Who Is in Charge Here?

Among the traps associated with reading an ancient text, whether it is the Bible or any other document, is the reality that modern readers may confuse a secondary concern with a primary one. That is certainly true for the famous “plagues” in Exodus. We may be tempted to only look at the incredibly unusual phenomenon and conclude the “miraculous” is the focus. These stories are so “out of the ordinary” that surely that’s the point, right? Well, not exactly. Most commentators note that what’s “unusual” about these plagues is the degree of “blood” or “frogs” or “gnats.” In reality, the Nile does turn “red” like blood (due to rain storms and iron rich soil run off far up stream), hordes of frogs do appear from time to time and there are pesky insects.

At other times, we miss the point of the “plagues” because of our less than accurate view of God. Many people look at these actions as God’ way of punishing Pharaoh because they believe God is essentially vindictive. You don’t send plagues to your friends. You reserve them for your enemies. Why else would they be called “plagues,” right? Well, not exactly. Repeatedly in Exodus 7-11 we are told these events are warnings and divine attempts to convince Pharaoh of something! And Exodus 7.17 tells us what Pharaoh is supposed to acknowledge: “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” And that probably came as a shock to Pharaoh because he thought he was the Lord.

The central tension has been building since the beginning of the Book of Exodus. And that tension is summed up in one Hebrew word: abodah. It can mean either “work” or “service”…which is what Pharaoh wants and demands from Israel. But it can also mean “service” or “worship”…which is what God deserves from Israel. Pharaoh and God are competing for Israel’s work/service/worship. And only one can receive Israel’s abodah because only one is worthy of a relationship with Israel. Only one has Israel’s best interest at heart.

Of course, Pharaoh thought that was himself. He was, after all, the most powerful man on Earth. He controlled Egypt, one of the most powerful nations on Earth. And he controlled the Nile River, Egypt’s life source and one of the most important rivers on Earth. Additionally, he was worshiped as a god, along with all the other Egyptian gods including Hapi, the river god and Heqet, the goddess of childbirth, who was depicted as a human being with a frog’s head. It is no accident that the first two plagues relate to the river. Pharaoh and his priests and magicians controlled the Nile…or so they thought. Yahweh, Israel’s God, through Moses and Aaron, shows that God has total control over the Nile and in turn over Egypt and even Pharaoh, himself. Pharaoh’s magicians match all of Moses and Aaron’s actions, but when they “play” god things quickly run out of control: there is no water to drink and frogs are everywhere. Pharaoh must ask Moses and Yahweh to undo what has been done, thus suggesting that only Yahweh controls the river.

And when the plague challenge moved to dry land, Pharaoh’s magicians were helpless to act. They were incapable of imitating Moses and Aaron. Their actions only worked on the river. They could not reproduce God’s work on dry land. And they told Pharaoh this in 8.19: “This is the finger of God.” They are admitting they are out of their depth. Something or someone is at work here which is beyond them or Pharaoh. We should not be surprised, after all we know that back in Genesis 1, God gathered the waters and made dry land appear. Pharaoh’s men may have partial control of the Nile River, but God is Lord of the entire Earth, both the waters and the dry land. Pharaoh, however, is unmoved. He reverts to his hard-hearted mode! He still sees himself equal to God and he demands Israel’s service.

Thankfully, none of us believe in human gods or frog-headed goddesses of childbirth. And we have different words for “work” and “service” and “worship.” So, we aren’t likely to be stuck between a pretender like Pharaoh who demands our allegiance and the one true God who deserves our allegiance. Or are we?

Advertisements

The Plan: Exodus 3.1-4.17

Could Jesus possibly say the words recorded in Matthew 23:23-4 without at least a hint of a grin on his face, while his disciples snickered at the image?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Who, in their right mind, would hire a blind guide or avoid eating a tiny little bug, but attempt to swallow a big, hairy, and smelly camel? I believe Jesus had a sense of humor because God also has a sense of humor. You can’t look at a wildebeest or a warthog without entertaining the possibility that God likes to laugh. Moreover, I do not believe we can read Exodus 3.1-4.17 without realizing God has a great sense of humor. In particular, I think God likes “comedy of the absurd.”

