Moses’ Two Moms: A Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm

My new grand-babies are a lot of fun.  They are starting to get good with their hands and their ability to reach for things and their coordination is improving.  One of them sat in my lap the other day and tried reaching for my earrings.  I held him back far enough so that they were just out of reach—and he grunted hard as he tried to grab them.

Our arms can only stretch so far.  Maybe, like me, you need help sometimes to get the things off the top shelf in the store or from the top cupboards at home.  We reach for the sky when doing exercises, and even figuratively, we reach for the stars when we dream, hope and wish for something.  But there are some things that feel like they are beyond our reach; elusive; impossible. 

I’m beginning a sermon series in the book of Exodus. We’re not entirely sure who the Pharaoh was at the time of these stories, but many of the Pharaoh’s spoke of their military strength by using pictures of their arms.  Thutmose II speaks of himself as “Great of Power, Mighty of Arm”, while Thutmose III used “Great of Arm”.  Amenhotep II is said to be ‘a god whose arm is great”. Elsewhere he is called the “good god, strong of arm who achieves with his arms”.  Tutankhamun called himself ‘a champion without peer, possessor of a mighty arm who tramples hundreds of thousands”.[1]

It’s no surprise then, that God is revealed in Exodus as the one who is MORE powerful than Pharaoh, and that in the description of the rescue of the people, it records this:  “…the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…”  Deuteronomy 26:8

That phrase is used over and over again in the Scripture: Psalms, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Mark and Luke.  God certainly did mighty acts for his people, but he also worked through the lives of the people who were open to his calling, and who acted in line with his heart and his character.  In the last story, Shiphrah and Puah were midwives that were told by Pharaoh to kill all the baby boys that are born to the Hebrew women.  That didn’t work.  Now Pharaoh won’t be so subtle. 

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born, you are to throw into the Nile, but every daughter, you are to keep alive.” Exodus 1:22

This is full blown genocide, and the far-reaching power of the Pharaoh is after God’s people.  You could say that ‘The long arm of the law’ is being extended.  Pharaoh has already underestimated women, and now we’ll see two more women who will foil his plan. 

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and gave birth to a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. Exodus 2:1-2

In the Hebrew, it reads she saw that he was ‘good’.  Think of Genesis 1, where God creates light, dry land, seas, vegetation, beasts and birds, and all of it was good.   God saw that it was good. Moses’ mom saw that her baby was good. This is a significant moment in the story of God’s people.   

But when she could no longer hide him, she got him a papyrus basket and covered it with tar and pitch. Then she put the child in it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him. Exodus 2:3-4

There comes a point when a baby cannot be hidden.  Their crying becomes louder.  Neighbors are wondering if she’s had the baby yet.  This mother made a decision to find him…an ark.  The word is the same for the ark that God told Noah to build in Genesis 6:14, and outside of Noah’s story, it’s the only other time this word is used in the Old Testament.[2]  Moses’ mom carries out Pharaoh’ command to put her baby in the Nile, but she does it with care and careful planning, and not abandonment. 

Think of her arms for a moment.  She uses her arms to get a basket and make it waterproof.  She uses her arms to place him carefully in the basket.  She uses her arms to carry him to the river and place him there, where he will be just out of her reach. I’m sure she also raises her arms to heaven to petition God for the life of her son. Her desire for this child is like dreaming the impossible dream.  She can’t save him on her own.  It’s out of her reach.  The only way it can happen is through God. She does her part, and God will use her arms as instruments of his salvation. 

Now, placing a baby in a basket in the river is risky, but she may have just put him in it periodically if someone came by to look for babies.  The river noise could drown out any cooing or crying for a little while.  That can’t last long.  Even if you can keep a baby alive for a little while by hiding him, what happens when he gets old enough to crawl?  To find his way out of the basket and into the water? 

Now think carefully.  As a mother, weighing the odds, would you just put your child in a random spot, or might you have started to formulate some kind of hopeful plan in WHERE you place the child?  Maybe you rehearse the possibilities with your daughter, so that she knows exactly what to say if the right thing happens.  You wait, and you pray.

Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her female attendants walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave woman, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Exodus 2:5-6

Pharaoh probably had lots of wives, and this is just one of many daughters.  She sees the basket and she’s curious, but that basket is physically out of her reach, too; in more ways than one.  The text says that she sends her slave woman to get it for her. The Hebrew word for the slave woman, or maid, is ‘amah.’  And just as the amah provides services for the household, your hand performs services on your behalf.  The word ‘amah’ is also used for a measurement—a cubit, or the length of a forearm.[3]

A Jewish Midrash teaching says that when the daughter of Pharaoh reached for Moses, her arm extended miraculously.  It didn’t happen literally, but this child really is not in Pharaoh’s daughter’s reach.  The maidservant has to obey the daughter, but she also answers to Pharaoh.  And the Pharaoh has commanded that every baby boy be cast into the Nile to drown.  Sure, she can send her maid, or her arm, to get the basket, but it is totally against her self-interest to keep it.  She can party in the palace and forget about this child or face severe consequences for even thinking about what she is about to do.  Pharaoh’s daughter hears the cry of another human being and she just can’t ignore it.  It begs the question, “Who is my brother?”  Well, SOMEONE knows who her brother is…

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a woman for you who is nursing from the Hebrew women, so that she may nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go ahead.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.  Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.  Exodus 2:7-9

I’m sure Moses’ mother would want to cry and run to her baby and hug him and squeeze him.  But she can’t show that she recognizes him, and she must be respectful to Pharaoh’s daughter.  We never get to know what she is thinking, but it’s amazing that Moses’ moms meet!!  

