Our Scripture today brings us, perhaps, one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. It’s not just this story, but the broader story of which this is just the beginning. The story of the Exodus is the defining narrative of the Jewish people. It is a story of liberation and hope. A story of trials and tribulations. It is a story of a journey to a Promised Land. It’s the kind of story that transcends the particulars of the Jewish people because we have all felt enslaved, trapped by our circumstances, oppressed by the material conditions of our lives, the burden of this mortal coil.
I don’t mean to flatten out those experiences. Certainly, the burdens of work and traffic and feeding and clothing ourselves pale in comparison to the burdens of actual slavery and the burdens of chattel slavery are horrifically worse than those of debt slavery. There is always someone worse off than we are, and yet we all feel burdened.
Perhaps that is why Christianity has spiritualized this story, turned it into liberation from sin, the Promised Land not a land at all. Christianity began as a religion of the impoverished and marginalized, but as it became the dominant religion and then the defender of the status quo, it lost sight of the very conditions that breathed the breath of life into it at the start. It has only been in times of great struggle, such as the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement, that some Christians have remembered. Today, I hope we will remember by going back to the beginning.
First, a little context. It is unlikely that this story reflects historical events. It is unlikely that there was an exodus at all. The archaeological record shows no evidence of Egyptian influence in Canaan at all. All the pottery from that era is from peoples who were already in Canaan. There was a group of people called habiru who were wanderers and often thought to be criminals. They labored in one place for a while and moved on. Some of these habiru labored in Egypt for a while and there are records of some of them, maybe a few hundred, walking off from the more remote sites, farther from the reach of Pharaoh. They probably joined up with other habiru in Canaan and became a people, the Hebrews. I don’t say this to burst any Sunday School bubbles, but to place the story in its proper context: this is a folktale.
A folktale is not told for historical accuracy, but to tell people who they are. This is the story that the people of Israel tell about themselves. It inculcates a set of values. As a folktale, it draws its characters in big, broad strokes. The king of Egypt is evil and the Hebrews are good. Notice that we never hear Pharaoh’s name. That is because he is the archetype of a king, not any particular king. But this is not just a story of good overcoming evil. It tells us what good and evil are.
“A new Pharaoh – one who did not know Joseph – came to power in Egypt.” Remember how we got to this point. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers and through some shrewd networking or something became a trusted advisor to Pharaoh. Years later, a famine struck the land where his father and his brothers lived, so they came to Egypt seeking rescue. Joseph set them up with a pretty good life there. In fact, when his father died and sought to be buried in his homeland, the king of Egypt and his entire army escorted the family to the burial site. So Joseph and his family returned to Egypt to live out their lives in prosperity and peace. But Joseph and his brothers passed on and so did Pharaoh. Thus, a new king arose over Egypt who had no connection to the Hebrews and no loyalty to them. In fact, he was afraid because they were so successful. He wanted to take his country back.
This first thing I want you to notice here is that the oppression of the Hebrews is by design. It is purposeful. We – and here I mean we people of privilege – we like to imagine that the evils we witness are an accident. It is comforting to people of privilege to believe that injustice is inevitable, that it is in the nature of things. That way, we don’t have to be responsible for it. But those who are oppressed know the truth: someone decided to make things this way.
Someone decided to expel the Jews from Rome in the 1st century and Spain in the Middle Ages and dozens of other places over the last 2000 years, each time stealing their wealth in the process. Hitler is only the most recent and most brutal someone to fear the success of Jewish people.
Someone decided to kidnap people in Africa and sell them like livestock here in the new Promised Land. Someone decided, after those slaves were freed, to deny them the basic rights of citizenship, such as owning property and voting. Someone decided to enact a campaign of terror using every tool at their disposal from lynchings to the conspicuous display of memorials of the leaders of a treasonous war to preserve the subjugation of black people. Someone decided to redline neighborhoods. Someone decided to build a highway through those neighborhoods. Over the last 50 years, several someones have enacted and enforced drug policies that systematically destroy communities of color. The someones always receive some direct benefit from their evil schemes, but they wouldn’t work if they didn’t make sure enough other people benefited as well. You don’t have to lynch anyone as long as you don’t try to stop anyone who is. Just sit back and enjoy the strange fruit of their labors.
The second thing to notice is that Pharaoh isn’t oppressing the Hebrews because they are weak and defenseless. Quite the opposite. He knows the power that they possess. Do you think our president is going after immigrants just because he can? Because they are weak and defenseless? Of course not. He knows that there will soon be more non-white people than white people. He and all his supporters are terrified. He is dealing shrewdly with their increase because he knows they are powerful.
