A Cradle Yet Shall Save the Earth

Poussin, “Baby Moses Saved from the River”

Spiritual Sunday

Whenever I encounter today’s Old Testament reading, about the baby Moses saved from the river, I always think of Huck’s version. There’s also a charming Victor Hugo poem about the incident.

Here’s an excerpt of the original version from Exodus:

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

It’s a good story but it doesn’t go over well with Huck. The Widow Douglas reads to him from the Bible in her campaign to “sivilize” him:

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me.  But she wouldn’t.  She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try to not do it any more.  That is just the way with some people.  They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.  Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it.  And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

Hugo is a bit more serious. Here’s his poem, which is mostly narrative although it presents its lesson in the final two stanzas. Hugo starts with the pharaoh’s daughter leaving the pomp and circumstance of the court for a healthier venue: “Sweeter these zephyrs float than all the showers/Of costly odors in our royal bowers.” In doing so, she is able to undo a justice, and her act of kindness will have major ramifications, helping save “the widespread earth.” Moses’s cradle, of course, anticipates Jesus’s cradle.

Moses on the Nile

By Victor Hugo

Sisters! the wave is freshest in the ray
Of the young morning; the reapers are asleep;
The river bank is lonely: come away!
The early murmurs of old Memphis creep
Faint on my ear; and here unseen we stray,–
Deep in the covert of the grove withdrawn,
Save by the dewy eye-glance of the dawn.

‘Within my father’s palace, fair to see,
Shine all the Arts, but oh! this river side,
Pranked with gay flowers, is dearer far to me
Than gold and porphyry vases bright and wide;
How glad in heaven the song-bird carols free!
Sweeter these zephyrs float than all the showers
Of costly odors in our royal bowers.

‘The sky is pure, the sparkling stream is clear:
Unloose your zones, my maidens! and fling down
To float awhile upon these bushes near
Your blue transparent robes: take off my crown,
And take away my jealous veil; for here
To-day we shall be joyous while we lave
Our limbs amid the murmur of the wave.

‘Hasten; but through the fleecy mists of morn,
What do I see? Look ye along the stream!
Nay, timid maidens–we must not return!
Coursing along the current, it would seem
An ancient palm-tree to the deep sea borne,
That from the distant wilderness proceeds,
Downwards, to view our wondrous Pyramids.

‘But stay! if I may surely trust mine eye,–
It is the bark of Hermes, or the shell
Of Iris, wafted gently to the sighs
Of the light breeze along the rippling swell;
But no: it is a skiff where sweetly lies
An infant slumbering, and his peaceful rest
Looks as if pillowed on his mother’s breast.

‘He sleeps–oh, see! his little floating bed
Swims on the mighty river’s fickle flow,
A white dove’s nest; and there at hazard led
By the faint winds, and wandering to and fro,
The cot comes down; beneath his quiet head
The gulfs are moving, and each threatening wave
Appears to rock the child upon a grave.

‘He wakes–ah, maids of Memphis! haste, oh, haste!
He cries! alas!–What mother could confide
Her offspring to the wild and watery waste?
He stretches out his arms, the rippling tide
Murmurs around him, where all rudely placed,
He rests but with a few frail reeds beneath,
Between such helpless innocence and death.

‘Oh! take him up! Perchance he is of those
Dark sons of Israel whom my sire proscribes;
Ah! cruel was the mandate that arose
Against most guiltless of the stranger tribes!
Poor child! my heart is yearning for his woes,
I would I were his mother; but I’ll give
If not his birth, at least the claim to live.’

Thus Iphis spoke; the royal hope and pride
Of a great monarch; while her damsels nigh,
Wandered along the Nile’s meandering side;
And these diminished beauties, standing by
The trembling mother; watching with eyes wide
Their graceful mistress, admired her as stood,
More lovely than the genius of the flood!

The waters broken by her delicate feet
Receive the eager wader, as alone
By gentlest pity led, she strives to meet
The wakened babe; and, see, the prize is won!
She holds the weeping burden with a sweet
And virgin glow of pride upon her brow,
That knew no flush save modesty’s till now.

Opening with cautious hands the reedy couch,
She brought the rescued infant slowly out
Beyond the humid sands; at her approach
Her curious maidens hurried round about
To kiss the new-born brow with gentlest touch;
Greeting the child with smiles, and bending nigh
Their faces o’er his large, astonished eye!

Haste thou who, from afar, in doubt and fear,
Dost watch, with straining eyes, the fated boy–
The loved of heaven! come like a stranger near,
And clasp young Moses with maternal joy;
Nor fear the speechless transport and the tear
Will e’er betray thy fond and hidden claim,
For Iphis knows not yet a mother’s name!

With a glad heart, and a triumphal face,
The princess to the haughty Pharaoh led
The humble infant of a hated race,
Bathed with the bitter tears a parent shed;
While loudly pealing round the holy place
Of Heaven’s white Throne, the voice of angel choirs
Intoned the theme of their undying lyres!

‘No longer mourn thy pilgrimage below–
O Jacob! let thy tears no longer swell
The torrent of the Egyptian river: Lo!
Soon on the Jordan’s banks thy tents shall dwell;
And Goshen shall behold thy people go
Despite the power of Egypt’s law and brand,
From their sad thrall to Canaan’s promised land.

‘The King of Plagues, the Chosen of Sinai,
Is he that, o’er the rushing waters driven,
A vigorous hand hath rescued for the sky;
Ye whose proud hearts disown the ways of heaven!
Attend, be humble! for its power is nigh
Israel! a cradle shall redeem thy worth–
A Cradle yet shall save the widespread earth!’ 

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