The Book of Jochebed*
When I was a little girl, I pestered my mother to read me the story of Sarah and Isaac one more time. I liked the idea of a mother wanting a baby so badly, of a father wanting a baby so badly, of a baby born to parents like that. Children like to think that they are the center of their parents’ existence, and in the story of Sarah and Isaac, the baby really is the center of the world.
The part where Sarah had to watch as her husband led her now-grown boy away from home, up the mountain, to answer God’s command wasn’t my favorite part. The older I got, the more I worried about that little mother, left at home, left to mourn, strong in faith and hopeful of the future, but deep down inside, despairing. Then the long climb, the obedient Isaac gathering stones for an altar, laying the sticks for fire on top. And then the relief, the blessed denouement of the Angel telling that the test was passed. And still, even with the happy ending, days of waiting for Sarah, before they got back, and she fell on Isaac to hold him. Isaac, who impatient as an active boy with a mothers’ caresses, held her back this time and absorbed her trembling.
I hoped the rest of God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled without my having anything to do with it. But I am the daughter of Levi, the granddaughter of Jacob and Leah. When I was old enough, I gave myself in marriage to Amram, my brother’s son. We were happy. Amram was a good man who honored his father’s heritage. Though we were slaves to the Egyptians, we were important to our people, and I was blessed with a daughter, Miriam, who has been my planner and my fixer, and a son, Aaron, who is quick of speech and a natural leader.
But the Egyptians were not happy with our growing numbers. They laid burdens on our backs but couldn’t ignore how strong those backs were. Pharaoh commissioned our midwives to destroy our male babies. Our midwives rebelled. Pharaoh decreed that all male children should be cast in the river. By this time I was older even than Sarah at the time of Isaac’s birth, and yet I found myself with child again, and feared.
It was made known to me that the son I carried would be a deliverer of our people, a savior, a type of the Messiah to come who would be our spiritual Savior, a way for us to escape our bondage. I fretted. How could this come to pass if Pharaoh’s law was enforced? How would I survive, with aching emptiness after carrying my baby, with milk for a child not slated to suckle?
I had my sweet baby for three months, hidden from Pharaoh’s watchers. Miriam suggested we build an ark of bulrushes, to carry the baby as we cast him in the Nile. We would time it to the Pharaoh’s daughter’s time in the river. We would have faith, hope in the future, praying no leak would spring or gust of wind blow up, praying God would soften her heart, keep and save my poor son, this boy who should, somehow, be our deliverer out of Egypt.
Still, deep inside, beyond the faith and hope and God, I despaired. The ark looked so small, so insecure, so easily buffeted by the waves. I couldn’t watch. Miriam hid in the rushes and saw the daughter of Pharaoh take my baby from the water, and call him Moses. Miriam waited until she was noticed and then offered to find a wet nurse for the baby that Pharaoh’s daughter wanted to adopt.
And so I was able to mother my baby while not being his mother. I lost the name of mother, the role I had seen for myself in his life from the moment I quickened, to save his life, to be what he needed, to have the chance to teach him who he really was.
I still didn’t see how he would be the deliverer. How God would keep his heart while in the court of the Pharaoh. But if God can make a mother not a mother to the world but still a mother to her child, God can do anything.
*There are several varying Jewish traditions about Yocheved, mother of Moses. This is based on the account in the KJV Old Testament and the wild imaginings of a fellow pregnant woman and mother.