I think that it was just a few weeks ago that I told the biblical story of the baby Moses—how he was put in a basket soon after he was born and placed in the reeds of the Nile River, then later to be found by daughter of the Pharaoh. But this sermon is not about Moses or about the princess. It is about the mother of Moses, a woman by the name of Jochebed.
Don’t worry if you did not know her name. It is not even mentioned in the story, and not many mothers in these days would give their little girls this name. I don’t think little Jochebed would make it through middle school. We only learn the name of the mother of Moses later in two of the several listings of genealogies of the Hebrew people (Exodus 6:20; Numbers 26:59).
Usually when we hear the story of Moses, we do not speak too much about Jochebed, but there are several reasons why we should give her some attention. When we consider the story this time, try to imagine what it must have been like for this mother of Moses.
Here is some background for the story of this woman.
What the Pharaoh Did
The Hebrew people were in Egypt, under a burdensome yoke of slavery by the Pharaoh. But despite their brutal working and living conditions, the Jews were becoming increasingly numerous in the land of Egypt—so much so that it had the people of Egypt worried, as well as Pharaoh himself. He did not want to eventually be in a position where he would have to defend his country from a foreign force of warriors that were living right inside of his borders. Because of his fears, Pharaoh ordered that all the male children of the Hebrews should be put to death.
The Pharaoh said to the two Hebrew midwives who attended to the women in labor, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and they give birth to a child, if it is a boy, you shall kill him, but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Exodus 1:16).
The midwives however, much to their credit, did not obey the Pharaoh’s edict. They had too much respect the lives of these little ones, and they knew that the edict of God was far greater than any word by the Pharaoh. Surely these midwives expected that they would probably be put to death for their act of defiance, but because of their commitment to God, the Lord protected them and blessed their lives.
Thus, a baby boy was born to the woman named Jochebed, who was married to a man by the name of Amram. However, despite the fact that the midwives did not kill the baby, the life of this little boy was still in great danger. When the midwives failed to carry out the edict of the Pharaoh, he then commanded every Egyptian citizen to cast into the Nile River any male Hebrew newborn that they might come across.
Why did the Pharaoh order the execution of the babies by this method rather than simply having soldiers go around to the Hebrew households and kill the babies? This is difficult to know, but it surely must have had something to do with the reverence that the Egyptians held for the River Nile.
You probably remember from your high school world history class that the Nile River flooded annually after the rains fell in the upper regions. When this happened, the water carried with it the rich soil from Ethiopia, which is the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and from the countries surrounding Lake Victoria, which gives rise to the White Nile.
These two rivers converge to flow north into Egypt, bringing with them the fertile soils from upriver. When the river reach the lazy flow of the alluvial plains in Egypt, these soils are deposited on the banks, providing the farmers with fruitful fields in an area that would otherwise be a dry and barren desert.
But there was more to the reverence that the Egyptians held for the river than simply acknowledging the rich soils and the moisture for their crops. Most historians do not believe that the Egyptians actually worshiped the Nile, but they did have a god that was associated with the river. This god’s name was Hapi. This was a god who was highly celebrated among the people because he was said to bring the annual flooding along with its riches.
And then there is this interesting passage from the book of Ezekiel. This is a prophecy that was given long after the Pharaoh of the time of Moses, and yet it shows that the reverence that the Pharaohs of Egypt held for the Nile was more than recognizing the fertile soils that it brought to their land.
Here is the prophecy of Ezekiel:
I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams.
You say, “The Nile belongs to me; I made it for myself.”
But I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales
I will pull you out from among your streams, with all the fish sticking to your scales.
I will leave you in the desert, you and all the fish of your streams.
You will fall on the open field and not be gathered or picked up.
I will give you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.
Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 29:3-6 NIV)
What Jochebed Did
Jochebed hid her child for three months. I do not know what challenges there were in doing this, but I can imagine that they were great. Remember that the Hebrews were slaves. One of their tasks as slaves was to make bricks. I am quite sure that this was a job that was largely given to the women. If this was so and if Jochebed was put to work in this way, she no doubt would have to carry her little male child on her back, or at least have him nearby.
But even if this was not so, I am sure that you can see the difficulty of keeping the presence of a little baby secret. Whatever complications Jochebed faced in doing this, after three months, the difficulties became too great. She could hide the child no longer. She made a basket out of reeds, made it watertight with tar and with pitch, placed the baby in it and put the basket in the reeds that grew near the riverbank of the Nile.
