Birth of a Nation

Today, 16th September, we celebrate Malaysia Day. On this day, in 1963, Malaysia was birthed as a nation. In Exodus, there is another story of birth of a nation, the nation of Israel[1]. And like every story of beginnings, it begins with the birth of its great leader, Prophet Moses.

As I was reading Exodus 1 and 2, I saw that the narrative emphasizes the role of many women in the birth and survival of this male child. They are (1) Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives[2]; (2) Moses’ mother ,Jochebed[3]; (3) Pharaoh’s daughter, unnamed;[4] (4) Miriam, Moses’ sister. These women were integral to the birth, life and survival of Moses and pivotal in the history of the new nation.

Shiphrah and Puah were no ordinary midwives. They were commanded by Pharaoh to kill every male baby at childbirth. But they feared God. So, they defied the Pharaoh’s orders and let all the babies live. They prevented the genocide of children. What they did “may be the first known incident of civils disobedience in history.”[5] In other words, what they did was an overt act of political defiance[6] against the powers that be. Because they chose to obey God.

Then there is Jochebed, Moses’ mother. There was an order from the Pharaoh that every boy that is born must be thrown into the river Nile. But she loved baby Moses. So, she hid him for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she got a papyrus basket and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed him in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. What did she feel when she saw her baby? Joy? Fear? Despair? Hope? Whatever it was, she was filled with love for her child, was faithful to God, and was not afraid of the king’s edict, as stated in Hebrews 11:24:

“By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.”

Just like Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed was not afraid of men. She feared God only.

Who was Pharaoh’s daughter? Was she a believer in the God of the Hebrews at that time? No one knows for certain[7]. But she was bathing in the Nile when she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened the basket, she saw the baby Moses, crying. She felt sorry for him. She did not kill the baby.

What is most interesting is that Pharaoh’s daughter was moved by mercy and compassion towards Moses, knowing full well that the baby was a Hebrew child – a child of an enemy (according to her father, the Pharaoh). Yet she took tremendous risks to decide to let the Hebrew baby live and later adopt the child as her own. Whatever possessed her to do this unthinkable thing?

I can only surmise, it is the providence of God.  As a result of Pharaoh’s daughter adopting Moses as her son, Moses had access to the best education in Egypt. And, as a result, he was able to administer the new nation and write all the laws in the Torah.

Standing at a distance watching the basket floating amongst the reeds was Miriam, Moses’ sister. Miriam the faithful and clever sister. When she saw that the Pharaoh’s daughter discovered baby Moses in the basket, she quickly came forward and asked Pharaoh’s daughter “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”. This girl really had her wits about her. As a result, Pharaoh’s daughter agreed and Jochebed became Moses’ wet-nurse. God thrust the baby back into the arms of her loving parents, united the family, and engineered the salvation of the Jewish nation.

These women, Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam, all possessed excellent qualities which are universal and applicable to every human being willing to do good. It would be myopic to categorize this as only a woman’s story. All of them feared God, had love, compassion, mercy, and the conscience to do good and not to do evil. They were certainly aware of the repercussions of their actions. Yet, they were not afraid to put their own lives on the line.

To me Shiphrah and Puah represent every working adult in every job, profession and calling. They may not be “political activists,” but they know how to do the right thing at the right time, and to fear God and not man. And perhaps that is all that is required of us.

Jochebed represents every parent bringing up children in this world. The world today is a challenging place. There may not be physical crocodiles, the Nile current or bulrushes. But we live in a world fraught with danger. The danger may be attributed to evil people, worldly standards incompatible with God’s word, or vicissitudes of life like disease, bad encounters, accidents, environment.

There will come a point in every parents’ life – after giving the best care, preparation and guidance – that the parent will have to place the child in the basket of life and launch him/her into this world, trusting and hoping for the providence of God all the time.

There will be encounters with many people, even people of different beliefs (like Pharaoh’s daughter), and we trust that God will speak to everyone including others who are not like us.

At the same time, we can also be the Miriams who look out for one another and speak up. As we do our part, we pray for many great, kind, wise, just, humble and compassionate leaders like Moses (also known as Prophet Musa to the Muslims) to arise in our midst to lead us.

Selamat Hari Malaysia.


[1] Parashat Shemot:The Birth of a Nation by Michal Groushko Taitel, Principal of OTS’s Jennie Sapirstein High School for Girls in Ramot, Jerusalem. Summarizing Dr Orit Avneri beautiful ideas on Parashat Shemot

[2] Exodus 1:15

[3] Numbers 26:59

[4] Based on the year that Moses was born and the ruling 18th Egyptian dynasty of the time, she is widely believed by scholars to be Hatshepsut. Women in the Bible – The Pharaoh’s Daughter – Moses’ Adoptive Mother by Stephanie Catmull

[5] Shiphrah and Puah – Wikipedia, quoting Francine Klagsbrun

[6] How 2 Midwives tricked Pharaoh by Hannah Graham Pressman birthings and beginnings

[7] Pharaoh’s Daughter: A woman worthy of raising Moses, Dr Malka Z Simkovich.

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