Defiant Origins

Scripture | Exodus 1:8-22 | Exodus 2:1-10

The two stories we read today are most commonly read as an origin stories…
specifically they are commonly read Moses’ origin story.

And that makes sense, These are stories that are intended to answer some of the questions about this heroic ancestor of our faith… like:  Where did Moses come from? Who was his family? What was the world that he was born into like?  What was life like for him as he grew up? How did he come to be the person that would go on to do all of this incredible stuff?

But I don’t know if you noticed,  but for origin stories about Moses…Moses really doesn’t play much of a role in our stories here today. He doesn’t even exist in our first reading, and in our second reading, he is a newborn baby.  The only verb attributed to him is that he cries. 
He’s not even given a name until the last verse of this scripture…

So while these are often read as stories to introduce us to Moses, really I think there is so much more going on here. These stories aren’t just some preamble to Moses, and they aren’t just some overshadowed afterthought to the exodus story that will come later. 

These stories, and these faithful, defiant, and bold women… are what laid the foundation for everything that Moses was able to do.  And in the end, It is actions of these women, and their refusal to cooperate with oppression
that sets the whole of the exodus story into motion. It is through their decisions and their choices… that God begins the liberation of a whole people from bondage.

So, Because these are each epic and important stories in their own right… and because they set us up for all the stories that are to still to come in our worship series.  I want to spend all of our time here today… in this world. Let’s explore these stories… let’s ask questions of them, and wonder about them.  

Let’s sit with these enigmatic women for a while,  let’s pause with them as they defiantly stand before Pharaoh’s throne.  Let’s wade into the reeds with them on the banks of the river nile, as they courageously chart a new path. 

And perhaps there… from their perspective, we can get a hint of what God was up to in their lives… and maybe get a hint of what God might be up to in our own lives. 

I should add also, that  a lot of the ideas and inspiration for this sermon came from sermons preached by my preaching professor Anna Carter Florence and Amy Miracle, the pastor at broad street Presbyterian in Columbus. 

So, The setting for both of these stories, as you know, is ancient Egypt in the capitol city along the river nile.  The Hebrew people had been in Egypt for almost 400 years by the time of these stories. 

They came with Joseph and his family… the Joseph with the technicolor dream coat.
and the hebrew people lived for many years a full part of  the Egyptian community… 

But as time passed, as the Hebrew population grew and as they became more and more prevalent within the Egyptian society… things changed.
And when a new king came into power over Egypt, a king who operated out of fear… things changed for the worst. 

This king feared the Hebrew people, and despite them being so much a part of their society, he saw them as ‘other.’ It was us vs. them for this king and the king worried by shear number alone, they could turn on the Egyptians, they could fight with their enemies and overthrow the Egyptian empire.

So out of fear, the new king declares a new strategy. He creates new laws that are designed to oppress the Hebrew people and make life impossible for them to prosper… He wants to beat them down and keep them under control. And when that doesn’t work, and they grow further in number and spread across the land. He decides to enslave them, and puts them to work in the harshest conditions he could offer….

But God’s people are resilient…
and even under the most broken and unjust systems… new life finds a way.
and here even in slavery, even under life-threatening conditions and brutal work,
the Hebrew people are “fruitful”… they multiply and grow in strength.

And while the Hebrews grow in strength, the king grows in his fear of them.
So he goes even further and decides to destroy the Hebrew people all together,
by making sure they have no future, …genocide… by having every new born baby boy killed.

To accomplish this he decides to call for the Hebrew women responsible for delivering babies
the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. 

Quick sidenote: names are important in the bible…
the king in these stories, the pharaoh, the one who was seen as a demigod to the Egyptians…
he isn’t given a name in this story,
but the people that are named… are these poor beaten down slave women,
these midwives have names… Shiphrah and Puah…
their names… in hebrew… mean “Little flower” and “lovely”
which make what happens next all the more ironic…

The all powerful pharaoh of Egypt who has statues and temples carved in his honor, developed an unjust policy out of fear of losing power… he calls “little flower” and “lovely” forward to enforce his law for him… but instead… “little flower” and “Lovely” defy his orders and then lie to his face about it.

I can only imagine what that would be like. Being brought before the leader of your people… being commanded to participate in something so blatantly wrong, and then having the strength and courage to go against it.  

The bible tells us that “lovely” and “little flower” decide to disobey their king because they respected God more than they respected their king. Because they saw that their king’s laws and ways of governing did not align with God’s justice.

These are themes we will continue to see throughout exodus and really throughout the bible as a whole. Here we see our worldly understanding of authority, power, and justice flipped on its head and questioned 

…so that we can better understand God’s authority, God’s power, and God’s Justice. 

In God’s eyes its not the mighty and powerful that are favored, its not the ones with their names in history books…
Rather its unexpected people, the faithful and righteous people from the fringes, people who are often overlooked by history… these are the ones who are called by God, these are the ones who God names… These are the ones who step up to lead God’s people and change the course of history.

