“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. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’”
You might say that today’s Exodus lesson is all about Moses—his birth, his escape from Pharaoh’s wrath, and the launching of his career.
But, to my mind, the leading character in this story, and the most intriguing character, is Pharaoh’s daughter.
Some of you fellow seniors who were around when radio was in vogue might recall that when the Lone Ranger would gallop off in a cloud of dust, inevitably some dazzled bystander would shake his head and mutter, “Who was that masked man?”
Well, if we shine a light on the exploits of Pharaoh’s daughter in this lesson and how she pulls off an astounding intervention, we might well ask, who is this mystery woman?—who is this amazing, audacious woman who suddenly outshines and surpasses everyone else in the story and yet is not even given a name in the text?
Pharaoh’s daughter’s appearance in the text is brief indeed—her part in the story is only five verses long, and then she is gone, never to be heard from again.
But these five verses are packed with significance.
In these five verses, this Egyptian princess does the unthinkable.
In one stunning moment of humaneness and mercy, she makes a fateful choice—she chooses to rescue this wailing alien child adrift in the reeds rather than obey her father Pharaoh’s command— by so doing, she embraces an allegiance to this child that is stronger and deeper than her allegiance to her nation, her family, her ethnicity, and the customs and conventions of her society.
This is really a staggering thing Pharaoh’s daughter does—by claiming as one of her own a child who belongs to a tribe the Egyptians despise and mistrust, she performs an act of daring, breathtaking hospitality—
For surely she knows that by taking this child under her wing and ignoring her father’s decree, she runs the risk of being charged with high treason.
And we learn from how the story unfolds that the investment of Pharaoh’ daughter in the welfare of this child is not a momentary whim, that she is not just a flash-in-the pan—she obviously keeps tabs on the boy as he grows and matures, for we are told that years later she adopts him and receives him into her own inner circle of privilege and royalty and gives him the name Moses.
The story of Moses’ rescue might be called “Saved by an Enemy”— but, of course, Pharaoh’s daughter turns out be a “beloved enemy” who crosses over a seemingly impassable boundary of strife and animosity between the Egyptians and Israelites to spare a child.
Now this story was probably written in its present form around seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
But when we consider how the motherly mercy of Pharaoh’s daughter reaches across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of tribal conflict, difference, and otherness and claims this marooned little orphan as one of her own, I think we can say with assurance that she is looking at this child through the prism of the gospel.
In fact, it is easy to imagine Jesus using this story of Pharaoh’s daughter the way he used the story of the disreputable Samaritan coming to the aid of a traveler who had been assaulted—as a parable of how an outsider to our own religious tradition can teach us a thing or two about the spirit of gospel hospitality.
I think it’s very, very hard for us to appreciate just how shocking Jesus’ practice of hospitality is— in episode after episode in the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth passes over religious, ethnic, and social boundaries to acknowledge and befriend strangers and aliens of various kinds and claim them as his own.
And again and again Jesus of Nazareth urges his followers and us to be more hospitable to strangers and outsiders, those who are unlike us—but alas, for us more easily said than done.
Because, of course, there is this ferocious instinct in our species to exclusively associate with those who are like us and to avoid or disparage those who are conspicuously different from us, who are noticeably other—an instinct reinforced by powerful social pressures and taboos.
Remember that song from “South Pacific”?
“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”
Or there’s Anita in “West Side Story” singing”
“A boy like that will give you sorrow,
You’ll meet another boy tomorrow,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!”
How deeply Jesus’ sense of hospitality cuts across the grain of our natural impulse to only cultivate the company of those who are like us!
So here’s the question—when we tend to be so captive to the reflex of “sticking to our own kind,” how can we ever begin to follow the examples of Pharaoh’s daughter and Jesus of Nazareth who so gracefully passed over boundaries to acknowledge the stranger, the alien, the other, as one of their own?
Because what I need is nothing less than a new mind, a bigger mind, a mind that is vastly more generous and compassionate—along with new eyes and ears—and yet I know I’m quite incapable of performing such a wholesale make-over on myself.
Here’s the good news—we don’t have to refurbish and renovate ourselves—we don’t have to do a remodeling number on ourselves—we don’t have to struggle and strain to fashion a new self.
The good news is the opposite of that—the good news is we just need to let ourselves be transformed—we just need to entrust ourselves to the Spirit who is closer to us than breath or hands or feet and is ever wanting to grow in us a new, more spacious, bountiful, curious, merciful mind—we just need to let it happen to us
Because, as Paul suggests in today’s Epistle, what is impossible for us, the Spirit can accomplish—he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God…”
The Spirit can do what we cannot do for ourselves—bring forth in us a new, lively, inquisitive, generous mind that is able to leap over the constraints of like-mindedness and perceive the stranger, the alien, the other, in a new light.
To have our minds renewed and illuminated by the Spirit is to be able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, the stranger, the other.
To have our minds enlightened and enlarged by the Spirit is to be able to cross over all sorts of boundaries to claim the other as one of our own—the way Pharaoh’s daughter and Jesus of Nazareth and Huck Finn crossed over boundaries.
After Huck Finn has struck up a friendship with a slave named Jim and helped Jim escape from his owner, Huck starts worrying about something he’s heard, that anyone who helps a runaway slave is going straight to hell.
So Huck writes a note to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, telling her where Jim is hiding.
But then as Huck thinks about Jim being caught and once again being deprived of his freedom, he begins to imagine all the good times he and Jim have shared, how they floated along on their raft, talking, singing, and laughing—he imagines how they passed the days and evenings together, fishing and cooking, sitting by the fire and telling stories, and how much he treasured Jim’s company, how much they helped each other.
And he suddenly realizes that Jim is the best friend he’s ever had—and in a heartbeat he decides, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and he tears up the paper.
To have our minds transformed by the Spirit is to be liberated from the shackles of preconceived bias so that we begin to imagine the actual reality of the other.
Oh, that our minds might be enlightened and enlarged by the Spirit so that we can begin to imagine the reality of the stranger, the other— so that we might be able to discern the mystery and majesty of God hidden in the face of the stranger, even if that face is scowling and scornful—so that we might be able to do the impossible, to cross over seemingly impassable boundaries and claim the other as one of our own.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church