Tuesday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 2:1-15

Having heard described the difficult situation in which the Hebrews were living in Egypt, we are now introduced to the hero of our story. Moses was born of parents who both came from the tribe of Levi. This tribe will also form the priestly caste in Israel through his brother Aaron, whom we will meet later on.

Per the Pharaoh’s decrees, all male children were to be drowned at birth, but the baby – who does not yet have a name – was hidden by his mother for three months. However, the bigger he grew the more difficult it was to hide him, so she took the drastic step of waterproofing a basket and sent it floating down the river – the Nile or one of its branches.

The Hebrew word for ‘basket’ here means literally a ‘chest’ or an ‘ark’ and is the word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark. Unlike Noah’s ark, of course, this basket would have been made of papyrus stalks. Both ‘vessels’ were to be the source of salvation for God’s people, and it is not difficult to extend the image to the saving waters of baptism.

In a clearly providential happening, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her retinue had gone to the river to bathe. The floating basket and child are found and the the child was immediately recognised as a Hebrew (perhaps he was he already circumcised?) and she was full of pity for the abandoned baby. Moses’ aunt who had been watching the whole affair innocently came forward and offered to find a Hebrew woman to wet-nurse the baby. She brought the child’s own mother who was appointed to nurse the child.

When the boy had grown, he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. This probably happened when the child was weaned or a little later. He was given the name Moses because, as Pharaoh’s daughter said, “I drew him out of the water.” Actually, ‘Moses’ in Hebrew is mosheh, but the word translated ‘draw out’ is mashah. The words are not linguistically connected and it is rather a play on words (something we have frequently seen in one of the authors of Genesis). In fact, the name is probably derived from an Egyptian word of “has been born”, referring the birth to a god thought to be his sponsor.

Then we are suddenly brought to a time when Moses was already a grown man. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen during his trial states that Moses was 40 when he took leadership of his people (Acts 7:23) and, when he later was bargaining with the Pharaoh, Exodus says he was 80 years old (see Ex 7:7). Ancient historians, Josephus and Philo give legendary details of Moses’ education. Stephen in the same speech observes that Moses was “educated in all the lore of Egypt”. Obviously, too, he is fully aware of his Hebrew identity, which he no doubt learnt secretly from his mother who nursed him.

Moses could not but be aware of the way his people were being maltreated and, once on seeing an Egyptian strike, probably flogging but perhaps even killing, a Hebrew, he killed the man and buried the body, hoping that he had not been seen.

Later he scolded two Hebrews who were fighting among themselves, telling them that was no way to win their freedom. They, however, turned on him and asked if he was going to kill them in the same way he had killed the Egyptian. Moses, aware that his secret was out and that it had even reached the Pharaoh’s ears (there was a warrant out for his execution) fled into hiding and stayed in the land of Midian.

Midian lies to the south of Edom and to the east of the Gulf of Aqaba in what is now the southern tip of Israel. The Midianites are connected in Genesis (25:1-4) with a group of Arab tribes descended from Keturah, one of Abraham’s wives. The Jerusalem Bible tells us:

“These nomads frequented the highways of Palestine, and of the Sinai peninsula; they raided as far afield as Moab, where they later came to blows with the Hebrews. They were to be soundly beaten by Gideon. At “the end of times” Midian will come and pay homage to Yahweh (Is 60:6).”

Later, Moses would indeed liberate his people but in a very different and unexpected way.

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