I first encountered “absurd comedy” in the early 1970s when I stumbled across the British comedy team “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The skit I saw was entitled “Philosophers’ International Football: Germany vs. Greece.” Basically, the viewer was to believe he or she was watching a soccer match between teams consisting of German and Greek philosophers.

On the German team were such famous thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche and Schleiermacher. And for the Greek, Plato played in goal and the Socrates was the striker. Instead of wearing soccer uniforms, the Greeks dressed in “togas” while the Germans wore fashionable attire hailing from the time period in which the philosopher lived. Except Franz Beckenbauer. He wore a soccer uniform because, well, he was a German soccer player from the late twentieth century.

Once the referee, Confucius, began the game instead of a quick start, all the players simply wandered around obviously lost in deep thought…as one might expect from a philosopher. Suddenly, Archimedes had an idea. He began kicking the ball and darting between the reflective Germans, and the Greeks ultimately won when Socrates scored the winning goal off a diving header into the German goal. Of course, an argument broke out between Germans and Confucius, but the content of the debate was more like a heated scholarly discussion than a sporting event.

To me this was wonderfully funny.

Of the comedians and comedy teams I know, I like Monty Python the best; and a central reason being the fact that to me much of life is resembles their skits: it is often a little crazy. Another reason I enjoy this type of comedy is the fact, as far as I can tell, occasionally when God intervenes in chaotic human affairs life becomes a little more absurd. Just look at Moses’ life.

You remember the background to the burning bush incident. God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, are in Egypt. The special, select, unique, and wonderful people of God are in that country. And what are they doing there? They are slaves and they have been slaves for over four hundred years. “Chosen” must have meant something different back then.

But a recurring point in this story, and the entire Bible, is that God isn’t unfaithful. He hears Israel’s cries and a savior is called—Moses. Moses is the best possible man for the job. He’s a murderer. He’s a fugitive. He has a speech impediment, and his practical work experience over the past forty years is primarily limited to watching sheep. Other than that, he’s ideal, or he’s at least as good as the plan.

Recently, I repeatedly read Exodus 3 and 4, and each time the story seemed more and odd to me.
First of all, God reveals himself as a burning bush, and says to Moses, “I have heard my people’s cries, I am sending you to Pharaoh to secure Israel’s freedom.” At this point, Moses asks what, to me, is a fair question to ask when a burning bush tells you to go to the very place where you are wanted for murder: “Why me?” As if to calm Moses, God replies, “It’s okay, don’t worry. I have a sign for you. And this is the sign. AFTER you go to Egypt and bring out the Israelites, then you will worship on this mountain” (Exodus 3.12). Perhaps I am a little slow, but my understanding is that signs usually come before events to warn or reassure. But God offers Moses a sign which comes after the event.

If I were Moses, I believe I would have immediately put my sandals back and left that place. But he was more diplomatic than I am, so he stays but raises a second objection: “What if I go and tell them their God sent me. They’ll ask, “What is God’s name?” What shall I tell them? God replies, “Just tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” Oh, great! This God doesn’t even have a personal name. He goes by a verb.

God continues with THE PLAN. “Once you are in Egypt, assemble the elders and tell them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers…appeared to me and said….’” By this time, I wonder if Moses is attempting to imagine how this meeting might play out. There he is in a crowded room with the assembled elders. There will be one little old guy in the back row who shouts out, “So. God appeared to you? The creator and sustainer of the universe appeared to you. What did he look like?” And Moses will have to be honest and respond, “He, ah, um, looked like a medium sized bush. But he wasn’t any old bush. He was on fire.” And knowing he has Moses where he wants him the same little elder will continue, “I see, and what was the first thing God said to you?” And Moses will have to reply, “Take off your sandals.” With that kind of imagery in his mind, Moses had to be wondering if THE PLAN could get any more absurd. The answer is “yes.”

God moves to the next point. “Now after the elders listen to you, go to Pharaoh, and say, ‘We’d like a three-day holiday so we can travel into the desert and sacrifice to our God.” (3.18). Right. First, slaves don’t get holidays. Second, they don’t get holidays which involve traveling three days away from their masters. And third, Pharaoh is probably smart enough to know they aren’t coming back.

