We all participated in the program of reading the entire bible at the same time in 90 days recently. For many of us it was a great experience to see the big picture instead of getting lost in details. But reading the whole bible means reading the parts we normally skip over, so for some of us, it was like going into a store-room that had not been opened for years – finding odd and unfamiliar things there. We found disturbing things there too – especially all the violence.
Well, a nearby church was also reading the bible in 90 days, and some of them were getting quite alarmed by what they were reading. The issues ranged from science and the bible to the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Canaanites. So, they called me to come by and lead two sessions with them at their Wednesday night adult program.
What can you do with the whole Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in two sessions? I do not know if it helped anyone, but my goal was this: just like a new frame can change the way you see a picture, I wanted to put the Jewish stories of the Hebrew Bible in a frame that made sense.
The Family Story Frame
The frame I used was the idea of the family story. Everybody tells family stories. Sometimes they come up at family holidays, and often when the family re-assembles for funerals. People tell their own family stories to re-connect with each other and to say who they are.
So, you could tell your family story about life in this area, or how you came to live here on the coast from somewhere else in America. You could even go back to where your family roots were before your people came to this country, in Europe, Asia or Africa.
But the same story would be different if you told your story with reference to God. How was God involved in your family story? That would put the picture in a different frame. You might think of times when hope seemed lost, but your family pulled through. You made it to America, you made it through the Great Depression and World Wars, you even survived the turbulent ’60’s.
So, you can look back and see the hand of God at work. There were coincidences, help came from unexpected sources. Even really bad experiences produced unimaginably good things.
Well, the Hebrew Bible is like family story-telling with God in the picture. For Jewish people, context is everything. If you tell a story, it has to be a this-world story about people on this earth – the one God crafted for them to live on and filled with everything they need to be blessed and fruitful. Everything that happens on earth happens within the context of God’s great Creation-blessing.
But Jewish story telling always has an eye open to the conundrum of the human condition. We are these amazingly gifted, intelligent, resourceful creatures, even able to use language like nobody’s business, and yet at the same time we have this pernicious propensity to mess things up. We can be pretty nasty. Downright brutal if we think it serves us. And we can be self-indulgent and even reckless, while blaming and scapegoating others without mercy. We are both nearly god-like in some ways and nearly the opposite in others.
So we have just read a slice of the family story with God in it from Exodus. The all-important context is that the blessed world that God created is a pretty complicated place. There are now different races with different languages, there are empires and there are slaves. The Hebrew people, as we pick up the story, are an ethnic minority living in the Egyptian empire where they are brutally oppressed slaves.
In other words, the context is really messed up. This is not at all how people are supposed to live. The conditions of oppression and brutalization are wrong; there is no justification for it. Humans should not live this way in God’s world. Nobody needs to be taught the golden rule – we all know it. Egyptians know that what they are doing is wrong. It is wrong for everybody, not just for people with a bible that tells them so.
God’s Response, or not?
So, what is God going to do about it? If you know the whole Moses story you know it is going to involve plagues of frogs and hail and an angel of death leading up to a marvelous escape on dry land though the middle of the Red Sea. That story is coming.
But this story we read is interesting for what is missing. God is not mentioned at all. This is also the way Jewish people told their family story with God in it: sometimes God was not in it.
So you have these Hebrew people, living in Egypt where long ago they came to escape the famine back home, and now there is a new king with a short memory. He does not remember how it was the Hebrew people, namely Joseph, who helped his country survive seven years of famine by storing up grain in the good years.
The only thing this new king, or Pharaoh sees is a people who look different and speak a different language whom he can use and abuse to slave away in terrible conditions, so he can have cheap t-shirts, microwaves, cell phones and lawn care. He does not exactly “get” the Creation-blessing perspective that applies to the whole world and all the people on the planet. He thinks Egyptians are exceptional.
Besides, Hebrews multiply like rabbits. So he makes them work all the more, lest they find the strength to rise up against him, join his enemies, or even escape.
The Family Context
That’s the political context. But then the story gets very small. Suddenly it is about one man and one woman from the tribe of Levi, who have a baby. But again, context is everything. They have their baby, a boy, just after Pharaoh’s new law went into effect. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are under orders to kill newborn baby boys.
