A princess is without solitude, even in her bath. I cleansed myself far from the killing waters. Our soldiers drowned the Hebrew baby boys downstream; I told myself my bathing waters were clean and pure. I told myself Father did what he had to do. And then I thought of other things. I was, after all, a princess, and one day, when I had reigned long as queen and traveled to Duat, even then my slaves would serve me. Buried with me, they would serve me in the afterlife. I was Power. Eternal Power. Slaves were interchangeable, doting pets to be replaced when they grew old and troublesome. I took little or no notice of any of them. Until that day at the river.

I bid my slave girl fetch the strange object. She waded out, waist deep, and was soon lost among the reeds. In time I saw her, straining to wade back carrying the burden. Exhausted, she finally laid it on the waters and guided it, floating, within the circle of her arms, until she reached me. She looked up, fearful. “Heavy,” she said.

But I had no fear—not then. I lifted the lid and the baby within wailed. A Hebrew baby: I recognized the coarse weave of the blanket. What a countenance he had. His infant eyes saw and claimed me. I had never before truly looked into the face of a Hebrew slave. If this is what they were…I could not let this one die when it is in my power to save him.

The sister appeared at my side, as resolve took shape in my heart. I knew who she was from the hungry eagerness in her eyes; it was all she could do not to snatch up the child and soothe his wailing. I assented to her suggestion of a wet nurse, amazed at the ingenuity of these peoples’ women. The mother appeared, fearful but determined, and we struck our bargain. I would protect her as she raised her son, even pay her to do it, until he was weaned. But then he would be a son of Egypt and I his mother. We never discussed the child’s parentage; it was our unspoken understanding.

Across his growing years, we faithfully kept our pact. I gave him an Egyptian name, but in deference to his mother’s courage, one that bore a pun from the Hebrew language: Moses, to draw out. I little knew Moses would draw out from Egypt its great Power—and mine.

I raised him in Egypt’s ways, but his blood was Hebrew. In the end it was to them his heart turned. He would make them free. And to do so, he would rip from Mother Egypt, from me, the riches we had so long enjoyed.

My son is gone; wandering the desert with his slave nation. He left Egypt bereft; our crops ruined, our cattle sickened, our firstborn and our army dead. What Father Pharaoh sowed in infanticide returned to him—and to all of us–full measure: justice meted out by my adopted son and his Hebrew God.

Resentful eyes turn on me as I walk the palace halls. To them I am the mother of their sorrow. I will carry their blame throughout my life. If I could choose again when I lifted the lid of that basket, would I not, myself, cast the infant boy into the Nile? Or would I again rescue the boy child in his basket boat? I see again his eyes, his face.

I would save him again. In an instant.

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From the Margins: Jochebed’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am, to many, one nameless, forgotten face among countless forgotten slave faces. I am remembered only because of my connection to one whose name both Scripture and history revere. But I also have a name: a Hebrew slave name. I am Jochebed. I carry my name and the story that accompanies it with honor. For I, with God’s help, rescued my nation’s rescuer. What mother would do else?

I grew up in the arms of violence; saw neighbors beaten by slave masters and knew the sting of the whip against my own young flesh. I tended my slave father’s wounds and, when I married, the wounds of my slave husband, Amram. I expected to do the same for the children I bore. But Pharaoh’s past violence could not prepare us for the brutality he visited on us in the season before my second son’s birth.

Pharaoh, captive of his own terror, feared the vast numbers of his Hebrew slaves. We were a hardy race and plentiful. He feared we would revolt and seize his throne. He could not bear the thought of leading a life like ours, so he stole the lives of our male children. A short-sighted choice. In so doing, Pharaoh deprived himself of the strong backs and free labor those boys would provide in coming years. But the terror of the instant made him blind to the future.

Pharaoh commanded our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill Hebrew infant boys on the birthing stool. But our women were artful: they attended to the birth of healthy boys, then told Pharaoh that we hearty Hebrew women gave birth before they arrived. So Pharaoh drowned our baby boys in the Nile River. We covered our ears as the screams of bereaved mothers pierced the night air. I trembled and laid a hand against the small life moving in my womb. I would find a way. I would rescue my child.

He was born a boy, as I knew he would be. But he was born with a beauty I could not have expected. God made this child for a holy purpose: I saw it in the child’s solemn gaze and in his princely countenance. My boy would not die at the hands of violence. I would see to that.

With the help of my husband Amram, son Aaron, and daughter Miriam, we hid the child for three months. Then one night, my son woke in a terror and was screaming before we could muffle the sound. We heard movements nearby. Terror sweat beaded my brow. But, as I soothed my sleep-troubled child, my fear fled before my determination. The Egyptian soldier would have to kill me before he could wrest from me my son. In the dimness, I surveyed the watchful faces of my family. He would have to kill us all first.

But the noise was merely a Hebrew neighbor seeking the privy trench; we were safe for the moment. I lay awake, cradling my son, and pondered. I must act. Now. In those twilit hours I formed an outrageous plan. It had the stamp of insanity on it. And it was our only chance. I whispered into Amran’s ears as our children, at last, slept. He grunted acceptance. I could tell he thought we would all die.

Before dawn, I rose and made my way down to the Nile, where I cut an armload of papyrus stalks. I hid them in our hut before going to labor in Pharaoh’s fields. That night I wove a basket. Amram brought home a bucket of tar from the shipyard and this I smeared inside, sealing all spaces between my weavings. Then I lay awake, aching to catch the slightest sound from my sleeping son. This one last night, and then…

As the sky turned bare gray, I rose and wrapped my baby in a blanket. I laid him in the watertight craft. “Be still my son,” I soothed as his arms flailed and his legs pumped in objection. “Today I obey Pharaoh. Today I cast you into the Nile.”

