Our RCL reading for last week was a story of triumph, the surprising climax of the story of Joseph that ended the Patriarchal narrative with an Aha, a Whee, and a Yeah (you have to read it to get it). Our reading this week is a story of transition, the surprising beginning of the story of Moses that initiates the Exodus narrative with an Oops and an Ugh (again, turn back to last week’s Sermon Commentary on this Excellence in Preaching website).
Genesis ends with God’s great gift of Shalom. God’s chosen people are safely settled in the richest area of Egypt with plenty of food in a time of famine. Father Jacob has been buried in Canaan. Joseph the great Savior of his family has been laid to rest after promising that God’s people will one day return to the Promised Land. All is well.
Indeed, the first verses of Exodus tell us that things are better than that. All of Jacob’s twelve sons have died, but over the course of succeeding generations, the seed of Jacob has grown like a weed. The 70 who went down to Egypt have multiplied miraculously. By the time of the Exodus there were over 600000 men, and that didn’t include women and children (Exodus 12:37). The command of Genesis 1:28 and the promise given to each of the Patriarchs have become a reality for God’s chosen people; “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.”
But that divine blessing was viewed as a curse by the divine ruler of Egypt, the human god called Pharaoh, whom our text introduces with the classic Oops! “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” With that, we meet the first of the three main actors in the book of Exodus—Pharaoh, Moses, and Yahweh.
Pharaoh is a visionary; he sees what his fellow Egyptians don’t see. So, he says, “Look, the Israelites have become too numerous for us.” Don’t you see the problem? And he is a man of action. “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
Now you would think that having the Israelites leave the country would be exactly what he wanted, because then they couldn’t join with Egypt’s enemies. But Pharaoh vision is more long term; he sees Israel’s Exodus as the loss of a massive source of free labor. Without the slave labor of the Israelites, Egypt’s economy could not thrive. (It doesn’t take a visionary to see a painful parallel in America’s shameful story of African American slavery.)
Thus, this visionary leader develops a shrewd two-fold plan to deal with the “resource” of Israel’s labor force. First, he will work them harder than ever, turning willing immigrant workers into virtual slaves “with slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” Work them so hard that they don’t have the time or energy to make babies. But that strategy didn’t work, perhaps because the Israelite men were as vigorous as their women (cf. verse 19). In fact, the “more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites….”
Note two words that recur in this segment of the story: “oppressed” and “ruthlessly.” In the current climate of racial discord in the United States (and, indeed, around the world), we hear a lot about systemic racism. Many white people don’t understand what that means, so they don’t see it. This story gives us a clear example of systemic oppression. Pharaoh developed a system that used Israelite labor to further his causes. That system oppressed Israelite men by working them ruthlessly, that is, with no regard to their welfare. It was all about Pharaoh and his economy. No matter how hard the Israelites worked, they could never flourish because the whole economic system was designed to exploit them. That system made their lives “bitter.”
That’s systemic oppression, and it was the reason that God dealt with Egypt “ruthlessly” in the Ten Plagues. And it was the reason that Israel ate “bitter herbs” in their Passover celebration of deliverance from “the house of bondage.”
That system was almost racist. It was certainly classist, that is, predicated on the designation of Jacob’s children as a lesser kind of human being. We see that in the term Pharaoh uses in verse 16 as he develops the second step in his shrewd plan to reduce the “threat” of Israel’s fruitfulness. He calls them Hebrews, which is the word “hapiru,” a word used around the ancient Middle East to describe a lower class of people who owned no land and had no social standing. Indeed, they were often thought of as bad people and treated as slaves. Sometimes they were seen as disruptors or even terrorists. It was a derogatory term for a lesser human being. Can you think of a modern-day equivalent?
That second step in Pharaoh’s ruthless plan to oppress Israel was murder, plain and simple, on a society wide scale. It was genocide by infanticide. Enlisting the help of the corps of Hebrew mid-wives led by Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh said, “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the birthing stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” If we can’t work them to death, let’s just kill them before they even get started in life and before they can become a military threat.
It was a diabolical plan, but God intervened. Actually, the text does not say that God intervened, anymore than we saw God explicitly at work in the story of Joseph until Genesis 45. Only later in Exodus do we hear God speak and act on behalf of his people. But we do find a crucial reference to God in verse 17, where we learn that these mid-wives “feared God.” God was so much at the center of their lives that they were emboldened to thwart Pharaoh’s plan. They feared God more than they feared Pharaoh, meaning that they trusted and obeyed God even more than the man who held their lives in his hands. This is a subtle preview of the role God will play in the rest of the story. The Ten Plagues reveal that the God of the Hebrews has the whole world, including the “gods” of the Egyptians, in his hands.
