That was very hard for the poor people; but worse was to come. An order was issued one day which spread sorrow through all the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived. Every baby boy that was born was to be thrown into the river. Girl babies might be allowed to live, for they would be useful as slaves, but boys might grow up to fight for their country, and so they must be destroyed.
In one little house, not far from the great river Nile, a woman sat holding her tiny baby in her arms, while the tears ran down her cheeks. He was such a beautiful baby, so strong and fair and healthy; but the king's order was that he was to be thrown into the river, where the cruel, hungry crocodiles were waiting to snap up everything they could find for a meal. Jochebed, the poor mother, held her baby closer in her arms. No, she could not obey the king's order. She would try and hide the baby for a little while, at any rate.
It was easy to hide a baby while he was still tiny and slept most of the day; but when he grew bigger it was much more difficult. His sister Miriam did her best to help her mother; but any day, now that the baby was three months old, he might be discovered, and something must be done at once.
So Jochebed thought of a plan, and prayed to God that He would help her to carry it out. At the edge of the river there grew tall bulrushes, which, when cut down and dried, could be made into many useful things. Taking some of these bulrushes, she wove them into a little cradle with a cover to it, just like a little ark, and this she covered with a kind of pitch, so that not a drop of water could come through. Inside the cradle she made a soft bed, and laid the baby there while he was fast asleep, and set the ark afloat in the water where the bulrushes were growing. She knew that presently the great princess, Pharaoh's daughter, would come down to bathe in the river, and would notice the queer little ark floating there.
[Illustration: She laid the baby there while he was fast asleep.]
Very soon the royal procession came winding down from the palace towards the river, as the princess in her gorgeous robes made her way to bathe in the pool of the lotus flowers. But at the edge of the river she stopped. What was that among the bulrushes? It was no lotus flower, but a strange-looking covered basket, and she ordered her maidens to bring it to her.
The little ark was lifted out of the water and carried to the princess. There was surely something alive inside, and the princess was full of curiosity as she leaned down and lifted the cover to look in. Then she started back in amazement. The dearest little baby she had ever seen lay there, all rosy and fresh after his sleep, gazing up at her with wide-open eyes. The maidens crowded round, and the sight of all those strange faces was more than the baby could bear. He puckered up his face and began to cry.
The princess loved babies, and she had none of her own. That little wailing cry went to her heart. She guessed at once that this was one of the Hebrew babies which had been ordered to be destroyed, and she made up her mind that this beautiful boy should at least be saved.
All this time Miriam had been watching from her hiding-place close by, and with anxious, beating heart she came forward now. Could she help the princess? she asked. Should she run and find some Hebrew woman who might look after the baby?
Perhaps the princess guessed that the baby's mother would not be far off, and she must have smiled a little when a nurse was so quickly found. But she took no notice of that.
"Take this child away," she said, when Jochebed stood humbly before her, "and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages."
It was merely as a nurse that the mother was hired. The great princess meant to adopt the baby as her own. But he was safe, and Jochebed's heart was full of gratitude to God as she took her little son into her arms again.
As long as he needed a nurse the baby was left to be looked after by his mother in the little house by the river-side. The princess called him Moses, which means "drawn out," because he had been drawn out of the water, and she had made up her mind that as soon as he was old enough he should come to live with her at the palace, and be brought up as a prince. He would be treated just as if he was really her son.
[Illustration: She taught him about God.]
But his poor mother had him for those first precious years while he was still a little boy, and she did not waste one minute of that time in her training of him. She taught him about God, and told him all the wonderful stories about his own country, so that he should never forget that he belonged to God's people, even when he should become a prince in the Egyptian palace. Just as a gardener sows seeds in a garden which afterwards grow up into beautiful flowers, so she sowed the seeds of truth in the heart of her little son, which long afterwards were to blossom out and bear such wonderful fruit.
[Illustration: Beating him unmercifully with a long whip.]
Then when Moses was old enough to do without a nurse, she took him to the palace, and "brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son."
But deep down in his heart he never forgot his own people.
It happened one day that he saw one of the Egyptian taskmasters treating one of the poor Israelite slaves with great cruelty, beating him most unmercifully with a long whip. This made Moses so angry that he rushed in to defend the slave, and dealt the taskmaster such a blow that it killed him.
But instead of being grateful the Israelites would not trust him, and began to whisper the tale of how he had killed the Egyptian, so that Moses was obliged to flee for his life, leaving behind all the riches and honours he had enjoyed so long.
A very different kind of life began now for Moses. He journeyed far into the desert and joined company there with an Arab tribe, and wandered from place to place feeding their flocks and living the life of a shepherd.
But God had more difficult work for him to do than feeding sheep, and one day when he was in the desert he saw a strange sight. A bush was growing there, and in the middle of the bush a fire was burning, and the strange thing was that although the fire kept on burning fiercely the bush was not burnt at all. It was the Angel of the Lord that was in the midst of the fire, and as Moses drew near God called him by his name, and told him that he was to go back and set his people free from the tyranny of Pharaoh and lead them into the Promised Land.
[Illustration: In the middle of the bush a fire was burning.]
At first Moses said it was impossible for him to do this. His own people would not trust him, and he was no great speaker; he would certainly fail. But God bade him do his best, and Aaron his brother would speak for him; and above all God would be his helper.
[Illustration: "Arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people." Joshua i.2.]
So Moses returned to the land of Egypt and boldly asked Pharaoh to allow the people to go and worship God. Time after time Pharaoh refused, although God sent dreadful plagues to warn him. At last, however, when the angel of death killed all the eldest sons of the Egyptians, Pharaoh was terrified and said the people might go at once and take all their belongings with them.
[Illustration: The Land of Canaan lay stretched out before him.]
It was a great company of people that set out, and Moses the great leader guided them on their way. They had many adventures, and braved many dangers and difficulties, but God was always their shield and defence. He delivered them by parting the waters of the Red Sea and allowing them to walk over dry-shod when Pharaoh and his army were pursuing them. And when the pursuers tried to follow them, the waters rolled back, and the whole great army were swept away by the returning tide.
Yet in spite of God's care and goodness towards them, these Israelites were often ungrateful, and complained bitterly when they suffered any want. And it was always Moses whom they blamed.
Moses was very patient with them; but once he was so angry that he was tempted to disobey God's direction, and as a punishment God told him that though he should see the Promised Land from afar he would never enter it himself.
There on the mountain top he stood, gazing into the far distance, where the Land of Canaan, that fair land flowing with milk and honey, lay stretched out before him. Then he bowed his head to God's will. The murmuring people never saw their great leader again. He "was not, for God took him."