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Moses on the Nile
A very easy plan, was it not? Whom you fear, destroy; that is a brief and easy creed, surely? This was turning the river to good account. It was a ready-made grave. Pharaoh did not charge the people to cut the sod, and lay the murdered children in the ground; the sight would have been unpleasant, the reminders would have been too numerous; he said, Throw the intruders into the river: there will be but a splash, a few bubbles on the surface, and the whole thing will be over! The river will carry no marks; will tell no stories; will sustain no tomb-stones; it will roll on as if its waters had never been divided by the hand of the murderer. All bad kings have feared the rise of manhood. If Pharaoh has been afraid of children, there must be something in children worthy of the attention of those who seek to turn life into good directions. The boy who is the terror of a king may become valiant for the truth. Never neglect young life: it is the seed of the future; it is the hope of the world. Nothing better than murder occurred to the mind of this short-sighted king. He never thought of culture, of kindness, of social and political development; his one idea of power was the shallow and vulgar idea of oppression.
"And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives" ( Exo 1:15 ).
So the king could not carry out his own command. A king can give an order, but he requires the help of other people to carry it into effect Think of the proud Pharaoh having to take two humble midwives into his confidence! The plan of murder is not so easy a plan after all. There are persons to be consulted who may turn round upon us, and on some ground deny our authority. From the king we had a right to expect protection, security, and encouragement; yet the water of the fountain was poisoned, and the worm of destruction was gnawing the very roots of power. What if the midwives set themselves against Pharaoh? Two humble women may be more than a match for the great king of Egypt. No influence, how obscure soever, is to be treated with contempt. A child may baffle a king. A kitten has been known to alarm a bear. A fly once choked a pope. What if a midwife should turn to confusion the sanguinary counsels of a cowardly king?
"But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men-children alive" ( Exo 1:17 ).
They who fear God are superior to all other fear. When our notion of authority terminates upon the visible and temporary, we become the victims of fickle circumstances; when that notion rises to the unseen and eternal, we enjoy rest amid the tumult of all that is merely outward and therefore perishing. Take history through and through, and it will be found that the men and women who have most devoutly and honestly feared God, have done most to defend and save the countries in which they lived. They have made little noise; they have got up no open-air demonstrations; they have done little or nothing in the way of banners and trumpets, and have had no skill in getting up torchlight meetings; but their influence has silently penetrated the national life, and secured for the land the loving and mighty care of God. Where the spiritual life is profound and real, the social and political influence is correspondingly vital and beneficent. All the great workers in society are not at the front. A hidden work is continually going on; the people in the shade are strengthening the social foundation. There is another history beside that which is written in the columns of the daily newspaper. Every country has heroes and heroines uncanonised. Let this be spoken for the encouragement of many whose names are not known far beyond the threshold of their own homes.
"Therefore God dealt well with the midwives.... And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses" ( Exo 1:20-21 ).
They who serve God serve a good Master. Was God indifferent to the character and claims of the midwives who bore practical testimony for him in the time of a nation's trial? His eye was upon them for good, and his hand was stretched out day and night for their defence. They learned still more deeply that there was another King beside Pharaoh; and in the realisation of his presence Pharaoh dwindled into a secondary power, whose breath was in his nostrils, and whose commands were the ebullitions of moral insanity. No honest man or woman can do a work for God without receiving a great reward. God made houses for the midwives! He will make houses for all who live in his fear. There are but few who have courage to set themselves against a king's commandment; but verily those who assert the authority of God as supreme shall be delivered from the cruelty of those who have no pity. There are times when nations are called upon to say, No, even to their sovereigns. Such times are not to be sought for with a pertinacious self-assertion, whose object is to make itself very conspicuous and important; but when they do occur, conscience is to assert itself with a dignity too calm to be impatient, and too righteous to be deceived.
How will these commands and purposes be received in practical life? This inquiry will be answered as we proceed to the second chapter.
"And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi" ( Exo 2:1 ).
There is nothing extraordinary in this statement. From the beginning men and women have married and have been given in marriage. It is therefore but an ordinary event which is described in this verse. Yet we know that the man of Levi and the daughter of Levi were the father and mother of one whose name was to become associated with that of the Lamb! May not Renown have Obscurity for a pedestal? Do not the pyramids themselves rest on sand? What are the great rocks but consolidated mud? We talk of our ancestry, and are proud of those who have gone before us. There is a sense in which this is perfectly justifiable, and not only so, but most laudable; let us remember, however, that if we go back far enough, we land, ii not in a common obscurity, yet in a common moral dishonour. Parents may be nameless, yet their children may rise to imperishable renown. The world is a great deal indebted to its obscure families. Many a giant has been reared in a humble habitation. Many who have served God, and been a terror to the Wicked One, have come forth from unknown hiding-places. I would dart this beam of light into the hearts of some who imagine that they are making little or no contribution to the progress of society. Be honest in your sphere, be faithful to your children, and even out of your life there may go forth an indirect influence without which the most sounding reputation is empty and worthless.
"And when she could not longer hide him, [that is, the child that was born to her,] she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink" ( Exo 2:3 ).
The first going from home of any child always marks a period of special interest in the family. What a going was this! When some of you went from home, how you were cared for! How your family gathered round you to speak a kind farewell! What a box-filling, and portmanteau-strapping, what a fluttering of careful, anxious love there was! What has become of you? Were you suffocated with kindness? were you slain by the hand of a too anxious love? Truly, some men who have had the roughest and coldest beginning have, under the blessing of God, turned out to be the bravest, the strongest, the noblest of men! I believe in rough beginnings: we have less to fear from hardship than from luxury. Some children are confectioned to death. What with coddling, bandaging, nursing, and petting, the very sap of their life is drained away. There is indeed another side to this question of beginnings. I have known some children who have hardly ever been allowed to go out lest they should wet their feet, who have been spared all drudgery, who have had every wish and whim gratified, whose parents have suddenly come to social ruin, and yet these very children have, under their altered circumstances, developed a force of character, an enduring patience, and a lofty self-control never to have been expected from their dainty training. But a man is not necessarily a great man because he has had a rough beginning. Many may have been laid on the river Nile, whose names would have done no honour to history. Accept your rough beginning in a proper spirit; be not overcome by the force of merely external circumstances; wait, hope, work, pray, and you will yet see the path which leads into light, and honour, and peace. The mother of Moses laid the ark in the flags by the river's brink. Ay, but before doing so she laid it on the heart of God! She could not have laid it so courageously upon the Nile, if she had not first devoutly laid it upon the care and love of God. We are often surprised at the outward calmness of men who are called upon to do unpleasant and most trying deeds; but could we have seen them in secret we should have known the moral preparation which they underwent before coming out to be seen of men. Be right in the sanctuary, if you would be right in the marketplace. Be steadfast in prayer, if you would be calm in affliction. Start your race from the throne of God itself, if you would run well, and win the prize.
"And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him" ( Exo 2:4 ).
Society needs watchers as well as workers. Had we been passing the spot at which the sister of Moses took up her position of observation, we might have condemned her as an idler standing there and doing nothing! We should be careful of our condemnation, seeing how little we know of the reality of any case. In doing nothing, the girl was in reality doing everything. If she had done more, she would have done less. There is a silent ministry as well as a ministry of thunder. Mark the cunning of love! The watcher stood afar off. Had she stood quite close at hand, she would have defeated the very object of her watching. She was to do her work without the slightest appearance of doing it. Truly there is a great art in love, and in all good ministry. There are wise master-builders, and also builders who are very foolish. Sometimes we must look without staring; we must speak without making a noise; we must be artful without dissimulation, and hide under the calmest exterior the most urgent and tumultuous emotion.
"And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river's side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children" ( Exo 2:5-6 ).
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." When the child cried, the heart of the daughter of Pharaoh was moved, as simple and beautiful a piece of human nature as is to be found anywhere. How poor would the world be without its helpless ones! Little children by their very weakness make strong men stronger. By the wickedness of the wicked, the righteousness of the righteous is called forth in some of its most impressive and winsome forms. Looking at the daughter of Pharaoh from a distance, she appears to be haughty, self-involved, and self-satisfied; but, stooping near that little ark, she becomes a woman, having in her the instinct of motherliness itself! We should all be fathers and mothers to the orphan, the lost, and the desolate. The government of humanity is so ordered that even the most distressing circumstances are made to contribute to the happy development of our best impulses and energies. No man can be permanently unhappy who looks into the cradles of the poor and lonely, as Pharaoh's daughter looked into this ark of bulrushes. Go by the river's side, where the poor lost child is, and be a father and a mother to him if you would have happiness in the very core of your heart! Even a king's daughter is the richer and gladder for this stoop of love. Some have been trying to reach too high for their enjoyments; the blooming fruit has been beyond their stature; they have therefore turned away with pining and discontent, not knowing that if they had bent themselves to the ground they would have found the happiness in the dust, which they attempted in vain to pluck from inaccessible heights.
"Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" ( Exo 2:7 ).
The watcher came without making a noise. Who ever heard the light come over the hills? Who ever heard the violet growing? The watcher, too, spoke to the king's daughter without introduction or ceremony! Are there not times in life when we are superior to all formalities? Are there not sorrows which enable us to overcome the petty difficulties of etiquette? Earnestness will always find ways for its own expression. The child might well have pleaded timidity; fear of the greatness of Pharaoh's daughter, or shamefacedness in the presence of the great and noble; under ordinary circumstances she would undoubtedly have done so; but the life of her brother was at risk, the command of her mother was in her heart, and her own pity yearned over the lonely one: under the compulsion of such considerations as these, the watcher urged her way to the side of Pharaoh's daughter, and made this proposition of love. False excuses are only possible where there is lack of earnestness. If we really cared for lost children, we should find ways of speaking for them in high quarters. There is a boldness which is consistent with the purest modesty, and there is a timidity which thinly disguises the most abject cowardice.
"And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child's mother. And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it lor me, and I will give thee thy wages" ( Exo 2:8-9 ).
All done in a moment, as it were! Such are the rapid changes in lives which are intended to express some great meaning and purpose of God. They are cast down, but not destroyed; persecuted, but not forsaken! From the action of Pharaoh's daughter we learn that first thoughts are, where generous impulses are concerned, the only thoughts worth trusting. Sometimes we reason that second thoughts are best; in a certain class of cases this reasoning may be substantially correct, but, where the heart is moved to do some noble and heroic thing, the first thought should be accepted as an inspiration from God, and carried out without self-consultation or social fear. Those who are accustomed to seek contribution or service for the cause of God, of course know well what it is to encounter the imprudent prudence which says, "I must think about it." Where the work is good, don't think about it; do it, and then think. When a person goes to a place of business, and turns an article over and over, and looks at it with hesitation, and finally says, "I will call again," the master of the establishment says in his heart, "Never!" If Pharaoh's daughter had considered the subject, the probability is that Moses would have been left on the Nile or under it; but she accepted her motherly love as a Divine guide, and saved the life of the child.
"And the woman took the child, and nursed it" ( Exo 2:9 ).
What her self-control in that hour of maddening excitement cost, no tongue can tell. She took the child as a stranger might have taken it, and yet her heart was bursting with the very passion of delight. Had she given way for one instant, her agitation might have revealed the plot. Everything depended upon her calmness. But love can do anything! The great question underlying all service is a question not so much of the intellect as of the heart. We should spoil fewer things if our love was deeper. We should finish our tasks more completely if we entered upon them under the inspiration of perfect love. The mother consented to become a hireling, to take wages for nursing her own child! Love can thus deny itself, and take up its sweet cross. How little did Pharaoh's daughter know what she was doing! Does any one really know what work he is doing in all its scope and meaning? The simplest occasion of our lives may be turned to an account which it never entered into our hearts to imagine. Who can tell where the influence of a gentle smile may end? We know not the good that may be done by the echo as well as by the voice. There is a joyful bridegroom throwing his dole into the little crowd of laughing eager boys. One of those boys is specially anxious to secure his full share of all that is thrown: he has snatched a penny, but in a moment it has been dashed out of his hand by a competitor: see how anger flushes his face, and with what determination he strikes the successful boy: he is a savage, he is unfit to have his liberty in the public streets, his temper is uncontrollable, his covetousness is shocking: he wins the poor prize, and hastens away; watch him: with his hard-earned penny he buys a solitary orange, and with quick feet he finds his way up a rickety staircase into a barely-furnished garret; he gives his orange to his poor dying sister, and the juice assuages her burning thirst. When we saw the fight, we called the boy a beast ; but we knew not what we said!
