Chapter 4: Moses
The oppression of the Hebrew people that began when the Hyksos rulers were overthrown grew worse during the years that followed. The people were reduced to slavery and forced to work as laborers on the massive building programs instituted by an ambitious Pharaoh. But even under those adverse conditions, the Hebrew population continued to grow. No matter how difficult the labor or how stringent the work quotas they had to fill, their numbers increased. So Pharaoh instituted a drastic plan to limit their growth. He decreed that all Hebrew males were to be killed at birth. During the time that this policy was in effect, Moses was born.
Moses eventually led his people out of Egyptian bondage, but the Exodus could not have taken place without the participation and cooperation of many women. It was women, symbols of the female principle, who set the stage for the Exodus by insuring that Moses survived his early, mortally dangerous environment.
The first women who helped him survive were Shiphrah and Puah. They were the midwives assigned to deliver all Hebrew babies. It was through them that Pharaoh thought he would implement his murderous plan. He called the women to the palace and ordered them to kill every male Hebrew that they delivered. The midwives acknowledged his command, but they never carried it out.
It soon became evident that male children were surviving their birth, so once again Pharaoh called the women to the palace. This time he demanded to know why so many Hebrew boys had survived. The midwives gave him an answer that he believed. They told Pharaoh that the peasant women, used to hard work and harsh conditions, were not like the more civilized Egyptian women. They were so earthy that they gave birth with no strain or stress, then got up and went about their ordinary chores. By the time a midwife could get there, the mother had left the delivery couch. Such women left no clue as to where they went or what sex their child had been.
Pharaoh was not happy with their explanation but he did believe the midwives and their lives were spared. And so were the lives of countless Jewish men. It was not just Moses who lived because of Shiphrah and Puah; it was an entire generation of males and their descendants. They were the men who followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. They were the men who became the nucleus of the Jewish nation.
When Pharaoh realized that male babies were continuing to add to the Hebrew population, he tried to remedy the situation by issuing further orders. His troops were to kill any young Hebrew boys they could find. They were to drown them in the river Nile.
This was the situation that the mother of Moses faced when he was born. Because of the midwives, her son was able to survive his birth, but that only meant the first danger was past. There was no way to keep a growing child permanently hidden from Egyptian soldiers, but the mother was determined to give her child some chance of survival.
She was able to keep Moses hidden for three months and nurse him past that crucial time, but it became impossible to keep him concealed any longer. Her only hope was that some caring Egyptian woman might find the child and keep him for her own. She prepared a waterproof cradle for her son and placed him among the reeds that lined the shore of the Nile, at a place where Egyptian women went to bathe. And the mother sent Miriam, sister of Moses, to watch over the infant as he lay at the water's edge. Her desperate plan succeeded.
Now Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe in the river, and the girls attending her were walking along by the riverside. Among the reeds she noticed the basket, and she sent her maid to fetch it. She opened it and looked, and saw a baby boy, crying; and she was sorry for him. "This is a child of one of the Hebrews," she said....Pharaoh's daughter treated him like a son.
Thus the development of Moses, the great Hebrew leader, was nurtured, watched over, and preserved by the activity of women opposing the establishment. Without their activity--without their courage, bravery and compassion--the child would never have survived. Without the activity of the female principle there would have been no deliverance from Egypt.
When women so choose, they are capable of overcoming the established order. And they do not have to be in a position of power or authority to do so. Neither are they dependent upon, nor limited to, the kind of violent opposition that insures an endless cycle of death and destruction; of attack and counter-attack. Without resorting to violent methods, the women surrounding Moses overcame the Egyptian system and achieved their goal of preserving his life.
These women were also capable of crossing the boundaries of narrow, nationalistic interests. The mother of Moses was able to entrust her child to the care of a woman who represented "the enemy." And Pharaoh's daughter was able to adopt, cherish and love a child who was the symbol of a race she knew her father was bent on destroying.
But it was not enough that the female principle, manifesting itself through women, protected and preserved the life of Moses. He himself had to develop some of the characteristics of the female before God would call him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.
He grew to manhood in the royal household, as an Egyptian, and was an adult before he was told of his Jewish heritage. When Moses learned the truth, he set out to investigate the conditions under which his people lived.
Because those conditions were so harsh, it was inevitable that sooner or later he would witness the kind of injustice that oppressed people endure. One day he came upon an overseer who was beating one of the laborers. In a fit of rage, he killed the offending Egyptian.
It was a capital offense for a Hebrew to kill an Egyptian. Afraid for his own life, Moses fled the country and traveled eastward until he came to the land of Midian. It was desert country, populated by nomadic people, and he lived there for the next forty years.
He married the daughter of a local chieftain and spent the years of his exile as a shepherd, taking care of the large flocks that belonged to his father-in-law. It was during those years of solitude, of tending the flocks, that Moses was able to develop the characteristics of the female principle.
He learned to nurture, to care for, and preserve life during his years as a shepherd. And the long periods of isolation and solitude that his work entailed gave him time for reflection and introspection. Time to look beyond the material realm and to touch the realm of the spirit; time to develop the wisdom and the intuition of the female principle.
