The Common Good
September-October 2003

Defiant Daughters

by Laurel A. Dykstra | September-October 2003

In a time of hardened hearts, the story of Exodus is relevant once again.

In October 2002, in Colorado, three Catholic nuns entered a missile site swinging hammers to disarm a nuclear warhead. Then they painted a cross on the silo with their own blood. In November 2003, in Miami, thousands showed up to resist the ministerial meetings on the Free Trade Area of the Americas. North Americans, taking the lead from their Southern neighbors, are mobilizing against trade agreements that grant rights to corporations and steal them from human beings. I hear in these stories a persistent resistance. I hear the story of Exodus becoming relevant once again.

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In the book of Exodus, the empire of Egypt is condemned. It is greedy, fearful, production-driven, bigoted, sexist, exploitative, violent, and murderous. This description of Pharaonic Egypt is strikingly similar to modern global capitalism where many First World Christians sit near the top of a pyramid whose base is 27 million slaves worldwide. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown put it quite simply: "Where we fit in the Exodus story is among the functionaries in Pharaoh's court rather than among the workers in the slave labor camps."

But hidden in a tradition that is addressed to the oppressed and that scathingly describes the society of the elite, there are stories that First World Christians need to read. These stories may provoke and trouble us, but will, we can hope, inspire us to act. They are stories of Egyptians who choose solidarity with slaves. Significantly, many of the Egyptians who find a way to resist empire are women.

The Hebrew name for the book Christians call Exodus is "these are the names," after the first words of the Torah scroll. The names refer to the 12 sons of Jacob, which are also the 12 tribes of Israel. While it is true that Exodus begins with sons, the first chapters are filled with daughters: a daughter of Levi and her daughter; Pharaoh's daughter; and the seven daughters of Reuel. When the two rebellious midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are added this makes 12 daughters whose actions for life ensure the continuation of the 12 tribes of Israel.

In Exodus, the contrast between what men do and what women do is striking. In the prologue, Hebrew and Egyptian women cooperate, communicate, and cross social and cultural boundaries to save a life. In the rest of the book, Hebrew and Egyptian men and gods clash, posture, and wage war.

HOW CAN FIRST World Christians reclaim the stories of these defiant daughters as we live out our own stories of resistance to empire? Pharaoh's daughter is the clearest example of an Egyptian who acts in solidarity with the Hebrews (or at least one Hebrew). Is she a princess or a class traitor? Exodus 2:2-10 tells the story of Moses' endangered infancy. At the crisis point in the story—when the child is given up to the water—Pharaoh's daughter acts decisively to save the infant who will save his people. Her story of deliberate choices is a progression of powerful verbs. She descends to bathe, sees the basket, sends her maid, opens the basket, sees the child, and has compassion. She says, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children."

Her actions must be placed in the context of the contest between deities—the man-god Pharaoh vs. Yahweh. In the midst of this cosmic struggle, Pharaoh's daughter acts on behalf of life. She is contrasted sharply with her father and the Pharaoh who succeeds him. Her father orders Hebrew boys thrown into the Nile, while she pulls Moses out. Pharaoh commands, while she conspires and collaborates. The Pharaohs deal death; Pharaoh's daughter guards life. The Pharaoh hardens his heart, while Pharaoh's daughter has compassion.

Her compassion (a divine quality) leads Pharaoh's daughter to rescue Moses from the reedy water just as Yahweh delivers the Hebrews from the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh's daughter sees the endangered infant just as Yahweh sees the suffering of the Hebrew slaves. As Yahweh adopts the Hebrews, she takes Moses as her own, and like Yahweh she names. In Hebrew Moshe actually means "the one who draws out," so in naming her son Moses, Pharaoh's daughter in fact commissions the leader of the Hebrews.