These two things tell us something about how to be allies. Privileged people get used to being listened to. We assume that people want to hear what we have to say. It must be valuable because people have given us the floor our entire lives. But in the struggle for justice, the privileged must become marginalized. Those who are oppressed have an epistemological privilege; they know things. They know things that the privileged don’t. Things we can’t know. Things we don’t want to know. So we have to listen. We have to defer to the voices of the other. When black people tell white people that they are unfairly treated by police, white people have to listen, not write it off to coincidence or paranoia. We must also become marginalized by giving up our own power to stand with the power of those who are being oppressed. Oppressed and marginalized people are doing things. They have always done the things they need to survive and their resistance, their organization, their strategies are just another way of surviving, not just personally, individually, but as communities, as a people. So take a back seat. Support. Don’t center yourself. It’s not about you.
So what was Pharaoh’s scheme? First, he simply tries to work the Israelites to death. With Joseph and the previous ruler, the Israelites were a rescued people under the protection of their hosts. They were, simply, immigrants and everyone benefited from the relationship. At this point, the Hebrews don’t have the law, but if you read the law in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, it is striking how often this situation is referenced, that immigrants should be treated well because you were once strangers in a strange land. The Pharaoh who knew Joseph did that; this new one did not. This new one made them, not guests, but slaves. And he worked them hard, thinking that this would curtail their growth, but it didn’t work. So he worked them harder and harder, thinking it would crush them, but they would not be crushed. He needed a more direct approach.
He tries to enlist the help of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. This is more evidence that this is a folktale. Shiphrah means “beauty,” the fairest maiden among the Israelites. And Puah might mean something like “murmuring” or “gurgling,” what one ancient commentator likened to the kind of cooing that one does with babies, so she just happens to have the most appropriate name for her job. Also, these are the only two midwives for thousands of Israelites. Again, these are archetypes that tell us who we should be. Anyway, Pharaoh asks Shiphrah and Puah to simply kill all the boys as soon as they are born. I suppose he thinks this would be less suspicious. They could claim some complication and no one would be the wiser. It is also worth mentioning that there is a reason they want to get rid of the men, but preserve the women and it’s not just because the men were thought to be the strong fighters who would mount a resistance. It is also because the women would be raped and their children would be half-Egyptian, so they would have some loyalty to Pharaoh and held in suspicion by the Israelites. This has always been a tactic of war and subjugation.
“But the midwives were God-fearing women…” We see this language a lot in the Hebrew Bible, the fear of God. We should not imagine that the midwives feared judgment and punishment from God. They are not acting out of self-preservation. Fear – yare’ in the Hebrew – can have a sense of awe and reverence, particularly when referring to God. If we imagine God as the totalizing relationship of all things, the very ground of life itself, then who better to stand in awe of that than the women tasked with bringing life into the world.
Can you imagine the horror of this request in the ears of Shiphrah and Puah? They are thinking, “Helllll no, Pharaoh!” But they’re smart. They know that direct confrontation will likely mean their death. You don’t argue with the king. So they tell a little fib, a fib that leverages the strangeness of the Hebrew people in the eyes of Pharaoh and his fear of them. They say that the Hebrew women are just too robust and so the babies come out before they can get there. The Hebrew there, that this translation renders are “robust,” actually means “lively” and it is the same root as “live” in Pharaoh’s command. It can even mean “provider of life.” This kind of repetition focuses our attention on what is the central concern here, the central concern of Shiphrah and Puah and God – life. Because they revere God and are in awe of the possibility and the reality – the ultimacy – of life, of course they must resist.
Note also the divisive nature of Pharaoh’s plan. He tries to divide the Israelites against themselves, recruiting some Israeilites to destroy other Israelites. This tactic, beloved by tyrants, should be familiar to us now. Don’t fall for it.
But Pharaoh realizes he has a whole nation of Egyptians. They fear the Israelites as he does. They are filled with dread. All they need is a little push to do horrible things in the name of their own security. They are outnumbered by the Israelites, but they have the authority of the throne on their side. So he says to the Egyptians, with no fear of how it might sound, no conscience about how cruel it actually is, “Let every boy that is born to the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile.” Kill them. Just kill them. You don’t have to worry about any repercussions. Tyrants give permission to people to follow their worst instincts, to salve their fear with violence, to move from silent observers of injustice to active participants. This is genocide. This is how it happens. “Knock the crap out of them. I promise you, I will take care of the legal fees.”
