On the Shore of the Great River

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F_Kelley

Born into privilege, Pharaoh’s daughter was nursed on narratives of Egyptian greatness. She grew up among the elite, watching them parade through the palace with their curried favor and entourage of servants. She never lifted a finger and never knew any different. Life was good alongside the Great Nile River, which seemed to wind and bend to her father’s command.

She’d often visit the various balconies of his household and observe the slow rise of the mighty pyramids. She marveled at his capacity to construct such a feat of architecture. Everything about her father, from the palace pillars that seemed to hold up the sky to the mountain-shaped monuments emerging from the sands, communicated his massive strength and sweeping significance.

When the sun began to descend into the Great River and the world turned burnt orange with threads of pink, Bithiah would walk the shoreline. Sometimes she’d slip off her sandals to feel the warm sand and cool water in turn. While she was privileged, she wasn’t powerful, so she soaked in simple pleasures afforded her on her side of the Nile.

One afternoon amid such a walk, a baby washed up, nearly touching her bare feet. A Hebrew boy, mere days old it appeared, drowned and now within arm’s reach. The servants ran to grab the child, as if to erase the incident altogether. Princesses weren’t supposed to witness the underside of life in the empire.

But they were too late. The waterlogged infant was the evidence she could not deny. As The Great River swallowed the sun whole she came to know all the rumors were true. The death edict was real. Her father had turned The Great River into a watery grave.

In the following weeks Bithiah kept to herself more than usual. She seldom took to the balcony, shunning Pharaoh’s demonstration of building prowess and the brutality she knew undergirded it. The monuments and brickyards made her feel small. Even a royal daughter could not stop the injustice of the king.

She spent a handful of sleepless nights on her terrace, keeping company with the moon. The only sound that broke the midnight silence was the plaintive song coming from across the river. Laments from bereft mothers, salted with tears and sadness, carried dark truths from their camp. Somehow she felt complicit in the deathly way of things, and the sad songs gave an odd solace to her troubled spirit. Other than hum along, night after night, what could anyone expect her to do?

//

The sound of the breakfast trays clattering about in her room roused her from sleep. She’d slept on the terrace floor again. It was beneath her station to show embarrassment in front of a servant girl–but hiding her flushed cheeks was easier said than done. When the girl found her outside, Bithiah ordered her to prepare for a dip in the pools along the Nile.

Pharaoh was marching out to the construction site with a regiment of armed guards to survey the progress first hand. State counselors were convening in the grand hall to discuss matters of strategy to keep the Hebrews in their place. Servants scurried about tending to the soldiers, the statesmen and the royal women lounging in the gardens. No one took notice of the insignificant procession of the princess and her maids down to the pools.

Bithiah, feeling the weight of her invisibility, disrobed and waded into the water. She dropped her shoulders, surrendering to the ritual bathing ceremony. Something in her broke under the surface. Maybe it was mingling in the currents rife with suffering, her pores absorbing the pain–maybe it was a rending that happens when chaos hammers your heart–but she emerged changed. Maybe she was just broken-hearted and delusional.

Just then she noticed something bobbing in the waters, shaking the tall reeds just out of her reach. She broke protocol, waving off her handmaid, and swam to see for herself. A baby boy on a raft.

She knew the standing order. A princess had no choice but to comply. Yet resistance rose in her and as she drew him out of the water, it came to her: she would be his mother. A death edict would be overturned by an act of hospitality.

//

One boy–that was all even the royal daughter could save from the Great River. But when she embraced him, she embraced them all. When she determined life for him, unbeknownst to her, she chose life for all the mothers’ sons. It just seemed so small and insignificant that day in the water.

She would continue to look at the massive pyramids rising on the horizon, see the hoards of Hebrew men enslaved in the brickyards and know babies continued to perish in the waters. The scale of injustice loomed large and all she could do was groom her son to possess different sensibilities than the Egyptian elite and more compassion than the taskmasters. The Hebrew liberation songs still tangled in her spirit, she knew she was raising a revolutionary, not a ruler.

Confronted with undeniable injustice, one woman offered her small stroke of resistance. She decided that even her own privilege and complicity wouldn’t keep her from contributing a small thing toward liberation for her son and all the other mothers’ sons. She dared to become a subversive under Pharaoh’s roof.

Bithiah could be seen as a patron saint for adoptive mothers. But she didn’t adopt the boy because she wanted to be a mother; she took him in to avert one more death on her watch. Welcoming a Hebrew boy into Pharaoh’s household wouldn’t endear her to the family or elevate her status–quite the opposite. What she did was force the empire to get their mind around an Egyptian son with Hebrew blood. She made his humanity as undeniable as the unjust structures around him.

Bithiah leveraged what privilege she had by making adoption an act of restitution. She demonstrated that liberation comes from unexpected places in small acts of subversion. Her resistance looked tame as adopted child, solidarity with mothers from the other side of the Great River and raising her son in the lap of luxury.

Only years later when Moses broke the back of Pharaoh’s empire, leading the Hebrews across the Red Sea into freedom, was Bithiah revealed as a truly dangerous woman.

Her one small act contributed to the emancipation of thousands. And she knew she wasn’t the only one… other dangerous women on both sides of the Great River made liberation possible one small step at a time. This is our story–nothing is too small when in service to God’s freedom song.

______________

Image credit: Hassan

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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Kelley Nikondeha
  • Naomi Williams

    Kelley – your writing completely undoes me every time and unfailingly makes me love Jesus more. I have never, ever thought about this story in such a way – thank you. I somehow knew when I saw the title of today’s post in my inbox that it would be one of yours – you have the ability to weave our stories into the Great, sweeping narrative in a way which sounds like a song which makes us braver. I am so grateful and so stirred by this:

    Her one small act contributed to the emancipation of thousands. And she knew she wasn’t the only one… other dangerous women on both sides of the Great River made liberation possible one small step at a time. This is our story–nothing is too small when in service to God’s freedom song.

    • Naomi, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad we can connect via words! Bithiah makes me feel able to be brave, even as I struggle with matters of privilege and my own complicity in current systems of injustice. Small acts of resistance matter!

  • Sandy Hay

    I had not heard this correlation before. It’s powerful…as is your writing. this is getting shared.

  • So beautiful. I could see the sun, feel the sand and taste the tears in the writing. The story brought to life.

  • A breathtaking story, beautifully told. Thanks, Kelley.

    • Thank you, Esther. Her story continues to speak to me, season after season.

  • “Her one small act contributed to the emancipation of thousands.”

    YES!

    So beautifully told, friend.

  • Bev Murrill

    OH.MY.GOD!

    Kelley, I’d like to use this … This has so much raw power. Shows the potency of the invisible. Describes the power of the powerless. Shows us that there is nothing impossible, if we make the choices to not take no for an answer.

    • Well… it’s part of a book I’m working on, actually!

      • Bev Murrill

        Good! It needs to be read.

  • Johanna

    Wow, absolutely beautiful. Thank you, Kelley.

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  • pastordt

    Oh my, this is wonderful, Kelley!! As you can see, I am WAY behind on my reading and trying to get caught up on this Friday evening. What a wonderful thing to read as I begin – thank you!!

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