But to come to those who, by their own ability and not through fortune, have risen to be princes, I say that Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and such like are the most excellent examples. And although one may not discuss Moses, he having been a mere executor of the will of God, yet he ought to be admired, if only for that favour which made him worthy to speak with God--Machiavelli, The Prince
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the river-side; and she saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it. And she opened it, and saw it, even the child; and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him, and said: 'This is one of the Hebrews' children.'--Exodus 2: 5-6
While discussing the Hebrew Bible's embrace of civil disobedience to unjust laws and rulers in his God and Politics in Esther, Yoram Hazony calls attention to the quoted passage of Exodus (p.51). The act of saving Moses from the water by the daughter of Pharaoh is indeed an act of disobedience to her father, the Pharaoh, who had ordained (twice) that all Jewish boys must be killed in Exodus 1:16 & 1:22 . Surprisingly, this act of disloyalty (to her father and, thereby, the law) is not punished by the Pharaoh. (Some day I'll discuss the Quran's alternative account of these events.)
Moses grows up as her (adopted) son (presumably) at court. He somehow retains a sense that he is Jewish because he feels connected to the other Jews in Egypt. When adult, Moses flees Egypt after becoming concerned about the Pharaoh's likely response to the consequences of his taking the law in his own hand (he had killed an Egyptian who had been abusing a Jew). Before Moses leads his people out of Egypt he has already been an at-risk-minority and a (criminal) refugee. The Pharaoh eventually dies; the Scriptural narrative do not say what happens to his daughter. But here I wish to dwell a bit longer on her.
Hazony (see his note 15 on 220) goes beyond the biblical text and draws on Talmud Megillah 13a in order to claim that in her act of saving the helpless child, Pharaoh's daughter becomes "a Jew because she renounced her servitude to the idol in order to do what is right." We may call this (acting from conscience against immoral man-made law and rejecting man-made idols) a moral conception of Jewishness one that is not tied to blood or nation. On this moral conception of Jewishness anybody can be Jewish (in this moral sense). After all, the Egyptian princess had not been exposed to revelation. (This idea echoes the treatment of Abraham's true faith in the Quran and Spinoza).* This naturally raises the question: what could generate her exemplary behavior? On this point the otherwise extremely terse biblical narrative of this event is explicit.
For, the act of saving the boy from the water is, in addition to her disobedience, simultaneously, an act of compassion (וַתַּחְמֹל from חמל to feel mercy) by the daughter of Pharaoh. Before she thinks of adoption -- perhaps she was infertile (and this would explain her disappearance from the Biblical narrative) -- she has to feel some kind of generosity toward the vulnerable (weeping) creature in need. Such compassion to or pity for vulnerable strangers is not a special property of daughters of the Pharaohs, but in principle, available to all of us. It is part of our common humanity.**
Of course, as the daily headlines remind us, in practice such compassion is not abundant; it is an important question in political psychology what set of institutions and norms could help cultivate and make robust and fruitful such compassion. Because we ordinarily cannot rely on the compassion of others we need reasonably just laws and judges.
Even though the Jews initially reject Moses as their judge/ruler ('Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? thinkest thou to kill me, as thou didst kill the Egyptian?' Exodus 2:14; this echoes Genesis 37:8), Moses becomes the (godly) vehicle for generating self-government under a moral law and the systematic rejection of idols. (In fact, even such sober thinkers as Machiavelli [recall] and Spinoza (recall) hold him up as en exemplary political founder.) It is easy to see in this a call to (just) political self-determination. It surely is this, too. But the Hebrew Bible is explicit that the whole narrative of Jewish liberation would not have gotten off the ground without the disobedient and compassionate intervention of Pharaoh's daughter. National political success, even when the product of great resourcefulness (as Hazony and Machiavelli both note), may originate not just in fortune or chance events (Pharaoh's daughter does not spend all day her time bathing in the river), but also in acts of basic kindness from strangers.
How to obtain political self-determination with sufficient unity without undermining the very possibility of basic mercy toward strangers, we may label the political question.
*Spinoza describes this kind of moral Jewishness as having or acting in accord with "the Spirit of Christ."
**See, also, Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments.