Exodus 1:8-2:10

Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the beginning of Exodus, the story of how God’s people came out of slavery in Egypt and began moving toward the land they had been promised. But that’s not how Genesis ended. When Genesis ended, the memory of Joseph was cherished, certainly by the Israelites, but also by the rulers of Egypt. Joseph had worked for the Pharaoh, and his skill at interpreting dreams had saved the whole land of Egypt from starvation during a seven-year famine. But, as Exodus tells us…

Then, a new king, who knew nothing about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his people, “These Israelites are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us. In case of war they might join our enemies in order to fight against us, and might escape from the country. We must find some way to keep them from becoming even more numerous.”

This new king didn’t care about Joseph – those old stories about how his gifted awareness had saved the people were just that: old. Besides, what did the king owe to someone long since dead, no matter what he’d done for him? The king’s problems were more pressing, and they involved this generation of Israelites. This was the generation that pushed the demographics past the point of tolerance and threatened to outnumber the native-born Egyptians, to undermine the basic stability of the ethnic Egyptian nation.

So the king decides what kings have to decide, because the king lives by the system he’s built. He sits right there at the top of the pyramid, and you can’t shake up the pyramid very much without knocking him down. He knows these Israelites are just waiting to become a threat (not that they are a threat yet), and he has to keep them down.

So the Egyptians put slave drivers over them to crush their spirits with hard labor.

What better? Keep the people busy, keep them occupied with work that drains the life out of them, and you’ll be safe from the threat their spirits pose. This is exactly how the Roman emperors held on to power, by keeping the legions busy building roads and aqueducts. The Romans only learned it from the Egyptians, and honestly, this particular Egyptian king probably wasn’t the one to invent it either. This is how we hold on to power.

The Israelites built the cities of Pithom and Rameses to serve as supply centers for the king.

And the legions built a dozen cities named Caesarea. And the peasant-artisans of Europe built grand cathedrals for the Lord. And forcibly imported Africans built plantations in Georgia to support textile mills in Massachusetts. And farmhands in Mexico grew coffee at starvation wages for my morning pick-me-up, unless they were able to sneak into California to pick grapes and lettuce at slightly higher wages.

But the more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more they increased in number and the farther they spread through the land. The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery. They made them work on their building projects and in their fields, and they had no pity on them.

Would you believe, it never works! The knee-jerk reaction of those in power is to break the will of those under them, to hold them in check. And it never works. The Israelites were oppressed, beaten down, whipped and beaten and killed, but they didn’t quit multiplying. They didn’t quit being Israelites. There’s a power within them, an inborn reflection of God, that doesn’t just roll over and accept forced labor and inhumanity.

It’s no surprise that the Egyptians are afraid of them. That’s the source of all this inhumanity, isn’t it? The Egyptians are afraid, because they know deep down that they can’t control this people that keeps prospering in the land, so they redouble their efforts to hold the Israelites down. Cruel slavery didn’t break their spirits the first time, so we must need crueler slavery. That’s a fear reaction. The king thought he was dealing wisely with this threat, but the truly wise in Egypt must have known that he was still captive to his fear.

That’s something we can easily miss, if we spend too much time holding the Egyptians responsible for their actions: they were as much held captive by their own fears as the Israelites were held captive by the king and his slave drivers. They showed no pity for their enslaved people, but then they lived in a pitiless world. They just knew that if they gave the Israelites an inch, they’d take a mile. Everything they had was dependent on the way things were going, and every day they had to be afraid that things would stop going that way. So, with fear cracking the whip over them, the Egyptians turned it up another notch:

Then the king of Egypt spoke to Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives who helped the Hebrew women. “When you help the Hebrew women give birth,” he said to them, “kill the baby if it is a boy; but if it is a girl, let it live.”

Here we go, now we’re getting to the heart of the issue. What’s the king really afraid of? He’s afraid that this alien people who immigrated into the land will eventually take over. That’s why he wants the boys killed but isn’t worried about the girls, because the boys (not the girls) carry the people’s identity. It’s the boys who will grow up to beget more Hebrew boys, and some day, one of those boys will grow up to lead the rest in a revolution. Matthew begins his gospel with King Herod doing the same thing in fear of the Messiah’s birth, and for the same reason. We live in fear for the power we have, and that power can lead the world to the deepest inhumanity.

To be honest, I hear the same arguments today. Specifically, I’ve heard that the real problem with allowing immigrants into what we call “our country” is that they’ll just come and have children, and those children will be U.S. citizens automatically because they were born here. Even if their parents are here in an unauthorized way.

It’s not innate cruelty that makes us hostile or indifferent toward other people’s children. It’s not because he was a bad person that the king of Egypt made the choice to have the next generation’s labor pool killed off. The root of that cruelty, hostility, even plain indifference, is fear. In fear, the king of Egypt ordered the future of the Israelites to be ended.

