23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. – Hebrews 11:23 ESV
We read it in Exodus 1: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8 ESV). Joseph was gone. Time had passed and the preferential treatment received by his family was about to be a thing of the past. The descendants of Jacob had been fruitful during their peaceful stay in Egypt but their dramatic increase in number got the attention of the new Pharaoh and raised alarm bells in his mind. What if we go to war and they decide to turn against us and side with our enemies, he reasoned in his mind. Paranoia set in and he determined to turn the Israelites into slaves in order to control them. The book of Exodus tells us exactly what happened:
…the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:13-15 ESV
But that wasn’t enough for Pharaoh. It was their sheer numbers that worried him, not their military might. After all, they were predominantly shepherds. So he came up with a plan. He commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all male children as soon as they came out of the womb. He was going to take care of his perceived problem by infanticide. But fearing God, the Hebrew midwives refused to obey the command of Pharaoh and when he confronted them about their blatant lack of follow through, they said, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19 ESV).
These brave women practiced an early form of civil disobedience and God blessed them for it. So when Pharaoh’s initial plan failed, he came up with another one.
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” – Exodus 1:22 ESV
This is where our passage for today comes in. Verse 23 of Hebrews 11 refers to the faith of Moses’ unnamed parents, who chose to protect their infant son from the evil plans of Pharaoh.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” – Exodus 2:1-10 ESV
Later in the book of Genesis, we discover that the names of Moses’ parents were Amram and Jochebed. This obscure couple, like all the other couples living at that time, were struggling with fear and apprehension due to the edict of the Pharaoh that their male children should be sacrificed to the Nile. And I believe it was Pharaoh’s intent that each and every Hebrew male child thrown into the Nile was to have been a sacrifice to Hapi, their water and fertility god. The symbols for Hapi were the lotus and papyrus plants. Papyrus was a reed that grew along the banks of the Nile and it was used for everything from paper, rope, furniture, and boats. Hapi was believed to be the greatest of the Egyptian gods and was thought to be the maker of the universe and the creator all all things. Each year, at the time of the flooding of the Nile, the people would throw amulets, sacrifices, and other offerings into the river to appease Hapi and to ensure a fruitful season of planting and harvest.
In the story, Jochebed makes a small boat made of reeds and places her newborn son in the river in order to protect him from Pharaoh. But rather than seeing her act as a sacrifice to Hapi, she was placing him in the hands of Yahweh, the God of the people of Israel. The author of Hebrews seems to indicate she and her husband somehow knew that there was something special about this child. The New International Version translates the phrase as “they saw he was no ordinary child.”
In the book of Acts, Luke provides further insight into their actions.
At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house. – Acts 7:20 ESV
The word, beautiful is the same Greek word used in the Hebrews passage. Somehow God communicated the uniqueness of this child to his parents and they determined to save his life. Jochebed made a reed boat and placed him in the river, trusting in the sovereign will of God to protect him. And God did just that. Luke goes on to record, “and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:21-22 ESV).
When Jochebed set the basket in the river she had no idea what would happen, but she had an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). She placed her faith in God and He came through. Somewhat ironically, but not coincidentally, Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into the family of the very man who was out to destroy him. God was at work.
Amram and Jochebed did not know what God had planned. They simply knew that their son was somehow unique and special. They placed him in the river fully trusting in God to do with him as He saw fit. What they did, they did by faith. And just as in the case of Abraham and Isaac, when these two parents entrusted their son to God, they received him back. Jochebed would be given the unbelievable opportunity to nurse the very son she had placed in the basket. She did so without any knowledge of what was going to happen to her infant son. She had been willing to give up that which she loved to Him in whom she believed. And she would live to see her son become more than she could have ever dreamed or imagined. God would use Moses to set His people free from their captivity and fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham all those years ago.
The very act of Amram and Jochebed placing their son in that reed basket and setting him afloat on the Nile was an act of faith in God. They were trusting in the One whom they could not see to do what they could only hope for – the preservation of the life of their son and the redemption of the Hebrew people.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.