Bible Study: “She Had to Keep Him Hidden” – Experiences of Trauma in the Lineage of Moses

by Dr. Beverly Wallace

Dr. Beverly Wallace

In this study, we are going to explore trauma in the story of baby Moses—the trauma of a mother protecting her son, the trauma of a child sister entrusted with watching over her baby brother, the trauma of being an orphaned son, the generational trauma of the descendants of Moses. But before we  explore this scripture, let’s consider the effects of trauma on our physical bodies.

Trauma and the Body

Trauma is a physical or mental injury typically caused by an event. It is a stress so great and unexpected that it cannot be defended against, coped with, or managed well. The event stunts and often immobilizes. Coping skills are frozen; defense mechanisms fail. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the survival response is triggered, causing the person to fight, flee or freeze.

A person’s body may respond in a number of ways in the wake of a traumatic event. People who have experienced trauma can feel numb, sad, depressed or exhausted. They can be tired and disconnected. They can be combative and disagreeable. Many people try to hide these emotions, and some will retreat from relationships with friends or family to attempt to protect themselves. Trauma affects our brains, but it also has a lasting impact on our physical bodies.

In his book My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menaken writes that our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brain.[i] This knowledge is typically expressed as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness. This knowledge is stored in our bodies as “wordless stories”[ii].  These are stories about what is safe and what is dangerous. It is in the body that we have our hopes and our fears, where we reflexively fight, flee or freeze.

Consider these questions:

  • What happens in your body when you experience a moment of high stress and fear?
  • How does knowing about trauma’s effects on a person’s body affect your views about trauma?If trauma can be passed down through genetics, what does that suggest about the descendants of Moses?

The Trauma of a Mother and Sister

Read Exodus 1:15-22 and Exodus 2:1-4.

Moses’ mother’s name was Jochebed. She bore two children before Moses was born. The first, Aaron, was born before the Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys should be killed. The second, Miriam, was born after this decree. Through her pregnancy with Miriam, Jochebed knew that if the child was born a boy, Pharaoh would order that he be killed. For many months, Jochebed would have felt the stress and anticipation of wondering whether this child would be a boy in danger or a girl who was safe. These stress hormones would also have been present in the child in her womb. What a relief it must have been when Miriam was born a girl, who would be safe.

When she conceived again, this pattern of stress would have repeated itself, passing itself to the child who would be named Moses. Only this time, the child was born a boy, and Jochebed refused to allow him to be a victim of the Pharaoh’s declaration.

On the bank of the Nile, the lifeline of civilization, Jochebed placed her child. Miriam watched from a distance to see what would happen to him. Having no other choice, a mother gave away her son. Having no other choice, a sister—still a child—watched to see what would happen to her baby brother. Whether they knew it or not, the trauma of the homicide of male children was within their bodies.

Consider these questions:

  • How do you see trauma showing up in the experiences of Jochebed, Miriam and Moses?
  • What hope might Jochebed and Miriam have clung to in these moments?
  • Where does God show up in these moments of stress and trauma?

The Trauma of an Orphaned Son

Moses, for all intents and purposes, was an orphan—a child who has been given away by his birth mother. As Fanny Brewster writes in her book Archetypal Grief—Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss, slave children, even when living on the same plantation with their natural birth mothers, were most often without the privilege of truly being with them in any consistent kind of mother-child way[iii]. In Moses’ situation, he was with his mother in his youngest days, but after he was adopted and weaned, he was no longer connected to his birth family.

 Consider these questions:

  • How might you understand Moses in a new way when viewed through the lenses of his trauma experiences?
  • What might have been some of his continued trauma experiences as a young child growing up in a different household? As a teen? As a young man?
  • How might you see the reaction of trauma evidenced in the mindset of Amram, Moses’ father, who could not protect his child?

