Exodus 1:8-2:10, preached on 8/23/2020
Most of us have likely had a heavy dose of politics this week watching or hearing about the Democratic National Convention. And next up we’ve got the RNC. I know that many people object to the idea of politics in church, perhaps not many of you, but certainly many people and even for those of us who don’t object, we traditionally, and legally, refrain from naming our support for any particular candidate. Although we can and do and will vociferously tell those who can vote to do so. Please vote. Please get your family and neighbors to vote. Help them make a plan and not wait to the last minute. Especially this year with extra efforts to obstruct the vote. But while I can’t tell you who to vote for- the Bible can point you in the best direction and believe me, the Bible does.
I did not pick today’s first reading- it’s one of the assigned readings for many churches today as part of a three year cycle of readings chosen by an interdenominational committee years ago. This reading happens to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Every time I read it and preach on it, it just seems so relevant, speaking from thousands of years ago right into the moment we are living, but this time, THIS time, well, ripped from the headlines, as they say.
The story begins at a point of crisis for the Hebrew people who arrived as immigrants in ancient Egypt. Ever since Joseph was sold into slavery and rose to be the chief steward of the land, the Hebrew people lent their talents and energies to the Egyptian economy. Life was better for the Egyptians because of the energies and gifts these immigrants brought and life was better for the Hebrews or Israelites. Together they prospered. And then, a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He didn’t know Joseph. There was no relationship. He was clueless about his own nation’s history. About say, Frederick Douglass “who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Although in this case, the historically ignorant king recognized Joseph less and less.
This new king pharaoh was completely out of touch. He lives in his own private bubble of paranoia and fear. He views immigrants and any brown or black people as a threat and a danger. Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. The pharaoh stirs up fear and anger against these people, justifying their abusive treatment. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are…rapists, criminals…These aren’t people. These are animals. They are… terrorists. They want to destroy our country.” Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, let us lock them up, put them in cages, teargas them, choke them or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land. Even lacking today’s technology, even without Fox news, Pharaoh’s words echoed through the land. But the immigrants, the enslaved people, continue to do what they have to do to survive despite the odds. And then the odds get worse.
The king enlists two midwives, Shiprah and Puah. Shiprah, whose name means Beauty in Hebrew, and Puah, whose name means Splendor. These two women have key roles in the health care system of Egypt, to bring forth life and protect it at its most vulnerable point. But Pharaoh wants them to do the opposite- to kill all the Hebrew boys on the birth stool. It’s like having a Secretary of Health who claims that Medicaid decreases health care access OR a Secretary of Education who pushes an anti-public school agenda. Or seeking out phony doctors to massage your ego while thousands perish…the work of midwives enlisted to murder newborn babies.
There are different opinions as to whether these two women were Hebrew midwives or Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews. In either case, they did a courageous thing. They defied the orders they were given, a crime for which they could easily have been killed. They were committing civil disobedience. They were commiting treason. Friends, they were NASTY women.
And it was not any political party that led them Their resistence was not at all politically based. The Bible tells us that their inspiration was theological: the midwives feared God; (and so) they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them. The king is furious because he has been outwitted by these NASTY women– although he can’t quite figure out how these mad radical dogfaced witches did it. So now he tries to stir up and enlist the entire nation in his campaign of hate and genocide against the Hebrews. Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Let the girls live. So deliciously ironic. The girls can live because they have no power. They are no threat to his ego. Girls, after all, when you’re a star, you can get them to do anything. Pharoah vastly underestimated the power of women and it will be his undoing.
Because in the end, this story is one of hope and shows that the actions of a coordinated group of women rising up matters. We now read about a woman about to give birth to a son who does not have a good life expectancy. The statistics are against this boy child in Pharoah’s Egypt. As they are against many boy children in some of our own zipcodes. But when the baby’s mother looks at her child she does not see a statistic. She looked and saw that he was a fine baby…that’s what the Bible says. A fine baby. Which is what God sees in every baby, of every color, of every land.
