Sunday, August 21, 2011

Three Times Over, Five Times Over, Ten Times Over...

Texts: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124

The text for today told in the first and second chapter of Exodus is the story of a paranoid political leader, and his three attempts to stave off his fear. It is also the beginning of a story of yet another political leader and his ten attempts to give hope to the people of God.

This is a story about fear and a story about hope.

But before we jump right in, let’s remember where we are. It’s always important to remember where you are. I remember where I was the last time I was with you. It was over a year ago in the spring of 2010 when the air was cooler and the grass was greener and water was still served in restaurants. J And while the weather was more pleasant, your pastor had just resigned, so you were starting a new chapter of your own story here at Sanctuary and I was asked to come and preach and help you tell it. Unbeknownst to me at the time, in just a few months I too would resign from my job across town at the church where I was ministering. And now over a year later, I’m back here with you, and I remember where you were then and what I was on the brink of, and now it is later and we are both ready for something new.

So to remember where the Hebrew people were, let’s go back to the beginning. Not the very beginning – we can skip Creation and Adam and Eve and other fanciful stories with towers and floods and whatnot. Let’s start with what scholars consider recorded history with the story of a man named Abraham in the land of Canaan.

He was the first of the Judeo-Christian Patriarchs and we meet Abraham late in life. After a visit from some angels and quite an ordeal with his wife Sarah and his servant Hagar and then some more angels and a bunch of promises from God, Abraham finally fathers Isaac: the son of the covenant. After a troubled childhood (that’ll happen when your father says God told him to kill you) Isaac grows up and marries his cousin Rebecca and with her fathers twin sons. Jacob is the younger of the twin boys, and after marrying the love of his life (and her sister), Jacob actually wrestles with God in the desert and lives to tell about it. And those are our patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their counterparts: Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.

Just as Jacob had a favorite wife, Rachel, so he also had a favorite son, Joseph, which is always a family recipe for disaster. And Joseph was a cocky little so n so and wasted no time reminding his brothers that Dad loved him the most. Pushing the limits of sibling rivalry, Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery, and following quite a surprising series of events including job promotions followed by stints in jail and a propensity for correctly interpreting dreams, Joseph is eventually appointed chief political advisor to the Pharaoh!

Unfortunately, Joseph’s brothers are still back in Canaan where there is a terrible drought and subsequent famine, but in Egypt where Joseph works, food has been rationed and provisions are plentiful. Eventually Joseph’s brothers and their extensive families make the move to Egypt where they are accepted not only into the Welfare system, but forgiveness accompanies food from Pharaoh’s number two whom they are humbled to learn is their long lost brother.

What a story. And of course, reunited and relocated in Egypt the now huge family (that started with just Abraham and Sarah in the desert) lives happily ever after…


Until we turn from the final page of Genesis to the first page of Exodus and discover that a couple hundred years later the current Pharaoh, Rameses the Second, has never heard of some advisor named Joseph who worked for his late great-grandfather, nor does he care, because Joseph’s family has grown and now Rameses’ got a huge city-group of unhappy foreigners… living off his land… right near the border… right next to the main political highway. Rameses is nervous. And as politicians’ first priority tends to be self-preservation, Rameses decides something needs to be done. The minority is becoming the majority, and if these Hebrews were ever to gain any sort of political clout, Pharaoh would be in real trouble. So he devises a plan.

Plan A: give the Hebrews a much harder work load, so their spirits as well as their bodies will become downtrodden and weak. Good plan. Rameses appoints taskmasters to govern the Hebrews’ working conditions and hires architects to design the great monuments. Brilliant. It’s a win/win for Rameses. Plan A is set in motion.

But oppression doesn’t stop people from carrying out natural human tendencies when they’re off the clock. If anything, it makes the embrace of a loved one even more essential! Pharaoh’s plan backfires and the first baby boomer generation is born.

So Rameses devises Plan B: hire two Hebrew midwives to kill every male born to the Hebrew women. Fewer men means less chance for organized rebellion, while still keeping enough women around to ensure slaves. And for some reason, Pharaoh thought this would be a viable option. I don’t know why he thought that two Hebrew women would kill anyone’s infant let alone the babies born to their own neighbors’ -their own people! - but perhaps Rameses figured that with enough money or enough threats, these women would have no problem carrying out his orders.

