A New King Arose
A Homily from Exodus 1:8-2:10
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Pilgrimage Congregational Church, UCC
August 25, 2002 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” So begins our lesson from the Hebrew Bible today, and so also begins a lesson that the Jewish people have never forgotten. A friend of mine who is both an Orthodox Jew and a biblical scholar has mentioned several times that understanding the book of Exodus is understanding the Jewish people. Thus, as ones adopted into their faith tradition, we tell this story so that we will not forget either.
Forgetting is a dangerous business, and those of us who have read ahead a few chapters know that this particular unnamed king will pay a high price for his poor memory. What has he forgotten? He has forgotten that there was a time when his nation was faced with something greater than they could control – the son of Jacob saved all of Egypt by listening to the voice of his God. He has forgotten that his ancestor promised never to forget the debt that all of the people of Egypt owed to the descendants of Jacob.
Fortunately, the forgetfulness of humans when it comes to promises is a well-known phenomenon – and there is much more at work here than human memory. Unspoken is the unforgettable promise of God which is at the heart of the book of Genesis and which is echoed in this narrative. That promise is the promise, the covenant God made with Abraham, that the children of Abraham and Sarah would be more numerous than the stars of the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore [Gen 22:17]. The children of God will be blessed.
And so Pharaoh is in the undesirable position of forgetting a promise that is – in fact – part of the larger promise of God. His ancestor had responded to God’s prompting through dreams, and had been blessed for acquiescing to God’s plan. The new king’s inconvenient amnesia will put him outside of God’s purpose – never a good place to be.
Our temptation in stories like this one – particularly where the villain is so clearly in the wrong – is to identify with the forgotten children of God rather than the spoiled and forgetful monarch. Yet how often do we forget? How often have we felt – for just a moment – the presence or the will of Almighty God; only to find that the memory of God’s reality fades quickly among the demands of bills and paychecks and the aches and pains of our physical bodies.
We don’t even have Pharaoh’s excuse of the passage of a generation or two. We can sing of God’s generous mercy to us at eleven o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and walk right past a homeless person on our way to brunch. Perhaps, in our desire to cheer for our theological ancestors in this story, we should not be too hasty to forget that we are all to often guilty of the unnamed king’s sin.
However bad his memory, however, there’s nothing wrong with the king’s political savvy. The promise of God is already baring fruit along the banks of the Nile. The children of Jacob are prospering, rapidly becoming a strong and large nation with then nation of Egypt. The king realizes that – if he does not act – the Israelites might become large enough to leave Egypt, depriving them of a much-needed workforce.
And so he appoints taskmasters over them. Like a drill sergeant who has decided that he has too many soldiers, the king decides to work as many as possible to death in the hopes of thinning their numbers. Yet the text tells us that – the harder the king pushed – the more prosperous the children of Jacob became.
There’s another lesson that we also have to be reminded of from time to time. When we try to swim upstream against the will of God – the harder we push the harder things get for us. Often, unless we wise up, we can even become desperate, trying to find anyway to do what we want to do instead of what God asks of us.
This is exactly what happened to the Egyptians. In their desperation, they pushed the Israelites beyond human expectations. There was never a shortage of building projects in ancient Egypt, and nation of Israel bore the massive bricks of the Egyptian egos on their broad shoulders. The most brutal physical tasks where given to Jacob’s sons and daughters in the hopes that their spirit and their nation would be broken.
But the promise of God – nowhere mentioned but never forgotten by Abraham’s descendants – is stronger even in silence than the mightiest king. Like the nightmares that plagued his ancestor, nothing that the pharaoh tries can free him from the amazing persistence of the Israelites. Everywhere he goes he sees them, laboring to build his empire – but growing stronger in that labor every day.
In a panic, the king comes up with another scheme – one that later panicked monarchs would also attempt. If he cannot kill of the Israelites while they are strong he will attack them at their weakest – he will kill off their children. Specifically, he will kill off their sons.
The descendants of Abraham have learned the lesson of remembering, and Jewish commentaries speak at length of the treachery of Pharaoh. In reading one of those commentaries this week, I noticed an amusing footnote on this passage where rabbis from centuries ago ridiculed the king for his poor planning. One boy, they point out, could make many, many more Israelites. The rabbis point to Pharaoh’s plan as proof that he was something of a buffoon. If the king had any sense, it is the girls he would have gone after.
The rabbis are correct in more than one sense, because it is the women of Israel who are the heroines of the next part of the story. Shiphrah and Puah were two of the Hebrew midwives, and Pharaoh summoned them to force them into his scheme. He was very specific in his orders. “When you are serving as a midwife and the woman is on the birthing stool and you realize the child being born is a boy – kill it.”
The text is equally clear on the midwives’ response. “But the midwives feared God.” There’s a concept that we usually either hear too much of from our pulpits, or not at all. For some, fear is the only way to relate to God –and so their sermons and their theology are filled with images of damnation and retribution. Those of us who have been burned by that kind of unhealthy overemphasis often make the opposite mistake. In our desire to show the very real love and mercy of God, we forget that sometimes fear is an appropriate response to the awesome, holy, Creator of the universe.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” we are told throughout the scriptures. It is not the some of wisdom, but it’s not a bad start. If someone is contemplating killing a child – they should fear God. In truth, any time we contemplate an act of selfishness or hatred – we should fear God. Perhaps not the way we would fear an overzealous tyrant, as God is sometimes portrayed. Rather, as we should fear the way hatred and selfishness reflect back on us and can destroy us. There is justice in the world God has created, and even in the senseless mercy of God there are consequences for our actions.
The midwives’ fear of those consequences, and their reverence for the Creator and the created, saved the children of Jacob from annihilation. They did not kill the children, and so the Pharaoh summoned them again to his court. When he asked them why they had disobeyed him, the midwives innocently replied, “You said to kill the children as we were attending their births. But the Hebrew women are stronger than the Egyptian ones. They simply go out into the fields and have their babies without any help.”
God rewarded the faithfulness of Shiphrah and Puah, and Pharaoh did not give up. Since his secret plan failed, he commanded that every Hebrew boy was simply to be thrown into the river Nile.
Perhaps he should have been more specific, because a certain couple – each descendants of Levi – married and had a certain boy. Fearing that the Egyptians would take his life, they made a small basket for the infant and placed it in the river Nile. The basket was an ark – in Hebrew the word used is the same one that is used to describe the boat Noah built (). It is a container where hope and life are set adrift on dangerous seas – trusting in the providence of God.
Once, we are told, long ago, all life rested in such an ark. This time, the hope for God’s children – and ultimately the hope of humanity – rested in one. That hope, our hope, was completely defenseless. It was in the shape of a tiny baby.
Perhaps it’s a testimony to God’s sense of humor that God sends us hope and even salvation in such frail, unassuming ways. Perhaps it’s something more profound – a testimony in fact to the silliness and ignorance of our priorities. While Pharaoh was watching over his city fearing a violent insurrection, the true source of his downfall floated by in a tar-covered basking – sucking his thumb and dozing in the rise and fall of the water.
While the baby’s sister looked on, the tiny ark drifted by the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing. When the princess saw the basket in the reads, she had a maid bring it to her. Upon removing the lid herself, she saw the young baby. He was crying, and the princess showed him mercy. The word used () actually has much stronger connotations than simply mercy. It also meant “to take responsibility for” [see New Interp’s Bible]. On hearing the baby’s cries, the princess realized that there was a need that it was in her power to meet, and she had the courage to meet it.
It was an act of courage, because she also realized that the child was one of the Hebrews whom her father was trying to exterminate. Yet her compassion was greater than her fear, and she took the child under her protection. With this simple act, she ensured the future of the people whom God had chosen for a special purpose.
The baby’s sister had watched this small miracle of kindness, and stepped forward to offer to find the child a wet nurse. It just so happened she knew just the woman – the boy’s mother. Thus, after an unexpectedly brief parting, the baby’s mother found herself reunited with her son. In an amazing – and surely divinely inspired twist – the princess paid the boys mother to nurse her own son.
Along with life and nourishment, we can also assume that the boy’s mother nurtured him with the stories of her people. He learned the stories of God’s promise, of God’s faithfulness, and of the king’s forgetfulness. Just as our story began with the arrival of a leader who had forgotten, it ends with the arrival of a leader who would remember.
The boy was named Moshe (or “Moses”), because, the princess said, she “drew him out of the water.” Perhaps, though, the really meaning of his name was that God drew people through him. The princess was drawn to where the baby lay, and he drew from her compassion. Later, he would be the instrument which drew the children of Jacob out of their captivity in Egypt.
At the end of all of the really good action movies, the world is always saved from destruction – usually by incredibly dramatic and heroic means. The heroines of our story saved the world as well, but with quiet courage that might not sell a lot of tickets to a modern audience. The two midwives understood that reverence for God was more important than even their own lives. Moses’ parents understood that love was more powerful than tyrants. His sister knew that loyalty had no limits. And the princess knew that mercy – even in small acts – was worth the risk.
Reverence, love, loyalty, and mercy – in any era they are acts of courage. They are even seditious acts of rebellion against the priorities of our weak and mortal desires and against a secular world that – even when it wears the guise of piety – always worships at the altar of power and wealth.
Who knows how many tiny arks pass our way every day, floating by us as we allow our self-absorption to keep us from seeing the miracles hiding in the reeds nearby. If we would only remember. If we would only remember the God who showed mercy on us, who took us out of the river of our sin and weakness and made us safe. If we would only remember the God who protects us, and who peaks through the rushes to make sure we are safe.
It was not the abstract notion of God that saved Moses – and in turn saved all humanity. It was the real presence of God, warm and soft in the form of a young Egyptian princess – wrapping around the tiny baby to calm his sobs and dry his tears. If we will only remember the God who likewise comforts us, we too can carry the promise and the memory to a world that is sobbing still.