Welcome to Exodus! Where Genesis is about God’s creating the world and then covenanting with a particular people, Exodus is about the liberation of that people after they become enslaved by the Egyptians. Exodus also follows the Israelites’ subsequent search for the land promised to them by God. In our passage today, we find out how five women who did not even know each other, managed to save the tiny child who would go on to triumphantly lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
About a month ago, I realized that the lectionary was transitioning into Exodus. I am embarrassed to admit it, but before I began working on the series of sermons about Joseph, I could not, for the life of me, remember how the Israelites ended up slaves in Egypt! My Old Testament professors are somewhere shaking their heads in disappointment. I am very grateful to the author of Exodus for tying the end of Joseph’s story to the beginning of Moses’ story. The author reminds us that Joseph’s brothers came to live in Egypt with him. Over the years, they had children, and their children had children and before you know it, Jacob’s children were not just a family, they were a tribe-the Israelites. Remember, that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with the angel.
God’s promise to Abraham is coming true-his descendants are multiplying. There are not yet as many descendants as stars in the sky, but his family is getting there. But as we’ve seen over and over again in history, when a minority group grows more numerous in any given culture, they become a perceived threat by the powers that be.
In this case, the man in power is a king, Pharaoh, who has forgotten the important role that Joseph had in saving Egypt from famine.
At first, this king enslaves the Israelites and forces them into hard physical labor. But this did not stop the Israelites. The text reads,
“But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”
In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter points out that the imagery here is that of swarming. The Israelites are industrious, even when oppressed, and they keep having babies, which makes the Egyptians very nervous. So, the king develops a devious plan.
Pharaoh pulls aside the two head midwives and instructs them to kill all boys born to Israelites.
If all Israelite boys are killed, then the people would not be able to reproduce, but the king could still have Israelite girls and women to do his bidding, at least for a generation.
But what the king does not count for is the brilliance, nurturing spirit and outright trickery of women empowered to do the work of God.
The first women that rallied to save Moses did not even know Moses existed. The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, smile and nod before the king, agree to kill the male babies, and then leave his office and continue to do their job as they have always done it. We are taught in Sunday School to always tell the truth, but here Shiphrah and Puah lie heroically and gloriously in order to save the Israelite children. When the king asks why they have not done as he instructed them, they completely play to his ignorance and stereotypes about the Hebrew women and tell him that they are like animals and don’t even need midwives when they give birth.
These midwives remind us that morality is complicated. Most of the time it is wrong to lie, but if you’ve got Anne Frank in your attic, or Rwandan refugees in your hotel, or escaped slaves in your basement, suddenly it becomes your moral duty to lie your head off.
The midwives’ trickery keeps the Israelite children safe for a time, but the Pharaoh will not be stopped. He invites the people of Egypt to participate in genocide-to kill every Hebrew boy they see. We have seen enough genocide in our lifetime: in Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and for some of you in Russia and Europe to have some sense of how terrifying this must have been.
The narrative lens focuses now and we go from fearing for all the Israelite babies to fearing for a particular baby, Moses, born of the tribe of Levi.
Luckily, this is a boy with a very courageous mother and a very creative sister. Mama Moses was able to nurse her baby for three months and keep him hidden, but she needed to do something drastic before Moses began to roll over or heaven forbid, crawl! There is no hiding a crawling baby. There is no one she can give him to where he will be safe, but there was a small chance he could be found by someone, someone who did not know his ethnic background, and that they would take him in and raise him safely.
So, Mama Moses puts her baby in a basket, waterproofs the basket, says her prayers and sends him on his way. His sister, Miriam, has a little less trust in the universe and keeps her eye on her baby brother. She follows him along the riverbank until he is rescued by who else but Pharaoh’s daughter! Pharaoh’s daughter is no fool. She immediately identifies the baby as a little Hebrew refugee, but that does not stop her heart from going out to him.
If Pharaoh was not such a murderous dictator, I could almost feel sorry for him. He is the man with the most power for hundreds of miles around, and yet, lowly women, Hebrew women, even his own daughter are aligned against him all to preserve the life of a child.
In a wonderful twist, Miriam thinks quickly, and persuades Pharaoh’s daughter to let her find a wet nurse for the baby. Miriam fetches her mother and so Moses’ mother gets to see her child grow, even if he is unaware of her identity. Again, lies abound, but they abound in such a way that Moses grows up safely, and not only safely but with a deep knowledge of how the powerful Pharaoh thinks and works-perfect for a man who will one day need to confront him.
The five women who help Moses are acting out of human kindness and maternal drive to save one kid. But in saving one kid, they are saving an entire nation! By defying authority and risking their own safety, and doing what they think is right, they are setting in motion events that will liberate the Israelites from their bondage and in turn creating a story that will give hope to every generation that has been in bondage, particularly American slaves.
Women-and men-are still in the business of rescuing children. Last year, on an episode of, Oprah, I heard about the story of Lysa and Art TerKeurst. Lisa and Art are the parents of three young girls. One day Lysa went with the girls to hear a choir of Liberian boys sing. After the performance, the audience learned that 12 of the 14 boys were orphaned and homeless after the recent war in their country. They also learned that there were hundreds of more children in the same situation in their home country. After the concert, Lysa had a long conversation with the boys and then called her husband. She says,
“I had to get in the car and call him on the cell phone and say something like, ‘Hi, honey. Do we need milk? And by the way, there are two teenage boys from the other side of the world now calling me Mom.'”
Sure enough, the TerKeurst family ended up adopting two of the boys, but that is not where the story ends. The TerKeursts live in North Carolina, and Lysa’s four best girlfriends were totally appalled by what seemed to be a spontaneous decision. After all, who in their right mind suddenly opens their homes to teenagers from an entirely different culture? Lysa invited her friends to a concert by the boys, and each one of her friends was so moved they each made the decision to adopt as well.
Yes, all five families now had taken in Liberian children.
And still, the story is not over. After all was said and done FOURTEEN families in this North Carolina community took in homeless Liberian children. They reached past their comfortable lifestyles, prejudices, and fear and opened their lives to the lives of others.
We don’t know what long term effect these adoptions may have on the boys, but we do know these families have given the children safety, security, education, love: all the tools they will need to make a difference in the world.
And they remind us to keep our eyes open, because we never know when we’ll have the same opportunity.