Sermon: Exodus Stories: Basya

2021 October 10
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Act 1


River: Everyone heard the decree. The Pharaoh has spoken and every male Israelite newborn is to be drowned in the Nile – drowned in me. You ask how I feel about being the agent of death for innocent babies? I neither like it nor dislike it. I am simply an agent of inevitability. The Pharaoh’s power is inexorable; my flow is inexorable. It carries people to their fate. I am destiny.


Yocheved [holding Moses, to Miriam]: He’s three months old now. His presence is growing – he almost glows – and his cries are getting louder. Pharaoh’s men will soon find out that he’s alive. I don’t think I can hide him any longer. But drown him? Never. I would die first. I’ve made a decision. See? I’ve made this basket – a soft cradle out of bulrushes and sealed it with pitch so it will float. I’m sending him down the river to meet his destiny. I’m offering my child to God.


Miriam: No. No. This is not going to happen to my baby brother. He’ll die out there by himself. I’m going with him. I’ll walk along the shore, mother, but I’m going with him. I can protect him!


Yocheved: Foolish girl. We can’t resist destiny. We don’t have that kind of power. You can go watch him for a while if you want to, but stay safe. Don’t do anything reckless. He’s in God’s hands now. If he perishes, he perishes.

[Hands Moses to the River, who slowly carries him downstream to Basya and maidservants. Miriam follows along.]


Basya [to maidservants]: Look at that, floating among the reeds. What is that?  It looks like an ark. Bring it over here to me.

[Maidservant #1 brings the basket over to Basya. Basya opens it and all three look into it with wonder.]

This is one of the Hebrew’s babies.

[Maidservants’ expressions change to disapproval/ disgust.]





Homily part 1

The river of inevitability brings the oppressor face to face with the oppressed. Karma forces the wealthy to confront the poor. It’s an old story and it happens to this day. It happens every time a homeless mother asks for money in a subway crowded with professionals on their way to work. It happens at a Louisiana town hall meeting where a Black community is fighting a new facility that generates hazardous waste in their town. It’s happening right now on the border of Poland where Afghan refugees are arriving hungry and cold, and being shut out. The voices of suffering travel to the ears of the powerful, like it or not.


But it’s rare that the confrontation is so stark, so vivid as it is in the story of Basya and the baby Moses. A child of power, in this case the daughter of Pharaoh, is confronted with the bottomless vulnerability of a baby from the underclass. She’s forced to see the effects right in front of her of her own father’s actions. She has to see the cruelty embedded in the Egyptian power structures – in the face of a baby where a baby should never be, alone and adrift with no one to care for him.


How did it get so bad that Pharaoh had sentenced infants to death? The same way it gets so bad in our country and many other countries when the immigrant population is deemed to be a threat. The Israelites were refugees from a famine long ago. Joseph (of the technicolor dreamcoat) had died and Pharaoh who respected him had died. This was a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, didn’t care about Joseph, and didn’t trust these immigrants with their foreign ways. They weren’t assimilating into Egyptian society. And what’s worse, they were growing. There were more and more of them all the time. If they didn’t do something, pretty soon Egypt would be a majority minority nation – and then where would they be? And so Pharaoh had forced them into labor and degraded them, but it didn’t work. They kept thriving. He tried to get the midwives to dispense with the babies as soon as they were born, but the midwives wouldn’t do it. His methods got more and more draconian.


How history repeats itself. And this story isn’t even history – it’s a sacred myth. In its specifics, it may not be true and yet it is truth. These archetypes repeat. The refugee is first welcomed and then is seen as a threat; the other is a source of fear and disgust for the dominant culture. Those in power do what they can to keep the stranger out, to keep them poor and desperate. And the oppressed and the poor are forced to do desperate things. Like Yocheved in the story, today’s would-be immigrants will sometimes send their children alone across the border praying that that they will somehow be able to survive.




Act 2


Basya: This is one of the Hebrew’s babies. I don’t know what to do. This child my father wants killed? This child my father feared? How could he? It’s so cruel. Surely if my father saw this baby he wouldn’t be afraid. Poor thing, floating out here by himself in the river. He’s crying. He needs a mother. He needs a mother. And maybe what I need is a son. Did the gods send him to me on this river?

[Basya lifts him out of the basket and holds him. The maidservants gasp in horror.]


Miriam [moves in quickly while Basya is still making up her mind]: Shall I go and call a nursing woman from the Hebrews for you, and she’ll nurse the child for you?


Basya [stares at Miriam, long pause]: Go!


[Miriam runs and gets Yocheved, pantomiming what happened; Yocheved comes to Basya]


Basya [to Yocheved]: Take this child and nurse him for me, and I’ll give your pay.”


[Yocheved takes Moses with wonder. Walks back with him and Miriam. River reverses course at this moment to flow with Yocheved, toward the Israelite camp.]


Basya: When he was weaned, he became my son, and I raised him in my father’s palace. I called him “Moshe” because I drew him from the water.





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