The (Salvific) Women of the Exodus

Miriam's Tanz

Where do we find them in the Bible?

Miriam's Tanz

Miriam’s Tanz, Tomić Psalter

Who were they?

  • The midwives
    • They were important enough in the tradition that the storytellers specifically named them.
    • They “tweak Pharaoh’s nose” by their making the comparison of the strength of the Hebrew women, in contrast to the Egyptian women.
    • They refused to give in to a terrible command by the king, regardless what the outcome might have been.
  • Moses’ mother
    • A descendent of Levi, she married within her tribe, and bore the great prophet, lawgiver, and liberator, Moses.
    • She isn’t named in the Exodus 2 passage, where the story of her preventing her son’s killing is told. This is an interesting contrast to the specific naming of the midwives.
  • Pharaoh’s daughter
    • Accustomed to going regularly to the river to bathe, one day she discovers a baby, floating in a basket amongst the reeds.
    • Even though she knows that the child must be a Hebrew, she still decides to care for him, even taking him “as her son” (2:10).
    • The daughter of the king consciously disobeys her father’s orders and saves the child who will one day become the liberator of the people whom her father was attempting to eliminate.
  • Moses’ sister
    • To be completely accurate: Scripture does not tell us that Miriam is the sister who watched over the “baby in the bulrushes.”
    • Miriam is named as a prophet, one who speaks God’s word to the people, in Exodus 15:20. Her importance in leading the Exodus from Egypt is attested in Micah 6:4, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (NRSV)
    • Miriam’s humanity is shown in the story in Numbers 12.

What lessons do we learn from their stories?

  • The midwives
    • They resisted the king’s attempts at genocide. The text points to their faith in God as the reason for this resistance.
    • Midrashic tradition remembers and ponders their story, noting that they and the other women are incredibly important to the salvation of God’s people from Egypt.1
    • The New Interpreter’s Bible puts it this way, “They are nowhere else named or known, and certainly not celebrated. Yet we remember them by name. We remember these two discreet, defiant, cunning, mothering agents. At great risk, they counter genocide; in so doing, they bear witness to the mothering power of God, whose will for life overrides the killing, and whose power for life is undeterred by the death dispensed by the powerful.”2
  • Moses’ mother
    • Like the midwives, she disobeys the unjust law about killing Hebrew children. Preserving her own son is apparently more important than anything else in her life.
    • Imagine placing your infant son in a “wicker” basket, setting him onto a river, and hoping that his life will somehow be saved. What mixture of courage and desperation did that require?
    • Now imagine the joy of having the child rescued by the king’s daughter (of all people!), who then sends for a nursemaid. The child’s own mother becomes his wet nurse, caring for him until he “grew up” (2:10). What a sharp contrast to the possibility of losing him forever! “The jeopardized baby who had to be taken from the mother because of the royal threat is now safe again with the mother, because of royal sparing.” (New Interpreter’s Bible)3
  • Pharaoh’s daughter
    • Another unnamed character in this complex story, she is actually one of the most important people in the kingdom.
    • In spite of her position (and assumed measure of power), she defies her father’s commands and saves one of the male Hebrew children from certain death!
    • We can pause here to reflect once again on the – salvific! – importance of women in the Exodus story. Without the repeated interference of the king’s plans by some very brave women, the liberation of the Jews from Egypt might never have been accomplished.
  • Moses’ sister
    • We don’t know how old the young girl was in the Exodus 2 story, but it’s amazing that she acts so quickly and wisely to reunite her brother with his family. Scholars debate whether Moses’ mother had carefully planned and orchestrated the saving of her son, but the text gives no clue.
    • Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:20-21 is one of the oldest songs in the Hebrew Scriptures.4 Imagine the scene: The Israelites had been enslaved for generations. The encounters between Moses and Pharaoh resulted in the Plagues and increased hardship for the Israelites. Pharaoh and his army pursued the Israelites to and into the Reed Sea. Is it any wonder, when it was “all over” (so to speak) that the women (and men) danced and sang a victory song?

It’s good to be reminded, through the story in Numbers 12, that these heroes were also human: Miriam becomes jealous of Moses and/or his wife, and she incites their brother, Aaron, to speak against Moses. The punishment is swift and terrible, but God relents when Moses intervenes.


  1. On Being with Krista Tippett, episode of April 10, 2014, with Avivah Zornberg 

  2. New Interpreter’s Bible, extracted 06/08/2014. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, HarperCollins EPub Edition, © 2012, pg. 62. Also, New Interpreter’s Bible, op. cit. 

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