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.

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