Which leads us to a scene along the river nile…. along the bank of the river, in the water, among the reeds… 

We meet another unnamed Hebrew woman. A woman who was also a slave.
She gets married and gives birth to a baby.
But this baby is a boy, and we know what it means be a Hebrew boy under the rule of this unjust king… this child is at risk. 

The pharaoh has created a new law… if any Egyptian finds a Hebrew boy, they must kill the child on sight. They are ordered to throw them into the Nile.
The river – the source of life for all who live in Egypt – is to be a place of death. 

But somehow, for three months, this Hebrew mother keeps her baby out of sight and hidden.
What else could she do? This was her child, her beautiful baby.
Can you imagine how determined you’d have to be, as a slave,
to hide your newborn from every Egyptian citizen for three months? 

Yet somehow, she does it. She keeps him alive. She keeps his crying quiet, She is able to hide any sign of him
until her baby does what all babies do, he grows… and she can’t hide him any longer
and out of desperation she is determined to come up with a new plan to keep him alive…

She takes him to the Nile… she finds a bunch of papyrus reeds and forms them into a basket, she lines it with the ancient equivalent of Kevlar.
She makes a snug little ark to set her three-month-old son afloat in the waters. 
She has the baby’s older sister stand by near him to keep watch. 
With no where else to turn, her only hope for her child’s survival is to set her baby afloat on an unknown path, trusting his life entirely to God.

Who knows how she must have felt walking out of those reeds…

Who knows how her daughter felt, waiting in the reeds, helplessly watching her brother…
Who knows what went through her head when she saw the pharaoh’s own daughter coming to the waters edge….

And who knows what that princess felt going down to the river for her daily beauty routine…
only to find herself walking up to a floating basket, hearing the cries of a baby…

Who knows what went through her head when she opened it and saw a Hebrew slave’s baby boy.
You know what she is supposed to do. So does she.
So does the baby’s sister who is watching the whole thing unfold. 

The daughter of the king knows what her father’s law decrees:
If she opens this basket, and this is a Hebrew male child, she is supposed to tip over the basket and walk away.  Like it or not this is what the law required. And as an Egyptian, she knew what she was supposed to do []

But she doesn’t. Instead, something else takes over her… she opens the basket, she peer at this child and almost with her heart sinking she says:

This must be one of the Hebrews’ children

She speaks the truth about the situation she is confronted with.
Prior to that moment, has she really thought about her father’s policy towards the Hebrews? Has it ever crossed her mind? I wonder if she has been so busy enjoying the privileges of her life in the palace that she has never had to give much thought to the reality of these other people. 

This must be one of the Hebrew’s children, she says. 

Sometimes, the truth is the most radical thing you can say. Just to name it: what you see, right in front of you. That body, left for hours in the street. That baby, left to die in a basket. Just telling the truth about it is huge. Saying it out loud. Letting it reverberate in the air. 

This must be one of the Hebrew's children….
because no other mothers are reduced to this: making little arks to float in the Nile.
Trying to save their babies from a flood of hate.

So one girl, stammering out the truth about what she sees, invites another girl to speak up, too.
One girl, pausing over unspeakable evil, encourages another one to stand with her.
"This must be one of the Hebrew's children," said the princess, and then the sister gets an idea.
She steps out from her hiding place, courageously and says: "Do you want me to find one of the hebrew women to nurse that child--for you?” [ibid.]

They stand together in the reeds… two girls knee deep in the murky unsure waters… with a little child in between. These strangers from completely different lives, shocked at where there lives has brought, they look at eachother and together they discover a new way forward… a way that wasn’t supposed to be their path to take… but it is the way that God has called them…

I don’t know about you… but lately I continue to feel like I am standing among the reeds in murky waters… What I used to be so sure about, now feels cloudy and complicated. There is a palpable feeling of contention and fear in the air, and everything feels so unknown.

There are times where I feel like these midwives… sure of what is right and what is wrong… sure where God is in our world today, and where God wants me to be, and confident enough to stand up for what’s right …even if it is risky.

But there are often times too… where I feel like I have set my heart afloat in unknown waters… completely unsure of the future that awaits, and trying with all my might to trust in God… 

I think the Book of exodus has a lot to say about people in murky waters like these…
But if there is one message to speak to us from our two stories today from the beginning of exodus it is this: God provides a way forward for us even when times are desperate… even when the water is murky and unknown. It might not be the path that you were supposed to take… it might take courage, and risk, and you may have to wait for companions to meet you there in the mud in order for God’s path forward to become clear… 

But God’s liberating work always begins in the midst of murky waters.
God’s deliverance can begin with two no-name women who should have been forgotten to history choosing to stand up for what is right…
God's liberation of a whole people can start with two girls unexpectedly meeting each other and one really crazy idea. That’s it; that is all you need. 
Because whenever the children of God claim the freedom to re-imagine and remix the world—well, then, Moses can grow up. Then: The Exodus out of slavery can begin. Then God can truly start to work… [ibid.]

May it be for us now
as it was for these women back then…