But they did have a problem with it. And their reverence for God surpassed their reverence for Pharaoh. Apparently so did their sense of morality. Not only do the midwives continue assisting in births and refrain from killing the newborns, but they flat out lie to Pharaoh about it devising the best story they can muster! “O great Pharaoh, divine ruler of Egypt, have you seen the Hebrew women?... They’re huge! You’ve got them working just as hard as the men out there in Goshen and quite frankly by the time we receive word that a woman’s water has broken, that kid is already out and napping and the women are back in the fields!”

And for a politician who already sees other races and ethnicities as essentially different from his own, Pharaoh believes them, so he puts together Plan C.

Plan C: Pharaoh turns again to his own Egyptian people and orders them to kill any Hebrew baby boy that they see anywhere in Egypt. Kill him by throwing him in the Nile. Because enough is enough. The Hebrews are growing too numerous, the threat is too great, enough is enough.

Enough is enough.

Now Pharaoh knows he will win because throwing the boys in the Nile not only ensures their physical death, but their spiritual death too. One tradition of Egyptian theology embraced by royalty and wealthier Egyptians taught that when a person died, their spirit circled the world and then returned to their properly preserved body where it would help the body to live eternally. This of course explains the Egyptians extreme care in mummification and in placing provisions and modes of transportation in burial tombs. So when Pharaoh throws those babies in the river, he assures that the spirits of those newborns would have nothing to return to which, in Pharaoh’s eyes, secured his safety not only for now but also for the hereafter.

Enough is enough.

Fear wins. Cultural diversity loses. And an already oppressed people now become victims of genocide.

Egyptian politics circa 1500 B.C.

Oh how we’ve matured in 3500 years.

… Except for the Crusades issued by the church at the turn of the first millennium, which claimed the lives of millions of non-Catholics.

… Oh and except for the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks sparking the First World War.

… Oh and except for the Holocaust which claimed the lives of over 6 million Jews and ushered in yet another World War…

… Oh and except for the 400,000 dead and over 2 million displaced Darfurians (and still counting) that nobody seems to remember because it’s an election year here in America and it’s much more important to argue about how Adam & Eve should be added to our history books and whether or not two, loving, monogamous (gay) people can get married.

But other than that, we’ve learned well from those who have gone before us.

But I like this story. I like most of the Hebrew Bible, even the hard stuff, the dirty stuff. And it’s gonna get pretty messy here in a couple of chapters. I like this story because in the midst of an ugly Plan B, we meet two women: women with names, women with occupations, and as a reader I am forced to notice, to stumble over the words really, as their story unfolds. And these two women, Shiphrah and Puah become history’s first recorded characters in a case of civil disobedience.[1] Before Socrates, Aquinas or Locke intellectualized a moral law above the governing law,[2] and pre-dating Thoreau’s disapproval of slavery, Ghandi’s defense of the Indians, Bonhoeffer’s grieving of the holocaust, or Rosa Parks and those damn bus rules, Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharaoh and let the Hebrew children live. And with a little imaginative storytelling to cover their tracts, who knows how many lives Shiphrah and Puah saved.

It’s a great story.

And it leads us into an even better one. In the midst of Pharaoh’s terrible genocide, we read about a baby, sentenced to death, but destined for life.

And we meet three more women who will thwart Pharaoh’s plans: a mother, a sister and a daughter. None of them are named (though we later learn the mother is Jochebed and the sister is Miriam), but all are integral to the saving of the child and thus the saving of a people.

As any mother would be desperate to do, this clever woman saves her son via the very means of his impending death. She puts him in the river. Brilliant! Who’s going to look for a beautiful baby boy… alive… in the river? If the story weren’t already couched in such tragedy, the irony would be almost laughable. And away the basket, or arc, flows. Yep, the word translated “basket” is actually the same word, translated arc, that we read about in Noah’s story.[3] Only written in these two texts, an “arc” saves both Noah and baby Moses, but I’m getting ahead of myself because at this point in the story the little guy has yet to be named.

Running alongside the river though, through the cattails, around the rocks, and avoiding the oozing mud (I admit, I picture Missouri’s rivers and ponds when I tell this story), is the sister of the newborn, anxious to see what happens to the arc holding her innocent brother.

