Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Commentary
Exodus 1 and 2 are full of both oppression and kindness, of resilience and intrigue. Yet their central figure seems to stay largely behind the scenes, much like the director of a play. However, that apparent absence makes this story a kind of metaphor for much of our own daily lives.
Exodus 1 basically picks up where the end of the book of Genesis leaves off. Yet while Genesis largely ends with the report that Joseph and Jacob’s family “stayed in Egypt,” the book of Exodus quickly implies that it’s in real danger.
Jacob’s family is, after all, outside of the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. While the patriarch’s descendants had lived in that land of promise for a while, they’ve had to flee it to escape famine. So at least one part of God’s covenant with Abraham seems inactive if not endangered.
Yet Abraham and Joseph’s descendants flourish, even outside of the land of promise. As a result, Egypt’s Pharaoh worries that they’ve become so numerous that they’ll become a kind of fifth column. So he views Egypt’s once-honored guests as her enemies.
Like Joseph’s descendants, Christians too have become in some ways “resident aliens” in our own countries. In fact, it seems as if some of our contemporaries view us as a threat to our country, much like the Pharaoh viewed the Israelites. It sometimes makes me wonder how they’d view us if we even more consistently followed Jesus.
The Pharaoh responds to the perceived Israelite threat not like the god whom his countrymen viewed him as, but like a thug. After all, Egypt’s despot uses their trumped-up threat to justify their brutal repression. It’s what tyrants have been trying to do ever since.
The unnamed Pharaoh imposes death on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. He turns Egypt’s former honored guests into its slaves who build its cities in which he can store his immense wealth. And while the text doesn’t explicitly say so, history at least suggests that his ruthlessness caused many Israelite deaths.
Yet even in the face of Egypt’s death-dealing ways, Israel lives. The more the Pharaoh tries to limit their population growth, the more Joseph’s descendants grow in number. Even as they slave away on the Egypt’s building projects, they somehow thrive.
One of Exodus’s central questions is whom those oppressed Hebrews will serve. Obviously Egypt’s Pharaoh expects Israel to serve him. Verses 13-14 of our text alone, after all, use some form of the word “serve” five times to describe Israel’s relationship to him.
Yet while Israelite slavery is what verse 14 calls “bitter,” the Pharaoh tries to make it even bitterer. He hatches a second plan to decimate the Hebrew population even further. The Pharaoh orders the (obviously busy) midwives to stop the Hebrew population explosion at its very source by killing all of its baby boys as soon as they’re born.
Yet he doesn’t order the annihilation of Hebrew baby girls. He seems to think of them as nothing but bit players who pose no threat to Egypt. What, after all, could mere girls and slave women do?
Women, however, turn out to pose our text’s greatest threat to Egypt’s Pharaoh’s policies. It’s, in fact, two Hebrew midwives who foil his final solution to his “Jewish question.” They “fear” the living God more than they fear the Pharaoh-god. So when the time comes to help Hebrew women give birth, these midwives boldly preserve rather than take life.
And when the Pharaoh confronts them, Shiphrah and Puah even concoct an excuse for letting the Hebrew baby boys live. They exploit his racism by insisting that “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (1:19).
As a result, the gullible but sadistic Pharaoh throws off the cloak of secrecy that has been covering his genocide. He no longer trusts his own slave masters and Hebrew midwives to do his murderous work. The Pharaoh orders all Egyptians to throw all newborn Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. In fact, Exodus leaves it a bit unclear as to whether he limits this order to Hebrew boys. The paranoid Pharaoh may, in fact, be so enraged that he orders the murder of all newborn boys.
However, the brutal tyrant shows that he remains a slow learner. He continues to let baby girls survive. After all, what trouble can girls and slave women cause? Once again, however, it’s a woman who throws a monkey wrench into the Pharaoh’s genocide machine.
Exodus 2:1 reports than an unnamed Hebrew mother gives birth to a son. However, while the Pharaoh expects her to throw him into the Nile, she disobeys him. She keeps her son close by until she can no longer safely hide him.
Even then, however, the Hebrew mother only half obeys the Pharaoh. She eventually gives up her baby son, but only in a desperate attempt to save him. After all, even as she surrenders him, she does what she can to protect him. The baby’s mom tenderly lowers her newborn into the same Nile that has drowned so many other Hebrew newborn boys. She also strategically places her daughter nearby so that she can monitor her baby brother.
