YEAR A: PENTECOST 16
August 21, 2011
Today’s reading is the first of nine consecutive passages from Exodus, and contains three related stories of Israel’s time in captivity in Egypt. Some commentators claim that Exodus is in some sense the true first book of the Bible, in that it gives the story of Israel being constituted and chosen as God’s people. Through their experience of oppression and slavery and their deliverance through the Exodus event, their character as a unified people is forged. It is only then with this new awareness of their own identity as a chosen and liberated people that they were able to look back and reflect that the God known in the Exodus had been the same God who created all that is.
Moses is the central figure of the book of Exodus, and the central agent through whom God shapes his people’s future. The reading for today sets the scene for his miraculous infancy and preservation. It is the one who has been preserved who may in turn help in the preserving of God’s chosen people.
The first verse of the reading set for today sounds a change in tone from the earlier story of Joseph at the end of Genesis, and introduces the first portion of the reading in verses 8-14. A new Pharaoh arises who ‘did not know Joseph’. The story could possibly reflect the period of Seti I (late 13th century BCE) or Ramses II in the 12th century BCE. Both of these presided over periods of great expansion and wealth with plenty of building projects, especially under Ramses. In our story the Pharaoh notes the power and numbers of the Israelite people, and proposes a harsh solution to keep their power in check. They are to work at forced labour, building supply cities. But the harsh measures backfire, and the narrator notes, ‘the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites’. Already we have a sense that the God who was behind the events of the Joseph story, working all things for good (Gen. 50:20), could still work for good in these new circumstances. The response of the Egyptians to redouble their harsh treatment, imposing even harder labour on the Israelites, may prove useless. Alongside this divine activity there is an undertone in the passage of the indomitable spirit of the captives, and a foreshadowing of their status as God’s people, something that even the powers of the day could not challenge or shift.
In the second story in our reading, verses 15-21, we hear the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. The Pharaoh had charged them to kill all Hebrew male babies, in an attempt to impose his authority over the captives and control them. But the midwives acknowledge a higher power than the Pharaoh. They feared God and so they let the baby boys live. When they are called to account, they give a rather cheeky answer, saying that the Hebrew women are more vigorous than the Egyptians, and have already given birth by the time the midwives arrive to attend them. There is a case here of how deception and trickery, which have been rampant in the Jacob story, may now be employed for the benefit of God’s people.
God rewards the midwives for their faithfulness by giving them families of their own, and the people continue to multiply. The thinking of the time saw fertility as directly linked with divine blessing, with God opening or closing the womb as we have seen so often in Genesis. The divine blessing rests on this captive people and thereby sharply opposes the power of Pharaoh.
The third story opens with Pharaoh’s command in verse 22 that all Hebrew boys are to be thrown into the Nile, but the girl babies are to be left alive. Against this bleak backdrop, we hear the story of the miraculous preservation of baby Moses, the son of a Levite couple. His mother hid him and then prepared a water-proof basket to float him on the river in the hope that he may be found and cared for.
The baby is found, but in keeping with the surprise element in many of the early stories of Israel, it is none other than Pharaoh’s daughter who finds him. She has pity on the crying child, much as the Hebrew midwives had had pity on the boys who were born. Again, there is a note of humour in the story, for Moses’ sister is looking on, and suggests his own mother when the Pharaoh’s daughter looks for a wet nurse for the child. Moses’ mother is even to be paid for the role of nursing her own son. After Moses was grown, his mother returns him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who is never named but identified only in terms of her relationship with her powerful father. She calls the baby Moses, a name said to be related to the Hebrew verb mashah, ‘to draw out’, because he was drawn out of the water. In fact Moses may be a thorough going Egyptian name, related to the last part of Pharaoh Ramses name.
Linking the three parts of the story are the setting of oppression and slavery in Egypt, the faithfulness of women, and the continued survival of the Hebrew people. Moses’ infancy is framed in such a way as to suggest his adulthood will likewise be marked by the miraculous; he has been saved in order that he may in turn be a vessel of God’s salvation of his people.
In preaching on this text, one might examine where in present-day settings of oppression are God’s people called to small acts of faithful subversion. Interestingly, both those within the oppressed community, the midwives, and those in power, e.g. Pharaoh’s daughter, are exemplars of this at-times humorous undermining of the ways of power and death in favour of life and freedom. One could also reflect on the fact that while the focus of the Book of Exodus is on the grand scale of the escape of the whole people of Israel from captivity, the events leading to that involve people of low estate, two midwives and a small Levite family living in fear. No effort, however meager, is too small for God to work through.
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