Magazine Article

Weeping at the Nile

A look at Moses and childhood trauma

Jarod Thomas
Weeping at the Nile
Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

Gabor Maté was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, in 1944. He came into the world just two months before Nazis marched into his motherland. During this horrific chapter of human history, an estimated 70 percent of the Jewish population in Hungary experienced unspeakable atrocities.

A medical doctor recognized for his work among the residents of skid row in the inner city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Dr. Maté has become well known for research on the link between trauma and addiction. Writing about his upbringing, he says:

“For the first 15 months of my life my father was away in a forced labor camp, and for most of that time neither of my parents knew whether the other was alive or dead. I was 5 months old when my grandparents were killed at Auschwitz. Many years later, not long before her own death at age 82 in Vancouver, my mother told me that she was so depressed after her parents’ murder that some days she got out of bed only to look after me. I was left alone in my crib quite often.

Two days after the Germans marched into Budapest, my mother called the pediatrician. ‘Would you come to see Gabi?’ she requested. ‘He has been crying almost without stop since yesterday morning.’ ‘I’ll come, of course,’ the doctor replied, ‘but I should tell you: All my Jewish babies are crying.’ ”1

Dr. Maté asks the question: “Now, what did Jewish infants know of Nazis, World War II, racism, genocide? What they knew—or rather, absorbed—was their parents’ anxiety.”2

What happens when political enemies invade your country, kill half of your countrymen, take those who remain and force them into cramped, unsanitary conditions? The statement “All of my Jewish babies are crying” indicates the experience of childhood trauma, well before any infant was aware of what was happening to them, as they internalized the stress of society and their homes.

Out of Evil, Something Good

Deep in the sacred record of history, another group of Jewish babies were crying. A pharaoh who feared neither God nor humans decided the best way to deal with a burgeoning immigrant class was to oppress, enslave, and burden them with heavy labor. But these were God’s people, and, under His care, their numbers only increased. Pharaoh resorted to darker measures: infanticide.

He instructed the Hebrew midwives: “ ‘When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex. 1:16, 17, ESV).

Not to be deterred, Pharaoh switched gears, creating an atmosphere of vigilante justice. He commanded anyone who saw an infant Hebrew boy to cast him into the Nile. Can you imagine what it would have been like to live in those days? What kind of stress and anxiety would young mothers be experiencing, living with the fear that someone might snatch away their child and toss him into the Nile?

It is into this milieu that Amram and his wife, Jochebed, delivered a baby boy whom we know as Moses. The Bible says, “The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months” (Ex. 2:2, ESV). The word tov has been translated as “fine,” “beautiful,” or healthy.”  The whole phrase in the original language, however, is an unmistakable echo of the Creation narrative: “God saw that it was good [tov].” Could it be that the birth of Moses signified a fresh iteration of God’s creative power? Despite fear, pain, social upheaval, and trauma, God is about to do something good.

“When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with . . . pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank” (verse 3, ESV). Why could she no longer hide him? He was only 3 months old; he wasn’t that big.
Was it because he was crying, and his mother’s attempts to soothe him were unsuccessful? It’s tempting to think that biblical characters were insulated from things we experience today. But as a vulnerable infant, Moses was certainly impacted by the same things we are—both while in utero and after delivery.

Interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel Seigel stresses that infants have four core developmental needs. They need to be seen, safe, secure, and soothed.3 Why soothed? Because infants and young children cannot yet internally regulate their emotions. They are dependent upon a mature caregiver—an external regulator—to assist them in understanding what they are feeling and help them learn to respond to stress. But what if that caregiver is depressed, anxious, or addicted? What if they are absent because of illness or death? Or what if they are preoccupied with an era of unprecedented infanticide? Some little ones may never develop appropriate tools to understand and manage their emotions.

Moses’ mother decided to conceal him the best way she knew how. She made her little boat and floated him in a secure location, his sister keeping a watchful eye at a safe distance. Moses was dearly loved. But was his caregiver able to soothe him as he floated alone on the great river? It’s not likely. How long he was in the basket, we don’t know, but God provided a rescuer. Pharaoh’s daughter, bathing in the river, noticed the basket among the reeds and called for it. “When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying” (verse 6, ESV).

