When the Story…, Proper 16 (A) – 1996
August 18, 1996
When the story from the Hebrew Scriptures opens, the Hebrew people have been living in Egypt for about as long as Europeans and Africans have been here in North America. A new pharaoh — or king — begins to rule Egypt. Because slave labor is important to the well – being and economy of his nation, the pharaoh is concerned that the Hebrews are more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians and could rise up to overcome their masters or to escape. So one hardship after another is heaped upon the backs of the slaves to keep them in their place and reduce their numbers.
When none of his harsh tactics works, the pharaoh hits on a new and especially heinous plan. He calls in the two midwives who assist Hebrew women during childbirth and orders them to kill all new born, Hebrew males. But the two women — Shephrah and Puah — weigh their fear of the powerful pharaoh against their fear of God and God wins.
The midwives resolve to do what is in their power to do: they boldly choose not to cooperate but to disobey the pharaoh and stand with God on the side of the oppressed and powerless. For taking this risk, God rewards the heroic midwives and the Hebrew community continues to grow in numbers and strength.
When called on the carpet by the pharaoh, Shephrah and Puah are quick-witted! “Why have you let the male children live?” he demands to know. The reply? Because the Israelite women are so strong that by the time the midwives get to them, they have already delivered their babies themselves! What does a pharaoh know about childbirth?! But the midwives have just become the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation.
In desperation, the Pharaoh commands that every newborn Hebrew boy be drowned in the Nile River.
A Hebrew woman, who is not named here but who we discover in a later text is Jochebed, gives birth to a beautiful little boy. This mother is not about to throw her beloved son into the river. She manages to hide him for some time, which as every parent knows would be pretty difficult given the amount of control one has over newborn vocal chords!
One day Jochebed tucks her son into a basket and places it gently among the protective bulrushes in the river, perhaps hoping the movement of the water will soothe him to sleep. She tells his five year old sister, whose name is not given here but it is Miriam, to stand watch over the boy from the river’s edge.
Imagine Miriam’s fear when she hears voices coming her way and realizes it is the pharaoh’s own daughter coming toward the river! From her hiding place she sees the young woman begin to bathe. She sights the basket, sends a maid to bring it to her. She open it and instantly sizes up the situation. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she says.
How many dead babies has this Egyptian woman seen washed up on the shore? What makes her resolve to defy her father and save this particular child’s life? Somehow she is taken by the infant, knowing full-well that she is embarking on a dangerous path.
At this moment, little Miriam takes the initiative. She steps forward and asks the pharaoh’s daughter if she would like her to bring a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. How quick-witted and courageous for such a young child!
And then picture that meeting between two women of different races, religions, cultures, languages as they enter a pact to resist the law of the land and save the life of this slave child. What must Jochebed have been feeling and fearing with her child’s life at sake?
She at least is able to keep her son for three years — yet she holds up her side of the bargain: eventually the boy goes from the Hebrew slave quarters to the palace to be raised as the son of the pharaoh’s daughter, who names him Moses which means ‘drawn out of the water’.
And what of the attendants who saw all of this? Why do none of them betray her right at the beginning or when the boy comes to live in the palace or even later in his life? As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group to change the world.” For that is what these women — some of them unnamed — did.
Phyllis Trible, a biblical scholar who has studied this text extensively, points out that because of their combined activity, “Humanly speaking, the Exodus story owes its beginning not to Moses but to Miriam and the other women.” And God chose these four women and a girl to be change agents in order to ultimately liberate the Hebrews and thus change the course of history dramatically — for the Exodus IS the pivotal event of the Old Testament and Moses is critical to lead his people out of Egypt, through the wilderness and the Red Sea, to the edge of the Promised Land.
Another interesting fact about this particular story, when set in the larger biblical context, is that it offers a novel, new model of heroism based on intelligence and wit rather than violence. The women resist the powerful pharaoh but do not seek to destroy him or seize his power for themselves. Each acting autonomously derives power out of no power.
And probably this story is among the first in history, also, in which a king-like god stands with the oppressed rather than the privileged. Confronting the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God is our job here on earth. When we do that we learn that our God is always on the side of the oppressed, the excluded, the disenfranchised. And that takes many forms. It is our baptismal responsibility to recognize and name it and then join God in confronting it — whether it is governmental policies like the pharaoh’s decree or racism in our schools, offices, neighborhoods, media… or violence against women and children… or excluding whole categories of people: people of color, gays and lesbians, women, homeless persons.
One of the best measures of a society is to look at how we treat the least among us. Where do YOU see exclusion or powerlessness in your workplace or community? In our schools and governments? Whose stories are not being told? [Pause] What can YOU do about it?
Change can come through small opportunities, through resources like money and privilege — such as being the pharaoh’s daughter or well-educated and well-employed.
Change can come through the actions of just one person: a worker like the midwives, a whistleblower, a person with a God- given opportunity to act, a loving parent, a brave child — all refusing to cooperate with the oppressor.
Change comes through acts of human love, inventiveness and the courage to do what is in our power to do. [Pause]
WHAT IS IN YOU POWER TO DO? Where and how is God calling you to stand with the powerless, the excluded, those on the margins of our society? [Pause]
It is in responding to that question that you will find yourself doing justice, loving kindness and mercy, and walking humbly with your God [Micah 6: 8] — which is precisely what God requires of you.
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