Jacob and his sons stayed in Egypt until the old man died. Then Joseph carried his body back to Hebron in a great funeral procession, and having buried him beside his wife, who had been dead for a long time, came back again to Egypt.
The Hebrews expected to return to Canaan soon, but that was not to be. In course of time Joseph and his brothers died, but still the Hebrews, or Israelites, as they were also called, stayed on in Egypt, and in time grew into a great nation. Then a new king came to the throne, who was afraid of their numbers, and made slaves of them all, forcing them to make bricks and build for him great walls, forts, and buildings of all kinds.
They were taken in gangs, guarded by soldiers, to the place where the brown river clay was thick; there they dug it out with spades, trod it with their feet, and worked it with their hands until it was wet and soft. Then they shaped it with little square boxes into brown bricks for building. Other workers placed the bricks in baskets and carried them away to the boats in the river, for the boatmen to take up to the great cities where the walls were being built.
Some of the Israelites toiled at building these high brick walls, storehouses, forts, and even cities for the great king; and it is not unlikely that some of the Pyramids, which we now see standing on the banks of the Nile, were built by these poor slaves in the days now long gone by.
Others, again, were driven out to the fields to drag wooden ploughs up and down like cattle, to dig with small wooden spades, and to clear the land of stones; and when the harvest came, they cut down the crops and threshed out the grain, and carried it off to their master’s storehouses.
Others had to stand on the bank of the river all day long, filling buckets with water and emptying them into little drains that ran away into the fields. And over all these slaves were slave-drivers, who stood beside them with long whips to lash them if they did not work hard enough. So the poor Israelites were very unhappy, and often prayed to God that they might be set free again; for they were the lowest labourers in the land, toiling for those who gave them no money for their work.
But for all this they increased more and more in numbers, until the king was afraid that they might some day side with his enemies and fight against him, and then he would be in great danger; so he treated them more cruelly still, and at last ordered all the boy children that were born to the Israelites to be thrown into the river.
There was great weeping and sorrow amongst the Hebrew mothers when they heard of the king’s cruel order. And they did many strange and brave things to save their little ones, and did indeed save many of them; but many others perished, so that there was grief instead of joy in the poor Hebrew huts whenever a baby boy was born.
Now, Jochebed, one of those Hebrew mothers, lived in the city of the great king, so close to the side of the blue Nile that the white walls of the royal palace were reflected in the water. She had a little baby boy, so beautiful that she told her husband he must not be thrown into the river where the crocodiles were, for she herself would save him alive.
She had two other children-Miriam, a girl of fifteen, and Aaron, a little boy of three-and she told them that they were not to tell any one they had a little baby brother in the house lest the king’s soldiers should come and take him away and throw him into the river. And she kept her little baby carefully hidden in the house, running to him every time he cried lest he should be heard outside, and trembling each time a soldier passed her door.
For three months she was able to keep her child hidden from the slave-drivers. Often did she pray to God that he might never be found; and she loved her baby all the more because of the danger he was in.
But at last a day came when his mother could keep him hidden no longer. With a sorrowful heart she saw that she must get him away, although at the moment she could not tell how to do so. Then she weighed him in her arms, measured him with her hands, and made up a plan to save him such as only a mother’s heart could devise.
She had seen a fair Egyptian princess coming down from the palace every morning to bathe in the river at a place not far from her hut; and she thought that if this princess could only see her lovely baby boy she would save him.
So this Hebrew mother went down to the river and gathered an armful of strong reeds. With these she wove a stout basket long enough and wide enough to hold her baby boy. Then she painted it inside and out with black bitumen, until not a drop of water could get in. She lined it next with soft cloth of red and green, as mothers line their cradles, and then it was ready to be placed on the water and save the life of her little boy.
The morning sun shone brightly on the broad surface of the Nile, turning the Pyramids on the banks into dull gold, and lighting up the palaces of the city; and while the white-robed priests went up to the temple roof to beat the brass gong and chant their hymn to the morning, the poor Hebrews flocked in thousands out of their little yellow huts, to do their heavy tasks amongst the wet, brown clay by the riverside.