We call the early life of Moses a miracle. There is a sense of course in which that is literally true. But is there not a sense in which every human life has in it the miraculous element? We are too fond of bringing down everything to the level of commonplace, and are becoming almost blind to the presence of elements and forces in life which ought to impress us with a distinct consciousness of a power higher than our own. Why this worship of commonplace? Why this singular delight in ah things that are supposed to be level and square, and wanting in startling emphasis? I would rather speak thus with myself: My life too is a miracle; it was put away upon a river and might have been lost in the troubled water; kind eyes watched the little vessel in which the life was hidden; other persons gathered around it and felt interested in its fortunes; it was drawn away from the stream of danger and for a time hidden within the security of love and comfort and guidance. It has also had to contend with opposition and difficulty, seen and unseen; it has been threatened on every side. Temptations and allurements have been held out to it, and it has been with infinite difficulty that it has been reared through all the atmosphere intended to oppress and to poison it. I could shut out all these considerations if I pleased, and regard my life within its merely animal boundaries, and find in it nothing whatever to excite religious wonder or religious thankfulness; but this is not the right view. To do so would be to inflict injustice upon the Providence which has made my life a daily wonder to myself. I will think of God's tender care, of the continual mercy which has been round about me, and of the blessed influences which have strengthened and ennobled every good purpose of my heart; and I, too, will stand side by side with Moses when he sings the wonders of the hand Divine. The miracle is not always in the external incident; it may be hidden in the core of things and may slowly disclose itself to the eyes of religious reverence and inquiry. O that men were wise: that they would consider their beginning as well as their latter end, and learn to trace the hand of Heaven even in those comparative trifles which are supposed to lie within the scope and determination of time.
Moses In Midian
There seems to be a considerable gap between the ninth verse and the tenth. We parted with Moses when he was three months old, and we know nothing more of him until he became the son of Pharaoh's daughter. We wish to know something of his home training. We would fain pry into the mother's methods of dealing with such a child. What truths did she inculcate upon him? How did she explain the condition of the children of Israel to her son? Did she seek to prejudice his sympathies? Whilst he was being nurtured upon Pharaoh's bread, did she instil into him teaching that would upset Pharaoh's throne? Upon all these points we are left uninformed, though our interest is excited to the highest pitch. We like to know something of the home training of the men who have written the most famous chapters in history. There is a special pleasure in watching the growth of the sapling. The boyhood of the giant must be unlike the boyhood of ordinary men. We would see the giant in his teens, and watch him eagerly in the daily accretion of his strength. In this instance we are disappointed. Moses was trained in secret, and no tittle of his mother's ministry is put on record. Is it true, however, that we have no means of learning the principles upon which Moses was trained? Are we so totally in the dark as we have supposed ourselves to be? Let us from the history of the man gather what we can concerning the tuition of the child.
"And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren" ( Exo 2:11 ).
A good deal of his mother's training is visible in this verse. Moses was the son of Pharaoh's daughter, yet he claimed the Hebrews as his brethren. The signature written in blood was not to be washed out by all the waters of the Nile. Nature asserted herself under circumstances which might have attempered the severity of her demands. Moses was not ashamed to recognise the Hebrews as his brethren. He himself had had a day of wondrous luck so called; he might have sunned himself in the beams of his radiant fortunes, and left his brethren to do as they could; he might, indeed, in self-excuse, and in order to quiet the monitions of any little unsophisticated nature which his seductive circumstances had left within him, have actually taken part against the Hebrews, and made his censures the bitterer by the fact of his alienated kinship. It was not so that Moses acted. And is no credit to be given to Jochebed, his mother, for this fine fraternal chivalry? Is it not the mother who is speaking in the boy when he calls the Hebrews his brethren? Observe, too, Moses looked upon the burdens of the Hebrews. Alas! some of us can go up and down society, and never see the burdens which our brethren are called to bear. It is something in a world like this to have an eye for the burdens of other men. We look upon difficulties without sympathy, we regard the burden-bearer as fulfilling but an ordinary vocation; Moses looked upon burdens as having moral significance, and so regarding them his deepest sympathies were drawn towards the oppressed. "Bear ye one another's burdens." A friendly recognition of the fact that a man is bearing a burden may itself help to lessen the load. It ought to have been something to the Hebrews to know that a man had risen amongst them who looked upon their burdens. Such a looking might be the beginning of a new state of affairs. There are some looks which have in them reform, revolution, and regeneration! Is there no trace of the mother of Moses in all this? Would he have known what a "burden" was, but for the explanations of his mother? Would not the Hebrew have been to him but a beast of labour, had not his mother revealed to his young eyes the man that lay silently within the slave?
"And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand" ( Exo 2:12 ).