But the midwives were God-fearing and so did not obey the king; instead, they let the boys live.

Big mistake, sending Israelites to do in their own people. Big opportunity for God to be at work! And God was at work in these two, in their simple refusal to go along with the power that stood over them and demanded inhumanity. Just like the people who multiplied and remained strong even though they were enslaved and oppressed, they stood up in that place where they could, and they refused to play Egypt’s game. But you can’t just undo the rules of Egypt’s game for free:

So the king sent for the midwives and asked them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the boys live?”

They answered, “The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they give birth easily, and their babies are born before either of us gets there.”

Brilliant! It’s a lie, and everybody knows it, but the insult makes it worthwhile. “Well, maybe if our women were sissies like yours, they’d actually need help during childbirth. As it is, I’m just not sure what we could do.” Even if I were on Egypt’s side, I’d have to be impressed by the midwives’ chutzpah. I know God was pleased:

Because the midwives were God-fearing, God was good to them and gave them families of their own. And the Israelites continued to increase and become strong. Finally the king issued a command to all his people: “Take every newborn Hebrew boy and throw him into the Nile, but let all the girls live.”

It all comes to light eventually. The king was trying to do this in secret, with just the Hebrew midwives in his pocket, but he needed more help. If he issued such a blatant command as we have recorded here, he must have been building up this help for a while. You don’t just tell the masses of people to go kill infants without spending a lot of time convincing them what a threat these babies are, how their families are too large, their culture is taking over, they’re taking away the financial opportunities that the real people ought to have. The king figured out the critical part of holding on to the status quo: convincing the people that they want it that way, that they need it that way.

We know what we need, right? Inexpensive food, cheap gasoline, lots of easy-to-use plastic products that we don’t have to worry about fixing if they break. How did we get there? We needed convenient, consistent food, private cars that could make life that much more convenient than taking the train, and gadgets to show that we have the means to provide as much for our families as the next person does. It goes farther back than that, of course. I can’t even say what we really need, because it’s just so deeply built into me that all this stuff is what I need. That’s how Egypt stays in power.

Thank God, subversion is still alive:

During this time a man from the tribe of Levi married a woman of his own tribe, and she bore him a son. When she saw what a fine baby he was, she hid him for three months. But when she could not hide him any longer, she took a basket made of reeds and covered it with tar to make it watertight. She put the baby in it and then placed it in the tall grass at the edge of the river. The baby’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.

These Israelites just won’t give up, will they? Of course, this is what God has in store for the people, as any of us can tell when we see it. A good red flag was that somebody was flying right in the face of what the powers of their world told them to do. Strange behavior may or may not be from God, but God’s behavior in this desperately broken world is just about always pretty strange. Following God almost always means marching out of step with the rest of Egypt.

The king’s daughter came down to the river to bathe, while her servants walked along the bank. Suddenly she noticed the basket in the tall grass and sent a slave woman to get it. The princess opened it and saw a baby boy. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.

At last, a little compassion! The Egyptian princess finds this baby, sees that he cries just like any baby trapped in a basket would cry, and she spares his life just like that. God didn’t tell Moses’ mother, father, and sister what they were up to when they abandoned Moses to the Nile, but God was up to something, and the Pharaoh’s daughter was in on it! So often, that one moment is enough, when we encounter the reality of how Egypt’s power plays out in the lives underneath it, and we know it’s time for a change.

Then [the baby’s] sister asked her, “Shall I go and call a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for you?”

Please do, she answered. So the girl went and brought the baby’s own mother. The princess told the woman, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So she took the baby and nursed him.

Is that fantastic, or what? Not only did Moses’ mother save his life, but she got paid for it! It was all because she stepped out of Egypt’s rules, out of Egypt’s power, and into God’s way of being. She was still under Egypt’s power, and the king still didn’t care for the Hebrew people (just read on in Exodus to see that), but none of that can deny the victory these women won. The king’s daughter, Shiphrah and Puah the midwives, and of course Moses’ mother.

As I started praying down this path, I was worried that maybe I was setting us up as the Egyptians, with somebody else as the Hebrews. As true as that might be in a nation this prosperous, in a world where so many are hungry, it’s not quite fair. It’s not fair because the Egyptians weren’t the bad guys either. They were no more free than the Hebrews. None of us are any freer than that, because the world and all its wealth and power still hold us in place. The world still tells us that this is the way it has to be, and we’re putting ourselves in great personal and economic danger by stepping outside those bounds.

So thank God for the Hebrews and the Egyptians in this story, for all of them who knew that what they were told to do was wrong, who changed the rules they played by, who made a little room for God to be at play in that Pharaoh’s land.


Quotations taken from the Good News Translation, copyright 1992 American Bible Society. Used by permission.