The story of Pharaoh's daughter is a spare five verses. Much is communicated but much is left out. Was her mother the queen or a slave? Was she Pharaoh's only daughter or was she one of Ramses II's 49 daughters? How did she explain Moses' presence in Pharaoh's court? Did she take part in the exodus escape? Lonely, mistrusted, and accustomed to luxury—what would her exodus have been?

How is her story helpful to modern North American Christians who seek to resist empire? The story does not give us instructions for opening ourselves to compassion, but the wording does leave us a few clues. Pharaoh's daughter is a decisive actor. She works together with other women despite differences in class, nation, and age: She forms alliances. Action, compassion, and relationship are critical factors in this short story of salvation. The greatest gift of this passage is found in the interaction between two women that we know only through their relationship to men: Pharaoh's daughter and Moses' sister.

His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, 'This must be one of the Hebrews' children,' she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?' Pharaoh's daughter said to her, 'Yes.' So the girl went and called the child's mother (Exodus 2:4-8).

What happens here is subtle and yet incredibly profound. In a crisis situation, a woman of rank, privilege, and power listens to perhaps the least powerful person she is likely to encounter: the female child of a slave. And she allows the child to offer the plan, to tell her what to do. For First World Christians to listen and be directed by the least of these—by poor people, people of color, gay and lesbian people, people from the global South, people with disabilities—may be the beginning of our journey out of empire.

The story of Pharaoh's daughter is a brief cameo; we know nothing of her life before or after the events of the prologue. I imagine that after Exodus 2:10 her life could have followed one of two paths. The first and most likely possibility is that Pharaoh's daughter remained a princess. She temporarily extended her own privilege to another but remained so insulated by it that even though she drew the child from the water, she could not draw a connection between her life of luxury and his life of poverty and danger. The second scenario seems less likely but is more exciting for us. The action of Pharaoh's daughter by the waters may have been a critical moment in her long defection from the courts of Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire.

THEOLOGIAN NANCY LEE says Pharaoh's daughter is a model for action in times of crisis. Writing from her experiences with women in Bosnia and Croatia, Lee calls Pharaoh's daughter's compassionate action across dangerous social and ethnic boundaries "the appropriate human response to genocide." This response stands in stark contrast to the actions of the pharaohs, and even to Yahweh, who kills Egyptian infants.

Pharaoh's daughter is in the biblical tradition of "righteous Gentile" women who act on behalf of the Hebrews. Other examples include Jael, who drove a tent peg through the head of Canaanite general Sisera (Judges 4-5), Rahab the prostitute of Jericho who hid Joshua's spies (Joshua 2:1-21, 6:22-25), and the midwives, who refuse Pharaoh's order to kill Hebrew infants (Exodus 1:15-22). These women—a murderess, a prostitute, and two lawbreakers—are reminders to the polite and respectable that we may not always know what salvation looks like.

Immediately preceding the story of Pharaoh's daughter is what David Daube calls "the oldest record of civil disobedience in world literature." The midwives' refusal is followed immediately by the civil disobedience of Moses' mother hiding her baby. It is the first of many biblical examples. In scripture the frequency with which salvation is contingent on acts of noncooperation with authority represents something of an imperative. Moses' sister then boldly confronts Pharaoh's daughter and conspires with her. Each act of resistance inspires the next. Is it any wonder that Moses becomes a resistance leader with such women in his early life? This women's civil disobedience movement is the prototype that spawns mass resistance—the exodus itself. It is the beginning of the end of Pharaoh's tyranny.

For those who live lives of privilege, like Pharaoh's daughter we face two paths. We can congratulate ourselves and be praised for acts of charity, or we can open ourselves to the life-changing consequences of compassion. If Pharaoh's daughter stays in the palace, the consequence to her is not death. Like modern First World readers, she is faced with the choice between a comfortable existence that stifles and a new life with God's people—a life that is hard and unfamiliar, but deeply joyful.

Laurel A. Dykstra, the author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus, lived in a Catholic Worker community in Washington state when this article appeared.

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