Why Jochebed chose this method of hiding her baby, we are not told. But again allow me to speculate a little, because I think that Jochebed’s reasoning was more than merely to be secretive. I think that she was taking advantage of the Egyptian’s own beliefs surrounding the River Nile.
In those days the women of Egypt would take ritual baths in the Nile River. This was especially true of the affluent young women, of whom the Pharaoh’s daughter was no doubt the greatest. The young women believed that the Nile somehow had the power to increase their fertility and prolong their lives.
Jochebed must have known this, and she must have been aware of where exactly along the banks that the Pharaoh’s daughter would habitually bathe. It was at that place where she chose to put her little son in his floating basket. Why there? If secrecy was the main goal, why did she not place the little infant among the reeds where people rarely visited?
I have a hunch that Jochebed was counting on the possibility that her baby would indeed be found by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and that this belief among the Egyptians concerning the Nile would in some way work to preserve the life of her child. It was a gamble, but it was not a mindless gamble. Jochebed had thought this through.
The mother could not watch him. She had to work. But she had another child, older and a girl, who was able to watch over the baby from a safe distance. If the baby would be found by an Egyptian, there would be nothing that this girl could do, but at least the family would know of the baby’s fate.
What the Pharaoh’s Daughter Did
The sister must have grown nervous when she saw the daughter of the Pharaoh came to bathe in the river. We are not told the name of the Pharaoh’s daughter, but the Jews later came to call her Bithiah, so that is what we will call her. When Bithiah came to bathe, she did not come alone. She never did. The daughter of the Pharaoh was always accompanied by her handmaidens.
Again I will say, if secrecy had been the main goal of Jochebed, she surely would not have put her infant where she knew that this great entourage of maidens would be walking along the bank. Jochebed knew that her baby would be found.
And, as we know, the baby was found. Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh, whatever her own beliefs were, saw the baby as a provision that the Nile River had preserved for her. She named the baby boy “Moses.” The name is an Egyptian word, meaning to draw, as in “I drew him out of the river.”
The Nile River had been the very abode of death for very many infant babies of that day, but Moses was drawn out of death and given life. In a sense, Moses had been delivered out of the very habitation of death. He was delivered out of the grave; perhaps not literally, but certainly metaphorically.
Now here is another interesting twist to the story: When the older sister of Moses, who had been hiding nearby, saw the Pharaoh’s daughter take her brother in her arms, she ran down to the bank.
“I know a woman who can nurse that child for you!” she told Bithiah.
The woman that she was talking about was, of course, her own mother and the mother of the baby. Bithiah must have suspected this as well.
“Run to get her,” Bithiah told the girl.
The mother Jochebed received her own little son back into her arms. He had not been killed. Rather, his life had been given back to him. In the years to follow, after a few complicating twists, Moses would become the deliverer of his people. He would lead a people out of slavery into the land of promise.
What Mary Did
Now we move ahead in history some fifteen hundred years. Herod sat on the throne in Jerusalem, jealously guarding his power. The Jewish people were once again under the yoke of a foreign power, but this time they were the subjects of an outside occupation within their own land of Israel. They were not slaves, per se, but they certainly were under oppression.
In that region, in a town called Nazareth, there was a young lady who was excitedly thinking about her soon-to-come wedding day. She was not much more than a girl really—a virgin, and probably largely innocent of the politics of the day. But she was devout in regard to her faith. She had learned to believe the word of God.
One day an angel suddenly and unexpectedly appeared to her. “Greetings, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you!”
Rather than being encouraged by this message that the Lord was with her, this young virgin became troubled by the words. Certainly she believed that the Lord was with her, but she could hardly be called “favored!”
After all, she was a Nazaritess!—a town of some ill-repute. She was soon to be married, yes—that was a good thing, but her husband-to-be, as much as she loved him, was a poor man who would have to work hard to provide for a family. This young women knew that theirs would probably be a difficult existence.
How could this be called a “favored life?”
As you know, the angel then went on to tell her of the miraculous conception and birth of a child, whom she was to call “Jesus.”
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This was more than the young girl could comprehend. But then again, how can we expect to comprehend the ways of God?
“Behold! I am the handmaiden of the Lord.”
This was the response of the young virgin. She was simply a servant and available for whatever her Master asked that she should do.
“Let it be to me according to your word.”
What King Herod Did
Of course you know the story of Mary and Joseph, and of their sudden and difficult trip to Bethlehem just when Mary was in hard labor. You know of the birth of Jesus on that night in a cave or a stable where animals stayed.