The Midwives’ Resistance

In Exodus 1, we read that Pharaoh directed the midwives to allow any baby girls delivered to live but to kill the baby boys. Midwives Shiphrah and Puah resisted this directive, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew mothers delivered their babies before the they were able to arrive at the birth. When faced with a stress as great as the order to end newborn lives, the midwives chose to fight back by not following this order and doing their part to protect lives of babies such as Moses.

Consider these questions:

  • How do you see trauma showing up in the experiences of Shiphrah and Puah?
  • Who in our world needs defending and protection? What can you do to resist unfair and inequitable laws and systems?

Epigenetic Trauma in God’s People Today

I write this in the midst of a pandemic, on the week’s anniversary of the killing of another male child. I write this as I think of an adult male child George Floyd who called for his mother, whose last breath after he told the authorities he could not breathe was to call to the one who gave him life. I write this also as a sister who, when her own brother died, sat by him in his hospice room and listened as he took his last breath, literally closed his eyes. We often don’t know the impact of such traumatic experiences.

Since we are the children of God, then within our bodies, within our DNA are also the experiences of those who have come before us. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors—intergenerational transmission of trauma, trauma passed on in the expression of our DNA. Might we still be living with the traumatic experience of Jochebed, the mother of the liberator of God’s people? Might we have within us the experiences of Moses and Miriam? Might we respond as Shiphrah and Puah with the resiliency to resist engaging in activities that are harmful to a community even though communities of people are being hurt and traumatized?

The Good News is that we are here. The Good News is that mending can take place. We can find the resources that will allow us to recognize the experiences and respond differently out of knowing.  Moses responded even in his woundedness. Miriam danced—perhaps dancing some of her pain away. When we are resilient, we have the capacity for flexibility and adaptability in mind, body and spirit. We can claim our wounded self—becoming wounded healers who reconcile broken human relationships for the development of a just society. Epigenetic changes can be reversible depending on the response to the new environment. With love, trust, respect and caring at the center, we can proceed with care.

We can be part of the healing process. Acknowledging the pain, becoming self-aware of how the body is reacting, knowing our strengths (and weaknesses) and understanding why we do what we do is so important in the healing process. We can recognize trauma that has been experienced. We can see and feel how it shows up in our bodies. We can find resiliency. And with the power of God and the Holy Spirit, a mending of one’s hearts and one’s body, mind and spirit can begin to be realized.

Consider these questions:

  1. As persons who might have experienced trauma, how might your responses differ if we acknowledge the pain of the traumatic experiences?
  2. Epigenetic changes can be reversible depending on the response to the new environment. How might we as Christians work to change environments in order to reduce the impact of traumatic experiences? What do you see is the difference between mending and healing?
  3. What might it mean to engage in relationship development differently if we understood the effects of trauma? What is our call as Christians as we understand the impact of trauma on our brothers and sisters—known and unknown?

[i] Menaken, Resmaa (2017). My Grandmother’s Hand – Rationalize Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.  Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Brewster, Fanny (2019). Archetypal Grief – Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss. New York: Routledge Press

Dr. Beverly Wallace, an ordained Lutheran clergywoman, is the Associate Professor of Congregation and Community Care at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has authored several articles and book chapters including: “Hush No More: Constructing an African American Lutheran Womanist Ethic” in Mary Streufert’s Transformative Lutheran Theology – Feminist, Womanist, Mujerista Perspective, the co-author of the book African American Grief, and is a contributor to “Luther’s Small Catechism with African Descent Reflections”. She is really proud of her article recognizing the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of African American Lutheran Women entitled, “The Slay Factor”.   

A native of Brooklyn, New York, previously residing in Atlanta and now living between St. Paul, Minnesota where she teaches and North Carolina where she is caring for her elderly mother, Dr. Wallace has a passion for the work of healing for God’s people – physical, psychological, and spiritual healing.  She is trained in “Community Resiliency Model” (CRM) as well as the Association of Black Psychologist’s, “Emotional Emancipation” both focused on healing trauma and is currently working to address cultural trauma in a Purpose Built Community in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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