Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
August 24, 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10 (CEB)
8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 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. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 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.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
2 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” 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’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”
Jacob, his son Joseph, and Joseph’s many brothers had been saved from a great famine as a result of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt. As you remember, Joseph became a high official, second only to Pharaoh, and when the famine hit it was Joseph’s prophetic vision, and the wisdom to know what to do about it, that meant Egypt had plenty of food while its neighbors were starving. Joseph’s brothers, who had thought Joseph to be dead, went to Egypt seeking food, and when they found out Joseph was alive Joseph invited them, along with their father Jacob, to move to Egypt under his protection.
Generations passed. The Israelites increased in number, but they apparently continued to live separately from the Egyptians and were not assimilated into Egyptian culture. They remained faithful to their family and their God.
Here in America, which has extended welcome to refugees and the downtrodden of many lands, many big cities have enclaves of people from some foreign culture. Nashville has a Kurdish community, full of oppressed Kurds who fled from Iraq during the revolution of the late 1970s. I remember when my brother and sister-in-law lived in Southern California and my sister-in-law took me to a heavily Vietnamese section of Orange County. We had a meal of pho, a type of Vietnamese soup with thin slices of beef, at a restaurant there, and we went through a shopping mall where all of the stores catered to the Vietnamese community.
Joseph and his brothers eventually passed away, as did the Pharaoh who had welcomed them. The community of Israelites – descendants of Israel, which if you remember was Jacob’s new name – became large enough that the Egyptians were threatened by them. What were they up to? What were their plans? At the point of this week’s Bible passage, the Pharaoh ruling in Egypt decided that he had to act first, to prevent the Israelites from jeopardizing Egypt’s security. There’s no indication in the Bible that the Israelites had done anything to make themselves seem like a threat, but the powers of Egypt felt threatened by them anyway. They decided the best defense was to attack first. They enslaved the Israelites and put them to hard labor.
But that wasn’t enough. They decided to take even more drastic action, action to solve the problem long-term. The plan, to our modern ears, is so shocking and offensive we don’t even like to think about it.
They first try to accomplish their goals with the help of midwives – women who assisted mothers in labor.
There’s a British show, which airs on public TV here in the U.S., by the name of “Call The Midwife.” I haven’t seen it, but it’s one of the most popular things on public TV these days, probably second only to “Downton Abbey.” It’s about a group of nurses working as midwives in London in the 1950s. Midwives, then as in Bible times, were trusted, someone an expectant mother would never think to question.
The Egyptian leaders tried to convince two Israelite midwives to kill the boy Israelite babies while allowing the girls to live. In that day and time, before our modern medical care, the infant mortality rate was quite high, so in any particular case it would be quite easy for a family to believe that a child had simply been stillborn. That might keep the Israelites from realizing what was going on and rising up in rebellion against it. It’s easy to imagine that Pharaoh used threats of violence to try to get the midwives to go along with this plan.
But the midwives, to their credit, believed in God and didn’t carry out Pharaoh’s order. And they protected themselves by telling a white lie, one which probably played on the Egyptian’s stereotypes and prejudices against the Israelites. They told the Egyptians that the Israelite women were so hardy that they often gave birth quickly, before the midwife could get there to help.
God blessed the midwives for refusing to go along with Pharaoh’s plan. The midwives were blessed with families of their own, and the Israelite women continued to give birth to baby boys as well as baby girls.
Eventually, the Egyptians got tired of this and gave up trying to accomplish this terrible task secretly. Pharaoh ordered that baby boys born to the Israelites be thrown into the Nile River to drown.
That story reminds us of the New Testament story of Herod. After Herod heard a prophecy from the Wise Men of a new king being born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered that all Hebrew boy children below a certain age be killed. It’s somewhat strange that in that instance, Joseph and Mary were able to escape the slaughter by taking their son Jesus … to Egypt.
We don’t know the names of Moses’ parents, only that Moses was a descendant of Levi, one of Joseph’s brothers. Moses’ mother, like Mary, sought to protect him from being killed. She hid him as long as she could, but then when he became too big to hide she entrusted him to God. She took papyrus, made a basket out of it, and made it waterproof with tar. Interestingly enough, the word translated as “basket” by the Common English Bible in this passage is a word borrowed from the Egyptian language, and it’s the same word that’s translated as “ark” in the story of Noah and the ark. In fact, some Bible translations use the English word “ark” in both places. That’s appropriate, because in both stories, God’s people were set afloat, and God was entrusted to keep them safe. Both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket were vessels whose passengers were utterly in God’s care.
Moses’ mother put the basket in the river, and it floated downstream. Moses’ sister – and her name isn’t used here, but we tend to assume that it’s Miriam, who is identified later as the adult Moses’ sister – followed the basket from the shore to see what happened to it. The basket floated by where Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing, and she took pity on the child and decided to raise it as her own. She is the one who gives him the name “Moses.”
Moses’ sister then approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and asks if she needs someone to nurse the child. It’s not as if they could run out and buy formula. So Miriam runs home and gets her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter hires Moses’ own mother to nurse him.
So Moses, who would become an Israelite hero, is raised in the most unexpected place – the household of Pharaoh.
We know from later in the book of Exodus that Moses was not a born leader – he was not confident speaking in public, which he used as an excuse when God first called him. But surely, growing up in the household of Pharaoh, he learned many things about leadership and organization that he put to use later while leading a great nation through the wilderness.
