We all know the story …

I posted a while ago about what I think is a misunderstanding of the parable of the wise and foolish builders. I think they both built their houses on the sand, but one dug down to rock first.

Anyway, here’s another Sunday school favourite I think we’ve got wrong. Whenever anyone tells the story of the baby Moses, even in children’s Bibles and in television adaptations, Moses is launched downstream in his basket, his mother saying a sad farewell to him, and sending Miriam to watch what will become of him. I have searched Exodus 2 in vain to see where this idea comes from.

Moses was placed in a basket in the reeds along the bank of the Nile (Ex 2:3). This was first of all so he wouldn’t be seen or heard (rivers have at least a moderate amount of background noise at all times). But it was also so he would not float away.

What mother in her right mind would launch her baby out to float down a river? He would die of hunger or exposure or drowning before long. No, her plan was surely that he remained hidden in the reeds, and she would come regularly and feed him. Miriam wasn’t left to see where the basket would float off too, but to keep an eye on it (watch out for crocodiles or something). In Ex 2:5, we see that the basket was still in the reeds when Pharaoh’s daughter saw it.

From verse 6, we get the impression that the basket had a lid – another feature rarely told in the story. This would serve to keep him a lot quieter. The gentle noise of a river wouldn’t be enough to block out the crying of a 3 month old baby on its own.

I’m not opposed to artistic license when telling Bible stories, but the whole idea of launching Moses off to no particular destination has never struck me as at all convincing.

5 thoughts on “We all know the story …

  1. This is probably right. Veggie Tales got this right, if you’re right. They had Moses getting away from Miriam, but she had intended just to keep him out of sight. They changed the whole point of the narrative, though, which is a much more important issue. They made it about getting over your jealousy when a new kid enters the family. I don’t see any of that in the Exodus narrative.

    The word for the lid is used for the covering on Noah’s ark. It occurs just in those two places in the whole OT, so they’re entirely sure what it means. But I think it’s supposed to be a deliberate reference to the ark.

  2. Good to hear VeggieTales got the details right, if not the point Perhaps you could add appropriate VeggieTales episodes to your list of recommended commentaries. 🙂

    This post was actually prompted by someone reading a quotation from the Wikkipedia entry on Moses which says that “[Jochebed] set him adrift on the Nile river in a small craft of bulrushes coated in pitch”. It may even be wrong on the name of his mother as well.

  3. It’s interesting how ‘bible stories’ take on a life of their own! I think it is to do with the vivid narrative and the ‘folklore’ aspects of the community understanding of these stories.

    Re: the ‘2 houses parable’. I think it was Tom Wright (again!) who pointed out that 1st century Jews were fond of the interplay between the Hebrew word for ‘stone’ – Eben, and the word for ‘son’ – Ben and allowed for some interplay between the concept of Kingship (the ‘Son/Ben’ of God) and Temple (the ‘stone/rock/Eben’).

    If this is true, could Jesus be making a ‘deeper’ point about the ‘rock’ (i.e. the new temple) that people should be building upon (i.e. him) since he is the rightful ‘Son’ of God as the true king of Israel? Temple and Kingship always go hand in hand.

    This fits the, ‘Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it (meaning himself) in 3 days’ motif and also ties in with the ‘judgement’ saying in Mark (sandwiched between the ‘judged fig tree’ story) of, ‘telling this ‘mountain’ to be thrown into the sea…’. The context for that saying is the temple court and, along with the ‘symbol’ of the judged fig tree, allows for the interpretation that the current ‘temple’ (meaning the temple-system) is under judgement and is to be replaced by him. This would also fit with the Oliviet discourse!

    I’m not saying that the parable of the 2 houses doesn’t allow for the ‘teaching’ that we should build our lives on Jesus – as a ‘classic’ pietistic interpretation, but am trying to ground that hermeneutic in the historical context of the time.

    Jesus has become the ‘new temple’ in his body, and all other systems which claim to be the place where Earth and Heaven meet (i.e. where God’s kingdom if coming) are weighed and found wanting….

    Just a thought!

    Take care,


  4. Hi Richard,

    I have found the whole theme of Jesus as the “new temple” which I first read in Jesus and the Victory of God to be quite a helpful key to interpreting the gospels. Not all the pieces of the Wrightian hermenuetic puzzle have fallen into place for me yet though – I’m not yet ready to see most classic “end times / second coming” passages as being solely about AD70.

  5. Hi Mark,

    I agree with you about putting too much eschatology on AD70!

    I think the usefulness of the current historical enquiry into the 1st century ‘sitz im Leben’ is that it helps us gain a perspective of what the primitive church ‘thought’ when they used these texts (especially the apocalyptic ones like in Daniel/Revelation and certain parts of the gospels). It’s both interesting to see just how much found its focus on the events of the destruction of Jerusalem AND which ideas continued on into the 2nd Century and were applied (and reapplied) within the post-apostolic (post-AD70) church.

    The real area of interest for me is to study how we deal with a ‘transitioned’ eschatology (and a ‘transitioned apocalyptic’) which allows for 1st century events (and predictions) and which also allows for creative ‘re-interpretation’ within the ongoing Christian community.

    I do think that some ‘traditional’ (read: medieval) articulations of concepts like ‘hell’ probably were developed from a too literal interpretation of Jewish apocalyptic language (without ‘denying’ the very real theme of ‘condemnation’ by God), and it’s allowing our ‘presumptions’ (doctrinal and dogmatic) to come under the ‘guiding light’ of the NT text (part of its role as ‘scripture’) which is so much of what the ‘New perspective on Paul’ et al is about.

    Go well,


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