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, he 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 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.” --Exodus 1:8-2:10 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As our Genesis reading left off last week, Joseph, son of Jacob (or Israel, as we now know him), grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Abraham, had, after decades, been reconciled with his brothers in Egypt. All of them, including their father Israel, were now in Egypt. Because of the deep famine in Canaan, Joseph had sought land for them from the pharaoh, who had given his permission for them to live in Goshen. A border province. In Genesis 47, Goshen is described as “the best part of the land.” That certainly still rings true today, doesn’t it?
As time passed, the famine continued and grew even deeper. People from other lands came to Egypt, seeking out Joseph to trade their land for food. Scripture tells us that Joseph bought all of the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. Through his brilliant administrative skills, Joseph made the Pharaoh one of the richest and most powerful rulers in the entire area.
At the same time, Israel became more and more settled in Egypt in that region of Goshen. The family gained possessions there and, our story tells us, they were “fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.”
Seventeen years passed. Israel’s death drew near. On his deathbed, Israel extracted a promise from Joseph--that Joseph would not bury his father in Egypt, but would take his body back to Canaan. That the Cave of Machpelah would be his final resting place. The burial home of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Leah.
Joseph also brought his two sons to be blessed by Israel. And, as we have seen so many times before in earlier stories, this blessing was anything but ordinary. Joseph had placed each of his two sons on either side of Israel’s bed, with the oldest and firstborn--Manasseh--on Israel’s right side. And with the youngest--Ephraim--on Israel’s left. As Israel raised his hands to bless his grandsons, he crossed his arms and gave the blessing not to the first born, but instead to Ephraim, the youngest.
Once again, in God's world, tradition and convention or turned upside down. The unexpected happens and things are anything but ordinary.
And, then, it is time for Israel’s generation to end. The last verse of chapter 49 tells us that Jacob breathed his last, and was gathered to his people. Soon, it was time for Joseph’s generation to end. In the very next chapter, we read that Joseph made the Israelites (who had now grown in size)...Joseph made them swear that they would carry his bones back to Canaan. Just like his father. Then, Joseph, too, died.
From generation to generation. Over these weeks and through the centuries, we have followed the ancestral family of Abraham to this point. Abraham and Sarah. And their descendents. Persisting. All of them living into the promise that God would make of them a great nation. And that God would bless them so that they could be a blessing. Trusting. Believing it. And persisting.
And then there are these women in today’s story. Persisting. Beginning with the midwives. Women whose work it is to support life who are told to take it. By a new king, a new regime, a new dynasty who has forgotten. A pharaoh who has forgotten or never known the story of Joseph and Joseph’s God. Forgotten or never known how Joseph helped enrich and empower the previous pharaoh. A leader who seeks to have “power over” the Israelites and who creates a false narrative. A false story about the “enemy within.” Those Israelites, those immigrants who are going to grow and grow and eventually seek to overcome “us.”
It is an old, convenient political narrative that we still hear today. Be afraid of the immigrant. Be afraid of the foreigner. Be afraid of the other. It is a false narrative that is designed to divide people and to keep people apart. And to keep the rich and powerful in power.
But, these women. These midwives. This sister. This mother. This princess. All resist this false narrative in their own ways. All resist this evil.
When Pharaoh comes to the midwives and tells them to kill babies instead of keep them alive, they know. They know that God desires life. And so they refuse. And when he asks why, they play into his own stereotypes and immigrants and their breeding habits. “You know these Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They are vigorous and they give birth even before we get to them,” they say to the Pharaoh. Even though, they know this isn’t true.
Then, Pharaoh moves onto the people and tells all of them to throw baby boys into the Nile. The resistance doesn’t end with the midwives, but extends into the population. To the mother of Moses and his sister.
The language in these verses is incredible. It is language that is reminiscent of new beginnings. Of new eras. For example, in verse 2 of Exodus 2, when we read that a Levite woman conceived and bore a son, our text says that she saw “that he was a fine baby.” In the original Hebrew, this is the same language used about creation in Genesis 1. That it was “good.”
And, then, in verse 3, we read how this mother could no longer hide this baby, this “good” baby. And so she found a papyrus basket for him. To save him.
Here the original word for “basket” is the same word used for “ark” in Noah’s story.
So, in just two words, the writer of Exodus has connected up the story of the creation of the world into the story of the creation of the Israelites as a people. They are no longer just a family or a clan. But they have become a nation. About to embark upon a new era.
Through it all, the women continue to persist. To persist against evil. Against strategies that are designed to divide people. And to persist against forces that seek death instead of life. That seek division instead of unity. Forces that run contrary to God’s desire for life. And for God’s desire that all people might be unified. Not identical to each other. But unified in their diversity. In the beautifully diverse ways in which God has created us.
We know the rest of the story. How against the odds, God ensured the safety of this young Moses. How God worked through these persistent women to ensure an upbringing for Moses in God’s ways. How God eventually brought Moses up to be that leader who would lead his own people to freedom. In the same way that Christ has led us to freedom.
And, so, like the women in our story, we, too, are called to persist. To push back against those forces that seek to divide people instead of uniting them. To persist against forces that seek death, those forces that are contrary to God’s desire for life. And that are contrary to God’s desire for all creation.
God’s ways. They are not ordinary, are they? We have heard over and over how God upsets the status quo. The powers that be. How God breaks into the false narratives that are used to divide people. God’s ways are not ordinary. In fact, they are anything, but ordinary.
May be remember this as we leave from here and go into the world and into our own lives. As we persist and seek to live out our lives in ways that, like God, bring life. For us and for all those we meet. May God grant it.
Preached August 27, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20.