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The five mothers

· IN NINE THOUSAND CHARACTERS ·

Nothing prevents us from imagining that one day when his family had gathered together Moses might even have reminded his two sons of the miraculous contribution of help to which he owed his life, so clearly does it highlight the attention, concern and love which he received amidst terrible dangers.

Two children were grouped round their father, frightened but determined not to miss anything of the account of his adventures. Moses sat his youngest son Eliezer on his knee while Gershom sat cross-legged on the mat covering the floor of the tent. And Moses began his tale….

“Eliezer, my son, open your fist and count your fingers”.

“There are five of them, Father”.

John Bradford “Finding Moses” (2012)

“You should know that in order for us to be all alive and together today, I needed the help of five women. Before I was born, my people lived in Egypt and had to work hard in the Pharaoh’s service. But there were so many Jews that the king was afraid. So he ordered the midwives: “Kill the male children, leave the female ones alive!”.

Eliezer clasped his father tightly. Gershom hastened to add:

“It would have been enough for the mothers to say nothing to the midwives!”.

“Well done, Gershom, for being as astute as they were! But Shiphrah and Puah – those were their names – nevertheless decided to help the mothers and to let male children live. They disobeyed; no females without males! And they even lied to the Pharaoh, telling him that the mothers managed to give birth on their own”.

Gershom gave a start:

“Did they disobey? But that is contrary to what our grandfather Jethro taught us!”.

“Gershom, you are a big boy, you can understand that it’s sometimes necessary to lie in the face of a cruel order that leads to death. Those women truly saved the lives of many men of our people. So the Pharaoh, seeing that he was not succeeding in having himself obeyed, asked everyone to cast male children into the river.

“Even the mothers? And did they disobey?”.

“Guess!”.

It was Jethro who, speaking from the back of the tent, said:

“Boys, haven’t you realized yet that your father was thrown into the river, since his name, “Moses”, means “saved from the waters”?

“But you, you’re still alive”....

The children wriggled about. Without being asked, Gershom clambered on to the other knee of Moses who tenderly put his arm round him.

“It is a long story.... First of all, Eliezer, look at your hand, say ‘Puah’ and ‘Shiphrah’ and close your little finger.

“But aren’t there two of them?”.

“Only one took care of each child, so they count as one. How many fingers are left open?

“Four, Father”.

“Leave your hand wide open. Let’s talk about the other three women. When I was born my mother found me beautiful, so at first, incapable of deciding to throw me into the river, she hid me”.

“Shall I close another finger?”.

“Patience!... My mother prepared a small basket of reeds stuck together with a glue which enabled it to float, with a cover to protect my skin and my eyes. Then she decided to place me on Egypt’s great river, the river that gives life to the Egyptians.

“But you might have died!”

“Perhaps”.

“Your mother must have been sad!”.

“Of course, life can be cruel at times; but you forget that my mother was very bright, like the two midwives. She had asked my sister to position herself on the river bank to see what would happen”.

“I would have gone to see what happened too”, said Gershom.

“Shall I close another finger?”.

“No, listen. The Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a stroll and she saw a strange bundle floating on the river. What could it be? She sent her serving maiden to go and fetch it.

“Ah, but did she do that perhaps in order to kill you?

“Eliezer, you goose! As you can well see, Father is here”. “But Father, how did your sister rescue the basket?”.

“She took a large forked stick and hooked it on to the edge of the basket”.

Gershom couldn’t wait to speak:

“I know, you have to pull very gently otherwise, splosh! The baby would fall into the water and die”.

“Ah, son, I shall end up believing that you were there that day too! In fact, the serving girl was clever; she took the basket to her mistress”.

“So shall I close another finger?”.

“Yes, close your index finger, it’s the finger that shows you what to do. The serving girl was efficient”.

“How many fingers do you have left?”.

“Three, Father”.

“Then the Pharaoh’s daughter lifted the cover and found me inside the basket”.

“You must have been hungry!”.

“Of course, and I was no longer with my mother. I had become a small stray child, without parents, without a home, rocked by the current of the river... a person without a country, an emigrant...”.

“But it’s my name! Gershom means ‘I am a sojourner in a foreign land’”.

“Dear Gershom, you have this name because your history comes from mine”.

