Exodus — Part 1
September 13, 2020
We’re beginning a new sermon series on the book of Exodus, which is really a story of becoming. Exodus is one of the most cherished and foundational narratives in scripture, as it recounts how the people of Israel became God’s people. “The exodus story includes wonderful, rich stories of the Israelite’s formative encounter with their God while wilderness wandering from promise to fulfillment” (Wilda Gafney).
It is in these stories that God is most clearly revealed as liberator, as a God who cares deeply for the plight of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the downtrodden. Exodus, as its name suggests, is a story of God’s involvement in moving us out from under the yoke of the oppressive powers, experiences and parts of life that keep us keeled over, unsure if we’ll ever be able to stand up straight again. God is liberator, and 2020 has certainly been a year that has brought about many circumstances, fears, and oppressive illnesses and powers that we need liberation from.
But before we dive into the book of Exodus together, I want to do a little Bible trivia with you. I invite you to stand up as you are able, or if you prefer, you can raise your hand. Now, I’m going to ask you about a few characters from the book of Exodus, to test you in your Exodus knowledge. I’ll say a name, and if you know who they are or what they did in this book of the Bible, then you can remain standing or keep your hand raised, and if not then you can sit down. This is honor system; God knows!
I’ll start us off with an easy one. Remain standing or keep your hand raised if you know who Moses is. Alright, that was a gimme.
Remain standing or keep your hand raised if you know who Aaron is….Aaron is the brother of Moses.
Getting a little harder now. Remain standing or keep your hand raised if you know who Miriam is….Miriam is the sister of Moses.
This one might be a game ending one for all of you. Remain standing or keep your hand raised if you know who Jochebed is…
And finally, if anyone knows who these two people are, then I will bring you a prize next week because I will be very impressed. Remain standing or keep your hand raised if you know who Shiphrah and Puah are…
Moses is a name that most, if not all of us, at least recognize. He’s one of the most famous names in scripture, and most people outside Christian spheres would also probably recognize the name. Aaron is another name that a number of us recognize as Moses’ brother. These two characters get a lot of airtime throughout scripture. But once I start listing characters such as Miriam, Jochebed, Shiphrah and Puah, most of us have never heard of them. What if I told you that without these characters, all of whom are women, there is no Exodus story? What if I told you that without these women, there is no Moses? These women are the unsung heroes of the Exodus story, and it is their stories that we begin with today.
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews[a] you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses,[b] “because,” she said, “I drew him out[c] of the water.”
This passage is split up into two distinct parts that contrast each other. Notice the tone and the word choices of the first unit—the first fifteen verses: powerful, war, enemies, taskmasters, oppress, forced-labor, dread, ruthless, bitter, hard service, labor, task. The tone is set from the very start of this story. The Israelites are growing in number, being fruitful and multiplying, just as God promised them they would. But a new Pharaoh has come into power in Egypt, where the Israelites have settled. And this Pharaoh does not know Joseph, one of the fathers of Israel. So Pharaoh fears the threat that Israel poses to his empire, to his power, to his control.
In a decisive move, Pharaoh tightens the yoke of oppression on the Israelites. He figures that pressing his heel even harder on their necks is the only way to ensure they will not rise up against him and Egypt. They are put to back-breaking work building up Pharaoh’s economy and cities. But when this initial round of oppression does not work and the Israelites keep multiplying, the Egyptians become more afraid and become more draconian in their oppression, calling for the execution of all Hebrew boys.
Much of this first unit revolves around fear. It’s interesting to notice that the text does not include a single hint of any rebellious spirit in the Israelites, but nevertheless the Pharaoh is overcome with and controlled by his fear of this oppressed people. He is the one with all the power, all the wealth, all the control, and yet he fears this people who have no power, no wealth, no control.
The Pharaoh is so controlled by his baseless fear that it leads to oppressive policies and even to the point of genocide. He will do anything he can to hold onto his power. Fear can drive us to hurt people badly if we are not careful.
Conditions for the Israelites at this point in the story are appalling. We don’t know how many years it took for the transition, but the Israelites, who were once favored by the king of Egypt and welcomed by the Egyptians, have now become their slave labor. They are put to task all day long doing back-breaking work, while kept under the vigilant and merciless gaze of taskmasters who have the power of the whip to hold them in line. The wealth of their ancestors has likely been stripped from them, they have no true home, and if this was not enough, now Pharaoh has commanded that all Hebrew boys be killed. Pharaoh seeks to effectively end the promise God gave the Israelites that they would be fruitful and multiply and that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. For all of God’s promises, Pharaoh seems to be winning. Pharaoh has all the power, all the control. The Israelites seem to have no control, no power to change the unfolding narrative. How the story will end seems all too apparent.
This year, 2020, has taught us a thing or two about what it means to feel powerless over our own lives. We certainly don’t know what it is like to be oppressed and forced to do back-breaking labor in the same way the Israelites did or the same way that Black ancestors in our country did, but we do know what it is like to feel that we have no control over how our story is unfolding. 2020 has been cruel to us. We’ve seen a pandemic rage through our entire world, disrupting almost every facet of life. Our economy, our personal finances are less secure than we might have hoped. Jobs have been lost or furloughed.
Even time with our friends, family and our church must be restricted and moderated by precautions. Mental illness for many is a rising concern. Fires are burning and hurricanes are moving through large portions of our country, leaving devastation behind. Racial tensions in our country are at a boiling point, as our Black brothers and sisters cry out for respite, while half of our nation can’t hear them above the din of their own politicking. Riots and protests against police brutality have been commonplace for the last three months. And on top of all of this, we have another incredibly divisive election ahead of us, which seems to be devoid of any sort of compassion or listening from either side. Our nation is not in a good place. Many of us are not in a good place. Fear and anxiety are reigning emotions of the day. The future seems very uncertain, and we feel as if we have little control over it.
Much like the Israelites we might wonder where God is. We might wonder if there is anything we can do to counteract all that is going on. It all feels too big, too insurmountable for me, one person to affect any sort of change. Perhaps we feel as if our life is a piece of driftwood, lost at sea and at the mercy of the ocean’s currents that will take us where they will without asking for our say in the matter. Our story feels all too relatable to the Israelites’ story. We may feel as if we have lost our agency, and we wonder where God is.
And it is at this point in the story when Shiphrah and Puah enter stage right. Shiphrah and Puah are Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh gives the order to kill all the Hebrew boys. Who are they to question Pharaoh or disobey? Pharaoh has all the power to do with them what he will. Not only are the midwives Israelites, but they are also women. It is no secret that the culture in which our Bibles were written was sexist. There was a clear cut social hierarchy which saw men at the top. Men are the primary characters in most of scripture’s stories, so it is no surprise that while most of us recognize Moses’ and Aaron’s names, we do not know who Miriam, Jochebed, Shiphrah or Puah are.
So when we come across stories that feature women, we need to pay extra attention, because I would argue that these are some of the most inspired parts of scripture. These are the parts that are countercultural, that are pushing the envelope, that are pointing on a trajectory. I once had a mentor tell me, “If God seems absent from a biblical story, then pay attention to the women in the story, because they often reveal how God really feels about a given situation.” Something to pay attention to.
So Shiphrah and Puah, two women who are low on the social rung, enter the narrative and are commanded by Pharaoh to kill all the Hebrew boys. But the women do not fear Pharaoh, they fear God, and so they let the Hebrew boys live. In fact, we see a contrast between the cowardly, paranoid fear of Pharaoh, and the midwives’ righteous fear of God. The resistance shown by these two women is enough to make a big difference. The Hebrew people keep populating! So Pharaoh calls the midwives back and accuses them of treachery. But the midwives are more clever than Pharaoh is. They play on Pharaoh’s prejudice of Hebrew women, telling him that the women are “vigorous”, literally “animalistic, brutish”, and they give birth before the midwives even arrive. The lie works and Pharaoh’s prejudice backfires on him. The midwives are looked on favorably by God and are rewarded for their bravery in standing up to Pharaoh. The mighty Pharaoh is for the moment thwarted by two Hebrew midwives. He would be quite embarrassed.