By developing in those ways, Moses grew beyond the unbalanced, unrestrained maleness that characterized him as a young man in Egypt. By the grace of God, he outgrew the machismo that had led him to impulsively murder the Egyptian overseer who was abusing the Hebrew laborer. It was an act of violence that did nothing to help solve the problems of his people.
Only when Moses was able to manifest the wisdom, concern, and nurturing ability of the female principle was he fit to shepherd his people through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Only after he developed the necessary male/female balance did God speak to him from the burning bush.
The Lord told him to return to Egypt and tell the Jewish people they were to leave the land of their bondage and journey back to Canaan. Moses did as he was told, but nothing came of his effort. When he announced why he had returned, the Israelites "refused to listen to him." He complained to God that no one would pay any attention to what he said, so the Lord told him to go directly to Pharaoh and demand that the people be set free. This directive made absolutely no sense to Moses: "Behold the Israelites have not listened to me, how then shall Pharaoh give heed to me?"
Pharaoh did not give heed to him; he refused to free the Jews. But soon after his refusal, Egypt began to suffer a series of plagues. First the water supply was contaminated, then a series of infestations blighted the land. The cattle became diseased and, finally, the Egyptians themselves were dying.
Moses had predicted each plague and said they would continue as long as the sons of Israel remained in bondage. But Pharaoh refused to accept that explanation. He continued to believe they were natural disasters, not supernatural warnings--until members of the royal household died. "Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead."
After this, the Jews were allowed to leave. They began their journey back to Canaan, and Moses soon faced the first of many crises. He was responsible for almost 2 million people and from the beginning there were bitter complaints. Just six weeks after the Exodus they were ready to turn back. Faced with the bleak landscape that stretched endlessly before them, the people were afraid their food supply would be inadequate and monotonous. They said they would rather be dead than have to suffer the hardships of the desert country: "If only we had died by the lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve."
Later, they became concerned about their water supply and again charged that they had been led out into the wilderness to die. Moses began to doubt his ability to cope with the situation. He "cried out to the Lord, 'What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'" It was only the first of many confrontations that would take place during the years in the desert.
At one point, the Hebrews regressed to idol worship. Moses met with the Lord on Mount Sinai, and the people were told to prepare for that meeting by washing their garments and abstaining from sexual activity. With such preparation, they were able to witness the thunder, lightning, and billowing smoke that attended the meeting. At the sight of this they "trembled with fear." One of the messages that Moses brought back from the mountain was "Do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold."
But soon after his return, he had to go back up into Sinai. This time he was gone longer and the people's fear gave way to a desire for some excitement. They wanted a change from the spartan monotony of their lives.
"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, 'Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.'" So they collected all their jewelry and gave it to Aaron to melt down and cast into the form of a young bull. Then they declared a day of worship for their new idol: a bacchanalian feast appropriate to the worship of a sex god.
Aaron erected an altar for their golden idol and announced: "'Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.' So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry." This was the sight that greeted Moses when he came down from Sinai, carrying the stone tablets on which God's commandments had been etched. The frenzy and noise were so great that Joshua, who had gone with him, thought he was hearing the sounds of battle.
"When Moses approached the camp and saw the bullock and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain."
There was a terrible confrontation between those who supported Moses and those who did not; 3,000 thousand people died by the sword. They had been in the wilderness for a year and their violence and their worship of the male power principle was still undiminished.
By the time another year had passed, the Hebrews were finally in a position to enter Canaan. But again they wanted to rely on the power of violence to gain their objective. Spies were sent ahead to reconnoiter and they came back with a report that "the people who live there are powerful and the cities are fortified....We can't attack those people, they are stronger than we are." Discouraged by this news, the sons of Israel were determined to return to Egypt and they set about trying to find someone who would lead them back.
Only Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephunneh, urged the people not to rely on their own might--to trust that the Lord would bring them safely into the Promised Land. They told them: "If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey...do not be afraid." The population responded to their plea by voting to stone them to death.
Providence intervened and the lives of the two men were spared. But the Israelites were not allowed to enter Canaan and had to live in the desolate land of the Sinai Peninsula for many more years. And during those years there was less and less violence among them. The people did not even have to kill for food: their daily staple was the manna that fell from heaven each day.
Their journey lasted forty years. The Bible makes a point of stating that the wilderness experience lasted long enough for a new, nonviolent generation to come of age: "The children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness till all the people that were men of war, which came out of Egypt, were consumed."
But the experiment in nonviolent living failed. When the Israelites finally entered Canaan they introduced a new and bitter chapter into the history of warfare. At the town of Jericho they instituted the policy of herem: a policy that demanded all the inhabitants of a conquered territory be slaughtered--in the name of the Lord.
Centuries later the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for God, bitterly denounced the violent takeover at Jericho: "I brought you to a fertile country to enjoy its produce and good things; but no sooner had you entered than you defiled my land, and made my heritage detestable."