As Goshen (where the Hebrews lived) was close to the capital of Egypt at that time, and as the current would have it, that little arc washes up near the place where Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing. Seeing the treasure stuck in the reeds, she opens the arc to find the baby inside and immediately knows what has happened. How could she not? Then from the reeds emerges a young Hebrew girl, potentially punishable for gazing upon an Egyptian princess bathing, but when the girl offers to fetch a nursemaid for the baby, the Pharaoh’s daughter agrees. And typical of nursemaids given to babies adopted by Mesopotamians (according to an ancient legal text such foundlings were adopted and educated to be scribes) the princess offers the mother wages for her services. Pharaoh’s daughter is both compassionate and fair. To find a baby in the reeds and a young girl right beside it with the quick offer of knowing a woman who can nurse the child, it’s not hard to put two and two together. And so, the princess gives the baby back to his real mother for a little while longer (certainly longer than Jochebed would have had him should any other law-abiding Egyptian have come across the newborn) and the princess pays Jochebed for her services. But, as the story must go, after the baby is good and healthy and eating solid foods, he is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who names him Moses.

“Because I drew him out of the water,” Pharaoh’s daughter says. Which is a play on the Hebrew word “to draw out,” an appropriate interpretation since it is the Israelites who wrote this story. But “Mose” is also a common Egyptian word often used in naming Egyptian royalty meaning “is born.”[4] Because I drew him out of water… he is born. “Mose.” “Is born:” a beautiful pronouncement by a daughter against her father’s law that all “must die.”

It’s a good story. But it might be one that the Israelites had heard before.

Sometime around 2300 B.C. the Legend of Sargon of Akkade was written and it is strikingly similar to the Hebrew story of Moses. It reads:

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkadê am I,

My mother was lowly; my father I did not know;

The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.

My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the bank of the [Euphrates],

My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth.

She placed me in a basket of reeds, she closed my entrance with bitumen,

She cast me upon the rivers which did not overflow me.

The river carried me, it brought me to Akki, the irrigator.

Akki, the irrigator, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out,

Akki, the irrigator, as his own son brought me up…[5]

You can see the similarities… both Moses and Sargon’s parents are lower class, both are birthed in secret, both enclosed in a basket of reeds and bitumen and placed in a river, both retrieved and adopted in kindness.

But there are differences too. Sargon grew to be a great king (so he tells the story), governing people, besieging cities on the sea, and he has a lineage of leaders behind him. And while Moses did govern the Hebrew people while wandering in the wilderness, helping them settle disputes and squabbles, Moses never made it to the promised land. Not only does Moses not get to retire in the land of milk and honey, he doesn’t even get to cross the border.

Because quite frankly, the story of Moses’ birth isn’t the story of an epic hero insofar as Dreamworks or Cecil B. DeMille would like to tell it. It’s a story about God.

It is God who saves Moses and it is God who in just a few chapters will rescue the people from the oppressive Egyptians. I hate to ruin the end of the story for you, but it is God who will harden Pharaoh’s heart, because God knows just how difficult the wilderness journey will be for the Hebrews. They need to know that the God who takes them there is powerful and able to save. It is the Hebrews who need convincing, not Pharaoh, so God sends Pharaoh the plagues and the Egyptians a message of hope ten times over. And they follow Moses out of Egypt.

If the midwives Shiphrah and Puah were still alive, I wonder what they thought as they were crossing the red sea.

Maybe they were thinking what the psalmist penned in chapter 124 read earlier today… “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us
as prey to their teeth. 
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
we escaped with our lives.”

Or maybe they were still laughing about how the Pharaoh bought their tall tale. J

Exodus 1 and 2 is a story of fear and it is a story of hope. Three times over, Pharaoh governed through oppression to placate his fear. Ten times over God governed through sovereignty and provision to encourage the Hebrews’ faith.

And in between, five courageous women worked against a priesthood of a Pharaoh, a policy of paranoia, and an edict of death… and a little boy was born. Escaping genocide, he was raised by a princess, cursed with a stutter, and fled Egypt only to be asked by God to return.

Three times over, five times over, ten times over…

Moses “is born.” Is born. Is. Born. And fifteen hundred years later, the great I Am is born amidst a Jewish priesthood of oppression, a Roman policy of paranoia (not peace) and yet another edict of death. “I Am” took flesh and was born a baby but he too escaped, oddly enough, to Egypt, to one of the first places where God said, it is time for my people to be free.

It is time for them to be born again.

And maybe its time for us too.


Ann Pittman

Sanctuary Church in Austin, Tx

August 21, 2011

[1] Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, by Naham M. Sarna p 25.

[2]" Civil Disobedience - The History Of The Concept

[3] “tebah” or ark. Journey Through the Bible by Rebecca Abts Wright p6.

[4] Understanding the Old Testament by Bernard Anderson p 51.


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