THE HAND THAT SAILS THE CRADLE
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 12, 2013; 7th Sunday of Easter, Year C (non-Lectionary sermon)
Exodus 2:1-10; Hebrews 11:1-2, 23-29
“…she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch;
she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.”
It’s Mother’s Day, a good time to hear a story about one of the mothers in the Bible. She’s not one of the famous biblical mothers — not like Eve… nor Sarah, who laughed, pregnant in her old age… nor the grateful Hannah, who dedicated Samuel to the Lord…. nor Elizabeth, mother to John the Baptist… nor Mary, the Godbearer.
No, this woman is mentioned only briefly. In the one passage that tells her story, she isn’t even referred to by name. She does have a name, as it turns out. If you dig through those biblical genealogies, you’ll find it.
Her name is Jochebed. Had she lived today, what she did to her infant son would earn her, at the very least, a DYFS file. At the worst, it would have led a social worker to swoop in and deliver her baby to foster care.
But those were different and very desperate times, back in Egypt. The Hebrew people were suffering as slaves to Pharaoh, mixing mud and straw to make bricks for his pyramids. It was a life of misery, made all the more miserable by a paranoid Pharaoh. He had come to fear this expanding slave population and what it would mean for his reign, should they ever rise up in rebellion.
Pharaoh’s solution to this problem is as elegantly simple — and as evil — as the Nazis’ Final Solution. He orders that every male child born to an Israelite mother is to be killed.
Pharaoh thinks he’s being so clever. Eliminate the male babies for a few years, and you drastically cut the birth rate. In the long term, you deprive the Hebrew community of potential rebel soldiers.
But Pharaoh isn’t that smart. He comes off as a dunce, in fact. Who does he call upon to carry out his brutal command? Not some loyal company of soldiers, but two midwives to the burgeoning Hebrew community: a couple of women named Shiphrah and Puah.
“Each time you preside over the birth of a baby,” he tells them, “take a look and see what sex it is. If it is a male child, put it to death on the spot. If it is female, let it live.”
Now, that puts the two midwives in a terrible dilemma. Do they perform this brutal act of betrayal of their own people — not to mention every principle of midwifery they’ve ever learned? Or do they defy the mighty Pharaoh — absolute ruler and god on earth — and forfeit their own lives?
They choose, instead, to do something quietly subversive. They keep on delivering male babies, and when the Pharaoh calls them to account, they tell a little lie: “O mighty Pharaoh, lord and master, we tried to obey your command. But you don’t know how it is with our Hebrew women. We haven’t had any births to attend to, because our sisters are so strong! When they are pregnant, out working in your fields, they just stop for a moment and birth their babies themselves, right there, then go back to their work!”
Pharaoh’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so he believes them. It never occurs to him to ask why such a hearty race would need midwives at all! Yet, he accepts their explanation at face value. By this act of subversion, the future of the Hebrew people is secured.
That doesn’t stop Pharaoh from going after the baby boys who’ve already been born. He orders his own people to seize any young Israelite boy they see, and cast him into the Nile.
This is when Jochebed — the woman I told you about — enters the picture.
She’s recently given birth to a baby boy, so she knows it won’t be long before some Egyptian discovers her son, tears him from her arms, and hurls him into the Nile.
So, she decides to put him into the Nile herself — but not in that way. Jochebed takes a basket, coats it with bitumen and pitch to make it waterproof, and gently lays her baby boy in it. Then she takes the basket down to the riverbank and leaves it there, floating in the river — half-hidden in the reeds.
Knowing just that about her, you might think Jochebed is crazy — the worst mother ever — but in fact, she’s crazy like a fox. She desperately needs to find a hiding-place for her son. Yet, you know babies are hard to hide: they make noise. Sooner or later, some Egyptian would hear him crying, and that would be that. Although…. what hiding place could be safer and more secure than the royal palace? Jochebed figures out a way to hide her infant son under the Pharaoh’s very nose!
She chooses her stretch of riverbank with the utmost care. The place she hides the basket in the reeds just so happens to be the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to bathe, along with her ladies-in-waiting — and she knows it won’t be long before they show up again.
