A Meditation on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church August 27, 2017
Listen again to the opening words of the text we just read:
“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” He didn’t know the story of Joseph, who had been a previous Pharaoh’s chief of staff. He “didn’t know,” or missed that day in history class, or chose not to recall the story of how a foreigner, a stranger had ensured their future through his wise management of the region’s resources. This new king, this new pharaoh, owes his own existence to the creativity and imagination and resourcefulness of a Hebrew man, a man whose race he fears…because he has forgotten, ignored, denied his history, his story. There was once a Pharaoh who was humble enough, wise enough, to recognize and celebrate the intelligence and skills of a stranger, and that humility brought life to his people.
But that’s not this Pharaoh.
This frightened Pharaoh’s plan is to make life miserable for the Israelites, oppress them, and break them. Because that is what fear compels us to do. We want to eradicate – or at least dominate – the thing we fear, whether it is a wasp nest, or a hairy spider, or a group of people. It is the story of discrimination. It is the saga of war. The chronicle of genocide. Played out time and time again on our planet.
So the king said to the people, these Native Americans are larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise they will grow in number, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, and fight against us.
Wait, that’s not what it says. Sorry. Let me try that again.
The king said to the people, these Africans are larger in number and stronger than we are…let’s enslave them and harass them with hard work…so they looked on the Africans with disgust and dread, and made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
Hang on, that’s not it either.
The king said these GLBTQ+ people are now stronger than we are…and the people started to look at them with disgust and dread…nope that’s not it.
I’ll get it right. Let me find it…
The king said these Muslim peoples…no…hang on…
The king said these Latino peoples are going to be larger in number and stronger than we are. So they harassed them, looking on them with disgust and dread.
Of course, none of these are what the scripture says, but it is amazingly, frighteningly simple to swap in another definer for the phrase “the Israelite people.”
9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work…12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
Funny thing. Pharaoh’s Plan A fails miserably. The resilient Hebrew people simply became stronger. So Pharaoh moves on to Plan B, which may be one of the most poorly conceived plans ever. About as poorly conceived as wanting a neighboring country to build an enormous wall along the border for you. Plan B, as we read, is to have the midwives kill the Hebrew babies. Have the midwives kill the babies.
Here is Pharaoh’s masterful plan for maintaining control over his corner of the world, his plan for reducing a perceived threat: have the midwives kill the Hebrew baby boys. I’m sorry: I have to keep saying it because it is so insane, and only someone who is governed by fear could come up with such a plan. A grown man afraid of babies.
So he asks Shiprah and Puah to go against their nature and turn against their calling, to deny who they are and all in which they believe.
To be a midwife, to care for mother and child and ensure that both travel safely through the holy path of childbirth, is to do sacred work. Pharaoh makes the foolish mistake of assuming that everyone shares his fear. His power comes from controlling others, but the midwives’ power comes in supporting and guiding others. Pharaoh has no conception, nor did he stop to imagine how a midwife perceives the world. A midwife holds the hand of another, encouraging and convincing her that she can do what seems utterly impossible: bring life into this world.
Birthing is still somewhat dangerous work, but without the benefits of modern technology, it was extremely fragile business in Shiprah & Puah’s day. There are no guarantees. Each birth is a miracle. Midwives see babies as babies. They didn’t label them as Egyptian or Hebrew, worthy or unworthy. They believed that each child who survived the effort of making it into this world, deserved to live.
Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives, take a stand against Pharaoh. They must choose between God’s laws and the king’s. They choose God’s, and then they get creative. They tell a white lie to Pharaoh. “Sorry, Pharaoh, these Hebrew women are so strong, and give birth so quickly, we can’t get there to kill their sons.” And so the midwives continue to welcome Hebrew boys into Pharaoh’s world. Faithful subversion.
Time for Plan C. If the midwives will not buy into this fear, then he will make all the people conspire with him. He will use whatever rhetoric necessary to spread his anxiety around. Everyone will be required to drown Hebrew male infants. And before his advisors can get his tablet out of his hands, Pharaoh sends a hieroglyphic tweet, “Make Egypt Great Again! Fill the Nile with Hebrew baby boys!”
“Fear of the other” is as easy to catch as a cold, and hand sanitizer doesn’t protect you. Yet, within Pharaoh’s own household, there is another rebellious woman. You better watch out for powerful teenagers…they might just decide to fall in love with a boy from the wrong side of the Nile, or from the midst of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers baby Moses, floating in his little ark, protected from the flood, preserved from drowning. When she lifts him from his little boat, she must know he is taboo. He is not to be loved. Her father has commanded that he be drowned; she is expected to drown him. But she doesn’t. Faithful subversion.
The daughter of the king welcomes an innocent infant, a son of the “enemy people,” into her world. And let’s not kid ourselves, she had to know that the teary eyed woman who volunteered to be this child’s wet nurse, was, if not the child’s mother, then a mother who had lost an infant at Pharaoh’s decree.
Oh, Pharaoh, your fear caused so much grief. Your longing for power brought so much heartbreak and devastation, even, eventually, to your own people.
Friends, our Mission, Peace & Justice Committee spent eight months exploring what it would mean to be a Sanctuary church. As a faith community, we spent 6 weeks on Sunday mornings studying scriptures about refugees and immigrants and strangers. We explored the incredibly complex and limited paths to citizenship. We watched a film called “Locked in a Box,” about individuals detained in our for-profit prisons, individuals who have broken no laws, but have become tangled in the immigration system. We heard from our own Latino neighbors, including participants in our dance program, who just want to make a better life for their families.
On Thursday, our Session approved the following recommendations from the Mission, Peace & Justice Committee regarding Sanctuary for undocumented immigrants:
- Activities in which Grace member will be invited to participate include:
- Advocating to end detentions, deportations, or unjust policies through lobbying public officials
- If qualified, assisting in the provision of legal services for immigrants
- Working on a hotline that refers immigrants to needed services
- Building coalitions with other churches and organizations to help end detentions, deportations, or unjust immigration policies
- Conducting letter campaigns (e.g., letters to editors and politicians) to end detentions, deportations, or unjust policies
- Supporting other churches, organizations, and individuals that shelter (house) immigrants
- If not already in existence, activities to initiate:
- A local legal clinic for immigrants
- A hotline for immigrants
The Mission, Peace & Justice Committee will be providing opportunities for you to get involved in this work. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me, or Lee Keyes, the chair of the committee, or any of the other committee members. (stand?)
There was a day when the Egyptian people were saved by the wisdom of a stranger, a foreigner in their midst.
There was a day when the Egyptian people became lost in a sea of fear and a struggle for power. Which story will we choose to guide us forward? We don’t even need to be faithfully subversive; we simply need to be faithful.
Thanks be to God, whose faithfulness endures forever. Amen.