Jochabed belonged to the tribe of Levi, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah. She was married to Amram, who was a grandson of Levi, via his son Kohath. We are told in Exodus 6v20 that she was the sister of Amram’s father, which would make him her nephew. It doesn’t seem right to our modern sensibilities for marriage between such close relatives, but this is also the time of the Pharaohs who intermarried rather a lot. For example, Tutankhamun married his half-sister Ankhesenamun perhaps in about 1332 BC. According to Rabbinical Judaism, Moses might have been born about 1391 BC.
Jochabed, then, belonged to one of the tribes of Israel. She was a Jewish woman belonging to the people who worshipped the One God, whilst living in Egypt, under the rule of the Pharoahs. As we read last time, (see Shiprah and Puah), Pharoah was not impressed by the increasing Jewish population and kept trying to think of ways to reduce them. His attempt at ordering the killing of baby boys at birth was thwarted by the brave midwives, so he ordered that new born Israelite baby boys should be thrown in the River Nile.
That is the background then to the story of Jochabed. The account in Exodus focuses on that family when she gave birth to her third child, having already a boy Aaron and a girl Miriam. For three months their beautiful baby boy was kept hidden. This must have been a nerve-racking time for the family, but eventually she decided to do something. Perhaps his older sister, aged eight or so was keen to be involved in the plan that the mother thought up. Jochabed “made a basket out of papyrus leaves and coated it with bitumen and pitch.”
The basket was then concealed in the reeds at the edge of the river Nile and his sister kept watch to see what would happen. What happened was that the daughter of Pharaoh and her attendants came to bathe. Pharoah’s daughter (another nameless woman in the Bible), saw the basket and sent her attendants to bring her the basket. When she opened it, she found a crying, but clearly Hebrew boy and she felt sorry for him. At that point Miriam popped out of her hiding place and offered to go and find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby.
Let us consider then what all this might tell us – Jochebed and family lived near the River Nile. She must have known, I think, that she was leaving her precious baby somewhere where there was a good chance that he would be found. She must have observed that the spot where she chose to leave the baby was near a place where Pharaoh’s daughter and perhaps other highborn Egyptian ladies regularly bathed. She then relied on the inquisitiveness and compassion of the woman who would find the baby to rescue her baby. Finally she set her daughter, a willing accomplice, presumably, to keep watch.
She and her daughter must have thought about what would happen if the baby was found because the first thing Miriam suggests is perhaps she can find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby and then runs home and fetches her mother, thus ensuring that the baby’s formative years would be under the care of his mother.
What a clever and sensible plan under the circumstances!
Solomon, Simeon, 1840-1905. Mother of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57539
Miriam went home and fetched her mother and brought her to Pharaoh’s daughter – an inference that this was a random Hebrew woman who Miriam found to wet-nurse the infant. Knowledge would have been dangerous perhaps. Pharaoh’s daughter paid Jochabed to nurse the baby until he was weaned (or thereabouts). Then he was brought back to Pharoah’s daughter, who adopted him as her son and named him Moses “for I have drawn him out of the water.”
In a time of difficulty for the Jewish people, slaves in Egypt, this was a very successful outcome – not least because the baby grew to manhood and became the great leader of his people. The co-operation (knowing or unknowing) of the women around him in his infancy ensured this. We don’t hear Jochabed or Miriam speak but even so we sense the unrecorded words that were spoken between them which ultimately ensured the safety of their beautiful boy seemingly sent off unprotected in his “Moses” basket into the Nile.