Reflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 1:8-2:10 on August 23, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas
The Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt begins, not as you might remember from Sunday School, with Moses confronting Pharaoh and threatening him with 10 plagues—that was the dramatic climax of the story. Rather, the Exodus really begins here in this passage. It does not begin with Moses or Aaron—not with large- than-life men, who get whole books of the Bible written about or by them. No. The story of liberation from slavery and oppression begins right here, with 5 brave and bold women—3 of whom are not even named in this passage.
How did the actions of 5 brave women change the fate of a whole nation? First, we have to remember how they got where they are. Joseph’s whole family—his father, Israel, all 11 eleven brothers, their families, flocks and the whole lot of them, came to Egypt to survive the famine at Joseph’s hand. He was the Secretary of Agriculture and life was good. But then life goes on, a generation passes, Joseph dies and a new Pharaoh arises in Egypt who does not remember Joseph nor how he had saved the country from starvation. This new Pharaoh fears the Hebrew people (or the Israelites), who had become a numerous population, just as God had promised. Pharaoh became afraid that they would one day overpower the Egyptians and take over the country. The minority would become the majority.
This cowardly fear to preserve power made Pharaoh cruel—enslaving the Hebrews, ruthlessly oppressing them with forced labor. Yet as a people, they continued to flourish. Then Pharaoh called for killing all of the male babies so they could not grow up and fight in an army against him. There is no indication that the Israelites had any intention of rebellion, or a take-over; yet the Pharaoh’s paranoia is used to justify enslavement, and now even infanticide.
In contrast to Pharaoh’s self-centered, power-hungry fear sits the righteous, life-giving fear that the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, have of God. Pharaoh commands them to kill the baby boys that are born, but rather than obey the Pharaoh, they break the law, disobey the king, and follow the law of God, allowing the boys to live. Such defiance of the king’s orders would summarily lead to death. When they are called to account, they lie about it, saying the Hebrew women are more vigorous than the Egyptians and are giving birth before they even arrive. For them, justice demanded a higher authority, and that is how these women lived their daily life. God blessed and protected them because of it, even though they broke the law of the land. They use the influence they have in the spheres of life where God has placed them.
The same is true for Moses’s mother, sister and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Each one of them defied the law of the land, the rules, and Pharaoh’s fear, and instead, did what was just and right and life-giving. Because a mid-wife protected the life of her son at birth, Moses’s mother, whose name we learn later in Exodus is Jochebed, has a baby boy to protect. She weaves a basket to hide him in the Nile river where he was supposed to be drowned with all the other male babies.
The Hebrew word for “basket” is the same word for “ark” used in the story of the flood, and in this tiny ark, God protected Moses, just as God protected Noah and his family. Moses’s sister Miriam watches at a distance to protect her brother, so when the Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the basket among the reeds, she offers to find a nursemaid for her, restoring her brother back to their mother, at least for a time. They both use the influence they have in the sphere of life where God has placed them.
Pharaoh’s daughter, whose name we never learn, is perhaps the most brave of all—adopting this Hebrew male after he is weaned, and raising a boy that was supposed to be killed, right under Pharaoh’s nose in open defiance of her father’s decree. Did she also lie to the Pharaoh or manipulate him in some way to save this one life? We do not know how she does it, but we do know she uses the influence she has in the sphere of life where God has placed her.
Shiprah, Puah, Moses’s mother, Jochebed, his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter all took brave and bold action in their daily life, in the area where they had impact. They each made a conscious decision to disobey the Pharaoh and defy the rule of law because it conflicted with the law of God and their understanding of what was right and just. This idea can be uncomfortable because of course, laws, and obedience to them are important values we share. Breaking the law is a big deal.
And yet, think of the times in our nation’s history when people like these 5 brave and bold women consciously broke the law, and as a result, justice prevailed. The Boston Tea Party and the insurrection of the American colonists were illegal actions. To be a runaway slave to gain your freedom, was an illegal act. Just this week President Trump officially pardoned Susan B. Anthony who illegally voted in 1872. When she sat in the front of a Montgomery bus, Rosa Parks broke the law. We now look at those events and many more like them and rejoice that these people chose to answer to a higher, more righteous, live-giving law. What laws are people breaking today, that sometime in the future, others might celebrate as a breakthrough for justice?
We may not consider Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed and Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter the big heroes of the Bible like Moses, but there would be no Moses, there would be no Exodus out of Egypt, there would be no liberation from oppression without the brave and bold actions of these everyday “sheroes.” They remind us that the cause of justice not only advances on the shoulders of public heroes like Moses, Elijah, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr., but justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream when everyday heroes and sheroes, like these 5 brave and bold women, use the influence they have in the sphere where God has placed them. We are not to wait for a big hero to make life better, we are the everyday heroes and sheroes that God has appointed to build God’s kingdom on earth.
Each of us has a sphere of influence where God calls us to live with right action and just living. It may not be in the halls of power, or in legislative bodies or corporate board rooms, but we all have influence in our families, our communities, and our circle of friends.
• If you are teacher, you have influence with your students, their families, and your colleagues.
• If you work in retail, you have influence with your customers and your co-workers.
• If you work in business, you have influence in how fairly deals are made or how resources are invested.
• If you work in healthcare, you have influence with your patients, co-workers and how care is managed.
The list goes on. You may not feel that your spheres of influence is the place where great change is going to take place, but remember these 5 brave and bold women working in a patriarchal world doing women’s work where they had no “apparent” power at all. Yet, they had great influence, and by taking just action in what appeared to be small ways, they changed the fate of their whole nation.
Where has God placed you so that you can use your gifts to express compassion and give birth to justice and liberation for even one person? Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter show us that the kingdom of God is not waiting for outsized heroes to appear, it is ushered in by midwives, protective mothers, sisters, and daughters, by shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, by fishermen, prodigal sons, forgiving fathers, and by people like you and me.
• That is why I consider our Council, who spends 30 minutes in Scripture and prayer before thoughtfully considering the difficult issues of safety and worship: heroes.
• That is why I consider Dale and Hank, the choral scholars and everyone who records every week to make music to lift our spirits: heroes.
• That is why I consider everyone helping with our worship recordings, taking pictures, video engineering and social media posting: heroes.
• That is why I consider everyone keeping the church going—paying bills, signing checks, counting money, the yardbirds and those working in the Preschool: heroes.
• That is why I consider those starting a community breakfast and planning new events like Cinco de Mayo and Ice Cream Socials: heroes.
You have accepted that God has given you influence in this time and place, and because of that, the kingdom of God is being built here and now. There is no Exodus, no Moses and no liberation from oppression without 5 brave and bold women, without everyday heroes doing the work that God has appointed in their daily life, using the influence they have. That is how God’s kingdom is built today—with everyday heroes and sheroes, like you!
Image: Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, Pharoah's Daughter, and the infant Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.