Anticipating the objections, God says, “I know Pharaoh won’t listen, but I will change his mind.” Finally, a glimpse of reality! But, of course, it is only temporary because God then reveals THE PLAN’s next phase. “After I change Pharaoh’s mind and before you leave, every Jewish woman is to ask her Egyptian neighbor for gold, silver and clothing.”

Quickly Moses reviews THE PLAN. I go to Egypt where I am wanted for murder. I tell the elders that God appeared to me as a bush. Then I ask the world’s most powerful man to give the Jewish slaves a three-day holiday in the desert. Finally, before we leave, we ask the Egyptians for their valuables. Moses concludes this is crazy, and he’s having no part of it. Three more times he attempts to wiggle his way out of the call.

First Moses argues, “Look, the elders aren’t going to believe any of this” (4.1). But God reassures him that there are ways to convince the elders. God tells Moses to place his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake, and better still God tells Moses to reach out and grab it by the tail. Then Moses is directed to put his hand inside his cloak and upon removing it his hand is leprous. And here is my favorite line in the entire story: if they don’t believe the first miracle, they may believe the second (4.8). But if they don’t like either of those options, simply take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. It will turn to blood (4.8ff).

Moses knows a desperate moment when he’s stuck in it, and so he responds, “I can’t speak. I stutter.” God will not accept such a flimsy excuse and so he reminds Moses who created his mouth. Also, it is God who makes ears either to hear or be deaf. God promises to help Moses.

Finally, Moses draws together all the courage he has and says aloud what he has probably been thinking all along: “I don’t want to be a part of this scheme. Please, send someone else.” At this point, the Bible says that God became angry with Moses and said, “Your brother Aaron is a good speaker. Take him along with you. He will be your spokesman.” Evidently Moses ran out of arguments, because the next thing we read is Moses tells his father-in-law, Jethro, that he wants to visit his relatives in Egypt (Exodus 4.18).

What could have made Moses change his mind? On the surface, there’s not a lot which could or should have convinced Moses that this was a good idea. After he repeatedly attempted to wriggle out of the assignment, why did he come around and agree to participate?

I doubt that THE PLAN’s superior quality swayed his thinking. Some may argue Moses finally realized that he was working with God. If one reads Exodus 3 and 4 you will see that at least nine times, Moses hears God promise to help him. Simply because someone tells you he or she will help does not mean assistance will be forthcoming. No. Moses’ mind was not altered because of THE PLAN or the promises he received.

I think the past enabled Moses to agree to an absurd plan dealing with an uncertain future. In the story, an important phrase dealing with the past is repeated four times: “…the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob….” More specifically, that which enables Moses to carry out God’s plan is his recollection of how God had successfully worked with previous generations.

When you think about it, God had a sense of humor even before Moses’ time. Abraham was told to leave his country and go to an unknown land, which turned out to be a semi-arid wilderness. And God promised Abraham a son. His wife, Sarah, saw the joke here because Abraham was quite old and they had no children after many years of trying God said, “Okay, you laugh, but you will call your child Isaac.” Even in naming the child, God showed his sense of humor because Isaac means “s/he laughs.” A modern translation may be something like “what a joke.” And yet, Genesis 24.1 reads, “…the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way.” Sometimes the path to blessing took Abraham through some bizarre territory and experiences, but God was faithful.

Then there is Abraham’s son, Isaac (He laughs). In Genesis 26 we learn that Isaac and his family were facing a famine and God told them to go to Philistia. Egypt would have been a better choice, but God directed them to the territory of the Philistines. Once there, trouble began because the local men thought Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, was very lovely and Isaac lies to them to save his skin. Again, God was faithful, and saves not only them, but, overall, they prosper. People came to make treaties with a guy named “He laughs.” Ultimately Isaac’s life ended the same way Abraham’s did: with Isaac receiving every conceivable blessing from God.

Finally, why God would work with Isaac’s son Jacob is a mystery…unless God had a sense of humor. Jacob’s most distinguishable quality was his ability to con people. For example, he stole his brother’s birthright. But that’s okay because upon falling in love with Rachel, Jacob was conned by his would-be father-in-law, Laban. And it didn’t stop there. Jacob conned Laban out of many sheep prior to leaving with his two wives. Ultimately, Jacob had many sons and there was the beginning of the nation which God had promised three generations before. Of course, the family ended up in Egypt and in slavery which eventually brought us to the story of Moses.

It is only God’s actions and faithfulness in the past which gives us confidence in the present, which often seems absurd and out of control. Equally important, it is only God’s track record which allows his followers to act in the future. God has repeatedly proven himself as the One who deals with the craziness we face. While this is easy to say, it is true. When bizarreness surrounds us, we should try to learn how to relax. We will not avoid craziness in life, but we can learn to live with it because God seems to work best in craziness. And God redeems our out of control lives and situations. We can never give up hope when facing absurdity. God has a track record of redeeming hopeless and crazy life situations.

If we could learn to live with this central theological idea, our lives will be considerably better. And we must allow God to work in whatever fashion God deems best. If God wants us to go with the flow of absurdity, then sit back and enjoy…as best you can. If, on the other hand, God immediately removes us from craziness, give thanks. God has a good track record of redeeming lost causes.

Finally, our quality of life will increase if we can learn to see life the way God sees it. This is especially true if we could see life’s funny and odd side. If God doesn’t take himself so seriously that he could come up with the Exodus plan, then we had better learn to relax and even perhaps laugh. Can you imagine being a sourpuss condemned to an eternity in the presence of a God who enjoys a good laugh? I’d rather not think about it. It is so absurd.

Silent Perhaps, But Not Absent

For much of the twentieth century, history was dominated by the clash between the capitalist West and the Communist East. Both sides seemed to be avidly involved in the drama that unfolded. And sometimes the events were simply stunning. The Soviet Union was a major player in these world affairs. Apart from helping to defeat the Nazis in World War II, many or most people would say the USSR’s impact on world affairs was less than stellar. What other conclusion could you arrive at? Stalin killing hundreds of thousands of his own people. Religion in general, and especially Christianity, was suppressed. The USSR dominated and violently controlled Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union interfered in the internal affairs of many developing nations. Not surprisingly, many people just assumed it would take a third world war to do away with either the USSR or its archival the USA. The Cuban missile crisis didn’t give them many other ways to see the future. The present was so bleak for so long. Humans couldn’t seem to get a handle on the challenge, and God certainly didn’t seem to be interested.

But no one had taken March 2, 1931 into account. For many it was a day like any other day. However, it wasn’t like any other day. It was the day Mikhail Gorbachev was born. As leader of the USSR, he introduced Perestroika, or “restructuring,” in 1986 and Glastnost, or “openness,” in 1988. On Christmas Day (of all days!), 1991, he resigned his leadership role and declared the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics non-existent.

What many people don’t realize is the fact that God may well have been at work, behind the scenes, in the notoriously “godless Soviet Union.” You see, while Mikhail Gorbachev is probably an atheist, he sends mixed messages about his faith or lack of faith, he is an atheist who is enamored with people who take God seriously. He said Pope John Paul II’s devotion to his followers “…is a remarkable example to all of us.” And of St. Francis, he said, “his story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life.” I would like to think that God was subtly working in this man’s life and by extension in the USSR so as to avoid the horror of another world war. I believe that because the biblical text suggests God does that. At least, Exodus 2.11-25 would suggest this is the case.

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22 She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but God isn’t mentioned in the first two chapters of Exodus until the very end of chapter two. There was no mention of God in last week’s sermon text, Exodus 1.8-2.10, apart from the fact that the two midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh “feared God” (Exodus 1.17). And God isn’t mentioned in today’s text until verse 23. That is rather odd because Israel could certainly have used God’s help. After all Pharaoh was trying to wipe out the Hebrews. He had enslaved them and forced them into hard labor. He declared that any Egyptian citizen could murder any Hebrew infant boy they came across. If there ever was a time for God to show up and do something amazing it was then. However, as the story plays out the only hope Israel has is a few women who decide to trust God despite what they see around them. They are women who are willing to risk their personal safety to obey God and use basic moral decency.

The silence and seeming absence of God was challenging in 1275 BCE, and it is challenging today. In the summer of 1989, my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given one year to live. My wife, Wanda, and I had recently experienced our second miscarriage. It wasn’t a good time. We were on the verge of giving up. God and I weren’t on the best of terms. And that is being generous. I was wondering why God wasn’t doing a better job of being God. I suspect I am not the only person who felt this way at one point or another in life. I know I am not alone…at least Matt Tuckey is with me. He gets how difficult this waiting on God is. This week on the church discussion page, in response to this passage, he wrote, “I want what I want now. I’m on your side, God, now act. Save me. To know/believe/trust in the greater story (than my own). I believe. Help me on my unbelief.”

When God seemingly isn’t particularly interested in changing the world around us, we are often tempted to act on our own and find our own solutions. That happens in today’s passage, and at some level it isn’t a bad thing. Twice Moses is deeply moved to act against an injustice, and that motivation is right. The first is when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. And the other is when the Midianite women are driven away from the well by shepherds. Moses is incensed at these acts of injustice and he is moved to act. But his record is 50/50. The first time he murders a man and ends up in exile. The second time is much better…he gets a dinner invitation, married and starts a family.

Despite Moses’ wonderful concern for justice, he didn’t come to grips with the fact that he is a broken and flawed person. While we should avoid “pop psychologically analysis” of any biblical figure, it is difficult to overlook that fact that he must have been struggling with a lot of issues. First, and foremost, who is he? As a toddler, he was raised as a Hebrew. Then he spent his youth and young adulthood as an Egyptian. But he murders an Egyptian and his “step grandfather” wants to kill him. And his biological relatives, reject his influence when he tries to help them. Ultimately, he finds himself wandering in the desert, until he is taken in by a Midianite family. In fact, what he names his first son, Gershom, is telling about how Moses sees himself. As we are told in 2.22, that name could be translated “I am an alien, living in a foreign land.” He realizes he doesn’t belong. Talk about rough self-images. Seemingly, Moses’ way of coping with his identity issues, and his failure to bring justice to his people, the Hebrews, is to abandon them to their fate in Egypt. Moses settles down in Midian. He gets married, starts a family, and helps his father-in-law with the family business.

I wish I could say Moses was a unique and, perhaps, a horrible person for doing that, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t horrible, but he was flawed and weak. And he wasn’t unique. He was a person like the rest of us. It isn’t that he didn’t care. He did care. He just didn’t always act well or wisely upon his deeply held convictions. And when he made a terrible mistake, he gave up. He moved away from the place that needed him. He settled down with a new focus. He did what many of us are frequently tempted to do: protect ourselves. It seems to be normal, or at least a recurring temptation, for humans.

While Moses’ life settled down, life in Egypt hadn’t settled down for his fellow Hebrews. The old pharaoh died, and the new pharaoh was no better than his father. In fact, in one verse it becomes quite clear things are terrible there: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (Ex. 2.23) It was so bad that God entered the picture, having heard their groans and cries. And seemingly their cries remind God of a promise made to the Hebrews’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The promise was made by no one other than God, and the promise was the one mentioned last week. And the promise was to make Israel into a great nation to bless the other nations and be God’s agents of redemption for the whole of creation.

But that great nation was currently in horrid bondage and in no position to work with God to liberate the world. For that to happen, God needed a liberator to set the Hebrews free. God wanted someone who was well versed in Egyptian culture, politics, and language. Perhaps someone who had lived in Pharaoh’s court. God also wanted someone who understood the ins and outs of Hebrew life and faith. Maybe a person who was born a Hebrew and lived with a Hebrew family. God wanted someone who knew his way around the desert. Possibly a man who had led sheep, goats, and camels from one desert oasis to another. And God wanted someone who was humble and yet had a passion for justice. That person didn’t need to enact this passion perfectly. God knew a person who had such a resumé. All God had to do was convince Moses he was the person for the job.

I wonder if the details of that ancient story aren’t frequently repeated to one degree or another in our own times. People who have great strengths and passions are moved to act, and because they are not perfect and because they live in a flawed world they sometimes fail. And on occasion their failure is very memorable. It is so memorable, they tell themselves to avoid caring and acting in the future. Sometimes, other people push them into an isolated corner where they just settle down and find it difficult to engage the world around them. They opt for a quiet out of the way life. They don’t bother anyone, and no one bothers them. Meanwhile, the broken world still suffers. Broken people find no healing. And God looks for someone who will be a liberator. All that needs to happen is to convince them to work with God and use their unique life experiences, flawed as they are, to begin the liberation of the world and the people around them.

“Well. That’s Awkward.” or “The World’s Most Powerful Man Just Got Bested by Four Women (and One of Them isn’t Even a Woman Yet).”

As many people know Exodus is the second book in the Old Testament. In reality Exodus is more like a new chapter in the continuing story which began in Genesis. In fact, the very first word in Exodus is “and.” That tiny word signals that the story is continuing. When my wife asks what I would like for dinner I could say, “I would like a medium rare steak and lima beans and mashed potatoes.” However, I usually just reply, “I don’t know. What do you want?” Because the story begun in Genesis continues into Exodus many things which happen in the first book need to be considered when looking at the second. In fact, there is one story from Genesis which is crucial background to the Exodus story we will look at in this sermon.

Back in Genesis 17, after God called Abraham to leave his home in Ur and travel to what is now Israel, God made a promise to Abraham. Abraham was told that his descendants would become a great nation. And we learn eventually that the reason for this development is that Israel would be a witness to the other nations regarding God’s goodness and love for all creation. And the ultimate goal of making Abraham and his descendants into this nation was the redemption of creation and all of humanity. Sadly, the plan wasn’t straight forward…there were lots of twists and turns because, well, neither humans nor creation are perfect. One of those twists was a famine in Palestine which forced Abraham’s descendants to travel to Egypt for food. And they ended up staying there for decades. Still the plan to make Israel a great nation seemed to be working because in Exodus 1.7 we read, “…the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” It is all good, right. The plan is working, Israel is in the process of becoming a great nation. And then this happened.

1.8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph [one of Abraham’s descendants who worked for the king of Egypt]. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

22 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.”

2.1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 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. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 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.

6 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. 7 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 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. 10 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.” (Exodus 1.8-12, 15-17, 22; 2.1-10)

The writer of Exodus crams so many interesting points into this opening story, but I want to focus on an all-powerful ruler who thinks he is going to stop God’s plan to redeem humanity and all of creation through Israel becoming a great nation. We are never told who, exactly, this pharaoh was. He may be just a symbol for any tyrant who thinks he is going to keep control of his country while ignoring and even acting against God. At any rate, the fact is that as pharaoh, he is one of the most powerful men in the world, and if he lost control of his country he would lose a lot. He is wealthy. His money would be gone. He has no rivals in his country. His security would be gone. He has armies who do his bidding. He would be defenseless against his enemies.

Therefore, he thinks he is going to end the threat he sees to himself and his country: the Hebrews. Pharaoh is worried that the Hebrews, who have grown significantly, may side with his enemies, and overthrow his reign. He is worried that he might have all his power slip through his fingers. And so, he schemes to remove what he sees as a threat. We are left with the impression that he is totally intent on wiping out the Hebrews because he has three different plans…and to do something three times in the ancient Hebrew mindset is to say he was totally dedicated to the agenda. Of course, this agenda of wiping out the Hebrews puts him on a collision course with the God of the Hebrews because as you will recall God promised to make Israel a great nation. What is intriguing, to me at least, is how God goes about stopping the most powerful man in the world: God’s agents are four women. Actually, it is three women and a girl.

Pharaoh’s first plan is to simply enslave and oppress the Hebrews. They became forced labor building his cities of Pithom and Rameses. Who knows what he was thinking when he came up with this idea? Work them to death? Work them so hard they wouldn’t have energy to engage in sexual intercourse and have children? Whatever his motivation, it failed, and failed gloriously. 1.12 reads, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” It is time for “Plan B.”

