“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill…” – Exodus 11
She didn’t understand the reasons for the all the things she was seeing. All she knew is that the gods were at war.
A wild-eyed prophet from the desert had showed up a few months before, slamming his walking stick against the marble floors of Pharaoh’s palace and declaring that the God of the Desert wanted Pharaoh to let the slaves go free.
She’d heard rumors that the God of the Desert was not like the other gods. They said he was more powerful than any of the images painted on the walls of Pharaoh’s court. They said he was kind and generous and didn’t demand the blood of human sacrifice. They said He cared about slaves, that he heard the cry of the oppressed and came down to bring them freedom.
She had watched as Pharaoh resisted. She saw his ego swell like the Nile river when it overflows its banks in springtime, heard him give the command to double the workload of the slaves who made the bricks to build his monuments. Though their arms ached from long hours in the hot sun, there was no rest. Late into the night they foraged for stubble, backs bent under the weight of the Pharaoh’s vindictive whims.
And she watched the God of the Desert meet force with force. She saw the Nile overflow with blood, watched in horror as every kind of unclean creature crawled from its banks and made the Pharaoh’s palace, her home, a living hell. Like the slaves in Pharaoh’s brickyard, her own work doubled. Though her arms already ached from long hours at the handmill, there was no rest. Late into the night she crawled down the hallways of the palace, wiping the bloody footprints tracked in from the river, sweeping out the bloated bodies of rotting frogs, her back bent under the weight of God’s plagues.
The only light in her weary life was her baby boy.
She lived for the smile that turned up the corners of his perfect little mouth. She lived for his innocent laugh. She lived to protect him from the harsh world she knew — a world where some people are just born slaves, a world where gods clash and nameless girls are left mopping up the blood.
Her body had never belonged to her. Ever since she was a child herself, she had felt the rough touch of men stumbling drunkenly to her straw mat to use her like a dirty rag. She felt the weight of their presence, uninvited, unavoidable. She felt their hot breath on the back of her neck, smelled the stench of wine and meat as they lost themselves inside her and then vanished.
Love had never been part of her story.
There was one man who whispered to her gently, who beguiled her with dreams and told her that he was not like all the other men. But when her belly began to swell with the life he planted in her, he too disappeared.
But she had this baby boy, this child who gave her a reason to keep breathing.
She didn’t know anything about the gods of egypt painted on the walls around her, or the God of the Desert who turned everything he touched to blood. These gods belonged to the men who drew battle lines in Pharaoh’s court. But when she looked into the eyes of that boy, she felt like she was gazing into the face of the Divine. Sometimes she imagined that the same magical hands that painted the constellations in the night sky had gently woven together her baby’s body within her own.
Now she heard whispers that the battle between gods was coming to a climax. Anticipation and dread hung heavy in the air like the clouds that roll in from the desert.
In the villages where other slaves made their homes, strange rituals were being born. The cry of lambs cut abruptly, blood dripping down doorframes. Perhaps this magic was part of the clash of the gods, some talisman that would protect them from the horror that was to come. She would never know. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. She didn’t have a lamb, or doorframes. She couldn’t even call her body her own.
All she had was her baby boy. As the darkness grew thicker she wrapped her arms around him tight as if she could protect him from the world she had known, as if she could protect him from the last of the plagues, as if she could protect him from the clash of the gods.
When she first heard the noise, she thought it was the low moan of the wind. But it rose like a wave, rolled toward her like the sea that surges toward the shore. She wrapped her arms tighter around her baby as the moan became a scream, a wail, a cry like the world had never heard before, a cry that would consume her.
Then she felt someone in the room with her, and braced herself for the rough touch of powerful hands. She felt his weight, uninvited, unavoidable. But he wasn’t here for her body. He was here for her baby boy.
And no matter how tightly she held her child against the darkness, she was helpless in the presence of the God of the Desert.
She was helpless as God wrapped his magical hands around her baby boy’s tiny neck and wrung the life from his beautiful brown body. Then she was lost in the wave of a cry that would never end.
When the sun rose behind the monuments of Pharaoh, the clash of the gods was over.
The God of the Desert was victorious, the God of slaves had defeated the gods of pharaoh.
In the villages where other slaves made their homes, celebration rose like a wave. A rowdy nation of liberated laborers hastily packed their bags and began a parade toward freedom, toward the promised land. Their songs of lament were replaced with songs of praise, praise for the God of the Desert who had heard their cry and set them free.
She watched the other slaves dance past as she knelt in the sand and hollowed out a shallow grave with her bare hands.
She watched them carry their babies on their shoulders as she kissed her boy one more time and covered his perfect face with the hot desert sand.
She didn’t understand why the God of the Desert had spared those children and taken hers. She didn’t understand why the God who hears the cry of the oppressed, had taken her child and abandoned her.
Maybe she was born from the wrong family. Maybe her skin was the wrong color. Maybe she prayed to the wrong constellations when she looked up at the night sky. She would never know. It wouldn’t matter anyway.
All she knew is that when gods clash, nameless girls are the ones left burying the bodies of the children they loved.
I am inspired by and indebted to Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph. D. Her teaching on womanist readings of the Torah has expanded my imagination for reading familiar old Bible stories.
published November 19, 2018
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