Yet any law-abiding Egyptians who see that baby hiding in his waterproof basket in the Nile may assume he’s a Hebrew. It will be easy enough for them to obey their Pharaoh by just tipping the baby’s basket over. So Exodus’ first audience may gasp when it learns just who discovers the Hebrew baby floating in the Nile. It’s, after all, the brutal Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Yet while she comes for just a bath, she leaves, in a sense, with a baby. Of course, the Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t literally return to her dad’s palace with a Hebrew baby boy. She, after all, (unwittingly) gives him back to his mother. The daughter of the Pharaoh even pays the baby’s mom to feed him. So the baby whom his mother gave up in a desperate attempt to save him is rescued and returned to his mother with royal protection.
Eventually the Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the Hebrew baby and names him Moses, which sounds a lot like the Hebrew for “drawing something out.” It’s an ironic name because she was supposed to drown him in, not draw him out of the Nile. What’s more, her dad will eventually drown because no one draws him out of his Red Sea’s watery grave.
Certainly the Egyptian Pharaoh looms large in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Slave masters, Hebrew midwives, Moses’ parents and the Pharaoh’s daughter also play prominent roles in it. God, however, seems to basically stay in our text’s background.
Egypt’s Pharaoh summons leaders, makes laws and gets things done. Yet God seems to do nothing more than ensure that Shiphrah and Puah get their own families. The Pharaoh creates terror. The Lord seems to create no comfort to help Joseph’s descendants deal with their holocaust.
In fact, only one of the first 32 verses of the book that is arguably most central to the whole Old Testament specifically reports that God actually does something. So Pharaoh gets all of this text’s press. God barely even rates a by-line. So where is God?
It’s a question God’s adopted sons and daughters still sometimes ask. We wonder where God is when we go to the intensive care unit, funeral home, family court or unemployment office. Sometimes we’re honest enough to ask God where God is when we feel skeptical, afraid, sad or lonely.
As Americans remember 9/11, its survivors and mourners may wonder where God was on that awful day. You and I wonder where God is as countless Syrians die and North and South Koreans menace each other across the 38th parallel. Let’s face it: it requires faith to see God’s activity at all. Yet even with faith it’s sometimes hard to see God’s activity in a world that we’ve come to view in largely materialist ways.
God is on vivid display in Exodus’ fiery bush and cloud. However, God seems largely hidden in the picture that is Exodus 1 and 2. So where is God? God’s in Exodus 2:9’s reports that “the Israelites have become too numerous for” the Egyptians.
Faith recognizes that it’s God who turned infertile geriatrics like Abram and Sarah into a nation called Israel. So where is God in our text? Faith professes that God is somehow at work through the intimacy of married couples and the births of children they produce.
Where is God? God’s in the bloodstained hands of two midwives as they bring yet another life into God’s covenant people. Where is God? God’s in the hearts of two women who refuse to carry out the Pharaoh’s “final solution.”
God is in the determination of two ordinary Levites to protect their son from the Pharaoh’s genocide. God’s even in the otherwise deadly waters of the Nile protecting a Hebrew baby until Egyptian royalty can rescue him. Where is God? God even seems to be in the heart of the Pharaoh’s daughter who feels sorry for a stranded Hebrew baby boy.
And where is God on perhaps most vivid display in our world? In Jesus Christ. Yet there too God seems no less disguised than in Exodus 1 and 2. After all, Jesus is born in a barn to an unmarried couple, spends much of his life as an itinerant preacher and ends up executed on a cross like a common criminal.
In fact, it seems as if our text as well as Jesus’ life and death are more typical of the way God usually works than Exodus’ later glossy miracles. After all, it generally requires both practice and some imagination to see God at work, whether in our lives or in our world.
So those who preach Exodus 1 and 2 encourage prayers for the spectacles of faith to recognize that work. However, we also pray for the readiness to be quietly used by God in our world. Where, after all, is God? God often graciously chooses to work through ordinary people like you and me.
The Highlights magazine for children invited its readers to find the animals hidden in a picture. So while I was waiting in my pediatrician’s doctor office I’d often stare at what appeared to be just a forest, only to discover the outline of a zebra hidden in the leaves of an oak tree. I find I can no longer as easily find those hidden animals. Perhaps that’s because children sometimes recognize far better than adults that there’s more to be seen than meets the eye.
Christians believe something similar. We see the violence, neglect, greed and injustice that so often fill the pictures of our world. So we sometimes have to look very carefully for the hidden pictures of God at work. After all, God’s people trust that God not only can be active in life’s most ordinary circumstances, but that God also always is.
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