The Passover Story: Where are the women?

By now, the astute reader may have noticed something a little worrying about the story I’ve been telling this week: a distinct absence of female characters. We’ve had Moses, Aaron, Jethro and Pharaoh, and not one named woman. It’s not quite that there are no female characters in Exodus, but they do almost no speaking, and I don’t think there’s one who would pass the Bechdel Test: in every case their significance is that they help, rescue or otherwise interact with a significant male character. This isn’t exactly unusual for books of the Bible, but it particularly disturbs me very early in the story:

Exodus I:15-17 “And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrews’ midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.”

Read that again and parse it fully. These two women risked their lives by defying their despot’s orders to conduct genocide. Their counterparts in the last century were honoured with the title “Righteous Among The Nations”, a special section in Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and this rather nice park in Tel Aviv:

Square of the Righteous Among the Nations

Yet Shiphrah and Puah just get a throwaway mention and no further recognition at all. Moses himself is saved by his mother & sister’s scheming and Pharaoh’s daughter’s compassion:

Exodus II:2-8 “And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children. Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother.”

I don’t think Pharaoh’s daughter even gets a name. Moses’ mother is introduced elsewhere as Jochebed, but the two mentions of her name in the entire Bible only tell us whose wife and whose mother she was. Miriam, Moses’ sister, at least gets to play a more significant part later, but even then it’s to sing the praises of a distinctly masculine God, and later to be punished alone for a sin she jointly committed with Aaron:

Numbers XII:1 “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.”

Numbers XII:9-11 “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed. And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.”

There’s not a word about Aaron being punished. It’s enough to make one channel Mrs. Lintott.

Tzipora also gets a notably raw deal: “given” to Moses as a wife in Exodus 2, she bears his children and then seems to get left behind either when he goes back into Egypt or in the flight from (that I can’t make out which it was speaks volumes about her narrative treatment). You get the idea.

I raise this not to draw out some lesson that the Torah is teaching us, but rather as a reminder of its limitations as a guide to modern life. It’s full of good stories, the significance of which has been magnified by its status as a holy book to many people, but for it to make sense to my life I do have to cherry-pick extensively. My emphasis on Passover is itself a case of such cherry-picking: I give it far more importance than any other religious holiday, because it celebrates the bit of the Bible that speaks to me the most.

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