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 and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 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, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 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.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
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. 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. 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?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 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. 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.”
My sermon from the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 27, 2023) on Exodus 1:8-2:10.
So there’s an entire genre of movies, shows, books, and comics devoted to “coming of age” stories. Typically within these stories a young person goes through a series of canon events that matures them into adulthood. Often these tales are funny, tragic, light hearted, or deeply emotional. And we can easily relate to them, even if they’re centered in a culture that isn’t our own, because we have either gone through our “coming of age” stories or hope to have one very soon. These stories remind us of who we are and how we, mostly, consider ourselves to be the mature people God calls us to be. We see ourselves through the eyes of the hero even if they’re going through something we never want to go through ourselves. I wonder, though, what would happen if instead of focusing on the hero, we saw ourselves as part of the wider story. Today’s words from the opening chapters of the book of Exodus are, on some level, the opening lines to a coming of age story that eventually raises Moses up as the person who will lead the Isralites out of slavery and into freedom. But it’s also a story centered on two women who refused to let the wider community rewrite its own history to the detriment of all.
The story begins in the years after Joseph and his family were reconciled. As you might recall from a few weeks ago, Joseph had a pretty traumatic life. Their father, Jacob, had continued the family tradition of naming one child as their favorite at the expense of everyone else. Joseph, instead of trying to keep the peace, wasn’t shy about rubbing this fact in the face of his 11 brothers. In response, the brothers did something horrific: they faked his death and sold him into slavery. Joseph quickly ended up in Egypt where he had no control over the violence done to his body nor the freedom to go wherever he wanted to go. After a series of dramatic events, he ended up as part of the Pharoah’s inner circle and, in the process, gained a lot of political power. But that didn’t really mean much since he was still enslaved. Eventually a famine spread through the entire area and Joseph’s skills enabled Egypt to thrive while everyone suffered. His father and brothers became refugees, coming to Egypt to find food. After a rather dramatic and tearful reunion, Joseph’s brothers were encouraged to settle the entire household inside Egypt itself. Their history up to this moment was pretty complicated but the brothers, Joseph, and the Egyptians, had worked together to build a new community that was more than what they were before. But as the years passed, this story was forgotten. The Egyptians grew suspicious of these people who didn’t look or talk or believe like they did. Their fear enabled the Egyptians to become resentful of these folks who had lived there for generations but were now labeled as foreigners. As the Israelites grew in size, the Egyptians became paranoid. They started to narrow their own history to the point where the Israelites could no longer be a part of it. They enslaved them, forcing them to build the cities that symbolized the might of their kingdom. And when this incredible violence failed to satisfy their xenophobia, they moved into the next stage of what this fear often brings.
Now the next part of the story started with an upside-down request. The Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill all the sons born to Israelite women. He told Shiphrah and Puah, whose vocation was all about bringing life into the world to, instead, do the opposite. Rather than remembering their shared humanity, the Pharaoh chose to let fear consume him, his community, and his people. This was an extreme attempt to end the Israelites’ story and we get the sense that all Egyptians either supported this endeavor or didn’t think that they could, or should, speak up. In light of his power, authority, and a history that pretended to be something other than it was, he assumed this request would be answered and supported. And yet, in the heat of this overwhelming moment, these two midwives said “no.”
One of the interesting things about this story is that we don’t really know who these women were. We never hear their internal thoughts nor discover a coming of age story that describes how they could, in the future, defy the supreme leader in the land. The only thing we’re told is that Shiphrah and Puah feared God. That was all they were equipped with to do the opposite of what the Pharaoh ordered them to do. The word “fear” is a bit confusing in English since we define it as an extremely unpleasant emotion caused by a belief that someone or something is dangerous. We either try to avoid fear at all times or limit it to something manageable like riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie. Yet the fear Shiphrah and Puah held wasn’t something designed to be overcome nor was it the opposite of faith. It was, instead, rooted in a faith that trusted that their God was always near. Fear is more than a feeling; it’s a signal that we need to slow down and pay attention. Rather than assuming everything is fine with our status quo, fear invites us to notice that something more is around us. Fear can be helpful, keeping us safe during difficult situations. But fear can also consume us, changing how we live our lives today by warping and forgetting the fullness of our story. The fear that grounded Shiphrah and Puah wasn’t the fear that fed the actions of the Egyptians. It was, instead, a reverence that kept them focused on the God who was active in, around, and through them. This fear didn’t consume them; it, instead, helped them to remember who they were and whose they were while being surrounded by another’s unjustified worry and fear. This doesn’t mean they weren’t fearful of the Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and what could happen if they were caught; nor does it mean that they, as human beings, didn’t have their own biases and prejudices that shaped their relationships with others. But rather than letting their fear or the fear around them limit who they could be, the fear of God enabled them to say “no” in spite of everything else that was going around them.
Now when we look at the wider Christian story, we have plenty of examples of Christians using their faith to commit the same kinds of genocidal acts the Egyptians are described as doing within the book of Exodus. And while it would be easy for us to ignore that part of our own history by focusing solely on the heroes of our faith, I’m not sure if that’s the most faithful response. We don’t need to rewrite our story; instead, we need to own it – to point to all the complications and joys and sorrow and evil and good that has shaped us into who we are today. God believes that we, though sinners, have the capacity to grasp the fullness of our history since God, in Jesus, chose to enter that same history and let it grow in the nearly 2000 years since he rose from the dead. Jesus didn’t ignore our complicated story; instead, he faced it head on and, through the Cross, showed us how it can become something more. Our urge to celebrate the Shiphrahs and Puahs of the faith is one that we should embrace as part of our collective coming of age story that shows what the kingdom of God is all about. And yet we also need to remember that we’re not always the heroes we want to be because fear can warp who we truly are. There are times when we will feel as if we’re not equipped to do what needs to be done to share and hold and learn and grow from the complicated history that define our lives and our world. But if a little fear is all that was needed for Shiphrah and Puah to make a difference in their world, your baptism and your faith is all you need to do the same. God knows that your story – your full story – should be known and that it will never limit who, in Christ, you get to be. Rather, you and I and the entire church will continue to grow through our own coming of age story that leads into the age of Christ – where God’s mercy, God’s love, and God’s peace is given to all.