A Bawdy Irish Ballad Relates How Three Women Protected the Infant Moses

Another baby has been in the news in Israel these last weeks.

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Pharaoh’s daughter and baby Moses: She persuaded her Da to keep the child. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1877, oil on canvas.
Pharaoh’s daughter and baby Moses: She persuaded her Da to keep the child. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1877, oil on canvas. Credit: Wikimedia

The Finding of Moses

Zozimus (Michael Moran)

On Egypt's banks, contagious to the Nile
The auld Pharaoh's daughter, she went to bathe in style
She took her dip and she came unto the land
And to dry her royal pelt she ran along the strand
A bulrush tripped her whereupon she saw
A smiling babby in a wad of straw
She took him up and says she in accents mild
"Thunderin' Jayzus girls, but which of yis owns the child!?"

She took him up and she gave a little grin
For she and Moses were standing in their skin,
"Bedad now" says she "it was someone very rude
Left a little baby by the river in his nude."
She took him to her auld lad sitting on the throne
"Da," says she, "will you give the boy a home?"
"Bedad now," says he, "sure I've often brought in worse.
Go my darling daughter and get the child a nurse."

An auld blackamore woman among the crew
Cried out, "You royal savage, what's that to do with you?
Your royal ladies is too meek and mild
To beget dishonestly this darling little child."
"Ah then," says the Pharaoh, "I'll search every nook
From the Phoenix Park down to Donnybrook
And when I catch a hoult of the bastards father
I will kick him from the Nile down to the Dodder."

Well they sent a bellman to the market square
To see if he could find a slavey there
But the only one now that he could find
Was the little young one that left the child behind
She came up to the Pharaoh, a stranger, mareyah
Never lettin' on that she was the baby's ma
And so little Moses got his mammy back
Which shows that co-in-ci-dence is a nut to crack.

Good stories remain good no matter how and how often they are retold. This week, the story of the finding and rescue of baby Moses is retold in the Torah portion Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) read in synagogues.

Three heroines use their impressive powers: Yocheved the mother of Moses and Miriam his big sister employ their guile to keep an infant alive; and Pharaoh’s daughter charms her father into providing the foundling with a home and education, without which the history the world would have been different.

Two Jewish women defy a bloodthirsty policy, and the daughter of a cruel father, an Egyptian princess whose name we’d love to know, does not care whose child the baby is.

One moral of the story seems to be: Good women do everything to ensure that babies don’t get killed, defying nastiness perpetrated by bad men.

Zozimus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In his bawdy retelling of the story as an oral ballad, to delight his audience, the blind street bard Michael Moran (1794-1846), known as Zozimus, added a gossip’s speculation, that the princess or a handmaidens was the real mother of a bastard child, and made local Dublin references: Phoenix Park, Donnybrook and the Dodder River. “Mareyah” is an Anglicized spelling of the skeptical Irish interjection mar dhea: “as if it were so.”

Meanwhile in Israel, other people’s babies have been in the news. Recent footage showed dancing men and boys at a wedding brandishing weapons  and one stabbing a picture of tiny Ali Saad Dawabsheh, in support of radical Jewish arsonists suspected of having burned him to death as he slept in his home in the West Bank village of Duma.

The celebrants’ mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives were dancing off-screen, but were any women as good as Pharaoh’s daughter among them in the run-ups to the killing, the celebratory re-enactment and their aftermaths? We haven’t heard from them yet. Did any girls and women associated with the Orthodox right try to prevent or condemn the killing and the dancing? Are all these women are actively complicit, passively enablers or simply too cowed by what one critic from within religious Zionism, Rabbi Daniel Landes, has called a psychosis of “penises and daggers?”

*Musing: If you were to come across a child of unknown origin floating in a basket on a river, what would you do?"

*Bonus: The ballad, sung by the Wolfe Tones

The Wolfe Tones - The Finding Of Moses