Monday, December 3, 2007

Vulgate Verse: Martha, Martha

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I have chosen for today is Luke 10:41: Martha Martha sollicita es et turbaris erga plurima, "Martha, Martha, you are a worrier and you are getting upset about so many things." This comes from the story of Jesus's visit to the house of Martha and Mary.

The two sisters Mary and Martha have, for centuries, served as paradigms of two different modes of life, although in an era of declining familiarity with the Biblical tradition, their story is perhaps not as familiar to people as it once was. Here is the larger context in Luke, from the King James version, Luke 10:38-42:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

In addition to this passage in Luke, Martha also figures in the Gospel of John, in the story of the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. In this passage it says that it was Martha who came to greet Jesus, while Mary stayed at home (John 11:20). When Martha finds Jesus she rebukes him for not having been present to save her brother! Yet she still has faith: "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (John 11:22). Jesus then preaches to her about the resurrection. Then, later, when Jesus orders that the stone be removed from Lazarus's tomb, Martha protests: "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days" (John 12:39). Jesus then reminds her that she must believe.

Martha's boldness and everyday qualities make her a striking figure in the Bible, one of the most interesting female characters in the New Testament. Not surprisingly, there are also legends about Martha beyond the Biblical text.

According to one legend, Martha journeyed with Lazarus and Mary to the island of Cyprus, where Lazarus was a bishop. The three of them died there in Cyprus.

According to another legend, Martha went with Mary to France and battled the dreaded monster called the Tarasque! You can read about that in the life of Saint Martha in the Golden Legend.

There is also a fine poem by Rudyard Kipling: The Sons of Martha.

The subject of Martha and Mary has attracted many painters, and you can find quite a few examples collected at wikipedia. Not included there is a fascinating study by Caravaggio. Probably the most famous is a painting of Martha and Mary by Velázquez: Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Here we see Martha, looking despondent in the foreground (attended by a dire-looking old woman), while we can glimpse Mary with Jesus in the background. The painting combines the qualities of a still-life (with the symbolic fish and eggs on the table) as well as illustrating the Biblical passage!

Incidentally, Martha is regarded as the patron saint of both servants and cooks.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Bible Woman: Anna, Wife of Tobit

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The woman in the Bible Women Widget for this week is Anna, the wife of Tobit, whose story is told in the Book of Tobit.

This is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and is found in both the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, although it is no longer included in most Protestant Bibles, having been classified with the "apocrypha." That means it is part of the King James Bible, but it is grouped separately from the canonical books. You can read the King James version of the Book of Tobit online - and if you have never read the book, it is one that I highly recommend.

Tobit, the hero of the book, is a pious Jew living during the time of the exile in Nineveh. He is devoted to God, and risks everything to go out and bury a fellow Jew whose body was thrown into the street. Through a series of events connected with this pious action, he goes blind. His wife Anna works to support the family, and the book features some wonderful dialogue between the two of them that reveals a domestic intimacy and personal quality that is quite remarkable for a Biblical text.

For example, one day Anna is given a goat by her employers to bring home. Although her husband Tobit is blind, he can hear the goat bleating, and he thinks she has stolen the goat. She indignantly tells him that is not the case at all. Here is how Tobit tells the story in his own words:
And my wife Anna did take women's works to do. And when she had sent them home to the owners, they paid her wages, and gave her also besides a kid. And when it was in my house, and began to cry, I said unto her, From whence is this kid? is it not stolen? render it to the owners; for it is not lawful to eat any thing that is stolen. But she replied upon me, It was given for a gift more than the wages. Howbeit I did not believe her, but bade her render it to the owners: and I was abashed at her. But she replied upon me, Where are thine alms and thy righteous deeds?
Tobit may be famous for his righteous deeds, but Anna does not like being accused of theft when she is simply working as hard as she can to support the family!

Tobit has a son, Tobias, and most of the book is occupied with the story of how Tobias goes on a long and dangerous journey in order to recover some funds that his father has left deposited in another city. Tobias also rescues a kinswoman, Sarah, who is being tormented by a demon. He marries her, and brings her back home with him. In these adventures, Tobias is accompanied by the angel Raphael, in disguise, and there are many beautiful European paintings which depict Tobias together with the angel, sometimes showing him as a mere child, and at other times showing him as a young man. Tobias and the angel are also accompanied by a loyal pet dog on their journey! Tobias even acquires some medicine which restores his father's sight at the end of the story.

Of course, Anna is not happy when her husband sends their son out on this long and dangerous journey. She does not think it is worth risking his life in order to recover the money; even though they are impoverished, it is enough to get by, at least as far as Anna is concerned!
But Anna his mother wept, and said to Tobit, Why hast thou sent away our son? is he not the staff of our hand, in going in and out before us? Be not greedy to add money to money: but let it be as refuse in respect of our child. For that which the Lord hath given us to live with doth suffice us. Then said Tobit to her, Take no care, my sister; he shall return in safety, and thine eyes shall see him. For the good angel will keep him company, and his journey shall be prosperous, and he shall return safe. Then she made an end of weeping.
Anna stops weeping, but you know she is worried for their son.

Although Tobias is slow in returning home simply becuase he is celebrating his wedding feast at the house of his father-in-law, his parents do not know that, and they become terribly worried when he does not come back:
Now Tobit counted every day: and when the days of the journey were expired, and they came not, Then Tobit said, Are they detained? or is Gabael dead, and there is no man to give him the money? Therefore he was very sorry. Then his wife said unto him, My son is dead, seeing he stayeth long; and she began to wail him, and said, Now I care for nothing, my son, since I have let thee go, the light of mine eyes. To whom Tobit said, Hold thy peace, take no care, for he is safe. But she said, Hold thy peace, and deceive me not; my son is dead. And she went out every day into the way which they went, and did eat no meat on the daytime, and ceased not whole nights to bewail her son.
Finally, she sees him coming home at last: "Now Anna sat looking about toward the way for her son. And when she espied him coming, she said to his father, Behold, thy son cometh, and the man that went with him."

The man, of course, is not just a man, but is the angel Raphael in disguise. In the image below, which comes an illuminated manuscript of the early 14th century, you can see Tobias together with the angel, Raphael, on the right, together with the faithful dog at Tobias's feet. Then, on the left, you can see Anna, together with her husband Tobit, who is blind. I like the way that Anna seems engaged in dialogue with Tobit right here in the painting, just as she engages him in dialogue in the Biblical text itself!


Friday, June 8, 2007

Bible Woman: Huldah

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This week the Bible woman is a much more obscure character. She is Huldah, and she makes her only appearance in the Bible in the story of the high priest Hilkiah, who discovered the lost book of God while restoring the Temple. The story is told in Kings and in Chronicles.

The events take place under the reign of Josiah, who was king of the land of Judah. He reigned sometime in the seventh century B.C.E. Josiah was attempting to restore the worship of God in Jerusalem, and also to restore the Temple. During work on the Temple, the high priest Hilkiah discovered "the Book of the Law" and had it delivered to King Josiah.

When the king's secretary read aloud from the book, the king "tore his robes," because, as the king declared, "Great is the Lord's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us."

The king wanted to find out everything he could about the book, so Hilkiah, together with members of the king's court, went to speak with Huldah: "the prophetess, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the Second District."

It's a quite remarkable moment. Besides Deborah, Huldah is the only other woman who is called a "prophetess" in the Bible. At this momentous discovery, she is the one that the high priest consults for guidance.

In answer to Hilkiah's query, Huldah begins by explaining that God is angry at the people of Israel because they have worshipped other gods: "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, 'This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.'"

Then, Huldah conveys a special message meant for the king, explaining that there is hope for the people of Israel because the king reacted with contrition when he heard the words of the book read to him: "Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, 'This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, that they would become accursed and laid waste, and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.'" That is the end of the incident; nothing more is said about Huldah.

As often with Hebrew names, "Huldah" has a meaning: "weasel." In fact, I first became acquainted with Huldah when doing research for a project on weasels in folklore. Although northern Europeans often regard the weasel as a masculine creature, in many cultures the weasel is a quintessentially feminine creature, sometimes revered as a midwife (as in the birth of Heracles), but also feared as a witch (as, for example, in Apuleius). So, it is by no means surprising to find that this Hebrew prophetess has the name "Weasel."

The targum to this portion of Kings adds that Huldah had a school where she taught publicly. Legend then linked Huldah's school to the "Huldah Gates" in Jerusalem, so I thought I would include this image of the Huldah Gates to accompany this post. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about the lost book discovered by Hilkiah - the Book of Deuteronomy? - you can read more about that in the wikipedia article.


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bible Woman: Leah

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I was glad to see that Leah showed up as the Bible Woman of the Week, since our Greek reading group is just starting in on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Being able to follow the adventures of Joseph and his brothers we need to know about their mothers - meaning Rachel, Leah, and their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Leah and Rachel were the daughters of Laban, the brother of Rebecca, the mother of Jacob. This makes Leah, Rachel and Jacob cousins. When Jacob came to the land where Laban lived, he fell in love with Rachel. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years in order to win Rachel as his wife, but on their wedding night, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel. Laban explains his action by saying that Leah was the elder daughter, and that the younger daughter could not be married before the elder. Laban agreed to also give Rachel to Jacob, and they were married a week later, although Jacob had to work another seven years in exchange for having received Rachel as his wife.

The rivalry between Leah and Rachel is intense. Leah quickly gives birth to four sons in a row: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, however, is not able to have children. Rachel then gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to her husband in order that she might have his children (remember Hagar and Ishmael?). Bilhah gives birth to two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Leah then gives her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob, and she gives birth to two sons, Gad and Asher.

Leah, at this point, seems to be having trouble conceiving more children, so she has sent her son, Reuben, to gather mandrakes for her. Mandrakes were thought to be good for fertility; if you read the Physiologus's mystical story of the elephants, you will discover that they too use mandrakes to conceive!

Rachel, however, persuades Reuben to give her the mandrakes, and in exchange Leah got an extra night with Jacob. Leah conceived her next son, Issachar, on that night. She also gave birth to a sixth son, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.

Rachel, for her part, finally gave birth to two sons: Joseph, and the youngest of all of Jacob's sons, Benjamin.

Leah is primarily defined in the Biblical text by the fact that she gave birth to six of Jacob's sons, including his four eldest sons. There is, however, one tantalizing detail in the Biblical text about Leah herself. It says: "Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful."

What about those weak eyes? Some commentators (including commentators in the ancient "targums") explain that Leah's eyes were weak from crying all the time, in her prayers to God. Why was she praying to God? Apparently she was praying to him to save her from being married to Esau. That seems to make sense: Jacob had an older brother, Esau, so it is easy to imagine a scenario where Jacob married Rachel while the elder Esau married Leah, the elder sister. Yet Esau was not favored by God and he had a falling out with Jacob. Thus Leah, as the commentators tell us, wanted to enjoy God's favor, and did not want to marry someone like Esau. Fascinating! Here is Louis Ginzberg's summary of this tradition:
Leah, like her younger sister, was beautiful of countenance, form, and stature. She had but one defect, her eyes were weak, and this malady she had brought down upon herself, through her own action. Laban, who had two daughters, and Rebekah, his sister, who had two sons, had agreed by letter, while their children were still young, that the older son of the one was to marry the older daughter of the other, and the younger son the younger daughter. When Leah grew to maidenhood, and inquired about her future husband, all her tidings spoke of his villainous character, and she wept over her fate until her eyelashes dropped from their lids.
For thousands of years, people have been telling new stories in order to expand on the Biblical texts or in order to fill in the gaps that people find in the text. Leah and her "weak eyes" are a prompt for just such a story.

Ginzberg also reports another fascinating story about Leah's mercy upon her sister, Rachel. Leah had foreknowledge that Jacob would have twelve sons, so she kept careful track of the number of Jacob's wives, since she was anxious to have more sons than any of the other wives. At the same time, she did not want Rachel to come up totally short. So, when eleven sons had been born, and Rachel had only one son, compared to the six sons of Leah, and the two sons each for the handmaids, Leah was worried when she got pregnant. If the child was a boy, her seventh, that would mean that Rachel would have only the one son. Leah did not want that to happen! So here is what she did:
Leah bore once more, and this last time it was a daughter, a man child turned into a woman by her prayer. When she conceived for the seventh time, she spake as follows: "God promised Jacob twelve sons. I bore him six, and each of the two handmaids has borne him two. If, now, I were to bring forth another son, my sister Rachel would not be equal even unto the handmaids." Therefore she prayed to God to change the male embryo in her womb into a female, and God hearkened unto her prayer.
Amazing: this is a legend I had never heard before. Dinah's own story is full of tragedy, of course. I did not know that, at least according to some storytellers, the very beginning of her story was so extremely unexpected.