The young family stayed in Bethlehem for some time. I am sure that they eventually found accommodations that were of some improvement, but they had not yet returned to their home town of Nazareth when one day, a group of Magi came from some countries of the east, learn-ed scholars in their own lands.
They came not first to Bethlehem, but to the city of Jerusalem. They began asking people, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When this question reached the ears of the king Herod, he became greatly troubled. His thought was for the protection of his own throne. The king sent for the teachers of Scripture and the priests and asked them what they knew about this other “king,” this Messiah they had long talked about. Herod knew that the Jews sometimes spoke of the Messiah as leading them to freedom.
The teachers told Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. They then quoted to him some of their scriptures which said: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6 ESV).
Upon hearing this, Herod called the Magi, who had been in Jerusalem asking about this king with a star, and summoned them to come to him. Herod directed them to go to Bethlehem and told them that when they found this infant boy, they should return back to him and report to him. Herod told the Magi that he also wanted to go and worship this newborn king.
It was a lie, of course. Herod did not want to worship this small boy. He wanted this potential future threat to his throne murdered.
The Magi realized this when they finally did find the Jesus, who was by that time approaching the age of two years old. After presenting their gifts to this newborn king, they were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod. On their return trip to their homelands, instead of going through Jerusalem, they took the backroads to avoid the meeting.
This enraged Herod, of course. It enraged him to the point where, similar to the Pharaoh of old, he ordered the massacre of all the male children under two years of age in the vicinity of the small hamlet of Bethlehem.
Before this all happened however, Joseph the father of Jesus, also had a dream. In his dream he was told by an angel to take Mary his wife, and their son Jesus, and flee to Egypt until the time that he should be told to return. Thus, very soon on one dark night, probably even the same night or at least the very next night, Joseph took his small family and fled as refugees into Egypt.
It was there that they stayed until some time later when Joseph was told in yet another dream that it was safe to return. It was in this way that, despite the extraordinary and the aggressive efforts of the king to murder the little child, the life of the Savior was spared.
Of course you see the similarities of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus with those of the birth and preservation of the baby Moses. Both of these two small babies were born to be deliverers. God had protected the life of Moses and given to him the specific purpose of leading his people out of slavery.
Indeed, when the Jews of Herod’s day thought of the Messiah, they thought of him much in the line of what would be for them a “modern day Moses.” Many were looking for a deliverer from their Roman occupation—nothing more than that.
But if you remember the words of the angel to Joseph, he told him that the child to whom Mary would be giving birth will “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The Roman occupation was a small thing. Actually, it was nothing. The great need was that the people of the Savior Jesus would be saved from their sins.
What God Did
It is always of great interest to me how God, in many and various ways, and for thousands of years, prepared the people of God for the coming of the Savior Jesus. The story of Jochebed and Moses is one of these ways. The events that occurred surrounding the birth and preservation of Moses with that of Jesus are more than coincidental.
It is in this way that we say that Moses was in the same genre as Jesus. Or, as we most typically say it, Moses was a type of Jesus. That is not to say that Jesus is not unique. He alone is God. Nevertheless, there were many similarities regarding the lives of Moses and Jesus.
What Will We Do?
But if this is simply an interesting academic or literary study, then it means nothing. The lessons, if they are to be learned, need to be personalized. Each of us need to ask ourselves, “What does all of this mean to me?”
I am afraid that it is often the same in our own lives as it was for the first century Jews. We often miss the real meaning of the events that are occurring around us and to us.
In a multitude of ways and for many years, God has also been causing things to take place in our own personal lives that are meant to be lessons to bring each one of us to him. Things have happened to us, or we have gone through periods in our lives that gave rise to some new thoughts, or we have seen coincidental things occur in our lives.
For many of us, these are simply interesting stories—things that have happened to us. Like many of the Jews in the day of Jesus, we are mostly interested in our immediate situation—how can I get out of debt? How can I get past this present health crisis?
I am not saying that these are not important in themselves, but by focusing so much on the present circumstances, we miss the meaning of the greater story of our lives. The lives of these two mothers, Jochebed and Mary, are demonstrations to us what God will do with a life that is following what God is saying to them. They were moms, and they were servants of the Lord. God prepared them for tasks that could not be filled by any other woman.
For many years, God has also been giving you hints of himself. There have also been events that have happened in your own personal history. For what special purpose has God been preparing you?
God has also been trying to teach you. Have you been listening?