This is one of the first recorded acts of the meekest of men! Do not let us be hard upon him. The impulse was right There must be men in society who can strike, and who need to strike but once. Let it be understood that this, after all, was but the lowest form of heroism, it was a boy's resentment, it was a youth's untempered chivalry. One can imagine a boy reading this story, and feeling himself called upon to strike everybody who is doing something which displeases him. There is a raw heroism; an animal courage; a rude, barbaric idea of righteousness. We applaud Moses, but it is his impulse rather than his method which is approved. Every man should burn with indignation when he sees oppression. In this instance it must be clearly understood that the case was one of oppressive strength as against down-trodden weakness. This was not a fight between one man and another; the Egyptian and the Hebrew were not fairly pitted in battle: the Egyptian was smiting the Hebrew, the Hebrew in all probability bending over his labour, doing the best in his power, and yet suffering the lash of the tyrant It was under such circumstances as these that Moses struck in the cause of human justice. Was there nothing of his mother in that fine impulse? Are we now as ignorant of his home training as we supposed ourselves to be a moment ago? In this fiery protest against wrong, in this blow of ungoverned temper against a hoary and pitiless despotism, see somewhat of the tender sympathy that was in Jochebed embodied in a form natural to the impetuosity of youth. Little did Moses know what he did when he smote the nameless Egyptian. In smiting that one man, in reality he struck Pharaoh himself, and every succeeding tyrant!
"And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?" ( Exo 2:13 ).
In the first instance we might have thought that in taking part with the Hebrew against the Egyptian, Moses was but yielding to a clannish feeling. It was race against race, not right against wrong. In the second instance, however, that conclusion is shown to be incorrect. We now come to a strife between two Hebrews, both of whom were suffering under the same galling bondage. How did the youthful Moses deport himself under such circumstances? Did he take part with the strong against the weak? Did he even take part with the weak against the strong? Distinctly the case was not one determined by the mere disparity of the combatants. To the mind of Moses the question was altogether a moral one. When he spoke, he addressed the man who did the wrong; that man might have been either the weaker or the stronger. The one question with Moses turned upon injustice and dishonourableness. Do we not here once more see traces of his mother's training? yet we thought that the home life of Moses was a life unrecorded! Read the mother in the boy; discover the home training in the public life. Men's behaviour is but the outcome of the nurture they have received at home. Moses did not say, You are both Hebrews, and therefore you may fight out your own quarrel: nor did he say, The controversies of other men are nothing to me; they who began the quarrel must end it. Moses saw that the conditions of life had a moral basis; in every quarrel as between right and wrong he had a share, because every honourable-minded man is a trustee of social justice and common fair play. We have nothing to do with the petty quarrels which fret society, but we certainly have to do with every controversy, social, imperial, or international, which violates human right, and impairs the claims of Divine honour. We must all fight for the right: we feel safer by so much as we know that there are amongst us men who will not be silent in the presence of wrong, and will lift up a testimony in the name of righteousness, though there be none to cheer them with one word of encouragement.
"And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known" ( Exo 2:14 ).
So it is evermore! Even his own brethren did not understand Moses. Though only yesterday he had killed an Egyptian, yet to-day he is snapped at and abused as if he had been an enemy rather than a friend. But when did a man's own brethren ever fully understand and appreciate him? Jesus "came unto his own, and his own received him not." A man's foes are often those of his own household. One would have supposed that upon seeing Moses both the Hebrews would have forgotten their own quarrel, and hailed him with expressions of gratitude and trust. The heroic interposition of yesterday ought not to have been so soon forgotten. Forgotten? Nay, it was surely remembered, but that which might have been considered an honour was held over the head of Moses as a sword of vengeance. Men are often discouraged in attempting to serve their brethren; generally speaking, it is a thankless task. Good offices are resented, kind words are perverted, and the valiant man is hunted to death.
"But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock" ( Exo 2:15-17 ).
We find Moses in early life upon the river's brink, now we find him sitting alone by a well. It will be quite easy to interpret the feelings which govern him as he sits in a strange land. Let us overhear him: "Never so long as I live will I interfere in another quarrel: I have had experience of two interpositions, and my heart is sad. When men are fighting again, I shall let them finish as they please; not one word will I say either on the one side or the other: from this day forth I shut my eyes in the presence of wrong, and hold my peace when righteousness is going to the wall." What a wonderful speech to be delivered by such a man! He has fully made up his mind too! Nevermore can he be tempted to go with the weak against the strong! Watch him as he looks about, not knowing which way to turn. He hears sounds in the near distance. Presently he notices seven women coming to the well, and presently, too, he observes shepherds driving them away. Gloriously the late rough heroism reasserts itself! He had promised nevermore to interfere; but the moment that he sees another act of oppression, his mother's training makes itself felt, and he springs to his feet to resist a cowardly tyranny. The wretches, who for many a day had driven the women from the well, had never heard a man speak to them before! The voice quite startled them, and they fell back unable to confront the face of an honest and determined man. So may all bad resolutions perish! We must interfere. The cause of righteousness is entrusted to us, and woe be to us if we take counsel with ourselves to save our own quiet at the expense of justice and honour!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 2". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent