Sermon on Exodus 1:8-2:10 for August 27, 2017, Pentecost +12 A
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 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.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 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.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
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. 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. 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?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 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. 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.”
I always look forward to the real life stories I hear on Fridays, on public radio, in the segment they call StoryCorps. This past Friday, William Weaver told his story. He was a14 year old sophomore, back in 1964, when he and about a dozen other black students were integrated into an all white high school. It did not start well.
The principle started calling the roll. When he came to William’s name, he called him Bill. William spoke up for himself and said, “My name is William.” Names are important. Names are about identity.
We tell our kids not to be offended too easily if someone calls them names, “sticks and stones…” and all that, because we want to teach resilience. But we all know that naming is a form of exerting power over a person.
That is why, as a society, the vast majority of us, because we care about racism, would never call someone the N word. It is not about being politically correct, it is about not causing harm; real harm.
So anyway, the principle did not take well to being corrected by a black student, so he said, “Oh, so you’re a smart N-word.” And before William had been in school 30 minutes, he was suspended.
What gave 14 year old William the courage and self-respect to correct the principal on the first day of school? I do not know. He had been a good student at his former school; perhaps he was used to being respected by his teachers and thought of himself as a person worthy of respect. In any case, he knew his name.
Names play a big role in the telling of the Exodus story. The book of Exodus itself begins with a list of the names of “sons of Israel” (whose name used to be Jacob) who came with him to Egypt. Now, years later, they have grown from that group of 70 into a multitude so numerous that the Pharaoh is getting nervous.
The bible says they increased because they were “fruitful and multiplied” – using language that comes from the original creation blessing in Genesis. Clearly, the promise to Abraham (whose name used to be Abram), that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky, in spite of his original condition of childlessness, was being fulfilled.
But Pharaoh did not remember Joseph, we are told. Joseph was the one who had saved Egypt from starvation during the long famine by his skillful preparation and administration, but his generation had died. Pharaoh, whose name we are never told, did not know Joseph’s name.
So Pharaoh, which means something like king, hatches a plot. He will inflict them with hard labor. He will be ruthless. That is what empires do to the people at the bottom.
But it does not work. The more brutal they are treated, the more the Israelites multiply. The empire can be ruthless, but it cannot subvert the promise of God for a future with hope.
So the Pharaoh hatches another plot. He will have the Israelite baby boys killed. Now here, we have to remind ourselves that the bible is literature written by adults, for adults. There is humor and irony, even as it makes serious points. The Pharaoh’s idea is stupid. He depends on the Israelites to be his slave force, but he makes and edict to have the males killed.
But as powerful as the Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire is, his plot is thwarted by two women midwives. They are named. Shiphrah means “Fair One”. Puah means “Fragrant One”. Their names have survived thousands of years. Pharaoh has been forgotten nearly as long.
The Pharaoh confronts them:
“Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”
These clever women came up with a story that this small-brained Pharaoh actually believes.
“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.”
So Pharaoh comes up with a third idea: the Hebrew baby boys are to be thrown into the crocodile-infested Nile.
Shiphrah and Puah are two of five women who utterly subvert Pharaoh’s plans. When baby Moses is born, his mother keeps him alive by making a little ark to float him in, his sister stands watch over it, and the daughter of Pharaoh comes and finds it.
Moses’ sister suggests to Pharaoh’s daughter that a wet-nurse be found, so Moses’ mother ends up getting paid out of Pharaoh’s house account to keep Moses alive and well. Eventually Moses is raised in Pharaoh’s palace, and given all the education he needs to become a great leader.
Pharaoh’s daughter, in the story, names Moses, because, as she says, she “drew him out” of the water – making a play on a Hebrew word (readers will ignore the improbability of an Egyptian princess knowing Hebrew, and the fact that Moses is actually an Egyptian name).
Where is God?
Where is God in this story?
God does not show up yet. God does no miracles. God does not say anything to anyone. The only place the word God is mentioned is in the glimpse that the narrator give us into the motivation of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah to contravene Pharaoh’s deadly edict.
“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”
Today, this is what we call civil disobedience. These two women recognized a higher authority than the soon-to-be-forgotten Pharaoh of the world-class Egyptian empire. They feared, or revered God; the God of the promise to Abraham and Sarah; the God of the original blessing of creation.The God who had given the Israelites hope for the future.
This is the God who was not present to the eyes or ears, but who must have been present for Shiphrah and Puah, in the very evidence of fertility and multiplication. This God was and is a higher authority than any human law, regardless of the ruthlessness of the forces that back it up.
This is the God who is present to the people who refused to give up their seats on the bus, to the ones who took their rightful places at the lunch counters, and who had the courage to keep showing up in schools where the principals and teachers and other students did their best to demean them.
Laws are written by people.
We pray to be governed by people of good will, who work for the common good and who write laws that are just and fair. But we recognize that everyone is an “interested party” with goals and agendas, with constituents and stake-holders, with lots at stake.
And so, we recognize that there are such things a bad laws. Laws that allowed lynching. Jim Crow laws that created a system of segregation as a form of domination and humiliation. Laws that penalize some people’s behavior in vastly disproportionate levels to that of others.
Let us be current and speak of what is happening today. There are laws that lead to mass incarceration. Laws that permanently disenfranchise people, as an added punishment on top of incarceration.
Shiphrah and Puah revered God, which gave them the capacity to distinguish good laws from bad. And God blessed them for it, providing them with families, keeping their names and memory alive in the community for generations to come.
Common People; Uncommon Good
No one elected or appointed Shiphrah and Puah to political office or to make public policy. They were simply acting out of their faith in the God who promised a future with hope. They were private citizens, just doing the good that was in front of them to do. In the end, what God was doing, God was doing through them.
When common people, like us, do what is in front of us to do, miracles of grace and redemption can happen.
Whatever happened to William Weaver? He was beginning to fail all his classes. Teachers would take tests away from him without letting him finish to ensure he failed.
But then, one day, Mr. Hill, his seventh-grade science teacher from the black school, came by to visit. He told William to come by his old school every afternoon and on Saturdays. Mr. Hill and teachers of Math and English would be there and would tutor William. Everyday people, whom nobody appointed to step in, and whom nobody paid for the extra hours.
William’s grades turned around in spite of the obstacles in his path. When high school was over, he found that he had been offered a scholarship to college. Mr. Hill had applied for that scholarship for him, without him even knowing. William went to college and succeeded. Today, he is now the chief of surgery at Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina.
What are we going to say about the Shiphrah’s and the Puah’s, the Mr. Hills and the Rosa Parks of our generation? As people who revere God, as they did, and as people who believe in a future with hope, even in the face of the empires of legal traditions and vested interests, we will say, along with Jesus:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who tutor kids after school, here in Gulf Shores. People who are willing to do the good that is right in front of them to do. People who make a difference in people’s lives.
Blessed are those who come to events like Path to Peace and who, by showing up, bear public witness to our hope for a future of racial harmony and reconciliation.
Blessed are you who recognize a higher authority than any human power, and who do all you can to get bad laws changed and good laws enforced, because you revere God.
Blessed are you who have lived your lives showing respect and dignity to all people; your names are named by God, and your lives have made a difference.