Have you ever noticed how dumb this plan is? If you want fewer babies, it would make more sense to eliminate potential mothers. It takes very few men to have lots of babies, as long as there are women around, right? But even dumber is that this unnamed Pharaoh-king has just ordered the elimination of his own slave population. Who is going to build his supply cities if there are no boy slaves?
But anyway, the two named women midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, powerless females, defy Pharaoh. Civil disobedience is baked into the biblical cake. No Pharaoh is the final authority – they all just think they are. Their laws and their brutal enforcement machines are not the last word. They can bring out the water cannons and the police dogs, even tear gas and the national guard, but their might does not make them right. The system of race based oppression they are enforcing is simply wrong.
Hebrew story-telling is filled with irony. Pharaoh tells everyone to throw the baby boys into the Nile, but the Nile is where baby Moses hides in safety. It is the girls who are allowed to live, but it is females who subvert Pharaoh’s plans at every turn: the midwives, Moses’ sister, his own mother, even Pharaoh’s daughter. Ironically, it is Moses’ mother who is paid by Pharaoh’s purse to nurse her own baby. And Moses gets a royal eduction, tuition and room and board paid for by the palace itself.
Hope in Irony
So, is God in this story after all? How can we not see hope in all this irony? It is also a feature of Hebrew story telling that so often the powerless little people make all the difference. Women, not men succeed. They have no obvious power but God characteristically uses the weak to shame the strong.
God uses people who work for the good, for life-giving ends to subvert the injustice of a brutal system that is bent on death. The women put themselves at risk to do the right thing, the life-supporting thing, and the future of the whole story turns on their courage.
Look back on your own story, and your family’s story. How did you come to this moment? As you look back, I’m sure there were periods of hard times. There were times of impossible circumstances, darkness and even despair. Like the Hebrew people in Egypt, it did not seem likely or even sane to believe things could get better.
And what happened? Probably no dramatic divine interventions. No plagues against the problems and no parting of the sea. And yet, maybe through ironic “twists of fate” coincidences, lucky breaks, unexpected healing, or slow, steady recovery, you are here today. Looking back and noticing God at work in God’s unseen ways gives us reasons for hope for today and for our future.
A Fulfillment of Promise Story
We read from the book of Acts a slice of Stephen’s version of this Moses story. He told it as a fulfillment story. He said,
“as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied…”
I think we can read our own stories as promise-fulfillment stories too. If we slow down enough to pay attention to our lives, we discern God’s good purposes at work behind the scenes. When we pause to consider what it means that we have come through those past valleys to this moment, we are filled with hope.
We can trust that the God who helped Moses survive the crocodiles in that little basket (I know, the crocodiles are not mentioned, but I cannot read this story without imagining them there sniffing around in the bulrushes) is watching over us too.
The God who was there with Moses was the God who Jesus trusted with his life too, even in the context of another oppressive and brutal Empire. Jesus showed us that a life of complete trust in the Creation God of the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields can be a life of hope, even in the face of death.
We do not know how our stories will end. But that is not the point. The point is the process. The point is the one moment we ever have to live, which is this present moment. In this present moment, we can trust that God is with us. We can trust that God will accomplish God’s good purposes, and we can trust that we are in God’s hands.
So, in the context of our lives we can have the courage we need for the moment we are living in. And yes, courage is required. Hope requires courage, because we live in a world in which the human propensity to mess things up keeps producing difficult circumstances.
We can face injustice with courage and hope, just like the midwives did, knowing that no authority, no system, no law has the last word. This is God’s world, and no pretentious Pharaoh gets permission to treat humans as commodities. No system, however successful it may make the few, justifies the oppression of others.
We can face our own circumstances, as Moses’ family did, with the hope that God is going to be there for us every moment. It may be scary and uncertain at times. It may look even hopeless, and there will be times of loss and sorrow, but that is never how the story ends.
We can wake up each new morning with wonder at the gift of life, and wondering how God is going to use people, events, coincidences and ironies to fulfill his original Creation blessing in our lives today.
And we can even wonder how God is going to use us to bless the lives of others. We may be the ones to discover the baby in the basket, or the ones giving after school tutoring to the ornery middle school Moseses in the neighborhood.
Take the time, even today, to look back at your story. Think of the ways God has been there, as in this story, unseen, behind the scenes, in process with you and your family. And then take courage and renew hope that your Heavenly Father is still at work, just as Jesus taught us, now, and all the way to the end. May God’s kingdom come, may God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Therein lies our hope.