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"Defiant: Bithiah"

Things changed one day when a baby washed up on the shore – a Hebrew boy, mere days old, drowned like a dead fish, floating like a piece of garbage – and even though servants rushed to remove it from her view, they were too late..


“Born into Privilege” by Amy Parker
“Born into Privilege” by Amy Parker

Exodus 2:5-10

June 30, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


When we left the story last week, Jochebed had placed her three-month-old baby in the reeds, like a message in a bottle, in the hope that someone would show him compassion.


The sun beats down on the little ark; the waters ripple; the birds swoop after their supper; a crocodile slides into the waters of the great Nile … and still the story-teller makes us wait.


Will anyone save this child?

We hold our breath. And cross our fingers. And whisper a little prayer.

And then, at last, the story lurches forward: the daughter of Pharoah comes down to bathe.

Is this a daily practice?

Does she always come to this same spot?

Did Jochebed place the baby there knowing that?


So many questions! But none greater than… What will this daughter of Pharoah do?


 

We know what she is supposed to do. Her father is king over all Egypt, and also the whole “eastern Mediterranean, covering modern day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.”[1] His words have power and he has commanded that every Hebrew boy be thrown into the Nile. She should “tip over the basket and let that baby tumble into the water. At the very least, she was supposed to close the lid, give the ark a little push, and send it on down the river for someone else to deal with. That's what the law required, like it or not. And she was supposed to uphold it.”[2]


Kelley Nikondeha, author of Defiant, imagines her choice was much more complicated.


She writes, “Born into privilege, Pharoah’s daughter was nursed on narratives of Egyptian greatness. Life was good along the Nile River, which seemed to wind and bend to her father’s command. She’d often visit the various balconies of his household and observe the slow rise of the mighty pyramids and storehouses. Everything around her father, from the palace pillars that seemed to hold up the sky to the mountain-shaped monuments emerging from the sands communicated his massive strength and sweeping significance.”[3]


Things changed one day when a baby washed up on the shore – a Hebrew boy, mere days old, drowned like a dead fish, floating like a piece of garbage – and even though servants rushed to remove it from her view, they were too late.


Nikondeha writes, “The waterlogged infant was the evidence she could not deny. Her father had turned the Nile into a watery grave. She spent a handful of sleepless nights staring out her window … the only sound came from across the river… laments from bereft mothers [carrying] dark truths from their camp.”[4] She felt complicit in the deadly way of things, but what could anyone expect her to do? She was privileged, yet powerless, paralyzed.


 

I wonder if you have ever felt that way. Maybe when you saw the picture of that boy washed up on a Turkish beach after the overloaded boat his family was on capsized fleeing the Syrian civil war. Maybe when you heard the stories of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, or little ones in killed in the wars in Ukraine or Israel-Palestine, or when you saw the billboard on McCorkle pleading for people to become foster parents.


Nikondeha writes, “Regimes of death dwarf us all, despite our living in enclaves of relative privilege. From the outside it appears as if there is only privilege, only complicity. But, [like Pharoah’s daughter,] walking through the palace, we find that ease can be punctured with growing unease. We benefit – and we are bothered.”[5]


Pharoah’s daughter may not have had much actual power, but she had some, and after

seeing the cruel truth of her father’s decree, she was determined to use it!


 

Exodus tells us that the next time she saw a baby floating in the water, it was alive: “When she saw the child [and heard his cries] she took pity on him.”


It was not an easy stance to take.


In 2015 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked by the American Jewish World Service to write an insert for the Passover order of service. She organized it around the women we are studying from Exodus and when she got to our passage she quoted from the Babylonian Talmud:


“When Pharaoh’s daughter’s handmaidens saw that she intended to rescue Moses, they attempted to dissuade her, and persuade her to heed her father. They said to her: ‘Our mistress, it is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, it is not heeded by the entire world, but his children and the members of his household do observe it, and you wish to transgress your father’s decree?’”


And then RBG adds: “But transgress she did.”[6]


It is a watershed moment. Meg Jinista writes,

“Without her participation in this story, the set up would fall strictly along ethnic divisions. Pharaoh and the Egyptians against the Hebrews. But Pharaoh’s daughter shows us it is possible to be a part of a dominant and dominating culture without giving up and [giving] into the structures around you. Although she stands to gain from the system as it is, she chooses to align herself with those who have no power. She [stands] in solidarity with the oppressed.”[7]


Nikondeha writes, “Once you can articulate where your power resides as a person with unearned privilege, the challenge becomes what to do with that power. The incarnation is a stunning picture of the relinquishment of power in order to more deeply identify with others. Jesus not only let go of power; he also handled what power he did have on earth differently. He lived under Roman occupation in the backwater town of Nazareth, but he did hold some amount of privilege as a man, as a Jew, as a teacher … and he used that power to empower those around him.”


She highlights how “Jesus empowered the woman caught in adultery who had no other defenders. He empowered the hemorrhaging woman by amplifying her voice among those to whom she was previously invisible.”[8] And. I’d add, he empowered Mary Magdelene, who once had seven demons, to be apostle to the apostles.


That is how to take our privilege and put it to work, even if it comes at a cost.


 

So now that you hears the story of Pharoah’s daughter…


Are you willing to put your privilege to work, whatever it is, wherever you can?

Are you willing to defy expectations to right even one injustice?

Are you willing to take risks and get into what has been called “good trouble”?


If you are, you will make a name for yourself.

You may have noticed that Exodus never names Pharoah’s daughter.

Maybe it is to protect her anonymity. Maybe the blank allows us to slip into her role.

But others call her Bithiah. In Hebrew it would be Bat-yah, daughter of YHWH.


As if, in choosing to save the Hebrew baby, she gives up being a daughter of Pharoah and is instead part of God’s plan for deliverance.


Did she realize what she was doing? Probably not.

Do any of us see the whole picture? But history does and our deeds live on.

May that be true for you! Amen


[1] From Roger Nam’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 8/23/20
[2] From A is for Alabaster by Anna Carter Florence, page 21
[3] From Defiant, page 61
[4] Ibid, here and following, page 62 and 64
[5] Ibid, page 64
[6] From the SALT project article, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Bible”, 9/19/20
[7] From her reflections on the text for the Center for Excellence in Preaching, 8/27/23
[8] From Defiant, page 74

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