The Girls in the Reeds

What a perfect story. Pharaoh makes chaos, mother makes ark. Princess finds baby, sister brokers deal. Baby saved, Pharaoh foiled. A perfect story, and great roles for girls, I might add. Not quite "The Bible meets Frozen," but almost. So before we get into it, I want you to notice two things. The first is that the main characters are young people and their parents aren't around. That's important, because this is a story about what happens when the young people are in charge. The second is that without this story, without these two girls in the reeds, there is no Moses. There is no Exodus. There is no liberation for the people of God, and there won't be unless the parents get off the stage, and the young people set things in motion.

So you've got your two stock roles for girls here: beautiful princess and responsible big sister. You can pick either one; they're both good parts, even for you guys who are listening out there; just--use your imagination. You can be Pharaoh's daughter, clad in silks, dipping your lovely toes in the cool green water, or you can be Moses' sister, alone in the reeds, keeping watch over your basket by day and by night. You can be the powerful princess or the smart and resourceful sister. Like I said, you can't lose; they're both strong characters. And while the text doesn't tell us exactly how old they were, whether they were teenagers or twenty-somethings or even younger, what it does tell us is that each of them had an inner radical, just waiting to be unleashed. Each of them was ready to set aside what she should do, and work together on what they might do, which is what happens when you're down in the reeds.

I want to walk through some of the story with you. It's familiar, but you know how scripture is: you hear it differently over time. So let's read it today the way the girls in the story lived it: as if the parents aren't around. Which is an interesting interpretive lens, come to think of it: read Scripture as if your parents aren't watching. A lot of people my age could stand to do that.

So you know the context: we're in Egypt, a world superpower in those days, and the Hebrews are the Egyptians' slaves. But the Hebrew population is growing. It's big enough to make Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, feel threatened and worried that soon these people will be almost as numerous as his own. You'll go downtown and hear Hebrew as much as you hear Egyptian. So Pharaoh comes up with a highly effective and unspeakably evil plan to control them. He targets the boys. Every Hebrew boy baby that is born, Pharaoh orders his Egyptian citizens, is to be exterminated on sight: pitch 'em in the Nile. Pharaoh knows: target the boys of the people you want to dominate, and eventually, you will destroy them.

Moses, of course, was a boy, and so his mother did what she could: she hid him for a while. But babies grow. And when she could not hide him anymore, we read in verse 3, Moses' mother, this daughter of Levi, does a priestly act. She takes a bunch of papyrus, loams it with the ancient equivalent of Kevlar, and makes a snug little ark for her three-month-old son. It's a brilliant act, a symbolic act, designed to save life as well as to bear witness. And it is heartbreakingly limited. A Kevlar ark can't save a child for long. He has one day, maybe two, before he will die of exposure; one day, maybe two, to live. And anyone who finds him will get the mother's message, loud and clear:

 This is what we've come to, in Egypt.

Take a look: Kevlar cradles.

It's all I could do for my child.

All I could give him was two more days.


With that, the mother leaves the scene. Maybe she was like Hagar, who couldn't bear to watch baby Ishmael die in the desert (Gen 21:15-16); we don't know.  But we do know that it is the sister who takes over from here. That's what big sisters do: they watch, when the parents leave. They report back. It may not be what they choose to do, but it's their job, as part of the family. It was this sister's job. Stand at a distance and see what happens to your brother. Be the girl in the reeds, and then come home.

Verse 5: enter Pharaoh's daughter. She had a different agenda. She came down to the river to take a bath. She came down to get away from it all: the court, the publicity, the pressure, the pedestal. Being beautiful is a tough job. But that's what princesses are: everything we dream we could be. It's their job, as part of the family. It was this princess' job. Take your maids, go to the river, and anoint that lovely skin because we need you to look good this afternoon. Be the girl in the reeds, and then come home.

So here they are: two girls in the reeds. Two girls who know what they're supposed to do. Hide and watch. Bathe and dress. Do as you're told and come home. And they might have done it and never even met one another; but, you know, the reeds are a watery, slippery, in-between sort of place. It is muddy and murky and hard to find your footing, and who knows where the deep water starts. Anything can happen down in the reeds to upset your balance, and on this day, something did.

You know what it was. The princess found the baby. The Egyptian princess found the Hebrew baby. You know what she was supposed to do with it. So did she. So did the sister. And now what? What do you do with a baby in a basket when you're down in the reeds, at the river's edge, and the parents, your parents, are nowhere to be found?