Curious? You can read more about Leah in the wikipedia article. Here is an early 17th-century painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen which shows Jacob protesting to Laban on the day after his marriage to Leah:


Monday, May 28, 2007

Online Book: Joseph and Aseneth

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I'm continuing to gather materials for our Genesis: Joseph and His Brothers reading group (see the Joseph image widget, for example), and I was delighted to find David Cook's translation of Joseph and Aseneth online!

The text of Joseph and Aseneth probably dates back to around the first century A.D., and was probably composed in Greek for a Greek-speaking Jewish community, probably in Egypt. I say "probably" since, like so many ancient texts, there is nothing that can be said with absolute certainty about its provenance. Some scholars assert that it was composed much later, in the fifth or sixth century C.E. You can learn more about the book at the Aseneth Homepage.

The story of Joseph and Aseneth takes the few clues provided by the Biblical text and builds it into a dramatic romance in the Greek novel tradition.

The Biblical material is simply this: Genesis 41:45, "Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife," and Genesis 41:50, "Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On."

Those Biblical clues are tantalizing, raising many more questions than they answer. How did Joseph feel about that, marrying this Egyptian woman? What did Aseneth feel? And what does this mixed marriage portend for their children? These are the questions that the story of Joseph and Aseneth sets out to answer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this Jewish romance tells two stories: Aseneth's love for Joseph, and also her conversion to Judaism. At first, when Aseneth's father tells her that she will marry Joseph, she is outraged, having heard stories about this Joseph that did not make a positive impression on her. Yet when Joseph arrives, she falls in love at first sight, dazzled by his presence:
And Aseneth saw Joseph and she was cut to the quick, her stomach turned over, her knees became limp, and her whole body trembled. And she was much afraid and cried out and said, "Where shall I go, and where can I hide myself from him? And how will Joseph, the son of God, regard me, for I have spoken evil of him? Where can I flee and hide myself, for he sees everything, and no secret is safe with him, because of the great light that is in him?"
Joseph, however, rejects Aseneth at first. In fact, he is tired of all the women of Egypt throwing themselves at him, smitten as they are by his good looks:
Joseph was afraid she too might solicit him; for all the wives and daughters of the lords and satraps of all the land of Egypt use to solicit him to lie with him. And many of the wives and daughters of the Egyptians suffered much, after seeing Joseph, because he was so handsome; and they would send emissaries to him with gold and silver and valuable gifts. And Joseph would reject them out of hand, saying, I will not sin before the God of Israel.
Joseph is moved by Aseneth's virtues, however, and pronounces a blessing upon her. Aseneth is then moved to throw her idols out the window and to dress herself in sackcloth and ashes:
he took all her innumerable gold and silver gods and broke them up into little pieces, and threw them out of the window for the poor and needy. And Aseneth took her royal dinner, even the fatted beasts and the fish and the meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, and the wine-vessels for their libations; and she threw them all out of the window as food for the dogs. And after this she took the ashes and poured them out on the floor. And she took sackcloth and wrapped it round her waist, and she removed the fillet from her hair and sprinkled herself with ashes; and she fell down upon the ashes. And she beat her breast repeatedly with her two hands and wept bitterly and groaned all night until the morning.
Aseneth then experiences mystical visions, and even receives a very mysterious honeycomb:
And bees came up from the cells of the comb, and they were white as snow, and their wings were irridescent -- purple and blue and gold; and they had golden diadems on their heads and sharp-pointed strings. And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, as big as queens, settled on Aseneth's lips.
This conversion makes Aseneth a worthy wife to Joseph:
And Joseph stretched his hands out and embraced Aseneth, and Aseneth embraced Joseph, and they greeted each other for a long time and received new life in their spirit.
Pharaoh's son, however, is in love with Aseneth, and plots to take her away from Joseph, with the help of Joseph's brothers, Dan and Gad. Joseph's brother Benjamin comes to the rescue, though, and badly wounds Pharaoh's son. Aseneth then insists on mercy being shown to Dan and Gad, so that, through her intervention, they are spared. Pharaoh's son eventually dies of his wounds, the Pharaoh mourns him, and when the Pharaoh himself dies, he bequeaths the rule of Egypt to Joseph. Joseph, however, returns the rule to Pharaoh's grandson:
And Joseph was king of Egypt for forty-eight years. And after this Joseph gave the crown to Pharaoh's grandson; and Joseph was like a father to him in Egypt.
By returning the land of Egypt to Pharaoh's line, the way is then paved for the oppression of the people of Israel in Egypt and the story of the Exodus.

