The Way of Mary: Wise Women of Israel

In a recent post, I asked about a third way between “fight” and “flight.” Is it possible to respond to violence in a way that chooses neither of these? Mary, I suggested, shows us a way, but we must begin with a tradition that precedes her. We  begin as she herself began, in the way of the wise women, the mothers, of Israel.

Here, there is a great deal to consider. We could spend many hours telling each other the stories of Sarah and Rebekah, of Leah and Rachel. We could recall Miriam and Esther and Deborah, and dozens of others, named and unnamed. Although “systematic theologians” don’t often say so, a whole world of anthropological and moral theological reflection is waiting in their stories.

For now, consider just one: Jochebed. If her name isn’t familiar to you, her position will be. She is Moses’ mother. And if you know her only by that relation, that’s not really surprising. In the first chapters of Exodus, where she appears, she’s not the primary character, nor powerful. Indeed, she has nothing, it would seem, to resist the overwhelming act of violence that she faces. Pharaoh—who has grown fearful that his Hebrew slaves, increasing in number, may turn on him—has ordered the death of every boy born to them. He first instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill any boy at birth, and then, to be sure, gives orders to his own people that any such child, if discovered, must be thrown into the Nile. What can Jochebed, an enslaved Hebrew mother to a baby boy, possibly do?


Moses in his Mother’s Arms, Simeon Solomon (1840–1905).

Because “she could hide him no longer,” the text tells us, she acts, in a decision full of vulnerability and hope. She will leave him very much in the open, “among the reeds on the bank of the river.” The irony is clear. Technically, she has followed that command that the boy must go “in the river.” A conspiracy, though, has thus been set in motion. Jochebed gives her permission for her daughter Miriam to stay and watch.

And now, another crucial character, the daughter of Pharaoh, appears. Is this only a coincidence? Or does Jochebed know that she will appear just at that time? If so, Moses’ mother has engaged in a courageous gamble, specifically hoping that the daughter of Pharaoh will become her co-conspirator.

The child is crying when the daughter of Pharoah finds him, and her first reaction is one of compassion. Yet, immediately this compassion is challenged by a realization. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. We’re not told how she knows this, but the implication is clear: action on behalf of this child will constitute direct disobedience to the command issued by her father, the Pharaoh.

Miriam steps forward with a suggestion: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And the question only sharpens the moment of decision. This child is very young; his survival depend on mother’s milk. The response of the daughter of Pharoah is only a brief “yes.” One word, though, constitutes an act of outrageous defiance. Not only does she rescue this Hebrew boy, she plans to bring him into her own household. Indeed, the etymology offered for the name his Egyptian mother gives him means that her defiant act is written into his very identity. He is “Moses,” the one whom she was commanded to “throw in,” but whose name means “draw out.”

Again, in a twist, she takes responsibility for this child precisely in the act of sending him back to his first mother. It is not entirely clear what she knows about the “nurse” to whom she sends the child, but Pharaoh’s daughter certainly knows the woman is a Hebrew, and in her payment of wages, she thus also makes this Hebrew woman aware of her illicit intent to mother the boy, widening the risk she is taking.

Later, when the boy is weaned and returned to his adoptive mother, we see Jochebed, too, acting in a new and deeper form of vulnerability. At that point, she delivers her son knowingly, consciously entrusting her son to Pharoah’s daughter, and sending him, in fact, into the very household that threatened his life.

One biblical scholar puts it this way: “The series of divine/human acts that accomplish the exodus does not begin with the call of Moses or with spectacular, violent trial of strength that occurs in the plague sequence, but with the solidarity of the women in preserving life and resisting death.”* The work of God—the work of resistance and liberation, we might say—begins earlier and more quietly than we have suspected.

And so, the outlines of this wise way begin to emerge. Jochebed begins with a commitment to life, with a concern for the one who is immediately threatened and vulnerable. She resists quietly; indeed, hers is almost a form of obedience. She draws in both the one closest to her—her own daughter—and also one who stands across enemy lines. In their conspiracy of compassion, Jochebed—and these other women she engages—offer a model of intimate, daring alliance. Each risks vulnerability to the other, and each responds to vulnerability with responsible, compassionate action. They reveal the hidden foundation of a prophetic, liberative moment, as Moses, the first and greatest of the prophets, is “drawn out.”

All of this, as we shall see, assists us to begin to understand the way of Mary, mother of the “new Moses,” and instructs us, if we, too, would “arise a mother in Israel” and follow this wise way.

*Francis Watson, in a work that I have lost track of and am waiting for a helpful co-conspirator to identify for us all.


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