We were created to be citizens of God’s kingdom. But we find ourselves in the midst of Egyptians, making our way in the house of Pharaoh. In John 17:14-15 (CEB), Jesus is praying for his disciples. This is a part of his prayer: “I gave your word to them and the world hated them, because they don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one.”
We are tasked, as Christians, to be in the world but not of it. What does that mean exactly?
We are surrounded by things that bother us as Christians – whether it’s in our nation’s sexual morality, or economics, or movies or music or TV shows or what have you. It’s very important that we as Christians be in the world – that we understand the culture. We can’t communicate with people unless we can speak their language. Understanding our culture helps us understand people’s needs, and helps us present the Gospel to them more effectively.
When we hear of promiscuity, for example, the challenge for us as Christians is to figure out what people are really looking for in relationships, and why they are trying to meet that need with a lifestyle that can’t possibly satisfy them in the long run. When we hear of a city in Missouri erupting in anger and violence, we have to figure out what people are truly angry about and how we can talk to them about God’s love and peace, and how we can address real problems and concerns. When the suicide of a great entertainer calls attention to depression and mental anguish, we have to try to understand what we, as Christians, can do to help people get the care and professional assistance they need.
We have to be in the world in order to respond to the world, in order to challenge the world, in order to love the people who make up that world. I mean no disrespect to, say, the Amish, or to members of contemplative orders like monks or nuns who feel that God is calling them to live lives set apart from the world. But those are special cases, special callings. The New Testament example is of a church that was engaged with the world, even as it stood up against the world.
In Acts 17, the apostle Paul comes to the city of Athens and begins speaking to the people. But he uses part of the Athenians’ popular culture as a point of reference: Acts 17:23 (CEB) “As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” Paul had his eyes open, and was able to use what he learned about the Athenians as a way of talking to them about Jesus.
But while we are and must be in the world, we have to watch that we do not become of the world. We are here to transform the world, not to be transformed by the world. That’s a hard line to walk sometimes. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was not afraid to be seen with, to associate with, people of ill repute. He ministered to them, he accepted them, he loved them, and he ultimately transformed many of them, all while remaining true to his own nature and his own calling. But sometimes we find it hard to hold on to our integrity and find ourselves being changed by the world.
We need to have a sense of personal integrity, and trust in God for the courage and wisdom to follow through. I think the midwives in our story today are great models for that. They stood up to the rulers of Egypt, at great personal risk, and they refused to compromise their faith. At the same time, their understanding of Egyptians, and what Egyptians might be willing to believe about the Israelites, came in handy as they tried in any way they could to prevent the Egyptians from committing genocide.
I have two friends, Brenden Taylor and Michael Hansen, who have a podcast called “Finding Christ In Cinema,” in which they look at current movies and try to find religious symbolism in them, the type of thing you could use to start a conversation with a friend about your faith.
Brenden and Michael will sometimes point out that the movies they talk about have offensive content. “This movie has a great message about personal courage,” they might say, “but there’s some bad language and some sex.” Or maybe, “This movie shows the terrible consequences of using drugs, but it’s not something suitable for young children.”
They have a sort of catch phrase they use in situations like that – “Be a filter, not a sponge.” A filter is someone who can take what’s good from popular culture while being aware of, and rejecting, what is bad. A filter is someone who can watch a movie, talk about it with friends, but not have it affect their own personal standards. A sponge, on the other hand, is someone who just soaks up popular culture, whose sense of what’s acceptable is shaped by what they see on the screen or hear in their music collection or read on the pages of a novel. We, as Christians, are called to be filters – understanding popular culture without becoming transformed by it.
Sometimes, Christians try to use popular culture in evangelism. I am strongly committed to encouraging artists who happen to be Christians, because I know that who they are will be reflected in the works of art they create. But sometimes, our attempts as a church to promote “Christian art” become heavy-handed and just look silly to the secular world.
I don’t know how many of you used to watch the TV show “King Of The Hill.” It was a cartoon, but for grownups, set in a little town in Texas. In one episode, the central character, Hank Hill, was upset because his son Bobby had fallen under the influence of a very hip, charismatic youth minister and had started listening to Christian rock bands.
At one point in the episode, Hank angrily confronts a Christian rock band. He says to them, “Can’t you see, you’re not making Christianity any better? You’re just making rock ‘n roll worse.”
There is actually a lot of contemporary Christian music that I find creative and that I enjoy, but I also know the kind of music Hank Hill is talking about – music that just copies what’s already being done and puts Christian lyrics on it. A copy is a copy is a copy, and people know when they’re getting an imitation instead of the real thing.
If Christians simply copy what’s being done by secular artists, it’s not really art – and they’re doomed to fail.
We have to be in dialogue with the world, but we need to be true to ourselves, and to what God expects of us. This world is not our true home, just as the house of Pharaoh was not Moses’ true home.
We don’t know what Moses’ childhood was like, or whether he had any contact with his real mother once he was no longer nursing. But we know that he still had enough sense of his own humanity, and perhaps even his own status as an Israelite, that he intervened when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. That led to him becoming a fugitive, giving up the house of Pharaoh. I don’t want to get ahead of the Lectionary here, but that ultimately set the stage for him to receive God’s call and become the leader who brought the Israelites out of slavery, out of Egypt, and returned them to the promised land.
Our own challenges, and our own temptations, may not be as dramatic. But we have to remember that this world is just our place of residence, not truly our home. And we have to trust God to give us the courage and wisdom to learn what we can from our culture, while staying true to the Kingdom.