But the actual hands that we see at work in this story are the hands of women. First of all, the mid-wives use their hands to deliver and spare the lives the Israelite baby boys. When the mid-wives fabricate a story to explain why these boys are still alive, Pharaoh enlists the help of all Egyptians to do what these women refuse to do. “Every boy that is born [to these hapiru] must be thrown into the Nile….”
But along comes another woman, an unnamed Levite woman, who gives birth to a son so “fine” that she can’t bear to throw him into the Nile. Instead she hides him for 3 months and when he can’t be hidden anymore, she builds him a tiny ark and releases it into the reeds that grow along the banks of the Nile.
Then along comes another woman, not a Hebrew, but an Egyptian. Indeed, she is the daughter of the very man who has ordered this slaughter of the innocents. When she saw the basket floating in the Nile, she peeked in and saw the wailing baby. Even though it was clearly a circumcised Hebrew, she felt sorry for the little tyke.
Lo and behold, here comes another woman, or rather a girl, the sister of this baby. She just happens to be there. More accurately, she was stationed there by her mother to see what would happen to the baby. She offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the child. Given permission to do so, the little girl immediately rushes to find her own mother. So, the baby ends up back in his mother’s arms.
To make it ever better, Pharaoh’s daughter offers to pay his mother to take care of him. When the little guy grew older, his mom delivered him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him into Pharaoh’s own house and named him Moses. The baby that was supposed to be thrown into the Nile to die is now living in Pharaoh’s household because the Princess of Egypt “drew him out of the water.”
What a set of fortunate coincidences! What great good luck! No, these women were all part of a plan that was designed to counter and conquer Pharaoh’s plan. We aren’t told that at the beginning, but as the story unfolds it is obvious that God is at work here to save his people. And it wasn’t accidental that God used women (who were called “the weaker sex” until history debunked that derogatory term) to accomplish that plan. Read the whole of redemptive history and you will find that pattern repeated, most significantly in a young woman named Mary. As Paul put it in I Corinthians 1, God has a way of using the weak and lowly and despised to do his magnificent work of redemption, so that we can give God the glory. “My soul magnifies the Lord….”
This is not simply a thrilling story about a wicked king and heroic women. It is an intensely relevant story for anyone living under an oppressive social system. Though it had its origins in the time of Moses, the final form of our story probably comes from the time of Israel’s Exile in Babylon. Like their ancient mothers and fathers, the children of Jacob were once again living in the house of bondage, where God seemed to be conspicuously absent. As they sat by the rivers of Babylon enduring tyranny, they read this story about a God who acted behind the scenes in unlikely ways to free his people. God’s invisibility does not mean God is inactive. God will raise up a Savior from unexpected sources and he will set his people free.
We can preach Christ from this text with complete integrity. Earlier I used the term “the slaughter of the innocents” to describe Pharaoh’s genocidal plan. That term is usually applied to Herod’s murder of all the male children under two years of age in the area of Bethlehem. Threatened by the birth of the “one born king of the Jews,” Herod tried to get rid of Israel’s Savior. But he failed, and Jesus set his people free from the worst form of bondage.
Again, what Pharaoh’s daughter did for little Moses, God has done for us. When we were in grave danger of drowning in the sea of sin and death, God drew us out of the water and set our feet on solid ground. Indeed, we get to live in the house of the King, raised as children of the King of Kings.
As a result of God’s saving work on behalf of Israel, that little band of “hapiru” became a holy people, “a community like none that had yet been—the recipient of God’s liberating power, practitioner of God’s sovereign law, partner in God’s ongoing covenant, and host of God’s awesome presence.” (from The New Interpreter’s Bible)
As the New Israel of God, the church has inherited those blessings and responsibilities from Israel. We are called to stand in a world filled with oppressed people and proclaim the Good News of the new Moses who has come to set his people free. And we must stand in the line of those Hebrew mid-wives who dared to defy the power of Pharaoh because they trusted the power and love of God more. Where are we being summoned to engage in their kind of creative civil disobedience to accomplish God’s purpose of liberation and life?
It’s no wonder that this story has inspired many oppressed people over the ages. Though the Bible was wrongly used to justify slavery in the Americas, many African American slaves took great solace in this story. Think of all the spirituals that draw heavily on the themes of bondage under Pharaoh, deliverance through Moses, and redemption by a hidden God who acts for those who trust him enough to defy the “Massah” who ruthlessly uses them.
When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Lord, help us all from bondage flee, let my people go,
And let us all in Christ be free, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Commentary