Both proud and bewildered, Gershom climbed down from his father’s knee to sit on the mat and listened eagerly to his words.

“But the Pharaoh’s daughter had a tender heart. She said to herself that a living new-born baby was more important than an order, even if it came from her father.

“So did she disobey?”.

“Of course!”.

“Did she disobey the Pharaoh? So it was serious!”.

“Certainly. You must understand to what point that woman wanted life to triumph over death. She saved me”.

“And they were two disobedient women”.

“Disobedient to men, but obedient to God who wanted his people to live”.

“Three, because there were already two midwives”.

“Then the Pharaoh’s daughter realized that I was a Jewish baby and she comforted me”.

“So you must have stopped crying. But you also had to eat”.

“There must certainly have been some bread and dates”.

“But Eliezer, new-born babies have no teeth, they only drink their mother’s milk, or the milk of another woman who already has a new baby and can give her milk to both of them”.

“A wet nurse, Eliezer, you know well, like Ayala in our family”.

“Do you think that it’s an easy matter to find a wet nurse in the home of the Pharaoh’s daughter who wasn’t yet a mother and who lived with other young women like her? So what was to be done?”.

“Well....it would be enough to go and look for a wet nurse among the Jews, because they had so many children”.

“That’s right, Eliezer! That’s what my sister suggested to the Pharaoh’s daughter”.

Ah, was your sister still there?”.

“Of course, our mother had told her not to lose sight of me. So she was following me everywhere.”

“Shall I give her a finger?”.

“You can give her your thumb, because she was as useful as a thumb. How many fingers do you have left?”.

“The two middle ones”.

“Now, guess who went to look for my sister?”.

The two children exclaimed at the same time:

“Mummy!”.

“Yes, my mother, your grandmother”.

“Wasn’t your mother frightened to go to the house of the Pharaoh’s daughter?”.

“No, she was too glad to know I was alive”.

“I am sure that the Pharaoh’s daughter was her friend, because they both wanted you to live”.

Without making a sound Zipporah approached and sat down.

Smiling, Moses continued:

“Above all, my mother was not to say that she was my mother”.

“But why?”.

Silence invaded the tent. Moses even seemed slightly embarrassed.

“I’ll now try to explain to you”, Jethro said at last, stroking his grey beard. If your grandmother had told the truth, the Pharaoh’s daughter would not have been able to do anything, whereas it was she who had just saved the baby. It was preferable that she should be honoured as an adoptive mother, so that she would take care of the child, in her own way.

“Thanks to this closely guarded little secret, the Pharaoh’s daughter found a good solution on her own. She asked my mother to become the wet nurse of the abandoned new baby. She even paid her to do so.

Zipporah started:

“Your mother was paid to feed her own son, as if she were a stranger!

Lawrence Alma-Tadema “The finding of Moses” (1904)

Moses stared at his wife:

“Yes, like a stranger.... I see deep humility in this renouncement.... Our children do not belong to us. They are God’s. We must only take care of them until they grow up, without boasting or the desire to possess them.

“In order that I should survive, she accepted to be a sort of mother in the shade. She was too happy to see me, to cuddle me, to give me her milk, to rejoice in seeing me grow. However her joy was to be brief. As soon as I was able to eat solid food, she gave me back to the Pharaoh’s daughter, who brought me up as a son.”

“So you have two mothers?”.

“If you like. And I grew up learning the language and customs of the Egyptians. I was a pampered child. All those women took care of me, they were God’s hands upon me.

“My Moses, you gave much, but you were also given much. I hope the same happens to each one of us”, Zipporah remarked, moved.

“And me, what should I do with my two fingers?

“Guess!”.

Eliezer hastened to reply before his brother interrupted him.

“The biggest finger is for your mother, because she is your real mother. And the Pharaoh’s daughter who disobeyed and saved your life is entitled to the other finger”.

“Well done, Eliezer, every time you open your hand you will know, even if you don’t remember it, that you were saved five times – and even maybe more – by all those who took care of you”.

Eliezer, wreathed in smiles, practised opening and closing his hand and ended by saying: “It’s a whole hand that disobeyed!”.

“And even more, because there were other Jews who were able to obey God, despite the Pharaoh’s wicked orders. My sons, try to make sure that your two hands obey God, for life and not for death. This is what these brave and clever women teach us. 

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