In Egyptian minds, the act of nursing is a divine act; in some sense it conveys divine substance to the next king.  Jochebed gets to nurse her child, but she is on the payroll of Pharaoh, and the daughter of Pharaoh is under the assumption that SHE has rescued this child, and that it is HER son.  Moses can only ever know the daughter of Pharaoh as his mother.  But Jochebed can still have great influence on him.  She can tell him about God and the stories of the people of Yahweh, the Creator, the rescuer, the one with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. 

Here’s a link to a beautiful poem written by Ruth Fogelman from Jochebed’s point of view:

10 And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.” Exodus 2:10

Moses moves in with his Egyptian mom and gets an Egyptian name.  In Egyptian, the root may mean, a child, or a son, or even having a divine element to it.  (Think of familiar names like Thutmose, Ahmose, or Ramose.[4])  It also sounds like a participle of the Hebrew verb mashah, that means, ‘one who pulls out, or draws out’.[5] The daughter of Pharaoh had reached out her arm and pulled the baby out of the water and had compassion that transcended racial, ethnic, biological and national categories, and she imitates the action of the midwife drawing the baby from the womb.[6]

Here’s the takeaway:  God has a Mighty Hand and An Outstretched Arm

“God’s ‘arm’ is a common metaphor in Scripture for his powerful action, especially in the Exodus event. God works through the arm of Moses, and he works here through the arms of Moses’ mothers to begin the rescue of his people from Pharaoh. It took God’s strong hand to dramatically rescue the Israelites from Egypt.  Just as God’s arm was seen in the working of Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, Jesus Christ came to be a greater Moses and a greater Savior, and in his body of flesh, he stretched out his arms on the cross and rescued people from every nation and people.   

There are certain things you can do in life and certain things that are out of your reach. We need God’s strength, and an outstretched arm to reach for the things that seem impossible when it comes to embodying the values of God’s kingdom.

Reach out your arm a minute—how far can you stretch?

Shiphrah and Puah stretched out their arms to receive the infants born to the Hebrew women.  Jochebed had to trust God for Moses’ life, and yet she also used her outstretched arms to get the basket, to place Moses in it, and put him in the river.

The princess believed that she could get away with raising a Hebrew baby.  She used Her outstretched arm to draw the baby out of the water and raise him as her own.

We must reach out again and again to those around us in spite of the risks, in spite of the disappointments.  We reach out with strong hands and outstretched arms paralleling the actions of the God we serve: not because we have the power, but because GOD does. 

Prayer: Father, we stretch our arms out to You in praise. You have made everything we see and all things unseen, and you hold together all things for Your glory. Our hands can only reach so far, and yet you ask for our hands, so that you might use them for your purpose.  Forgive our calculated efforts to serve you only when it is convenient, or safe.  Give us the dream to reach for the things that seem impossible, but line up with your kingdom purposes, and let us not withdraw them, even when the work is hard. Send us out with outstretched arms so that we might take seriously the meaning of your cross.  May we also stretch out our arms for your kingdom and your glory.  Amen. 

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Questions for Going Deeper

–Were you ever able to reach something that seemed like it was out of your grasp? (item on a shelf, a goal, a dream, a job, etc.)

–Jochebed had to make a decision about what to do with her baby.  If he was discovered, he would be thrown into the river.  If she put him in the river, he could die.  Have you ever had to make a decision that seemed risky no matter what? 

–Is there a dream that you have for doing something in God’s kingdom right now that seems out of reach?  (helping someone with a specific need, giving a donation, talking to someone about God, volunteering, being a voice for truth in a difficult situation, etc.)

–Oh, Lord God! Behold, You Yourself have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You. Jeremiah 32:17

–The strong right arm of the Lord is raised in triumph. The strong right arm of the Lord has done glorious things – Psalm 118:16

–“Lord, be merciful to us, for we have waited for you. Be our strong arm each day and our salvation in times of trouble.” – Isaiah 33:2

–with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever.  Psalm 136:12

–Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that it cannot save; Isaiah 59:1

[1] Nathan R. Farrar, “A mighty hand and outstretched arm: The application of a description of Pharaoh to Yahweh”, The Testimony, November 2008, 288-291, 290.

[2] Tony Merida, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014, 13.

[3] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010 (13th printing); 51,52.

[4] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991, 10.

[5] James K. Bruckner, Exodus, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008, 29.

[6] Claassens, L Juliana M., “Resisting dehumanization- acts of relational care in Exodus 1-2 as image of God’s liberating presence”, Scriptura, 105 2010, p572-580, 576.

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