There is no doubt that God intervened. Pharaoh’s daughter took pity on him, and Miriam, seeing an opportunity, arranged for Moses’ own mother to nurse and care for him while receiving official protection and a salary.

Losing Control

God smiled upon this child and spared his life. Could he be the coming deliverer? Jochebed must’ve wondered. She poured herself into parenting him, knowing that the time would come when she would have to hand him back over to Pharaoh’s daughter.

When Moses came of age, his life completely upended. He moved into his adopted home—a dramatically different environment than what he was familiar with. He was given the best education money could buy. He was groomed to be a military leader and to take the throne as the grandson of Pharaoh. But something lurked in his history—the same kind of childhood trauma that many of us have experienced. Moses had many advantages, but those early months—both in the womb and after his birth—made an indelible mark on his brain. One he carried with him for the rest of his life.

What do we know of Moses as an adult? He was a helper, with a well-developed sense of justice; he also struggled with impulse control—particularly his temper—and tended to take too much upon himself, as evidenced by his management struggles during the Exodus.

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (verses 11, 12).

Was this how God was going to deliver His people? Through impulsivity and violence? No. Patriarchs and Prophets describes this as a tactic learned in the court of Pharaoh. He “received a mold that disqualified him for the wonderful work he was to do, making him weak where he should have been strong.”4 But Moses’ reaction was more than a learned response. In his book The Development of the Unconscious Mind Dr. Allan Schore describes how infant males, when exposed to separation stress, exhibit lifelong struggles with their emotions, managing stress, and developing healthy attachments to others.5

Fearing harsh social and legal ramifications, Moses fled for Arabia.

Of Flocks and family

Something happened in Arabia that completely changed Moses’ trajectory. The Bible tells us that “the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3, ESV). How was he transformed from a self-sufficient, impulsive murderer to being one of the humblest on the planet?

We readily recognize the first factor: Moses had ample time learning of God in the wilderness. It was the tending of sheep that taught him to be a shepherd of God’s people. The long days alone helped him tune his heart to God’s presence as a source of guidance and strength. As Ellen White writes so eloquently: “When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God.”6

While this relationship with God can’t be minimized, there is a second aspect that is easy for us to overlook. Before Moses was a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks, Moses became a part of Jethro’s family. Jethro, the priest of Midian, was a God-fearing man. He invited Moses into his home and eventually entrusted Moses with the management of his assets and even one of his own daughters to wed. In the household of Jethro, Moses found longed-for relational security and stability. He gained a father figure and a trusted confidant and advisor.

Was this a happy ending for the meek and humble Moses? In Numbers 20, just eight chapters after this glowing reference, he loses his temper so severely that God says, I’m sorry, Moses, but I must hold you accountable. You misrepresented Me, and you can’t enter the Promised Land.

What happened? By God’s grace Moses was able to largely recover from the implicit trauma of his earliest days and from the difficulties of his teenage years. But during a time of severe stress triggered by the death of his sister and ungrateful, argumentative people, Moses lost control of himself once again. Perhaps you know this feeling. In times of stress and exhaustion the well-worn paths of unhelpful habits return without thought. The impact of childhood trauma seeps back into our adult lives.

But like Moses, God has made provision for our healing, even from traumas we may not remember. Jesus promises to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, who functions as an external regulator to help guide us through emotional distress, providing us with a sense of peace that the world can never give (see John 14:27, 28). It’s also necessary for us to remember that no one heals in a vacuum. Developing deep, secure, and authentic relationships with God and His people is critically important. This experience isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. A slow and steady growth is part of God’s sanctifying work in us. It’s the work of a lifetime. Do you sometimes feel that your life is out of control? that you act out emotional impulses unthinkingly? You are not alone. The Bible describes the champions of faith as having the same human frailties as we have (James 5:17). But through their example, God demonstrates His ability to redeem human sorrow and employ us as agents of His healing grace.  He promises to do this in us as we develop a secure attachment to Him and His people, learn to commune with Him in prayer, and trust the guidance of His Spirit.

1 Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2011), chap. 22 (Kindle version), retrieved from

2 Ibid.

3 Retrieved from

4 See Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 248.

5 Allan N. Schore, The Development of the Unconcious Mind (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2019), pp. 98, 99.

6 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 58.

Jarod Thomas

Jarod Thomas is an ordained minister currently pursuing a degree in clinical mental health counseling.