8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 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.”
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 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. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 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. 6 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. 7 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 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. 10 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.”
When my wife, Lauren, was a young child, one day she went up to her mom and ask, “Mom, who’s Moses?” And her mom stood in shock at this sudden realization that her daughter didn’t know who Moses was. She either hadn’t learned or she had forgotten. And so right then and there, Lauren’s mother declared, “We need to get you into Sunday School.”
Do you remember Moses and his story? The one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The one who would bring down the 10 commandments from Mt. Sinai. This morning, in our Old Testament reading from Exodus, we are reminded of the birth story of Moses. And parts of the story are horrible and terrifying. But through out, there are also parts that are incredibly and shockingly beautiful that weave in and out of the story. It is a story about genocide. But also a story about gentleness and compassion. And I hope that all of us will go home remembering Moses and the beginning of his life. Because as we will learn, when we forget part of our story, part of our history, we can forget the way and the will of God for this world.
The story begins by telling us that Egypt has a new king. And the first thing we learn is that he doesn’t know Joseph. This king, the Pharaoh didn’t know the story. He could have gone to his mother and said, “Mother, who is Joseph?” Only there was no Sunday school for him to go to. He has to learn the hard way. And he will. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. Well, what does that mean? Who was Joseph? It means that the pharaoh has either not heard or doesn’t remember part of his story, as an Egyptian. You see, Joseph was a Hebrew who helped turn Egypt into this great country that provided food for the world while so many were going through a drought. Therefore, Joseph, a Hebrew, was a friend to Egypt. And the Hebrew people had become a part of Egypt. But this new king didn’t know Joseph. And he didn’t know the Hebrew people. He didn’t know his own story. And when we forget our story, we can forget the way and the will of God for this world.
The first thing this Pharaoh does as a king is he becomes afraid. Afraid of the Hebrew people. He says to his people, the Egyptians, that those people, the Hebrews, Joseph’s people, are getting too big and too powerful. But here is the thing, there was no evidence that the Hebrew people were growing in numbers and in power. None. He’s just paranoid and insecure. Afraid of losing his power, despite that there was no evidence his fears were actually true. We can see that his leadership, his kingdom, is born out of fear – fear of the Hebrews. Fear of the other. Someone who is different than him. And that is very, very dangerous in a leader. Because a leader who is afraid will soon become a loveless leader. Because what happens next? Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor, it says. He starts oppressing the descendants of Joseph. Who was a friend to Egypt. They became slaves. This is the moment the Israelites were enslaved, from which Moses will need to save them.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Pharaoh begins to enact genocide. He’s so afraid of the Hebrew people, he tells the midwives to kill off any male newborns. But if a girl is born you can let her live. Which is idiotic, because the Pharaoh clearly does not know about the great power a girl can have.
And as I read this horrifying part of the story, I can’t help but think about what is going on in the world today with ISIS in Iraq and Israel and Palestine, and residents of Missouri. And on the one hand, I’m get extremely angry. Because haven’t we learned? Haven’t we learned that things like this never end well? When you start to fear another type of person because of their skin, or their religion, their culture, it is the first step to oppression and people getting killed. Haven’t we learned this? It is like we’ve forgotten this story.
But oddly enough, when I hear this story, it also makes me hopeful. Because it tells me that as the people of God, we’ve gone through such horrible times in history before. And we’ve made it through. And I’ve heard more and more from people saying, “It just seems like the world is coming to an end.” Which is I’m sure how the Israelites felt. With their children being slaughtered by the King. But the world made it through that awful time. So maybe we can make it through this time too.
So let’s see what was needed in order for something to start to change. Interestingly, it is the very people that Pharaoh thought he didn’t need to fear who are the ones that do him in – the women. Those midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are the first to disobey him. We learn that the midwives fear God. Not Pharaoh. And that is very, very dangerous for Pharaoh. Because when you are a leader who relies on people being afraid of you, those who don’t fear you are your worst enemy.