The princess knew what her father would have done, or at least what his law decreed. If this was a Hebrew male child, and it was, she was supposed to 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.

The sister knew what her mother would have wanted. If someone found the baby, even if that someone was an Egyptian, the sister was supposed to keep watching, as awful as things might get. She was supposed to stay in her hiding place so she wasn't seen and she wasn't caught, and then report to her mother all that had happened. That's what times like these required, like it or not. And she was supposed to just try and survive.

Two girls in the reeds with a little body in between them. They knew what their parents would have wanted. And you know what? They didn't do it. They couldn't. Things look different when you're down in the reeds; you have to think for yourself. Look for yourself. Tell it like you see it, which is what the princess did. "This," she said, "must be one of the Hebrew's children."  

Sometimes, the truth is the most radical thing you can say. Just to name it: what you see, right in front of you. That body, left for hours in the street. That baby, left to die in a basket. Just telling the truth about it is huge, huge. Saying it out loud. Letting it reverberate in the air. This must be one of the Hebrew's children, because no other mothers are reduced to this: making little arks to float in the Nile. Trying to save their babies from a flood of hate.

One truth calls forth another, especially when you're in the reeds. One girl, stammering out the truth about what she sees, invites another girl to speak up, too. One girl, pausing over unspeakable evil, encourages another one to stand with her. "This must be one of the Hebrew's children," said the princess, and then the sister got an idea. "Do you want me to find a nurse among the Hebrew women?" she asked, stepping out from her hiding place. "Do you want me to find someone to nurse that child--for you?" 

And just like that, they had a plan. A plan to save one life, no matter what their parents thought of it. And it was about the craziest plan you could think of, to take baby Moses back to his Hebrew mother for a few years and tell everyone it was just fine because it was on Pharaoh's daughter's orders: really. But they did it, and they got away with it, and when Moses was three years old, the princess actually adopted him. She took him into the palace and she raised him there, with her father down the hall; and Lord only knows what he thought about this whole arrangement--little Moses sitting in his booster seat at the royal table, riding his Toys-R-Us chariot through the throne room. Scripture never says a word about that. But as we said, this isn't a story about the parents, and doing what they told you, even if your Dad is the Pharaoh. This is a story about the young people, doing whatever crazy thing they can dream up together to get the bodies out of the reeds.

So now I'm wondering about you. I'm wondering what's going on where you live, in your city, in your neighborhood, during one of the most surreal years this country has ever had. I don't think I'm overstating it to say that we are in the reeds, y'all: the shootings, the violence; they've brought up all these things we haven't wanted to talk about for years, like why does racism have such a grip on us, and what are we going to do about guns, and how on earth are we going to have conversations without shutting each other down? What do you do when you're there, in that muddy, slippery, in-between place, down in the reeds? How do you keep listening, and talking, and praying?

I think this story has some things to say about that. So what happens if we bring these two girls to the streets where you and I live, and ask them to show us some new ways to be? 

Maybe one of the first things they'd say is what we've been picking up on all through this text. We don't have to read the world the way our parents read it. There will come a day when we are down in the reeds and our parents aren't there, and we have to decide for ourselves about what we are going to do about this situation, this interruption, this baby in the basket, this Syrian child on the beach, this black boy in the street, this body right here, that matters. And if the way we've been taught to read the world tells us that it doesn't matter, that we can turn and walk away, then something has to change; and it's up to us.  

And maybe the second thing they'd say, these two girls, is, if you're down in the reeds, and you don't know what to do next, start by telling the truth about what you see. Sometimes, that is the most radical thing we can do, just to tell the truth about that body in front of us. "This is one of the Hebrew's children." Say it, say it out loud, because one truth calls forth another, and you never know who may be listening. You never know who may be waiting for a reason to come out from their hiding place to stand with you, and make a plan to save one life.

And maybe the third thing they'd say, these two girls, is that this is how liberation starts. God's liberating work starts down in the reeds, with an interruption we didn't expect, and a body we have to acknowledge. God's liberation of a people can start with two girls and one really crazy idea. That's it; that is all you need. Because whenever the children of God claim the freedom to re-imagine and remix the world--well, then, Moses can grow up. The Exodus out of slavery can begin. And I tell you what: we all need to leave Egypt. It's the next chapter of a perfect story. Maybe you'll write it.