This mother takes her fine son and hides him for three months, but after three months it’s hard to hide a baby. And so she weaves a watertight basket for him and places it in the Nile river hoping against hope that he will float away to freedom, like my grandparents did when they sent their youngest child to England not knowing if they would ever see her again, like many Jewish parents under Hitler’s shadow, waving goodbye to their children, hoping that their sacrifical act of sheer desperation in the face of terror would buy their child a future, like parents who send their children into the Rio Grande and across the border to escape murderous gangs, risky dangerous journeys of hope for a child’s future.
And then… then, the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. She is the daughter of privilege with resources at her disposal that the others do not have. Her father’s orders must be ringing loudly in her ears, but she hears a different cry: the crying of a baby. She knows that this is one of those disposable, foreign babies. But his cry stirs compassion in her womb. She saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. She sees who this baby is and she sees what her father does not. This baby is a human being. This is a fine baby. Against the systemic racism and zenophobia sweeping her nation, she sees that Hebrew lives matter. And she is moved to compassion. It’s worth noting that Pharaoh ordered babies thrown into the Nile River by others, but he didn’t personally go down to the river. Oh no. He was busy on the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the golf course while others carried out his dirty business. It’s easy to dismiss the lives of people you never allow yourself to truly see or hear. But the princess left her golden penthouse rooms to go down to the river to bathe and now she is doing the unthinkable. She is defying her father, aligning herself with those mad, nasty women. One only wishes that another daughter in her golden penthouse would show the same defiant courage and compassion.
The princess lifts the baby from the river, but in those days you couldn’t run to the store for some formula and the princess can’t nurse the baby so up steps the baby’s own sister, Miriam. Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?And she runs to bring the baby’s own mother whose breasts are ready and full with milk. And Pharaoh’s daughter pays her. Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages. This is not how enslaved women in our nation were treated. Without pay, they were forced to nurse their masters’ babies. And it was mandated that only one breast could be used to nurse the white child. If a wet nurse switched up and allowed the white baby and her own black child to nurse from the same breast, she could be whipped, or worse, because it was like them sharing the same water fountain. But here this Egyptian princess offers paid maternity leave instead of slavery. Paid maternity leave instead of forcing a mother to spend long hours away from her baby. What a concept.
When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses“ because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” A Jewish Midrash imagines that this princess would later flee Egypt along with Moses and the Hebrews. The princess is willing to be cast down from her throne. A model for all of us born into privileges others can only dream of.
Note that the mother and sister could not save Moses on their own. The midwives could not do what needed to be done on their own. With all her privileges and resources, the princess could not do it on her own, but when the splendid, beautiful strands of their lives were woven together, they were able to save a child who would grow up to save a people, along with his sister Miriam, and lead them from slavery to liberation.
These women represent different classes, different races, different cultures, different religions and yet, they pulled together to save a life. In the Rev. Dr. King’s enduring words, they are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Long before Paul wrote to the church of Rome, these women showed how it’s done. Think of Moses’s mother and sister Miriam, Shiprah and Puah and Pharoah’s daughter while hearing Paul’s words: I appeal to you… by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…They didn’t all have the same function, but they all served the same purpose. Together, they are able to bend the moral arc of the universe a little closer to God’s justice.
For us as a church, I think it’s no coincidence that these women came together down by the riverside. As we do. Despite our many differences and varied points of view, we gather at the riverside of baptism where like Moses we have been drawn out of the water by one who gave up his privilege who didn’t count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself, And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because Jesus said yes to love and no to hate, over and over again, defying the orders of the empire. Because he sees us and hears our cries. Because he sees and hears of the cries of all the vulnerable. And calls us to go and do likewise.
And for those who are able, that includes voting. I won’t tell you how to vote but here’s a hint. If he sounds like pharaoh, he’s not the one.