Rev. Teri Peterson
August 24 2008, Ordinary 21A
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘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. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 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.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘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.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 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.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, God gave them families. Then 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.’
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
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. 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. 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?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 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. 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.’
“This must be one of the Hebrews’ children” she says. Well, of course? Who else would be driven to such desperation that they would leave their child to float along the river, waiting to die? Who else would come up with such an idea? The Hebrews, of course—the once-favored-but-now-enslaved Hebrews. There’s no better story to show that it’s all about who you know, no better story to show what happens when power goes to your head, no better story to show that people have surprising ways of holding on to hope, than this story of the Hebrews in Egypt.
To back up a little, this saga begins with Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. He eventually rises through the ranks of the Egyptian government, becoming the overseer for the whole land—essentially the prime minister of Egypt. A famine hits and Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food, not knowing that Joseph is the one they come to buy from. Eventually they reconcile and all the Jacob family comes down, 70 people in all. They settle in Goshen, the fertile land in the Nile Delta. And they grow—in population, in wealth, and in stature. Generations come and go, and the Hebrews are productive members of the Egyptian society and economy.
But then a new king comes to power and he doesn’t remember Joseph—and it’s all about who you know. Along with a short historical memory, this king is getting used to power, and may be a little prone to anxiety, and when he takes a look at census numbers and discovers that the ethnic Hebrews outnumber ethnic Egyptians and when he learns a little more about this God they worship …it all seems like a recipe for trouble. He imagines the scenario where this all goes horribly wrong…and he concocts a plan to bring these people under his control, turning them from productive members of society into slaves through a cunning propaganda campaign in which he spreads his own fear through his whole nation—what if? What if? What if? Soon the Egyptians hate, dread, fear their neighbors, and so being ruthless is easy. Plus if we try hard enough, maybe they’ll begin to think of themselves the way we think of them—as less than human.
But no—the spark of hope seems to grow stronger rather than weaker, the Hebrews continue to multiply and to grow. So desperate measures must be taken—and the Pharaoh orders the first biblically recorded ethnic cleansing campaign. And, of course, he calls on the women, the keepers of community life.
Except these are no ordinary women—these are midwives. These women are charged with bringing life into the world, and they aren’t about to follow an order to turn life into death, especially since they know that they serve the God of Life, even Abundant Life. So they continue doing their jobs, just as they had before, bringing life and love into the world, even if it is a world of ruthless oppression. They continue to fan the flame of hope, a small light in an increasingly dark time. They blatantly disobey Pharaoh—the earthly authority, the one who considers himself powerful, even over life and death. And they end up in the throne room, answering questions.
My favorite part of this story is the midwives’ answer to Pharaoh’s question. “Why have you done this when I told you to kill them??” he asks. And Shiphrah and Puah, faced with earthly power, with fear embodied, look the Pharaoh in the eye and do the last thing we expect of nice, proper ladies—they lie! They don’t apologize, they don’t plead for their lives, they don’t even appeal to religion. They just tell their made-up story, and tell it convincingly enough that they leave the palace free women, able to continue their lives and their important work.
And their work is important, especially since God’s future literally rests in their hands. One of those babies they deliver turns out, you see, to be the one God has in mind to lead the Hebrews into the future, to turn them from victims of ethnic cleansing into a community for the blessing of the world. But first he has to survive the pogrom—you see, Pharaoh’s fear is increasing, and so is his fearful propaganda. Now that the midwives can’t get the job done, Pharaoh orders his people to get in on the fear-filled action by tossing babies—sons of their neighbors, their former friends, their coworkers—into the Nile. Now remember, the Nile back then was different than it is today—it was deeper, wider, and faster. It flooded regularly, bringing life-giving silt to the land and replenishing the wells with fresh water. It was also filled with crocodiles and fish and goodness knows what else. It was a long silver ribbon of both life and death.
But again, the hands of women are resourceful and strong. Moses’ mother makes a basket and makes it watertight. She knows she’s not supposed to do this, she knows that her child is likely going to die one way or another. She also knows that Pharaoh’s type of fear isn’t the kind that brings safety or security or life—only trust in God can do that. So she drops the basket in the river, leaves Miriam in the reeds with strict instructions to watch silently, and leaves. Who could bear to watch? Her own child, floating downriver, crying for food, for eye contact, for love. So Miriam watches instead.
But, to her horror, someone else is watching. Someone powerful, and someone else with strict instructions. Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river to bathe—a princess accompanied by her entourage, perhaps getting ready for a party or perhaps just in a daily or weekly ritual. In any case, her job is to make herself beautiful so she can look the part of princess. Her job is to do what her father says, when he says. But she sees something, and her instructions fall by the riverside. She wades into the river, looks in the basket and states the obvious—“This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” Well, now all bets are off. Miriam can’t follow her instructions anymore—her baby brother is in the hands of the power! She wades out into the water, the life-giving and life-taking water, and defies all our expectations with her cleverness—“do we need a nurse? Well, do I know the woman for you!” And the princess defies all our expectations, all her instructions, all her training, and all her father’s laws, saving this child from a watery grave and agreeing to raise him as her own son. And somehow, Moses’ mother manages to hide her surprise and her joy, calmly taking him in to be nurtured and fed and loved—and getting paid for it too!
Five women in one story. Five women who defy expectations. Five women who defy fear, who choose to live with a little spark of hope rather than giving in to the darkness. Five women, upon whose disobedience the entire future of God’s people depends. Five women, some of whose names are long forgotten, some of whose names live on in our collective memory. Five women who redeem an entire people with their courage in the face of power. Five women who live in the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of fear. Five women in one story.
I doubt I need to tell you how unusual it is to have this many women in one section of our story. I doubt I need to tell you how unusual it is to have this many women cast as heroes. I doubt I need to tell you that these women are all of us at one time or another, doing what God has called us to do and so participating in the coming of God’s kingdom. The famous quote that “good girls rarely make history” is probably true—and these women are anything but conventionally “good”!! They act in such unexpected ways, they disobey the authorities time and again, they draw deep on resources of hope and compassion and ingenuity. And they certainly made history—and their courage allowed God’s history to continue to be made. That is holy disobedience indeed. Perhaps God’s future lies now in our unlikely hands—may we follow the example of these five unexpected agents of grace.
Thanks be to God.