Much ground has been covered, both literally and figuratively, between last week’s story about Jacob and this week’s story about Moses. After Jacob had his dream about the ladder to heaven, he went to Haran, which is where his mother was from in modern day Turkey. He worked for his Uncle Laban, tricked him out of a lot of stuff, married both of his daughters, then went back home to what is now southern Israel. He had 12 sons, and like his mother Rebekkah he played favorites. Joseph was his favorite and received special treatment. So Joseph’s brothers despised him and constantly looked for ways to do him in. They finally had their opportunity and sold him to traders on their way to Egypt, telling Jacob that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. In the end, Jacob the cheater reaps a bit of the whirlwind.
So Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt, but through the blessing of God and an amazing series of events he ends up the second in command to the Pharaoh and in charge of preparing for the upcoming seven years of famine which he predicted. During the famine his brothers came to Egypt to buy food, and he ends up forgiving them and bringing all of his family to live near him. Since they are shepherds, Joseph asks for the territory of Goshen for them to live in where they can graze their sheep.
Eventually Joseph dies, but his family continues to live there. Generations come and go and Pharaohs come and go. Joseph’s family became larger and larger, and eventually the memory of what Joseph had done for Egypt had been forgotten. The Hebrews continued to live separate from the Egyptians and were regarded as outsiders. There were so many of them that a new Pharaoh regarded them suspiciously and wanted to make sure they didn’t get any uppity ideas about taking over, so he enslaved them and put them to work. They were oppressed and treated harshly. Pharaoh decided that was not enough and told the Hebrew midwives to begin killing any male children born to the Hebrew women. The midwives disobeyed but told a convincing lie about how the Hebrew women were so tough that they gave birth without midwives. So Pharaoh told the Egyptian people to take responsibility for throwing any male Hebrew children they came across into the Nile River to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles or hippos.
It was during this time that one of the Hebrew women, named Jochebed, gave birth to Moses. She hid him for three months, then she and her daughter Miriam concocted a plot to undermine Pharaoh’s order. They would put Moses in a basket in the Nile river at the place where Pharaoh’s daughter went daily to bathe, and they would count on her humanity to override her obedience to her father’s decree. Indeed, she brought the baby out of the water and adopted him and raised him as her own.
So Moses was raised and educated as part of Pharaoh’s family, spared both death and the slavery endured by his people. When he was 40 years old, according to Acts, Moses witnessed an act of government brutality, as an Egyptian overseer beat a Hebrew slave. This infuriated Moses and he killed the Egyptian overseer and hid him in the sand. But others had seen what he did and word got to Pharaoh, who issued a death warrant for Moses. Moses quickly fled Egypt, and he spent the next 40 years in the land of Midian where he married a Midianite woman and tended the flocks of his father in law. He had a lot of time on his hands to think about his former life and what he had done and what life was like for his people in Egypt. But that was a long time ago and I’m sure he thought that chapter of his life was finished.
Then came the fateful day when he came across the burning bush. The old Pharaoh had died and God decided it was time to do something about the plight of the enslaved Hebrews. So he met with Moses in the burning bush and called him to go back to Egypt and bring the Hebrew people out to their own land where they could live in freedom.
Nobody could have known any better than Moses what an absolutely preposterous job assignment this was. I can imagine him saying to God, to paraphrase Boromir in the Lord of the Rings, “One does not just walk into Egypt and say to Pharaoh, ‘I’m taking your slaves now.’ He’s richer than Croesus. He has a powerful army, chariots, followers who believe he is God. Who am I, that I could possibly accomplish this?”
This begins a very humorous back and forth conversation, as God replies, “Well, it’s not just you. I’m going with you. Look, here’s a sign for you. When we get finished we will come back here and you will worship me here on this mountain. Then it will all be clear!” Ha! What kind of sign is that, that comes only after it is all said and done?
Then Moses says, “Well what do I do if I come to these people and tell them the God of your ancestors has sent me to you and they ask me, ‘What’s his name?’” God says, “My name is ‘I am who I am.’ Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” I expect Moses was banging his head against something by now.
Then Moses says, “What if they don’t believe me?” God gave him a couple of magic tricks to do, including a staff that would turn into a snake. Then Moses complains that he is not very good at public speaking and will not be very effective either with Pharaoh or with his people. God starts to get a little testy with Moses now and says, “Okay, I’ll send your brother Aaron with you. He is a very good spokesman. Now get to work.” Finally Moses was out of objections, so he went and said his goodbyes and set out for Egypt.
The God who calls us also provides the blessings we need to accomplish the task. I’m sure Moses thought he had precious little with which to accomplish this task: a promise of returning to this mountain, a name for God, a staff, and a spokesman. But they were sufficient, because God stood behind them all. God didn’t give Moses superpowers, he used the flawed human being standing before him. God could have lifted up all those slaves into the air and brought them out on angels’ wings. God could have destroyed Pharaoh and all the Egyptians and let the Hebrews have Egypt to live in. But God works through human beings and human events. The old saying is that God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. God warned Moses that it wouldn’t come easily. Pharaohs don’t give up their free labor without a fierce fight.
Last week Noelle talked with us about how God is in the messes of life. God worked in and through Jacob, even though much of his life was characterized by cheating and scheming against family members. This week we have to take off the lenses we have been taught to wear which flavor how we understand this story in order to fully see the mess. Those lenses show us a simplistic story of the good man Moses doing battle against the evil empire of Egypt. Luke Skywalker facing off against Darth Vader.
What do we see without those lenses? On the one side we see the Egyptians, who had been the preeminent civilization in the Mediterranean for the better part of 2000 years. Education, medicine, farming, shipping, building – pyramids, temples, the valley of the kings. They had been around 1700 years longer than our country has. They had good reason to believe in Egyptian exceptionalism and it was a long accepted fact that it was natural to use minorities and outsiders to do the hard and dirty work that was below Egyptians to do, without much reward.
On the other side you have an outsider who was given a place on the privileged inside under the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter. He undoubtedly received an excellent education and was spared the backbreaking labor of his fellow Hebrews. When he was around 40 he observed a slave being beaten by a government overseer and he let his anger get the best of him. He killed the overseer. There was no defense for his actions. Slaves had no rights. Dominant cultures are not interested in accusations of police brutality, they just assume it is warranted. The next day Moses saw two Hebrews fighting and he asked why they were hitting fellow Hebrews. They asked if he planned to kill them too. There is no evidence he had done anything to benefit the Hebrew slaves in the first 40 years of his life, so his actions in killing the Egyptian did not establish his credentials as being their friend. With a police record and a death warrant on his head, Moses had no option but to leave. He did so, for around 40 years.
It’s easy to see why he didn’t want to go back. The old Pharaoh was dead, but that didn’t mean nobody remembered him and his criminal record. And the slaves certainly weren’t going to receive him as one of them and be eager to participate in civil disobedience. They knew very well the consequences of that.
Seen in this kind of light, Moses is a troublemaker, trying to stir things up. He is constantly trying to undermine Pharaoh; his actions cause life to become even harder for the slaves; and his demands were an attempt to cripple the economy and workforce of this model country. Egyptians who knew him from before would call him unpatriotic. Hebrews would question his motives and reliability. In this mess, God was at work. I wonder if we would have seen it. God gave Moses the gifts he would need to get through it and not give up, and ultimately be successful.
If we are honest we probably need to identify with the Egyptians in this story. We might find things to complain about, but we are pretty comfortable, we are in the dominant, ruling class, the status quo is pretty good for us. We don’t know what it’s like to be walking around our neighborhood and be picked up by a police car for looking suspicious. We don’t know what it is like to be asked to show our green card to prove it is okay for us to be here. We don’t have any qualms about paying minimum wage or less for minorities to cut our yards or clean our houses or pick up our trash or put on our roofs. Our America is pretty good, and we are not really interested in hearing anyone tell us it is not that way for everyone.
I have been watching the PBS documentaries on the Vietnam War, and I think they should be required viewing for every American. It explains so much about how we got to where we are today in terms of division, mistrust of government and leaders, and differing ideas of what patriotism means. It gives the opportunity to listen to the stories and motivations of people who made very different decisions and to understand them better, which is always a critical need. And it gives the important opportunity to learn from the past rather than continuing to make the same mistakes.
Well, you remember how this part of the Moses story ends. Only after the tenth plague, the one where all the firstborn of Egypt die, does Pharaoh tell Moses to take the people and go. But even after paying that terrible price, he is ultimately not able to let go of that cheap labor. He sends the greatest army in the world to bring them back. The Hebrew slaves watch and listen in terror with their backs to the sea as the chariots come thundering down on them. Moses says, “Relax. You don’t have to do anything but watch as God wins this victory.” The way through the sea opens up and the people pass through before the waters close in and swallow up that great army. God provided in a stunning and shocking way, and many of the great nations of history have experienced similar things.
Next week we move to the other side of the sea where the wilderness journey begins. The dangers and challenges are very different but very real. Central in the story will be the way God provides daily bread for the Hebrews. It would have been a good story for today on World Communion Sunday, but the other one was too. He’s got the whole world in his hands, not just us.
David J. Bailey
October 1, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.