Pharaoh’s second option is to enlist the Hebrews to ensure their own demise. He contacts the Hebrew midwives and tells them that when they are attending births, if the child is a boy they should kill him. I honestly do not know why he thought that would work. Perhaps, he thought he was intimidating and they would knuckle under. He is, after all the most powerful man in the world. People should be afraid of him. They should obey him. But we are told that the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, were more impressed by their God than pharaoh and they met the king’s scheming with their own creativity. “Well,” they told pharaoh, “you know Hebrew women don’t give birth like Egyptian women. Hebrew women are really fast. We can’t keep up with them. By the time we arrive the children are already born.” And pharaoh seemingly believed them. He may have been the most powerful man on earth, but he didn’t seem to be the smartest. What Shiphrah and Puah didn’t tell pharaoh was the fact that they were intentionally saving all the Hebrew baby boys…that is the thrust of 1.17’s “they let the boys live.” A better translation of the phrase would be “They saw to it that the boys lived.” They were very intentionally refusing to obey pharaoh’s orders. Today we call that “civil disobedience.” And for a second time we read, “So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.” (Exodus 1.20) Let’s face it things aren’t going well for the most powerful man in the world, he was just bested by two women whose main skill was delivering babies…and being faithful to God. He failed a second time.

And then he takes up what we moderns would call the “nuclear option.” He tells all Egyptians that they are to throw all the Hebrew baby boys in the Nile River to kill them. Seemingly, any Egyptian could kill a Hebrew baby boy without fear of prosecution. In fact, their leader told them to act lawlessly in order to wipe out the Hebrews.

In Exodus 2 the story shifts from the big picture to one Hebrew family, unnamed at this point, who has an infant son and an older daughter. In a delightful and ironic twist, this family saves their son by doing the very thing pharaoh orders Egyptian citizens to do to Hebrew baby boys with the intention of killing all of them. They put their child in a basket and put him in the Nile River. The baby’s brave older sister follows the basket floating down the river and sees her brother is saved…by none other than pharaoh’s daughter. Unlike her father, this young woman has “pity” on the child and eventually takes him into pharaoh’s household even though she knows he is a Hebrew child (2.6). But first the baby’s sister bravely approaches the princess and asks if she would like to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child. The response is yes and the princess even offered to pay for the child’s care.

Do you see what happens in this part of the story? Pharaoh’s scheme to eliminated all Hebrew baby boys is used to save the one child who God is going to call to liberate Israel from Egyptian bondage. Israel will be a great nation, and God takes pharaoh’s twisted scheme and “straightens” it as the plan for redemption moves forward despite pharaoh’s total dedication that this should not happen. And not only that, but Pharaoh’s evil plan can’t even convince everyone in his own family to play along…because his daughter refused to do his bidding AND she uses his money to save this child. And all this happens because one young girl is brave enough to ignore the most powerful man on earth and do what is right to save her brother, and another young woman refuses to obey an evil plan.

As I read and re-read these verses and this opening story in Exodus I was increasingly impressed by the way it plays out. It reminds us of ideas that we should never forget despite what we see happening around us. Most importantly God is intently focused on redeeming all of creation, and God will not be stopped by anyone. The most influential and powerful people on Earth can scheme, but God’s plans will move forward. It doesn’t matter if people are totally dedicated to derailing God’s program. Redemption will take place.

Additionally, I find it humbling that often the human agents God uses to keep the redemption plan on track are the very people I am tempted to overlook. In the ancient world, and in some places in the modern world, women didn’t have high social standing. They weren’t powerful nor influential. In this story, God’s preferred agents are three women and a young girl. Three women and a young girl who choose to be faithful to God and what is right confront and confound the most powerful man in the world. They stop him in his tracks, and his plan, not God’s, is ultimately is derailed.

For me, all of this raises the interesting question: Where in our world does God want to do something positive and redemptive and God is simply waiting on someone to respond to the divine invitation to participate in redemption. Those “someones” are very probably not the people with power and influence. They may be, but they are probably someone like you and me. They are stay-at-home moms, nurses, teachers, shop owners, administrative assistants, factory workers, environmental experts, counselors, social workers, business people, computer specialists, and many more. But they are just ordinary people being called to God’s extraordinary work. Seemingly, those are the people with whom God prefers to work when he redeems humanity and all of creation.