When you are reading through the Bible and finish the book of Genesis, which ends with the death of Joseph, and move into the book of Exodus, which starts out by telling us there was a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph, it might slip under our radar just how much time has elapsed. We are told later in Exodus that the Hebrew people were in Egypt for a total of 430 years – about 190 more years than our country has been in existence! Knowing that makes the circumstances described early in the book of Exodus much more understandable.
You may recall that Joseph came to Egypt as a slave, having been sold by his resentful brothers to traders. After spending time as a slave and in prison, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when no one else could and became the second in command in Egypt as he made preparations for the coming famine. When the famine occurred and Egypt was prepared for it, Joseph had such privilege and esteem in Egypt that he brought his father and eleven brothers to live there.
400 years later things had changed pretty radically. Those 12 Hebrew families living on the outskirts of Egypt had mushroomed into a throng which threatened to overwhelm the native Egyptians. The Hebrews had gone from being welcomed guests to being feared outsiders. Pharaoh’s strategy was the frequently used one of oppression of the ones who are feared. The Hebrew people were enslaved and put to work in building tasks. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread and the more fearful Pharaoh and all the Egyptians became of them.
So Pharaoh took the next step and decreed the death of all male children born to the Hebrew women. At this point all kind of humor and irony kick in to make this a very entertaining story. How will Pharaoh accomplish this killing of Hebrew children? The Hebrew and Egyptian communities were undoubtedly segregated. Sending in soldiers to find and kill babies doesn’t seem like a good plan. So he calls in the Hebrew midwives who help in baby deliveries in the Hebrew community. No Egyptian midwives would lower themselves to this duty I’m sure.
Part of the humor of this chapter is that we know the names of these Hebrew midwives – they are Shiphrah and Puah – but we do not know the name of the king of Egypt. The king orders them to kill the male babies when they deliver them, but not the females. He is confident that they will fear him enough to do what he commands.
But he is wrong. The writer tells us that the midwives feared God instead, and did not follow the king’s orders. They don’t make a big show of it, they just don’t do what they were told to do, knowing they were risking their lives. Eventually the king called them on the carpet and asked why they did not obey. They told him that the Hebrew women are heartier than Egyptian women and deliver without the assistance of midwives. Pharaoh bought the story in spite of the slam on Egyptian women, so two Hebrew midwives outsmart the king of Egypt. In doing so they changed the course of history and their names are remembered and their memory is honored.
Next Pharaoh turns to his own people for carrying out his orders – every boy child among the Hebrews that they saw they were to cast into the Nile to die. This attempt is undermined by three more women, including his own daughter.
Whereas the midwives had taken courageous action to save all of the male children of the Hebrews, we now turn to the story of the saving of one particular Hebrew boy. His mother gave birth to him and hid him as long as she could. Then she concocted a plan which complied with the letter of the king’s law but would give the child a chance of survival. She made a waterproof basket, placed the child in it, and put it in the reeds on the edge of the River Nile. She posted her daughter to see what happened. Sometimes you have to let something go in order to receive it back. She had to take the risk that whoever found the basket might take the baby and toss it out in the river. She had to give him to God, because she could not hide him and saw no other options.
Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river to bathe and saw the basket and sent her maid to fetch it. When the basket was opened and the crying child revealed, she had pity on it and said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” Just then the child’s sister stepped forward and asked if she would like her to go get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her. Pharaoh’s daughter said yes, so the girl went and got her mother. Pharaoh’s daughter told her to take the child and nurse him and she would pay her to do it. More delicious irony, as Pharaoh is now paying a Hebrew woman to be wet nurse to her own son who was supposed to be dead. So the mother took her baby home and cared for him until he was ready to be weaned, which I have read was probably about three years at that time. Then she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him as her son and named him Moses, which means “draw out,” because, she said, she had drawn him out of the water.
We also do not know the name of the princess. We are not told the names of the mother and sister here, but elsewhere we learn the mother’s name is Jochebed and the sister’s name is Miriam. Here are three more women who changed the course of history. All are remarkable, but the Pharaoh’s daughter should certainly not be overlooked. She ignored her father’s command just as surely as the midwives had. Faced with the decree of death she chose life even though it could have cost her own. Terence Fretheim writes, “The princess’s calm compassion toward the child and her commitment to long-term noncompliance with her father’s brutal decree constitute a public demonstration of the bankruptcy of his policy.” (Interpretation, Exodus, p. 37)
Fretheim also points out these ironies in this part of the story:
“Pharaoh’s chosen instrument of destruction (the Nile) is the means for saving Moses; the mother saves Moses by following Pharaoh’s orders (with her own twist); a member of Pharaoh’s own family undermines his policies, saving the very person who would lead Israel out of Egypt and destroy the Dynasty; the mother gets paid out of Pharaoh’s treasury to nurse her own child; and Moses is educated to be an Israelite leader, strategically placed within the very court of Pharaoh.” (p. 37)
This is the beginning of the most critical story of Israel’s faith, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This beginning makes clear that God acts in surprising ways. Instead of sending a powerful army to liberate the slaves, God starts with a tiny, helpless baby floating in a basket on the NileRiver. In an utterly male dominated world, the baby is dependent upon the choices made by five women as to whether he will have a future.
Fretheim writes, “Rather than using power as it is usually exercised in the world, God works through persons who have no obvious power… The choice of the five women entails much risk and vulnerability for God… But they prove highly effective against the ruthless forms of systemic power… Even more, God’s plan for the future of the children of Israel rests squarely on the shoulders of one of its helpless sons, a baby in a fragile basket.” (p. 37)
I suspect that you have already made the connection with the New Testament in your mind. God’s choice of another unlikely woman, an unmarried young lady from the out of the way town of Nazareth, entrusted with carrying the Messiah. So much could have happened to undermine this – Joseph could have rejected her, the community could have stoned her for getting pregnant without being married, she could have miscarried on the difficult journey to Bethlehem for the census, she could have encountered problems in childbirth and there was no midwife to assist. There is the manger in which he is laid, reminding us of the basket of Moses. There is the death decree of another ruthless tyrant, King Herod, who is fearful of a threat. There is a journey back to Egypt, for safety this time, until Herod’s death.
As Paul said to the Corinthians, God chooses what is weak and despised in the world to shame the strong. God often chooses to work from below rather than from above. This is why faith is required, because no one would ever write scripts like these for God.
Over the next few weeks we are going to follow this story of the Exodus which begins so surprisingly with Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. There are many more surprises to come, as well as many opportunities to look in the mirror. William Ross Wallace wrote a poem entitled, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Rules the World.” I’m not crazy about the poem itself, but the implications of that title ring true and are very important to take into account. You don’t have to be a president or a judge or a corporate giant to change the world.
In a sense, these women are demonstrations of the parables of Jesus that we have examined recently. They are part of the kingdom that begins with a tiny seed and grows in surprising ways into something very large and substantial. They have stumbled over the pearl of great value and have been willing to let go of everything else if need be in order to have it. They have planted a seed and trusted God to provide water and sun and protection so that it will come to maturity and bear fruit.
Pharaohs get all the headlines, with their decrees and their paranoia and their preemptive strikes. The Pharaohs will all eventually go the way of all the earth, often as a direct result of the actions they have taken to try to keep everything under control. God will still be there, still be at work, often through small events and seemingly insignificant people, working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.
When Pharaoh’s daughter took in the weaned child to raise in the palace in a great act of compassion, she was focused on what she had done. “I will name him Moses,” based on a word meaning “to draw out,” because “I have drawn him out of the water.” I have saved him, she was saying. Little did she know that she had saved him in order that this child could one day “draw out” the whole people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and lead them on a march to freedom.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 24, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church