This week it’s hard to read this story from Exodus and not wonder whether it’s from the
Bible or the newspaper headlines–
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...
Before you know it, we’ll be a minority in our own country. We’ll be overrun by illegal aliens.
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, targeted them in traffic stops and marketplaces, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field and service labor.
The book of Exodus? The Washington Post? The Phoenix Arizona Republic?
If you went to Sunday School as a kid, you no doubt heard the story of baby Moses floating in a basket in the bulrushes. You might even have made little reed baskets to float in tubs of water, kind of like sending toy sailboats down a stream. Lucky baby Moses! He gets to float down the river in a cozy basket and then get found by a beautiful princess! He gets to live in a palace!
Reading this story as an adult, of course, we can see that the story has a much more sinister tone to it than we would have been told as children. This is a story of infanticide, of an order by the king to kill all the Hebrew baby boys; and if it vaguely reminds you of a later story of another king ordering all the Hebrew baby boys to be killed around Jerusalem, you got the point that the writer of Matthew’s gospel was trying to make in the story of Jesus’ childhood– Jesus is the new Moses.
You may also have noticed that it’s not the baby Moses or the tyrant Pharaoh who are the real actors in this story. It’s the women and girls–the Egyptian midwives, whose names, surprisingly, we are told –Shiprah and Puah–the midwives who, because they “fear” the God of the Hebrews, defy Pharaoh’s orders and let the Hebrew baby boys live. It’s Moses’ mother, unnamed, alas, who hides her infant son for three months, and then in what must have been a heartbreaking task, plastered a reed basket with pitch and bitumen to make it water-worthy, placed her 3- month-old in it, and set it adrift on the river, entrusting him to God’s care. It’s Moses’ sister, unnamed here, but later his sister Miriam is named, it’s the big sister, the responsible one, who hides in the rushes to watch over her brother’s basket. It’s Pharaoh’s daughter, unnamed again, who recognizes the Hebrew boy in the basket and takes him as her own, despite her father’s edict. And it’s Moses’ sister again who steps up and offers to find a Hebrew nurse for the child to care for him until he was weaned.
These are great roles for women and girls. As preacher Anna Carter Florence suggests, “Not quite ‘the Bible meets ‘Frozen’ but almost.” [Anna Carter Florence, Day1.org, 1/31/16] She also points out that the main characters–Moses’ sister and Pharaoh’s daughter–are young people, and their parents aren’t around. These are “stock roles for girls [she says]: the beautiful princess and the responsible big sister…Each of them has their own inner strength, their own ‘inner radical.’ Each of them was ready to set aside what she should do, and work together on what they might do, which is what happens when you’re down in the reeds.”
“Down in the reeds”–that muddy, murky place, where who knows where the deep water starts. That place where we find ourselves when we’re not quite sure of the ground we’re standing on. A new place–like encountering someone who’s very different from us, or starting your freshman year at college, or entering into a new phase of life, like retirement, or after a divorce, or after a diagnosis. Down in the reeds, where business as usual won’t do, where you have to think for yourself. See for yourself.
“This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” Pharaoh’s daughter said, speaking the truth, acknowledging the awful lengths to which a mother must go to protect her child, seeing the beauty and innocence of the child, knowing how she could not ignore the situation or turn away. And Moses’ sister stepping out from behind the reeds–”Would you like me to find a Hebrew nurse for the child?” Daring being seized herself, knowing that she must be her brother’s advocate. Down in the reeds, speaking the truth, finding a new way forward–together, with unlikely allies.
“I don’t think I’m overstating it,” Anna Carter Florence says in her soft Virginia drawl, “I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that ‘We’re in the reeds, y’all.’” (Ibid.)
“Do not be conformed to this world,” the apostle Paul said, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking [as Peterson translates it]…be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” “Take your everyday, ordinary life–your seeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.”
One act of defiance – the midwives telling Pharaoh: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them”–together with another – “she hid the child for three months and then placed him in a basket in the reeds” – and another – “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children.” “Shall I find a Hebrew nurse for you?” All those decisions not to do what they were supposed to do–what their culture, even their rulers told them to do– but instead what together they might do saved a child and ultimately a nation. As womanist theologian Cheryl Townsend Gilke wrote, “If it wasn’t for the women, there would be no exodus, no Moses, no liberation of the Children of Israel of which to speak.” [cited by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, The African American Lectionary. Org, 5/10/09]
What if something you did this week could change the world? It’s possible, you know. Just one little thing could set off a chain reaction, just like this story in Exodus. An ex-neo-Nazi tells of driving through at a McDonald’s, and when he reached out to get his food, the older African American woman handing it to him saw the swastika tattoed on his hand and said, “O Honey, you’re so much better than that.” It planted a seed and the young man went on later to found an after-hate organization for ex-neo-Nazis and white supremacists. [Sojourners, July/Aug. 2017] One word of encouragement to a child in a classroom that makes him give the problem a try, when others had told him he couldn’t, and discover that not only can he do it but he likes doing it, and he starts to dream about what he might be or do when he grows up. Just one little thing, one word. Just one little thing–Letting somebody into traffic with a smile, when as it turns out, she was at her wits end and convinced that she was worthless and nobody would notice if she disappeared. But somehow that smile, that wave, made her feel noticed. Maybe she was somebody. Just one little thing. Refusing to laugh at a joke at someone else’s expense, maybe even saying that you didn’t find racist jokes funny, that made someone else in the office or on the job site think about their own complicity with racism and next time acted differently.
You’ve heard of the butterfly effect? It’s the name of a book by Andy Andrews, that’s full of those kinds of chain reactions, based on the principle in quantum physics that says that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Virginia can set off a chain reaction resulting in a typhoon in Japan. We are all connected, and not just by AT & T.
“Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life–and place it before God as an offering….Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.”
“This is how liberation starts,” Anna Carter Florence says, “down in the reeds.” If we can “read Scripture as if your parents aren’t watching!” as she says, if we can re-imagine the world, step up and speak the truth–offer to God our everyday lives, join with unlikely allies, then who knows what might happen? Maybe then “Moses can grow up, the Exodus can begin, and we can all leave Egypt.” Maybe the new day that God already intends for us all will dawn and take shape and give the Earth a chance. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark