Mark Glanville
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Twelve women appear in the opening chapters of Exodus, some of whom by their cunning, boldness, and decisiveness trick Pharaoh and preserve Moses’ life in order that God’s plans might be fulfilled.[1] “Without Moses, there would be no story, but without the initiative of these women, there would be no Moses!”[2]Jopie Siebert-Hommes shows how these twelve women correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel (1:1).[3] The exodus of the twelve tribes out of Egypt depends upon the resolve of these women who are used by God.

[An excerpt from my book Reading Exodus: Society Reshaped by Kinship. Lexham Press, forthcoming]

Shiphrah and Puah

Exodus 1:15-22

The first individual named in the book of Exodus is not Pharaoh, who remains unnamed, but the two Hebrew midwives. These are the first in a “whole array of female characters in Exodus 1-2 who venture to trick Pharaoh as they rescue Moses from the deadly royal decree.”[4]Pharaoh demands of these women that they kill every male Hebrew newborn. But, as Shiphrah and Puah “feared God,” they didn’t fulfil the request. Shiphrah and Puah take a subtle jab at Pharaoh, implying the superiority of Hebrew women: “‘The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’” (Exod 1:19) This is the first act of civil disobedience for the sake of justice in written history. 


Exodus 2:1-9; 6:20

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, tricks Pharaoh by following to the letter of his decree that every newborn Hebrew male should be thrown into the Nile. Initially, Jochebed hid the newborn Moses for three months. When hiding Moses became too risky, she placed Moses in a carefully prepared basket, which she floated in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, and at Miriam’s suggestion Pharaoh’s daughter appoints Jochebed as Moses’ wet nurse.

Jochebed’s name means ‘Yahweh is glory.’ This is the first name to appear in the bible that includes the divine name ‘Yahweh’: yah. ‘Yahweh’ is the personal name for God that God revealed to Israel. It seems then that name Yahweh was “embedded in [Moses] maternal lineage: if his mother bears YHWH’s name, Moses learned it from her.”[5] 


Exodus 2:1-10; 15

After Moses’ mother placed the baby in the basket, Moses’ sister stood watch. When Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, the sister suggested, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” (Exod 2:8) The girl fetched Moses’ mother. Moses’ sister displayed the cunning, boldness, and decisiveness that characterises all of the women in these opening chapters of Exodus. Pardes refers to these events as “the triumph of the female saviors over the mighty Pharaoh.”[6]

While Moses’s sister is not named in the early chapters of Exodus she is probably the same person as Miriam, who is a most significant leader within Israel. She leads alongside Moses and Aaron throughout the wilderness years. Miriam’s importance as a leader can hardly be overstated. For example, Miriam leads Israel in a song of celebration after crossing the Sea of Reeds (Exod 15:20-21); she is introduced as a prophet (Exod 15:20). Interestingly, Miriam is not referred to as a mother or as a wife, which is different from most of the women in the bible.[7] 

Pharaoh’s daughter

Exodus 2:5-10

Another unlikely hero is Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. This woman was motivated by compassion for a Hebrew baby: “He was crying, and she took pity on him.” (Exod 2:10) Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moses to his mother until the time of weaning (around three years), and then she adopted Moses as her own son, “right under her father’s nose.”[8]Her behaviour is rebellious.

Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby ‘Moses’, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exod 2:10) ‘Moses’ means ‘draw up/out’, also anticipating that through Moses God would one day draw up Israel from Egypt and from the Sea of Reeds. The name that Pharaoh’s daughter gave to the boy frames her as not only responsible for Moses’ life, but also for the Israelites’ escape. 


Exodus 2:16-22; 4:24-26; 18:1-4 

Zipporah is a heroic figure who saves Moses’ life as he returns to Egypt. Zipporah was one of the seven daughters of Reuel, the priest of Midian (Reuel is later referred to as Jethro, in Exod 18:1). Moses delivered these seven sisters from shepherds when they were seeking to water their flocks. In turn, Zipporah’s father offered hospitality to Moses and then gave Zipporah to Moses in marriage (Exod 2:16-22). Zipporah and Moses’ first-born son was named ‘Gershom,’ which means ‘to drive off/drive out.’ This is a reference both to the event at the watering-well and also to the exodus from Egypt.

After encountering Yahweh at the burning bush, Moses journeyed to Egypt, along with his family. Along the way, one night, the Lord sought to kill Moses. Zipporah acted assertively, cutting off her son’s foreskin with a flint and touching Moses’ feet with it. Her action was skilled and decisive. Zipporah seems to work as a skilful priest, evident by her use of the flint, by her utterance (Exod 4:25), and by her knowledge of the circumcision ritual.[9]Indeed, Zipporah, like Moses, was from a priestly family. Female priestly functions were well known in the ancient Near East. On this night Zipporah was, in effect, modelling for Moses the character that he would need to acquire as he confronted Pharaoh and as he led Israel: namely a deep fear of and trust in Yahweh, and a great assertiveness and boldness.We should probably understand the Lord’s actions against Moses in this event as a jolting reminder to revere the Lord through circumcision. It was the Midianite Zipporah, not Moses, who was attentive to this faithful act.While God used these five women powerfully, God had a purpose not only for individuals but also for the whole nation of Israel. The wilderness was the school in which God’s people learned to trust God, as we shall see in the next chapter.


[1] For this blog I have been guided in particular by the analysis in Carol Meyers, Exodus (The New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[2] J. Cheryl Exum, “’You Shall Let Every Daughter Live’: A Study of Exodus 1:8-2:10,” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, ed. Athalya Brenner (The Feminist Companion to the Bible 6; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 37-61, at 52.

[3] “But if She Be a Daughter . . . She May Live!” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, ed. Athalya Brenner (The Feminist Companion to the Bible 6; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 62-74, at 63-65.

[4] Ilana Pardes, “Zipporah and the Struggle for Deliverance,” pages 79-97 in Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Account(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 81.

[5] Carol Meyers, “Jochebed,” pages 103-04 in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament(ed. Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 103.

[6] Pardes, ibid., 88.

[7] Phyllis Trible, “Miriam I,” pages 127-29 in Women in Scripture, 128.

[8] Pardes, ibid., 82.

[9] Meyers, Exodus, 63.