From the Margins: Jochebed’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I am a slave child: my life poured out in service to others. Yet, since birth I have heard tales of a God Who promised our forefather Abraham a nation and a land. I was suckled on stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Leah and Rachel. Stories of a protector God. A deliverer God.

Where was God when Hebrew babies floated dead in the Nile?

Then came my mother’s third labor. Mother shoved rags into her mouth to stifle the screams of child bearing. This baby would be born in the dark, alone, with me as the only attendant. I had never seen my mother so: sweating and writhing in pain, eyes fierce. Wildly determined to make no sound. The child came with the dawn: a male child sentenced on birth to death.

“Miriam,” said Mother after I had laid the cleaned child in her arms: “We must secret your brother. God’s blessing and hope rests upon him.” I nodded, feeling our smallness against the awesomeness of Pharaoh’s will.

So we hid him, muffled his cries with our own bodies, anticipated his needs so that he would not scream his distress. Our eyes grew hollow with wakefulness, our hearts more determined as our task grew more incredible.

And then came the night he screamed and could not be muffled. The risks we had taken until that moment were nothing to what Mother resolved to begin with the next dawn. She fled our hut as the sun rose, and she came late to Pharaoh’s field.

That night, Mother removed the blanket covering a bed of reeds she must have gathered during the day. I watched her skillful fingers plait a lidded basket. Father brought home a bucket of tar. Its acrid aroma invaded our hut as she smeared the stuff inside the basket, into its belly and lid. She covered, and recovered, every inch. I asked no questions, but my eyes missed nothing. As for Mother, she labored in silence. Her task moved her beyond words; I would honor her with my silence.

When, with the dawn, she bundled my brother in a blanket and laid him in the basket, I watched from my pallet. When she set out on a solitary journey, her steps weighted with dread, I followed, silent and wary, behind. Peering between the reeds, I watched her set the basket on the gentle waves of the Nile. I read in her face the same fierce determination I saw on the birthing stool. Her eyes flashed fire and tears as she turned and walked the path to Pharaoh’s fields.

I would not go to the fields this day. I would stay here, a familial spy, for my mother and brother. The Nile shallows rocked my brother and my heart pounded out a lullaby.

In time, the reckless wisdom of Mother’s plan came clear. The Egyptian princess, adorned in her finery, came to the river to bathe. Her attendants followed discretely behind, carrying her bathing things. Was I more terrified that the princess’ eyes would fall on my brother’s small craft or that they would not? I had no time to decide, for her sharp eyes spied something amiss in the reeded waters. I shrank back as a slave girl waded to the basket and glided it along the waters to her mistress.

The princess lifted the lid; an all-too familiar wail filled the morning air. No more hiding. No more waiting. My brother had been seen by Egyptian eyes. From my hiding place, I watched the princess peer into the basket. Her hand, tender, crept inside. Her face softened. I had seen that look on our women when they beheld a suffering child. An Egyptian feeling compassion for a Hebrew? How could Mother have known such a thing?

“It is one of the Hebrew babies,” the princess said. She lifted my brother from his basket into her arms. He nestled against her, still wailing, seeking her breast. My feet launched me forward before my mind could form thought. As I stood before the princess, God seared my imagination with a wild possibility. Princesses did not attend to the care of infants, this I knew, not even their own.

“Do you need a nurse for the child?” I asked, speaking as no slave should speak to royalty.

Her kohl-rimmed eyes studied me. Measured me. Measured my purpose.

“Yes,” she said slowly. “Do you know someone?” I felt sure wet nurses lived in the Egyptian palace, but she and I had come to an understanding.

“I do,” I answered, keeping my smile of triumph as secret as we had kept my brother.

“Get her.”

I ran to Pharaoh’s field. “Mother! Mother!” I shouted. “The princess needs you!”

 

I stand today, an aged woman on the far side of the Red Sea, but I do not feel my age for, at last, we are a free people. My brother, wearing his Egyptian name Moses, is the leader of a new nation: Abraham’s nation and Sarah’s nation; Isaac’s nation and Rebekah’s nation; Jacob’s nation and the nation of Leah and Rachel; Moses’ nation; my nation. With my Hebrew sisters, I take up my tambourine, fix my eyes on my brother, and lift my voice in praise…

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