The Baby in the Bathwater

Let me begin with a fictional story:

Thousands of years ago, when the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, Pharoah passed a law that ordered all the Israelite baby boys to be killed upon birth.  One woman, Jochebed, resisted the law and hid her baby son, Moses.  When she realized that she could hide him no longer, she put the baby in the basket and sailed him down the river.  Moses floated along in his basket until he got hung up in a patch of reeds.  It just so happened that Pharoah’s daughter had come down to bathe in the river by that very patch of reeds, and thus, it just so happened that the royal woman saw Moses and took pity on him.  She decided to raise him as her own, and in a fortuitous twist, Moses’s sister convinced the princess to let his mom nurse him until he was old enough to come live in the palace.  

This is how I understood the story of Moses as a child.  I don’t know why I pictured it like this, but I did, and the image of poor baby Moses sailing helplessly down the river stayed with me through most of my childhood and even most of my teen years.  One day, however, I actually read the account in the Bible and realized that it didn’t happen that way at all.  Moses’ mother didn’t sail him down the river.  Instead, here is what she did:

“…she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.  His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank” (Exodus 2:3-5).

See?  Clearly, Moses didn’t go for a basket ride down the river.  Instead, his mom put him in a basket and set the basket in a stationary position among the reeds.

That’s weird to me.

The obvious question is, why would someone do that?  I guess it is weird to sail him down the river, too, but at least there is a chance of him arriving somewhere cool…I guess.  But to just set his basket in a place and leave it there–what’s the point?  She can’t stand to drown him, so…she’s going to leave him to the elements?  Does she want him to die of exposure, or what?

I might be wrong (it’s been known to happen before), but I can only think of one explanation.  Moses’ mom knew that Pharoah’s daughter was coming to bathe there.  It’s the only possibility that makes sense to me.  And the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.  Jochebed is desperate.  She can’t bring herself to kill her son, but he is getting too old to hide any more.  Once he is discovered by an Egyptian, he will surely be put to death.

Unless.

Unless she can get him to someone who might have mercy on him, someone powerful enough to spare his life.  Reading the story with fresh eyes, I see Jochebed’s placing of Moses in the princess’ path as a desperate protest.  I theorize that she knew where the princess went to bathe, and she arranged to put her son in the woman’s path.  It’s almost like she was saying, “Here he is:  you kill him.”  It was definitely a gamble.  But maybe she saw it as her only choice:  As risky as it was to reveal the baby’s presence to the ruling class, her only alternative was to kill her son.  Thankfully, in selecting the person to which to appeal, Jochebed chose well:

“[The princess] saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it.  She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’she said.”

Whenever I read the story of Moses, I tend to focus on, well, Moses.  After all, he is both the victim and the hero of this tale; clearly, he is the center of the story.  But reading it in my journey through the Bible this year, I found that I was full of questions about the princess.  What was her life like?  How much power did she have?  How much did she know about the oppression that enabled her to retain her position in the ruling class?  Clearly, she knew something.  She knew that the baby was a Hebrew baby, and she didn’t think of returning him to his mother.  That alone tells me that she understood the danger he was in, which meant she knew about the law.  But when the baby was put in her face like that, she just couldn’t kill him.  Instead, she felt sorry for him.  And thus, she decided to make a stand.

To be honest, her stand seems a little…limited.   As one who has dabbled in small stands of “social justice,” I can already hear the objections, and I am tempted to join in the chorus:

“Just one baby?  Are you not aware of the widespread genocide that is occurring all around you?  Are you not aware of how you are even complicit in these human rights violations by maintaining your wealthy lifestyle?  Your wealth and power comes on the backs of slaves, lady!”

And what about that rationale:  She felt sorry for the baby?  How emotional!  How weak!  We are not supposed to be driven my emotions, right?  Logic, firm logic, should guide our steps.  And how is it logical to spare one baby, while so many others die?  She is either unwilling or unable to change the whole crooked system, so what’s the point of feeling sorry for just one child?

Reading the old story yet again, I saw the princess in a new light.  I could even see the similarities between the two of us.  We both live wealthy lives, and sometimes we get hints that our status in our powerful society comes at least in part through the oppression of others.  The princess’ society was maintained by infanticide.  My comfortable life is made possible by cheaply made products that sometimes even depend on slave labor.

But what do you do?  What can one person do?

I’m not saying that the princes was a crusader for social justice, and I understand that I’m projecting onto the text.  Rigorous biblical scholarship this is not; Fee and Stuart would be appalled at me right now.  At the same time, though, I gained some encouragement from the princess’ actions in this case.  I know nothing else about this woman, but I do know that when there was a baby in her bathwater, she didn’t push it to the side.  In this case, at least, when she crossed paths with suffering, she stopped and did what she could.

And you know what?  God used her, emotions and all.  Her limited actions made a difference, to say the least.

I think this story resonates with me this year, because I have a lot of babies in my bathwater, metaphorically speaking.  Yes, there is the whole social justice thing, as I am still trying to buy fair trade chocolate.  But more immediately, it seems that there are several real babies floating in my metaphorical bath water.  For instance, I just delivered dinner tonight to a new mom and saw her adorable baby.  At the same time, I have another friend, a single mom, about to have a baby, and I’m getting progressively more worried about her mental state.  There is also another baby:  her mom is still pregnant with her, and I know the mom from way back.  I haven’t had any contact lately, but a mutual friend reached out to me when the mom learned her daughter’s stomach was on the outside of her body.  Other details emerged:  the mom is on drugs, she is basically homeless, and her boyfriend is in jail.  Lastly, another pregnant woman reached out to me, a single mom-to-be, and invited me to her baby shower.  I’ve been meaning to make contact with this last person, and I didn’t even realize that she was pregnant.

All these babies keep popping up in my life, and they keep bringing my thoughts back to Pharoah’s daughter.  What do you do when you see a needy baby (or four) in your path?  If I’m honest with myself, I admit that a few of those situations are really overwhelming to me, and I don’t even know where to start getting involved.  If I’m being extra honest, I’ll admit that I’m also really busy these days, and I am feeling selfish about my time.  And if I’m being brutally honest, I don’t really think that I can make much of a difference in some of the situations that have been put in front of me.

Reading the story of Moses, though, I am reminded of a simple, time-worn fact:  if there is a baby in your bathwater, you don’t leave it bobbing among the reeds.  That’s not so much to ask, is it?  We don’t have to change the world; we just have to help the people in our paths.  In this era of global technology, sometimes people across the world get thrown in our paths.  But more often, it is our neighbors and their babies who need our help.  And we have the choice to ignore the need, to continue with our routines…or to step in and help.

I have some babies in my bathwater.  And now I have to decide what to do about them…

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Phillip on February 14, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Good. I tell my students he was placed among the reeds to keep the basket in place (contra the white water rapids scene in “Prince of Egypt”), but you give some great insight I had not considered.

    I love the irony that abounds in this story. Pharaoh orders the killing of the males to get rid of the Israelites, yet it is females (the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s own daughter!) who thwart his plans. And the means of destruction, water, becomes the means of rescue, here and at the Red Sea!

    Reply

    • Yeah, the theme of women’s resistance really struck me this time around, and I did think it was weird that she put the basket in the river, where she was supposed to drown him. (Thinking about it now, I realize that that makes her protest much more poignant–and pointed. After all, wouldn’t it have been easier to lay the baby on the bank?) I definitely didn’t connect all that to the Red Sea, though. It did occur to me that in her act of mercy, Pharoah’s daughter was sowing the seeds for calamity to come on her own people. There was some irony in that, too, I thought. Small acts of insubordination sometimes have bigger consequences than one can foresee, I guess.

      Reply

  2. “She knew that the baby was a Hebrew baby, and she didn’t think of returning him to his mother. That alone tells me that she understood the danger he was in, which meant she knew about the law. But when the baby was put in her face like that, she just couldn’t kill him.” I’ve read this story I don’t know how many times and yet missed this. The princess knew what she was doing, and what it meant for the boy. Nice exegesis, Kim.

    And I love your ending: “… if there is a baby in your bathwater, you don’t leave it bobbing among the reeds.” So first you give us excellent exegesis and then awesome application to go with it. Nicely done, Kim, nicely done.

    Tim

    Reply

    • Thank you, Tim. The book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, warns against personalizing and moralizing when reading the OT narratives. Yet, this story struck me so hard, and in such a personal way, that I couldn’t help but break those rules. I’m glad that the application helped you, as well.

      Reply

  3. “Baby in the Bathwater”–heh heh, that’s clever. 🙂

    Again we see that people don’t usually do anything about these problems until it becomes personal to them. I don’t know if the princess actually cared about what was going on until she saw the actual child in person. Once she did, though, she suddenly developed a sense of sympathy. So, to get people to care about issues in our world now, we should figure out a way to make the issues more personal. (I guess that’s why sad pictures of children are so prevalent in NGO advertising. I mean, I don’t know anyone who does that… Oh, wait…) 🙂 Seriously though, It’s interesting that, even though saving only one child may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that one child went on to lead the rest of His people out of the bad situation. Maybe someone should invest in saving one child from the current slave labor situation and take him/her around to spread awareness. (I’m serious.) Also, whatever adult was doing the talking could bring samples of the acceptable chocolate and pass out lists of where to get it. Just a thought. 🙂 Anything to make the concept more tangible.

    Reply

    • Becky, I totally agree that people generally need something to make a cause personal to them. To me, that’s one of the biggest arguments in favor of getting out of our personal bubbles and meeting people who are different from us. In and of itself, that does not seem like an inherently moral philosophy, but I have personally found that when I meet people who are different from me, my compassion rises for those people and their circumstances.

      Reply

  4. when i think of the sheep and the goats, and the goats saying “when did we see you Lord and not…?”, i think Jesus is trying to impress on us that we are to help the ONE person we meet each day. When we sit around and say “it’s too big of a problem” or “there are too many people for me to do anything about” then we are missing it/Him. the way we make it personal is for the person, ME, to take action.

    Reply

    • Ann, I’ve really been wrestling with that passage lately, and I think you hit it right on. I mean, sometimes God does call certain people (like Moses) to help on a much larger scale, but I do think it’s true that God only asks us to use whatever resources he has given us. To whom much is given, much is expected. To whom little is given, little is expected. (Or however that verse goes.) 🙂

      Reply

      • Good thoughts there, bek. I also think that passage shows that no matter what we are doing – even if it helps people – if we are not doing it in faith then it does not please God (Heb. 11:6) and actually counts as lost garbage (Phil. 3:7-8).

        What a concept!

        Tim

        Reply

  5. I agree, guys, and I would only add that I have had much more success when I actively seek God’s will in order to determine what HE would want me to do. There are just so many “good works” in which I could personally be involved, and I get overwhelmed when I don’t use any form of spiritual discretion. When I take my eyes off the immense sea of need that seems to continually surround me and instead focus on God, my path through the sea becomes a lot more clear. It’s funny how that works…

    Reply

    • “I take my eyes off the immense sea of need that seems to continually surround me and instead focus on God”

      That is so awesome, Kim!

      Reply

      • you are right, kim, remember what happened to peter when he tried to go to Jesus on the water?…hhhmmm…we need to put on our God goggles and stop flailing around in the sea of life…

        Reply

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