So, what do these noble ladies happen to see, as they step into the river? A basket: how strange! Lifting the lid, they discover something stranger yet: a baby inside!
Jochebed must have known Pharaoh’s daughter was a soft touch. She figures the princess will consider the baby a gift of the river gods, and she’ll want to take care of it.
Jochebed’s posted her daughter, Miriam, there as a spy, hiding in the reeds: discretely keeping an eye on her brother in the basket. No sooner does she see the royal princess pick the baby up, cradling him in her arms, than the girl comes splashing out of her hiding place. Miriam is a consummate actor. She stops and stares. She lets her jaw drop in astonishment at this rare sight. She remarks on what a strange thing it is that Pharaoh’s daughter should find a baby in a basket in the reeds. “Oh, Your Highness,” she goes on, helpfully, “you’ll need a wet nurse to feed your baby. And I know just the person. It’s my mother, Jochebed, who has just lost her baby!”
“Go fetch her,” says the princess. And with that, Jochebed is reassigned to the royal palace, as wet nurse to her very own son.
The Jewish people have always delighted in telling this story, because it is so deliciously subversive. Oppressed people everywhere, faced with desperate, life-and-death situations, must fashion and follow their own desperate measures to survive. And Jochebed is the ultimate survivor. Because she is, her son Moses will not only survive, but grow up as playmate to Rameses II, the Pharaoh’s son and heir. This means Moses will be uniquely situated, one day in the distant future, to lead his people to freedom.
And so, Jochebed — who, on the face of it, looks to be the worst mother ever — is, in fact, the best of all possible mothers. Not only does she save her son’s life, but she finds a way to stay close to him as he grows into manhood: close enough to find quiet moments to remind him, over and over, of who he is, and to subtly whisper words of subversion into his ear.
It hardly seems like an ideal Mother’s Day symbol: the baby boy encased in a basket, rocking gently upon the waters of the Nile. What if a big wave should come along, pushing the basket out into the channel? Worse yet, what if a crocodile should rise up with a mighty splash, devouring baby and basket together in one terrible gulp?
Yet, Jochebed — knowing how little her son’s life is worth, back in the slave quarters — has planned for every eventuality. She’s posted her daughter as a sentry and has carefully timed her delivery of the basket moments before the royal bathing party appears. She has but one desperate chance to make this crazy plan work. By the grace of Yahweh — who’s undoubtedly watching over the whole drama — it does.
I think this image of a mother setting her child adrift in a basket has deeper meaning for us today. The image of motherhood most of us call to mind is that archetype of Christian art: the tender madonna-and-child scene. Baby Jesus, in that iconic image, is perfectly protected in his mother’s arms.
Truly, there is a time when children need that careful nurture and protection. Yet, as any parent knows, the days come swiftly enough when that’s no longer the case. Garrison Keillor, as usual, puts it wittily and well as he writes:
“Children grow up, and your influence over them declines precipitously. You begat them because you pictured yourself as a wise and beloved patriarch, but instead you become the warden of San Question. Your offspring yell at you and bang their tin cups as you walk through the cellblock. You try to enforce a few rules, and they ignore you. They become painted women in tiny shorts and tank tops and lascivious boys dancing in dim basements to bands with names like Stark Raving Idiots and Degenerate Thrombosis.
Either they will slide into a life of crime and addiction, or awaken in time to get into medical school and become pediatricians. One or the other. Either they’ll wind up in the Big House, sullen, chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, or they’ll be making the rounds in a starched white smock, placing a stethoscope against the chests of tiny infants. And you, Mom and Pop, will have had mighty little influence on the outcome.”
Mark that final line well: you “will have had mighty little influence on the outcome.” Imbedded in that line is a deep truth, that also happens to be one of the most baffling paradoxes of parenthood. As much as we who are parents would like to believe we mold our children’s lives into the perfect product of our own hopes and dreams, there comes a time for pushing that basket out into the river-current and watching — with a nerve-chilling feeling of near-helplessness — where wind and wave will take it.
Now, I know some of you don’t want to hear this. I know some of you mothers (and fathers, too), who still have young ones in your charge, want desperately to believe it is your efforts as parents that make all the difference. You want to believe that the choice of the right t-ball team can actually be life-changing, that the years of dance lessons will one day yield a prima ballerina, that forbidding your teenage daughter to go out with that surly, slovenly kid who can’t seem to put a sentence together will have some impact on her choice (it may, in fact, have the opposite, “forbidden fruit” effect).
Children, almost from the day they are born, slowly mature until that point when we, their parents (those of us who are parents), become desperately uncool — despite our best efforts to the contrary. Sadly, there are some parents who find such a realization just too hard to accept, who want to believe in their hearts what their minds tell them is untrue: that childhood never ends. We believe, contrary to centuries of generational experience, that we can succeed where our own parents seemingly failed. By twisting the lid tight and sitting on it, we want to believe that we can keep our children from that terrifying moment — terrifying to us — when they strike out int o the world, with brash faith in their own invulnerability, to risk God-knows-what catastrophe to come.
We can’t hover over them and protect them, no matter how hard we try — although, in this wired world of ours, it’s all too easy to do that. I’ll never forget the freshman orientation at Chapman University in California (where our daughter, Ania, attended). The school officials got us parents all seated in an auditorium, without our children present. The dean of students walked up to the microphone and asked us all to take out our cell phones and turn them on. Lift them up in the air, she told us. Hold them high overhead. Wave them to the left and to the right. Now, turn them off and put them away. And keep them put away until your child is finished with college.
Relax, she went on. I don’t mean that literally. I know you’re all going to use them to keep in touch with your sons or daughters. You’ll probably use email, Facebook and Twitter, too. But, when you get that call complaining about the terrible grade that mean old professor scrawled across a perfectly good English Comp paper — submitted just one day late! — resist the temptation to use that cell phone to call the dean’s office seeking vindication. Because (she went on), sometimes it is from the worst grades that the greatest learning emerges, and if you drop in electronically and try to hijack the process, you’ll be wasting some very expensive tuition payments.
It was good advice. I’d like to think I took it to heart, at least most of the time. It’s a hard, hard thing for any father or mother to learn, but — though it may feel like we’re pushing our babies in baskets out into the river — in fact they’re babies no more, and perfectly capable of swimming alone (and — who knows — maybe even fending off a crocodile or two).
It’s a fact that kids today are among the most carefully-protected and obsessively worried-over of any generation. All our electronic gizmos make it hard to let go. Not only that, the 24-hour news cycle brings events like the Newtown shootings vividly to life in our imaginations. The fact that we live the agony of our neighbors so vividly obscures the statistical fact that such events are — thankfully — extremely rare. Yes, it’s true that one school shooting is surely too many, and yes, it’s important for everyone to be appropriately vigilant. Yet, with this and every highly-publicized tragedy, I think there are greater risks from raising our children in an atmosphere of perpetual fear than there are from failing to give them the space they need to thrive.
Annie Dillard is one of the most gifted nature writers of our time. She has both a naturalist’s keen eye for observation and a talent for painting vivid word pictures. One of her most famous stories is one she told at great length in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and later retold, in abbreviated form, in An American Childhood.
It’s this shorter version I’ll share with you now. It’s about an incident from her childhood, when a classmate brought into school a cocoon she’d found, belonging to a huge Polyphemus moth. The teacher placed the cocoon in a mason jar, so the children could watch it, day by day, and hopefully witness the miracle of transformation. Things go horribly wrong, as you will soon see:
“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.
There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings — those beautiful wings — blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its brown, yellow, pink, and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar. It would have been big as a wren.
The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs….
I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”
Today we celebrate mothers. Birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers — whatever the circumstances, they’ve cared for us, nurtured us and taught us. Let us be thankful for all the things our mothers, and mother-figures, have done for us. Yet, let us also be thankful for the times when — as difficult as it may have been — they stepped back and did not hinder us from stretching our wings to fly!
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Garrison Keillor, The Old Scout column on the Prairie Home Companion website, “Why a Man Should Turn 64,” August 8, 2006.
Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (Harper & Row, 1988), p. 161.