Now Pharaoh is getting really worried. So he enlists all of the Egyptians to drown any Hebrew boys they see who are two years or younger. This is the most complete example of infanticide in the entire Bible. And it is at this point that three more women enter the narrative. The first is Jochebed. She is not named here, but we learn her name in a few chapters. Jochebed gives birth to a baby boy and sees that he “is good.” In this case, a good baby does not refer to an obedient and well-behaved baby who magically never cries. Rather, it represents a state of wholeness. The Hebrew word used here is tov, the same word God uses after creating the heavens and the earth, declaring it to be good. It is whole. Jochebed harkens back to the creation narrative, indicating that this baby boy would bring about the dawn of a new creative era. God is on the move in this baby boy.
Jochebed hides the baby and after three months decides it’s too dangerous to keep him. She carefully places him in a basket, made of papyrus, tar and pitch. We can imagine she says a prayer as she releases her baby into the Nile, sending the baby’s sister, Miriam, to watch after him from the shore. Amazingly, the basket-boat travels downstream and is ironically found by none other than one of Pharaoh’s daughters. Pharaoh’s daughter is not given a name, but as she is bathing she happens upon the baby boy crying. And her heart is moved with pity.
Through a complex chain of events, both the birth mother, Jochebed, and the royal daughter care for this baby, protecting his life, and divinely providing the most nurturing of environments. The careful placement of the baby (verse 3) shows the manifestation of this nurturing, and the basket (Hebrew, tevat) recalls the protection for Noah’s ark (also tevat) during the flood. This gentle nurturing for the baby will allow him to grow to one day orchestrate the downfall of the mighty Pharaoh.
It is the small and seemingly benign acts of these five women that set in motion Pharaoh’s downfall and the liberation of God’s people. These women are not only overlooked because of their ethnicity, but also because of their gender. They are low on the social rung and most people would overlook them and discount their agency, their ability to bring about meaningful change. By society’s standards they are nothing. By God’s standards they are essential. God’s sovereignty is demonstrated through the simple acts of love performed by these five women.
When we think of God’s sovereignty, we often associate this with the mighty hand of God, and divine acts when God alters the forces of nature. When life gets difficult, like it is for most of us this year, I find myself praying for these great acts of God. I pray for miracles, for big shakeups to happen. But in this passage, God protects the baby, Moses, through these five women who were overlooked. It is a different perspective of sovereignty from much of the Bible.
Consider some of the word choices of the second part of this passage (2:1-10): married, conceived, bore, child, sister, daughter, mother, bathe, pity. God’s sovereignty is manifest through compassion and care. God does not have gender, though most of our language tends to unfortunately characterize God as a male. But in this passage, the analogy of sovereignty is manifest in the defiant acts of women and the care of a newborn through mothers, whether by birth or by adoption. God’s sovereignty is demonstrated powerfully as maternal care. A royal edict from the Pharaoh is not capable of defeating the resilient strength of motherly compassion.
As the powers of evil threaten to destroy Israel, these five women do what is in their ability to do. They love, the look after, they care, they defy the powers of evil by choosing another way. I shared a Mother Teresa quote last week: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
One of the most pernicious symptoms of the year we’re living in is that we can easily become convinced that we have little power over how our story is unfolding. Things keep happening to us, to our nation, to our world and we seem powerless to it all. But with these five women as our examples, we can take courage. God is in the business of liberation, and She will do everything in Her power to undo the forces that hold us in bondage. God is embodied in the compassion, resiliency and care of these five women as they set a story in motion that would one day lead to liberation and new creation. Five simple acts. That’s all it took. We are still experiencing the ripple effects of their actions today.
You don’t need to be incredibly gifted for God to use you in Her plan for liberation and redemption. You just need to be willing to love, to listen, to act with compassion. That’s all it takes. We plant the seeds of love and compassion, and we wait and watch for God to bring about new life with them. God is in our midst, in the midst of the awful pandemic and this difficult year, sowing seeds and bringing about new life that will one day lead to liberation, redemption and new creation. “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Amen.