Taking Miriam with her, Jochebed, the Hebrew mother, stole out of her hut, carrying a little black basket shaped like a boat, with something asleep in it, hidden under her wide blue cloak. Crossing the fields, she went down to the riverside and along the path until she came to the beach of golden sand where the red-feathered hoopoes strutted in the sun-the place where the princess came to bathe, not far from the lilies of white and yellow.
As they went she told Miriam what she was to do when the princess came, and then stepping down to the water’s edge at a place where the lilies grew thick, she opened the basket, kissed something in it, and covered it over again. Stepping into the water, she gently put down the little basket to float among the water-flags, where the princess could not help but see it as she came along the path on the bank above.
With tears running down her cheeks, this Hebrew mother turned away, praying, as she went, that all would be well with her little child; while Miriam, going a short way off, sat down on the sand to watch until the lovely princess came.
Slaves in red tunics, with swords at their sides, bowed low down to the earth as they opened the palace gates to let out a bright throng of girls, laughing and singing as they went on their way down to the river; and the wind blew aside their thin robes of white and pink and soft blue, showing bare feet thrust into little slippers of red and yellow leather. Foremost of the band walked the young princess, holding a white bud of the lotus lily and smelling it as she went, while slave girls kept the hot rays of the sun from her head with fans of peacock feathers. She, too, had red slippers on her feet, and her neck and arms shone like pale copper; but she wore no chains or rings, for she was going to bathe, and her brown eyes looked with pleasure upon the cool waters of the broad river.
She did not notice the Hebrew girl sitting on the sand as she walked along the river’s bank; but in a few moments she saw a strange little black object floating among the green flags, and at once sent some of her maidens to bring the strange thing to her.
Running down to the water, the girls lifted out the little dripping basket, wondering what was in it that made it feel so heavy; but soon a little cry from within told them, and they went quickly with their burden to the princess, to ask what they should do with it.
The dark eyes of the Hebrew girl were watching them as she sat playing at odd and even with round stones from the river-a favourite game of the children of Egypt. She saw them bring the basket to the princess. She saw her smile, and noticed her pleased cry when they opened the lid; and she heard her speaking kindly to the little child, which was crying loudly. The girls were crowding round the open basket, looking in at the child; and when they placed the basket upon the ground and looked about them in doubt, Miriam knew that her time had come, and went timidly forward.
“This is one of the Hebrew children,” the gentle princess said, with pity in her voice, as she looked at the baby’s red cheeks, so different from the brown cheeks of the Egyptian babies. The little boy still wept loudly, and the princess’s heart was touched, for he would not stop crying. What was to be done?
Running with bare feet upon the hot sand, Miriam, clad in the rough red and blue of a Hebrew slave girl, drew near to the princess, and kneeling down at a little distance, said,-
“Shall I run and call a nurse from among the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”
The princess knew that such baby boys were to be thrown into the river; but perhaps the meaning of it all dawned upon her as she talked with her maidens, for she turned with a smile to the kneeling girl, and said simply, “Go.”
With light feet and a beating heart Miriam sped away to the spot where her mother was hiding, calling to her in Hebrew as she went to come quickly. The princess and her maidens looked with amusement at the Hebrew woman as she came swiftly forward and knelt before them; and the whole of the mother’s little plot was clearly seen in her blushing cheeks and tear-filled eyes. This clever little slave girl had found a Hebrew nurse very, very quickly!
“Take this child away and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages,” the princess said to the kneeling woman; and she smiled again when the little child ceased weeping and held up his little chubby arms as soon as this Hebrew woman’s face bent over him. She was indeed the mother, but the princess would tell no one, for thenceforth the boy was to be as her own child.
When the little child grew up this good princess took him into her lovely palace to be her son; and she called him Moses, because that name meant that he was taken out of the water. And there is a pretty story told about this same princess by an old Jewish writer, though it is not to be found in our Bible.
He says that the princess was so proud of the boy that one day she brought the little fellow to her father the king, that he might see how beautiful he was. The king took off his golden crown and put it on the child’s curly head; but the little boy took it off again, and putting it upon the ground, tried to stand upon it, which amused the king and his courtiers very much. The old Jewish writer says that this showed how the little boy would one day force this king to set free the Hebrews, which indeed he did, as the Bible tells us. For Moses became, when he grew up, the great leader of the Israelites, who led them out of Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, where in time, after much fighting, they founded a kingdom of their own.