Once upon a time, long ago, in a place far from here, a familiar story unfolded. In this place there was a Ruler and this Ruler’s land was inhabited by people of varying ethnicity. There were those who named themselves “the People” and there were those named “the Others.” The Others were a strong-bodied people who worked hard, bore children and established themselves in the land. In fact, they became so abundant, that the People began to fear they would be overrun by the Others. The fear was so great that the Ruler began to look at the Others as invaders, though they had lived amongst the people for generations. They had, in fact, lived amongst the People so long that the Ruler—who was not a diligent student of history—had forgotten, or perhaps never learned that the Others had actually been invited to the land by a ruler from the past. They had helped sustain the land during a time of need. Now, they were not perceived as an asset but a threat.
In one version of this story, the Ruler is called Pharaoh; the People, Egyptians; the Others, Hebrew. Pharaoh responded to the Hebrew threat by summoning their midwives. “When you are preparing to deliver the babies of Hebrew women,” he commanded them, “you must abort them as they are being born.” The women did not argue. They also did not obey. Noticing that Hebrew babies continued to be born, Pharaoh summoned the midwives once again, “how is it that I continue to see my land overrun by newborn Hebrews?” he demanded. The clever women played helpless, “These Hebrew women, they are so hardy and energetic, they give birth before we even arrive in their homes!” Though the midwives civil disobedience delayed deaths, it did not prevent them. In his desperation, Pharaoh ordered that all male children be killed, even after being born.
Perhaps there were many families whose love and ingenuity compelled them to find ways to preserve the lives of their children. Ancient texts direct our attention to one particular family. And isn’t it often the way that our best education about broad truths comes through a narrow focus, from an individual encounter? The family was of the Levite clan. Though she already had two children, the mother of this family was struck by the beauty of her new child, a son, and she could not bear to see him lose his life even if that meant she could not share in that life with him. This child’s mother and father and brother and sister conspired together. They crafted a basket, carefully waterproofed and padded it. They placed within it this child, one of many born in the land but to them a unique marvel and mystery of creation to whom their hearts were bound. Reverently, with prayers and petitions, they placed the baby-filled basket in the river and hoped for salvation. His sister, Miriam, followed the flow of the river from the bank.
Almost of another world, another daughter ventured along the river bank. Pharaoh’s daughter, she shared the same land with Miriam and the other Hebrew daughters and sons, but knew little of their life. She lived life in a bubble of security. Even now, as she ventured to cool herself in the water of the Nile, a band of attendants followed around her; their presence both an irritation and an expectation, for she knew no life but a sheltered one. Immersing herself in the water this daughter heard a cry. She saw the unusual craft and could guess at its cargo—but how could this be? “Go fetch that basket,” she commanded an attendant. And her attendant obeyed. Opening the lid of the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter caught the spell of wonder that had been laid in the basket with this baby. She recognized love in him and wanted to share it. “I’m going to adopt him,” she said. And she named him Moses.
I imagine this encounter affecting the daughter of Pharaoh not only with compassion, but with curiosity. How did it come to be that this child was set afloat? Perhaps she learned more about the policies directed toward the people inhabiting the land she lived within. I noticed that when Moses grew to adulthood, there were still Hebrew people of his generation—they were not destroyed. Can it be that Pharaoh’s commandment was rescinded? I wonder if that had anything to do with his daughter finding her heart captivated by one Hebrew that led her to advocate, if even in only one small way, for the lives of his people. I wonder if the thought of each Hebrew baby’s death tore at her as though it were the murder of her own child?
The timelessness of this story occurred to me in a new way as I revisited it this week. Experience has a way of tinting the lens through which we look at the world. Where I stand in my interior landscape effects the perspective I have of the exterior, even when I am unaware. This time I was aware that I was reading with a mind toward the immigrants that share the land where I live. Aware that whatever people group we come from, we were all sojourners once. “My people” were primarily Dutch and Irish, welcomed when extra hands were needed, rejected when we became too many and were no longer seen as a resource but as burden on resources that were limited. A threat to familiar ways of being and looking and sounding. I thought of the South and Central American migrants who I’d never given much mind to until I encountered their belongings, abandoned during their troubled sojourn in the Sonoran Desert; until I met them, broken on the border.
Now they people my thoughts and influence my reflections. I have been reading Steinbeck’s account of his journey across America with his dog Charley. There I found that his reflection on the Bad Lands stirred in me reflections similar to those that had been awakened by a tale from ancient Egypt. Once upon a time, not long ago, very close to home…Steinbeck’s experience of the Bad Lands brought back my memories of the contradictory nature of the desert in Arizona that divides the United States and Mexico. Such a monster in the day, so majestic in the evenings. Though I tried to describe it, he says it better:
…the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled…the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich brown and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black…once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. Against the descending sun the battlements were dark and clean-lined, while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color. And the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost…this is one of the few place I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day (Travels with Charley, pg. 120).
I found it confounding, trying to reconcile the splendor of the evenings with the treacherous conditions of the day. Similarly, I find it confounding trying to reconcile the juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty in people when we choose, sometimes so arbitrarily who will be bequeathed with our favor, and who will be subject to our wrath. Unlike Moses, the rulers of this land don’t directly threaten migrants with death, but with deportation. Though, considering the hundreds of deaths that occur each year in the desert by those restricted, or returning after being sent back—considering how separation of mothers from children and husbands from wives causes life to leak out from rent hearts—the difference between death and deportation becomes blurry at best.
Who will be the fairytale-type princess in this version of the story? Who will be the unlikely one that bridges the gap between the outcast people and the obstinate ruler? “Encounter” seems to me to be the magic word that breaks the spell of blindness. I think of my own life’s experience; I began to care when my senses and feelings were engaged. I cared about the migrants because I walked their trails and heard their stories. I cared about men in Guantanamo who I’d barely given a second thought to because I saw their picture and heard their stories and read their poems. I was touched by our common humanity. Their pain hurt me. If those of us who are sheltered by the rulers of the land could learn the stories of those who are persecuted, if we would take a few steps beyond our comfort zone, perhaps their cries could stir our heart like the cries of a baby in a basket. Perhaps, if we wade in the water, God will trouble us toward compassion and we will learn the abundance of an interwoven life.