Right about now, we need a hero, right? Exodus is the story of resistance and resistance does require some heroes. A lot of them, actually. Ultimately, the hero of Exodus is Moses, but he doesn’t get there on his own. We’ve already seen the courage and cunning of Shiphrah and Puah, but Moses’ story begins with three other women who are equally courageous and cunning.
When Moses is born, his mother sees that he is good. This might seem like an obvious thing that a mother would think her child good, but the language should also sound familiar. This first chapter of Exodus uses a lot of the same language as the first chapter of Genesis. The Israelites in verse 7 are said to be fruitful and they swarmed over the land. The more they are oppressed, the more they multiply. And here, just as God saw that the creation was good, Moses’ mother sees that he is good. Just as God brings life, so does she.
Because Moses is good, she does exactly what God does with good things. This translation says she put him in a basket, but it’s an ark. It’s the same word as the Noah story. When things are going badly, you pack up all the good stuff and keep it safe until things are better. So that’s what she does. She packs up this precious little thing until it is safe for him to be brought out. It doesn’t take long.
Moses’ mother puts the ark in the Nile, the very river that was to be the site of his drowning, and it so happens that Pharaoh’s daughter goes to that exact place to bathe. Do you suppose that Moses’ mother did not know this? Do you suppose she was simply putting him in the river to float away, like a message in a bottle from some poor, ship-wrecked soul? Of course not. She knew exactly what she was doing.
And Moses’ sister watches, just to see what would happen? Of course not. She was in on the plan.
Pharaoh’s daughter, predictably, sees the ark and opens it up to find a weeping baby. And this is weeping. Nowhere else in Scripture is the word used for the crying of a child. It is the kind of weeping of an adult who has known great loss and grief. Of course Pharaoh’s daughter knows exactly who this baby is. There can be no doubt that it is one of the Hebrew children. And she knows that her duty as an Egyptian is to drown it. It is the command of her own father! But she resists. She, who had no reason to do so, takes this baby as her own.
The plan is going along perfectly. There is Moses’ sister, Jane-on-the-spot, offering to find a wet nurse. Hey, she just happens to know someone. What a coincidence! The family is reunited, at least for a while. She probably would have nursed him for about three years. Do you suppose that, in three years time, Pharaoh’s daughter wouldn’t clue in to how close the baby and the wet nurse were? How much they looked alike? Why was the Hebrew woman available to nurse? And why was her daughter hanging around? Is Pharaoh’s daughter an idiot? Of course not. Everyone knew exactly what was going on.
This tells us something about how to resist. These three women bonded together across lines of ethnicity and class – pretty strict lines, too. Pharaoh’s daughter was extremely privileged – she is literally a princess – the princess of a house that is perpetrating a genocide, a genocide against the very woman whose child she found. There is every reason for these two women to hate each other, but Moses’ mother trusted in the princess’s humanity. Perhaps even more than that, their common cause as women who have the capacity to bring life into the world. In order to resist, we have to find those points of common cause. We have to stand in solidarity even when it might seem we should be divided.
Our story ends with some great word nerdery in the naming of Moses. In Egyptian, the consonant root MSS means “child of,” like Ramses is “child of Ra.” So she is naming him, simply, “my son,” which makes clear that this is an adoption. But her reasoning is given for the Hebrew, saying that she named him that because she pulled him out of the water. Her Hebrew must have been a little shaky because she chose an active form of the word, signaling to readers that this is not the one who was pulled out of the water, but the one who pulls his people out of Egypt and out of the Sea of Reeds. Again, because this is a folktale, the name means something. Sort of like how Jesus, Yeshua, means “our savior.” I’m sure that’s different somehow.
The reason folktales work, even though they are not literally-factually true, is that they describe something true about the human condition and the moral universe we inhabit. Even if the Exodus didn’t happen, this story tells us a lot about how oppression happens and how it can be resisted. It happens because someone benefits from it. It must be resisted with solidarity and creativity, with wit and heart. Resistance requires moral courage. It requires us to stand in awe of the lives we have and wonder that that life is shared with so many who are not like us.
It is hard to know what precisely will be required of us when we stand in a posture of resistance, what precisely will bring an end to any injustice, but if we’re not standing alongside those who are oppressed we will never hear God’s call because God’s call is the voice of the other. God’s call is the weeping of a child who seems to know more than he should about the suffering and greatness that await him. God’s call testifies to injustice. Our only response is to hear and believe.
Can you please tell me who the author of this wonderful piece is? I want to quote, but need to give credit where credit is due.
Thank you so much! I wrote this. I’m the pastor at Church in the Cliff. It was my sermon a couple of weeks ago. Glad you enjoyed it.