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Jochebed, Miriam, Zipporah: the choice between power and life

· In the Bible ·

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church strength is the moral virtue which ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the search for good. The biblical tradition specifically assigns to women this virtue which enables them to pass through life’s contingencies without losing their way and to reach the good objective for the benefit of all the people involved, in the light of an integral discernment which places the true good at the heart of the ethical reflection.

Aleksey Tyranov, “Moses and His Mother” (1839-1842)

To understand the operation of this virtue in life and history, the examples that come to us from the women who accompany the sequence of events of Moses in the context of the Exodus are interesting: to each of these women, who intervene for his benefit in different and equally important ways, he owes the preservation of his life itself and thus the possibility of fulfilling entirely the mission which God has entrusted to him.

These are three women linked to Moses by bonds of kinship: his mother Jochebed, his sister Miriam and his wife Zipporah. To these may be added, in the prologue to the story, the midwives Shiprah and Puah, (Ex 1:15-21); two strong women full of the fear of God who, when faced with the Pharoah’s command to kill all male children as soon as they were born, have the courage to disobey the order in the name of a moral value which they recognize as a priority and identify as a superior good to safeguard and to pursue, namely the protection of life, including that of the most defenceless and vulnerable beings.

It is in the light of this same value that we may understand the actions of Iochebed and Miriam with regard to the newborn Moses (Ex 2:1-9). Faced with the order to throw into the river every newborn male child, which on their own they could not disobey without exposing themselves to retaliation and danger, the two women identify a way to prevent the child’s death; they set him afloat on the Nile in a basket, in such a way that he would be found abandoned on the river but could survive. Then Miriam herself followed the basket down the current, to ensure that it was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, in order to present herself to her, with courage and strength, and to propose that the newborn baby be fed by a Jewish nurse for a salary, assuring his family further support and the child the possibility of being brought up among his own people in accordance with his ancestors’ traditions and in the light of Israelite wisdom. Once Moses had grown up he would go into the desert where he would meet the Lord and understand his vocation: in this context he was to find a wife, and it would be this woman, Zipporah who would act with strength for her family in a complex situation narrated in Exodus 4:24-26, where, thanks to the her promptness, circumcision was assured and consequently the salvation of life for one of the men of her family – it is not clear from the text whether this was Moses himself or one of his sons.

Numerous other women in the biblical narratives show similar courage, such as – to mention only a few names – Deborah, the prophetess, the indomitable Jael, Esther, Judith: all women whom the Bible recognizes as wise and whose wisdom is concretely demonstrated in the exercise of the virtue of fortitude. Beside them stands out the figure of Abigail, the wife of Nabal, the wise wife of a churlish husband (1 Sam 25): it is she who goes courageously to meet David, offering him what her husband has unjustly denied him, thereby avoiding any greater harm for his house, and even getting to become the wife of the future King of Israel after Nabal’s death. He was to praise her wisdom and her intelligence, a mark of God’s presence in her and in her decisions, and thus, precisely, the manifestation of a virtue, that of fortitude, which comes from the Spirit of the Lord.

Laura C. Paladino
A historian and a bibilicist, lecturer at the Pontifical Universities of the Gregorian and Regina Apostolorum

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