The first few chapters of Exodus bridge the gap from the end of Genesis, Jacob’s family in Egypt for a long time, to Israel’s new beginning as God’s nation. The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai, and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years follows, ending in Deuteronomy. Moses becomes substantially the hero of the story, rightly admired as a man of God. However, before Moses became a hero there were others who stepped up and did what was right in the first four chapters of Exodus.
Prior to Moses’s birth, the Egyptians had begun to fear the growing numbers of the children of Israel who were flourishing in their land. Exodus 1:8-14 describes the ruthless treatment of these unwelcome descendants of foreigners and their brutal enslavement. Despite their hardships, the Hebrews continued to flourish. Consequently, Exodus 1:15-21 describes the Egyptian Pharaoh summoning the midwives who assisted the Hebrew women in childbirth. He commanded them to kill every male Hebrew baby at birth. The women quietly defied Pharaoh and killed no boys, because “the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). These two women, named Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15) chose obedience to God rather than yielding to an immoral command from the king. Other followers of God have sometimes had to make the same kind of hard choice over the centuries (see Daniel 3 and 6; Acts 4:19-20; 5:27-33). These women are the heroes of Exodus 1, and it is very likely that Moses’s older brother Aaron was one of the boys saved by their determination to follow God.
When Pharaoh saw that the Hebrew midwives would not help, he issued an executive order that directed his people to sacrifice infant Hebrew boys by throwing them into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22), and the Egyptians complied with this monstrous edict. Under this law, Moses was born. When Moses was born his mother “saw that he was a fine child” (Exodus 2:2). Rather than obey the king, she hid him for 3 months. As later described, “they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Hebrews 11:23). Unable to hide her growing son, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20) decided to put him in a prepared basket carefully placed in the reeds along the shore of the river. Her daughter, Miriam, Moses’s older sister (Numbers 26:59), assisted with placing the child in the river and then watched to see what would happen (Exodus 2:3-4). Jochebed and Miriam, like Shiphrah and Puah, chose to do what was right in the eyes of God rather than obey the king. By their acts of quiet heroism, they saved the boy that God chose to lead his people out of Egypt (see Acts 7:19-21). These four women in Exodus 1-2 are the heroes of the story in those dark days in Egypt.
Besides the four Hebrew women in Exodus 1-2, another important woman also made an heroic decision. Exodus doesn’t provide her name, though it was well known to Moses and his Hebrew kin. She is only described as “Pharaoh’s daughter” (Exodus 2:5-11). When little Moses was placed in the reeds by his mother and sister, this woman found the child, and wanted to save him. First, she paid for his nursing (by his own mother) and then raised him as an Egyptian prince. We don’t see Pharaoh’s daughter as a follower of God, but she is a hero of the story of Israel’s beginning, showing compassion for a condemned child, saving his life, and fostering him as her own son.
The rest of Exodus 2 describes a failed attempt on Moses part to become a secret helper for the Hebrew slaves, but the tale (Exodus 2:11-22) does not give us a very heroic picture of Moses, who fled Egypt into exile in Midian. There he started a family and began a new life as a shepherd of his father-in-law’s sheep. Years later, Exodus 3-4 tells of Moses’s encounter with the Lord at the burning bush, and God ordering Moses, contrary to Moses’s own desire, to return to Egypt and (with Aaron’s help) lead the Hebrews out of Egypt to worship God at Sinai. Again, there is nothing heroic in the way Moses is depicted in Exodus 3-4. Nevertheless, there is one more act of heroism that does occur in that context, in Exodus 4:25-26. While Moses was making the trip from Midian to Egypt, we read abruptly that “the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.” We have very little detail, but the issue that was going to cost Moses his life was the uncircumcision of his son. Circumcision was a mandate of the covenant God had given Abraham (Genesis 17). Moses must have known that this was required, the covenant with Abraham had been specifically mentioned by God in their conversation at Sinai, but Moses had neglected his obligation. He could not possibly lead Israel (called God’s son, Exodus 4:23) to keep God’s covenant if he would not do so himself. When Moses’s life hung in the balance, his wife, Zipporah, understood and circumcised their son. It is clear from her words and actions that she deplored doing so (Exodus 4:25-26), but she did what was necessary under God’s covenant, and saved Moses’s life.
These six women who did what was right in Exodus 1-4 literally changed the world by what they chose to do. Four women who were slaves, one a princess, and one who was a shepherd’s wife saved the day and are the heroes of the story, making it possible for Moses and Aaron to have their day and learn to become heroes as well.