Shemote by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Shemote: The Two Mothers of Moses

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Evening in the Royal Capital of Thebes, Reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II, 1279-1212. Two women are sitting and working in the Palace’s Royal Women’s Chambers.  One is PRINCESS BINT-ANATH, daughter of Ramesses’s second queen, Istnofret. She is calling out orders to a young scribe, who is seated in the corner and busily etching her words on soft clay tablets, which he adds to a rapidly-growing pile. Another young servant scoops them upto be baked in a kiln and given to the Mail Camel Corps for speedy delivery.

The second woman is YOCHEVED, a Hebrew. She is weaving green rushes and palm leaves together to build reed baskets, which she completes speedily and piles in a corner. Her daughter MIRIAM, a young woman in her mid-twenties with long black hair and dark eyes, is assisting her.

Bint-Anath (to the Scribe): Khosroe, write up that order of wheat to be sent to my Royal Bodyguard Troop “Princess’s Own,” in Luxor. I want my soldiers to be well-fed; they are responsible for My royal person.

Khosroe: Immediately, Your Majesty. It shall be done. You there—Boy! (The other young man leaps forward, grabs the clay tablet, and races out of the room to oversee its baking in the kiln.)

Bint: Did you make certain that fresh chariot-wheels will be sent to General Harakhte, as well? Make certain that the wheels are from Kamose, the Royal Wagoneer-Manufacturer; his are the best. I want no inferior equipment for my boys. That is why I labelled their Regiment “Flowers of Bint-Anath.” Let the world know that these soldiers belong to me!

Khosroe: It shall be done, Madame.

Bint (speaking softly and dangerously): Do so, Khosroe, and do it speedily, you were best. If you fail—if that chariot equipment of which we spoke—the bows and arrows, armor for the prow, and helmets for both driver and archer—I will see you beaten with an iron flail, while I enjoy your—discomfiture—from my chamber window.

Khosroe (falls on his face): I salute the Royal Princess, before whose glory the Sun is but a flyspeck! It shall be done—

Bint (smiling): A flyspeck? That is good, Master Khosroe, very good. I have doubts about your writing—wheat is spelled with an “h”—but I may choose not to flog you, for your wit.

Khosroe (smiling; it is clear that he and the Princess have a good and close friendship): As you wish, My Princess, before whom the earth trembles, and Mother Nile overflows!

Bint: Oh, enough, Khosroe! You exaggerate your hyperbole in praising me, and try my patience by not sending forth those clay tablets. Off with you!

(Khosroe exits, rapidly)

Yocheved (mildly): Majesty, don’t you think you were a bit hard on the boy?

Bint: I will be Princess to those who need commands, and a friend (she smiles upon Yocheved) to those to whom I choose to give my friendship—and protection. Miriam?

Miriam (falls upon the floor before the Princess): I await your orders, My Liege.

Bint: Oh, do get up; I like to look at you. You seem a younger simulacrum of your mother. And your mother and I are old friends. Do you know why?

Miriam (sighing): Because you are both mothers to my brother, Moses. How I wish you were a mother to me, as well!

Yocheved: Miriam, Dear, don’t trouble the Princess with your petty requests. Moses is our most important child, as you know.

Miriam (angry; looking at her mother): I wish—I wish—

Yocheved (firmly): Perhaps you had better leave, my dear. And watch how you speak to your elders.

(Miriam stomps out, clearly miffed and rejected)

Yocheved: Ah, children! Are they a blessing or a bane, Bint-Anath?

Bint: It is easy for you to take them so lightly, Yocheved dear—but I was unable to produce any children for either my husband, Pinedjem, or Moses’s grandfather, Ramesses II.

Yocheved: I apologize, Majesty. I spoke out of turn.

Bint: Think nothing of it. Oh—have you seen our headstrong son, Moses, lately?

(Suddenly, a patrol of three Royal Egyptian Military Police enters the room, without knocking)

Bint: Captain! How dare you come into my Royal Chambers without permission, and especially when I am in purdah?

Captain Intef (with a nod; he is a military man, with no patience for women, even royalty): Begging your pardon humbly, Madame Princess On-Whom-Ra-Sheds-Bountiful-Rays: we are here in search of a—begging your pardon, Ma’am—a murderer.

(Both women gasp and recoil in horror)

Bint: Do you dare harass My Majesty with such commonalities? Be off with you!

Captain (bowing, but not prostrating himself): Again, Madame, I entreat you: the murderer is someone with whom both of you are acquainted, and His Majesty, Ra save him! Himself ordered that we question you.

Bint: I will submit to no questioning. I am Daughter of Horus, the Hawk-God, and you rabble are mere mortals. Be off with you—now!

Captain: Well then (pointing at Yocheved), you surely cannot object to our arresting and questioning your protegee over there, that Hebrew woman. We caught her daughter, one Miriam, leaving the palace, asked her a few questions, and let her go. We can always arrest her again, Majesty—that is, if you choose not to cooperate. We have the Royal Torture Chambers, after all.

Bint: This Hebrew woman, as you call her, is a princess of her own Tribe of Levi, and I will not sit by and watch you threaten her. Be off, I say!

Captain (grimly): Begging your pardon again, Madame, but I must report your response to our Chief Magistrate Anather, who may well order our return—with a larger force, and chains.

Bint: Do you threaten me, you traitorous Hittite scum? Best stop your talking now, and depart with dispatch, or I will have you flailed with red-hot irons!

Sergeant (to Captain): Sir, we best be going. There is nothing to be found in this room; I looked around while you were palavering with Her Majesty.

(They go out; Bint-Anath glares after them)

Yocheved: Princess Bint-Anath—Your Majesty—I am afraid.

Bint: Afraid of what, my dear friend?

Yocheved: Moses—our son, Moses—told me of his plans, just yestereve.

Bint: And those plans were—?

Yocheved: To kill the overseer he saw beating on a Hebrew slave—one Elyasaf ben Deuel, Moses said.

Bint: Fear not. My authority will protect him.

Yocheved: How can you, knowing that my people are not protected by Egyptian law? The Pharaoh, Ramesses II, has himself enslaved my people. There is nothing you can do to help him—oh, my boy, my boy….

Bint: I did what I could: I instructed Staff Sergeant Kek, a Midianite, to guide our wayward, headstrong boy to that land. Moses will be able to hide out there, and be safe.

Yocheved: You did? Oh, may My God bless you—you are a marvel!

Bint (smiling): Yes: I suppose that I am.)

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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