As you can see here, from just a few Biblical clues, an entire story evolved, very elaborate and yet fully compatible with the framework provided by the Biblical text. It's not just modern authors like Anita Diamant who build novels based on the Biblical clues... this was already a well-established practice two thousand years ago!

Meanwhile, here is Rembrandt's famous painting of "Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph," where you can see Aseneth looking on:

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Bible Woman: Mary, mother of Jesus

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The "Bible woman of the week" this week is Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is so much that can be said here about Mary and the traditions associated with her. Thanks to a tip from Lynne (see her post about del Sarto's Annunciation), I thought I would say something here about the extra-Biblical legends associated with Mary, which tell us about her life before the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke begin.

One of the important sources for stories about Mary is the "Infancy Gospel" (or "Protevangelium") attributed to James (Jacob). This is a noncanonical book, meaning that it does not form part of the Christian Bible in the Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant traditions. It is, however, a quite ancient text, probably dating to the 2nd century C.E. It was a widely popular text, and there are over a hundred Greek manuscripts, including a manuscript that itself appears to date back to the third century. You can read more notes about the manuscript tradition at Early Christian Writings online.

There are three different English translations you can consult online: Andrew Bernhard, Roberts-Donaldson and M. R. James. There is even a Greek text, although it is done with an obscure Greek font, rather than according to the more current Unicode standard, alas. I'll be relying here on the M.R. James translation.

The story begins with Ioacim, who will be Mary's father. He had been unable to have children with his wife, Anna, which caused him great grief. He left his wife and went out into the desert to pray, remembering the example of Abraham, who had been granted a child in his old age. His wife, Anna, grieved because she was now without a child, and her husband was gone into the desert. Both Ioacim and Anna receive angelic visitations to tell them that they would be granted a child.

And so they were. Anna gave birth to Mary, and after Mary had walked only seven steps, her mother put her back in bed and vowed that she would not walk again on the earth until she was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. When Mary was finally presented at the Temple, even though she had not been walking, Mary miraculously danced up the steps of the Temple ("And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all tile house of Israel loved her").

Mary grew up in the Temple, but when she entered into puberty, there was a problem: when she began to menstruate, she would pollute the Temple and could not remain there. So the high priest prayed for a solution, and an angel appeared to him and said, "Go forth and assemble them that are widowers of the people, and let them bring every man a rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be." This is how Joseph became betrothed to Mary. Other men received the rods, but there was no divine sign. "But Joseph received the last rod: and lo, a dove came forth of the rod and flew upon the bead of Joseph."

Meanwhile, the priests decided that they wanted a veil woven for the Temple. They cast lots to see which women would weave the veil for the Temple, and Mary was assigned the lot of weaving the crimson thread: "And the lot of the true purple and the scarlet fell unto Mary, and she took them and went unto her house." So you will see Mary spinning a scarlet thread in Orthodox depictions of the Annunciation. As the Infancy Gospel explains, Mary was spinning this thread when the angel brought her the news about the birth of Jesus.

If you are interested in reading a non-cannonical text, this is an excellent place to start. When the Infancy Gospel of James was composed, there was not a "Bible" in the sense that we know it, and people knew the stories contained in this gospel as fully as they knew the stories in the four gospels that did become part of the Bible. Through the Middle Ages in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, these stories about Mary continued to be widely known and they were depicted in many works of art. Here, for example, is Paolo Uccello's vision of Mary's presentation at the Temple, painted in 1435 for the cathedral in Prato, showing Mary as she dances up the Temple steps:


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Google Gadget: Bible Woman of the Week

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After some technical adventures today, I have learned how to create Google Gadgets for use in iGoogle. So, here is the "Bible Woman of the Week" turned into a Google Gadget!


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bible Woman: Pharaoh's Daughter

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The Bible Woman of the Week is Pharaoh's daughter, who rescued the infant Moses and adopted him.

Here is what the Bible tells us about her, in Exodus 2:
Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?" "Yes, go," she answered. And the girl went and got the baby's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water."
That is all we learn about this women in Exodus, which tells us nothing about Moses's childhood. The next verse begins when Moses has already grown up: "One day, after Moses had grown up..."

The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that when Moses grew up, he actually rejected his Egyptian adopted mother: "By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time."

Although neither of these accounts provides us with the name of Pharaoh's daughter, in Chronicles, we find the name "Bithiah" (meaning "daughter of God") in this verse: "These were the children of Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah, whom Mered had married."

