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.