I journeyed silent and on foot to the river. I thought my son and I traveled alone, but a spy had followed me, tracking my every step. At the water’s edge, I lay my hand against the basket lid, a final blessing, and then set the woven boat in the water amidst the reeds. I could not stay. The slave master would come searching. I must now leave my son’s future in the hands of another woman: one who could as easily destroy him as rescue him. Could a woman of child-bearing age sentence another woman’s infant to death? I gambled—gambled with my son’s life—that she could not. Even though she was the daughter of Pharaoh himself.

From the Margins: Sarah’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am called Sarah—Sarai until God changed my name. Sarah. Princess.

For much of my life I thought the title a cruel joke. Princess, I asked God, of what? I felt more a slave than royalty. In the young days of our marriage, we were settled alongside our kin in Haran. I thought it would always be so. Then God came to my husband and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So my husband went and, because I am his wife, I too, left what was known to me to follow Abraham’s faith.

In those young days I was beautiful. My husband’s eyes softened when they gazed on my face. And yet my beauty, when married to my husband’s fear, cast me into danger and humiliation. It happened this way. Hunger drove us from God’s promised land into Egypt. Abraham, fearful that my beauty would lead to his death, commanded me to declare myself his sister only. We were half-brother and half-sister, for we came from the same father’s seed. But I was also Abraham’s wife and not allowed to claim my role when Pharaoh’s eyes fell on me.

Pharaoh took me into his household to make of me a concubine. I will never forget walking through those wide and sunlit halls, the sheer raiment the people wore, their strange customs and language. Sick with terror, I tried not to imagine my future even a day hence in this place, much less a lifetime. Would I die, old and abandoned, in this place?

But, God be thanked, Pharaoh proved to be an honorable man. When he discovered the ruse, he set me free.

The years went forward. God’s promise of children seemed as dry to me as my empty womb. Each month, when the bleeding came on me, I wept as with a death. God still spoke promises to Abraham, but my husband told me nothing; perhaps he sought to spare me the ravages of hope. In time nature took from me all possibility of bearing the promised child. I did not bleed, but not because a child was growing in my womb. Rather, because age grew there. Death seemed nearer to me than life.

Thinking God must have promised a son to Abraham, but not to me, I offered my Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife. Her ripe womb bore Abraham a son of long waiting. But then Hagar turned her eyes on me in disgust. She was the princess and I the slave, useful only for kicking. I begged my husband to intercede, as was the law of our people: he was to judge between his two wives. Abraham said I might do with Hagar as I liked, so I unleashed on her the full rage of my bitterness. I did to her all my position allowed me to do and she bore all her position demanded she bear. Until her soul could swallow my abuse no longer; she fled with her son into the desert.

God cared for Hagar there, just as God cared for me in Egypt. She returned to us for a season and I thought her child, Ishmael, must surely be the son God promised Abraham. I took some small solace for having arranged the match, setting aside my place as Abraham’s only wife. I had given my husband his nation; I tried to be content.

My name became “Old Sarah,” its meaning long forgotten. It was too laughable—a ninety-year-old princess.

And then they came: three strangers emerging from the distant dust, making their way to our tent. As our hospitality code required, Abraham set me to work baking bread from our choicest flour while our servant prepared a calf. I busied myself, preparing and serving. My task complete, I hid in the tent folds and listened. A woman in my situation, after all, has few diversions. I could not join the conversation, but I could sit at the edge of it.

One of the visitors, whose voice at once calmed my body and awakened it with curious emotion, spoke to Abraham as if they were friends of long acquaintance: as if they simply took up a conversation left unfinished. I caught snatches…Sarahson. For the first time, the absurd combination moved me to merriment rather than bitterness. Laughter exploded before I could remember myself and repress it.

“Why did Sarah laugh and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the man asked my husband. “I shall return in due season,” the stranger continued, “and Sarah shall have a son.”

Shamed for having been caught listening, fearful of a man who would speak so sharp and strange, I denied it. But the man would have none of my dissembling. This time he spoke directly to me: “Oh, but you did laugh.”

And I am laughing now, for the stranger made true his promise. I hold in my arms a miracle son. How God produced such hearty fruit from such an ancient womb, I know not. But neither do I care. I never knew my heart could grow so tender until this boy child nestled into my body and slept in my arms. I am a princess, bold and strong, and full of laughter.

From the Margins

Soul Thirst

Each week of Lent, I’ll share a “personal bio” of a biblical woman. The Bible I love dedicates full chapters to some of these women while others are rendered nameless.

Why this Lenten practice? Two reasons. First, the Bible’s narrative is largely told through men about men, with women playing supportive roles. As a woman, I wonder about the lives of these long-ago sisters. What were these stories, seen through their eyes?

But it’s larger than that, which brings me to Reason 2. Due to their gender and culture, these women lived at the margins. Choices made by the Powerful wrenched women from their homes, labeled them pariahs, stole their dignity and, sometimes, their lives. Looking into and through these women’s eyes, we see in our culture’s marginalized (perhaps it’s you, perhaps it’s me) full souls deserving respect, freedom, and love.

As we read of these women, God’s love moves like a thread: weaving our stories into theirs. That thread connects and ennobles us all—all genders, the powerful, the marginalized. We find we can love our neighbors—and ourselves.

Could there be a truth more worthy of Lenten contemplation?

I hope to see you here next week, Feb. 10, on Ash Wednesday, as we share our first story from the margins.