They fear God, not Pharaoh. And we shouldn’t read this as trembling fear of God, but to fear God means to know God and to trust God over everything else. And to know God is to know that God is a God of life, not a god of death. And as a result, the women are unwilling to take life. The midwives are unwilling to take the lives of those baby boys. And suddenly a thread of incredible beauty is stitched into this horrifying story. They midwives disobey the king and put their lives on the line for those little ones. And it is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Which reminds us that sometimes to follow God, you have to be willing to break the rules. And then when the Pharaoh asks them why they aren’t obeying, they uphold the power of these Hebrew women (whom the Pharaoh didn’t fear, but should) by saying, “They are not like any other woman. They are vigorous, and the babies come out too quickly.” Which means they are so full of life, that they can’t help but be bursting with new life.
But then the story gets even more horrifying. When kings and rulers don’t get what they want, they will just turn the heat and the pressure up even higher. So the Pharaoh gets himself an even bigger killing machine and he declares to all of his people, the Egyptians, that any boy born to the Hebrews is to be thrown in the Nile river. Not just the new baby boys, but any of them. 5 year olds. 10 year olds. Suddenly, none of the boys are safe. Imagine being a Hebrew family of four boys and trying to walk down the streets in Egypt. Imagine trying to hide your accent, or changing the way you dress, or fearing that the complexion of your skin might give you away. Imagine that. Living in a situation in which every single child, especially newborns, is under threat
In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Masters of War”, in light of the Cold War in 1960s. In it Dylan sings these lyrics:
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
And that is exactly what this Pharaoh has done. He’s thrown the worst fear – the fear of bringing children into this world.
This is right at the end of chapter 1. Now look at how chapter 2 begins – Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son. My friend Ken helped me to see this in a new way. In the midst of this atrocious King and his ridiculous prejudice that demands the killing of Hebrew boys, people are still making love and making babies. How incredible is that? In the midst of genocide, a situation in which every single child is under threat, people are still falling in love. This Levite couple can’t keep their hands off each other and are getting it on. Which is yet another stitch of incredible, incredible beauty, into such a horrifying story. It’s like humanity can’t help but bend towards love and life.
So this baby boy is born. And after three months, the mother can no longer hide him. So she places him in a basket on the Nile river. Pharaoh said to throw the boys in the river, yet she throws him on the river. A subtle difference.
This little boy floats down the river. And lo and behold, who discovers him? Pharaoh’s daughter. And she sees that he is a crying Hebrew boy and she has compassion for him. Pharaoh’s daughter – the daughter of the one who demanded that all Hebrew boys be killed is the one who saved this Hebrew boy, who will be called Moses and who will set free all of the Hebrews from this Pharaoh of Egypt. Another woman is this Pharaoh’s downfall and it is his own daughter.
And we learn two things from this. First, and I hate to say it as a parent myself, but we learn that sometimes to follow God means we have to disobey our parents. Because that is what Pharaoh’s daughter does. We would be wise to teach that to our children. But I fear we wouldn’t have any children left in Sunday school if we did. Second, we learn that sometimes the one who will save us from the enemy comes from within the enemy itself. It’s Pharaoh’s daughter that helps save the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. As my friend Alan has said, “God works behind enemy lines.”
Which gives me hope and leads me to pray that maybe the solution to this problem with ISIS in Iraq will come from within the ISIS group. Maybe there is someone there who knows what they are doing is atrocious and evil, and maybe they will put an end to it from within. Maybe. It happened in this story. Why not again?
And then with the help of Moses’ sister, Miriam (another girl), Pharaoh’s daughter lets Moses’ mother nurse him for a couple more years and then takes him as her own son. And next week, we will get to see how the rest of the story plays out.
But remember, Pharaoh’s reign as king was born out of fear. That was the first thing. But Moses was born out of love. Two people courageous and risky enough to make a baby when babies were under threat. That’s love. And look at what happens when someone is born out of fear – people are enslaved and killed. And look at what happens when someone is born out of love – it will save an entire nation.
So may we all go home remembering Moses birth story. And may God grant us eyes to see the Pharaoh’s of this world who long to make us afraid of people who are different than us. And then may we be like those brave and courageous women – like Shiphrah and Puah, and Moses’ mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who dared to put love and compassion in front of their fear. And as a result, they saved a nation. Amen