This pious name suggested a story to the rabbinic commentators in the Midrash, who explain that this name was an honor bestowed upon her by God: "God said to her, You have called Moses your son, although he was not your son, therefore I will call you my daughter ["Bithiah" = "bat," daughter; "Yah," God], although you are not my daughter."

There are, in fact, numerous legends about Pharaoh's daughter, as you can read in Ginzberg's wonderful compilation, Legends of the Jews. In this account, she has the name Thermutis, as found in Josephus's account of these events (Thermutis is also a title of the goddess Isis):
At the time of the child's abandonment, God sent scorching heat to plague the Egyptians, and they all suffered with leprosy and smarting boils. Thermutis, the daughter of Pharaoh, sought relief from the burning pain in a bath in the waters of the Nile. But physical discomfort was not her only reason for leaving her father's palace. She was determined to cleanse herself as well of the impurity of the idol worship that prevailed there. When she saw the little ark floating among the flags on the surface of the water, she supposed it to contain one of the little children exposed at her father's order, and she commanded her handmaids to fetch it.
The presence of the handmaids allows the storytellers to contrast the behavior of the pious daughter of Pharaoh with these other Egyptian women:
But they protested, saying, "O our mistress, it happens sometimes that a decree issued by a king is unheeded, yet it is observed at least by his children and the members of his household, and dost thou desire to transgress thy father's edict?"
Who comes to the rescue? None other than the angel Gabriel:
Forthwith the angel Gabriel appeared, seized all the maids except one, whom he permitted the princess to retain for her service, and buried them in the bowels of the earth.
The daughter of Pharaoh also has amazing powers granted to her, and is granted a miraculous cure:
Pharaoh's daughter now proceeded to do her own will. She stretched forth her arm, and although the ark was swimming at a distance of sixty ells, she succeeded in grasping it, because her arm was lengthened miraculously. No sooner had she touched it than the leprosy afflicting her departed from her.
Yet there is more heavenly intervention yet to come:
Her sudden restoration led her to examine the contents of the ark,and when she opened it, her amazement was great. She beheld an exquisitely beautiful boy, for God bad fashioned the Hebrew babe's body with peculiar care, and beside it she perceived the Shekinah. Noticing that the boy bore the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, she knew that he was one of the Hebrew children, and mindful of her father's decree concerning the male children of the Israelites, she was about to abandon the babe to his fate. At that moment the angel Gabriel came and gave the child a vigorous blow, and he began to cry aloud, with a voice like a young man's. His vehement weeping and the weeping of Aaron, who was lying beside him, touched the princess, and in her pity she resolved to save him.
The notion of Gabriel having to give Moses a slap to make him cry is such an endearing detail! There is nothing here that contradicts the brief account in the book of Exodus, so these legends are able to coexist with the Biblical text, expanding on the text while also reinforcing it.

Moses is also a figure in the Islamic Koran, and in that version it is Pharaoh's wife rather than his daughter who rescues the child from the river: "And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers. And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. And the wife of Pharaoh said: (He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son. And they perceived not." (Surah 28, The Story).

If you'd like to read more stories about Moses and his legendary youth, there is also a detailed article about Moses in the Internet Encyclopedia of Religion with abundant information about extra-Biblical legends.

The image I chose for Pharaoh's daughter is a painting by Edwin Long (1829-1891), a well-known Orientalist painter.

This was a popular topic for the Victorian Orientalists, as you can see in this painting on the same subject, The Finding of Moses, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904.

This was a subject of interest not only for modern painters, but for ancient painters as well, as you can see from this beautiful fresco painting found at the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos, circa 200 C.E.:

There are many works of art devoted to Pharaoh's daughter pulling Moses from the water - if you have any favorite images of the scene online, leave a comment here at the blog!


Friday, May 11, 2007

Widget: Bible Women

BLOG HAS MOVED: Please visit

for the latest version of this entry.

I've created another widget - this time it is a collection of images and texts about Bible Women. There is a Bible Woman of the Week, and you can also choose to view instead a Random Bible Woman.

Each item contains a brief description of the woman, a brief Biblical passage, along with an image and a link to find out more about the woman's story, and also about the image. As with all the widgets I've done so far that contain images, the images are at most 200 pixels wide and 300 pixels high, which makes them easy to place in a Blogger sidebar, the side panel of a course management system such as Desire2Learn, etc.

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