Sermon; 12 Pentecost/Proper 16A; Exodus 1:8 - 2:10
Today's gospel passage is the famous, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus first asks the disciples who the general population says he is, then asks them more directly who they say he is, prompting a personal declaration from Peter that he is the Messiah. And while this is an important declaration, and one we shouldn't be afraid to make ourselves, there's another passage I want to look at today, and that's the passage from Exodus.
Today we have the origin story of Moses. The backdrop to this story is that a new king came to power who had no connection to the previous regime, nor did he know or care why the Israelites were in Egypt. He enslaves the Israelites and, in order to control their numbers, orders that all male children are to be killed. The midwives find this abhorrent and plot to avoid the decree, thereby saving the lives of infant boys.
It's into this situation that Moses is born. His mother hides him for the first three months of his life and then she takes a huge risk by putting him in a basket and setting it adrift on the river while Pharaoh's daughter is bathing. The daughter chooses to disobey her father's orders, saves the child, and eventually raises it as her own.
We know this story. Moses will eventually discover his true heritage and work to lead his people to freedom. We know Moses as the leader and deliverer of his people. He is the miracle worker and Law Giver. For Christians, the physical lineage of Jesus runs through Abraham, but his spiritual lineage runs through Moses. Which means that, as Christians, our religious and spiritual heritage runs through the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish people. And because of this, I think we tend to identify with Moses and his story. But if that's how we look at this story of Moses, then we are looking at it through the wrong lens.
There are more than a few things to consider when reading this passage, but there are three that I want to focus on today. The first is found in the very first line: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
Despite all those History Channel shows about identifying the Pharaoh of the Exodus, it's important to know that he is unnamed for a reason. This story is about the oppression and eventual freedom of a people. The Pharaoh and Egypt are stock characters representing oppressors in every place and time. This anonymity allows oppressed people to insert themselves into the story as they fight for their own freedom. If Pharaoh had been named, it would have been just another story. But as it is, oppressed people can take hold of this story and say, “Look, we are them and we are being held slave by Pharaoh of Egypt.”
It's no wonder this story became the narrative of American slaves. It's no wonder they saw their owners as representing Pharaoh and Egypt. And because she led so many of her people to freedom, it's no wonder that Harriet Tubman was known as Moses.
A second thing to consider is the fear that Pharaoh and the Egyptians harbored toward the Israelites. That fear may have been there all along, but it is Pharaoh who speaks it into acceptability and allows for its growth and consequent behaviors. Pharaoh said to his people, “Look, they are more numerous and more powerful than we.”
It seems the majority always harbors a fear of being overrun by the other, by the outsiders. There is an irrational fear that those others will turn against us if the opportunity arises. That fear needs to be recognized, validated, and allowed to live and grow.
Pharaoh did it with the Egyptians, giving them permission to exploit the Israelites. Hitler did it in Germany. Our government did it to the Japanese in WWII and many others. We see these fears crop up time and again when the majority population fears being displaced by the minority population. In some instances it manifests itself in things like redlining, Jim Crow and sundown laws, voting restrictions, and other ways of systemic racism. In extreme cases it results in removal from native lands, slavery, and terrorism. Pharaoh and the Egyptians represent every majority's fears of minorities and/or others.
The third thing to consider is the response of the midwives. Pharaoh's solution to the problem of the Israelites was to play upon the fears of the Egyptians. Using those fears as a foundation, he created a plan and system to enslave the Israelites. This fear was given voice and policy, so the Egyptians felt free to openly express those fears; which resulted in the Egyptians becoming ruthless and willing to make the lives of the Israelites bitter with hard service.
And when those harsher attitudes and policies didn't slow the growth of the Israelite people, Pharaoh instituted a new law that would stem the tide of the foreigners who were overrunning Egypt. That new law stated that all Hebrew boys were to be killed by the midwives at their birth. And when that didn't work, Pharaoh decreed that every Egyptian had both the right and duty to kill Hebrew boys.
This is no different than any other nationalist regime that uses legally enforced terror to eliminate their enemies. Egypt did it to the Israelites. The U.S. did it by paying bounties for Native American scalps and laws to keep slaves in their place. Germany did it to the Jews. And on and on it goes.
But notice the response of the midwives. We are told that they were legally required to kill male babies. Instead of obeying the law as good citizens are expected to do, they devised a scheme to break the law and let the babies live. They simply told Pharaoh that Hebrew babies were born too quickly. This, of course, was a lie, but the moral choice was clear: Following the law is no excuse for killing.
In the 1800's, abolitionists broke many laws in their efforts to shuttle slaves to freedom and end that evil institution. In the early 1900's many women broke laws in their fight to gain the right to vote. In the 1950's and '60's many people broke laws designed to keep African-Americans marginalized.
Shiphrah and Puah clearly broke the law. But for them, to follow such a law would have been the greater evil. And to claim that they had no choice but to obey the law was doubly problematic because both the law and their actions were evil. We know this as the Nuremberg Defense. And because of their actions, Shiphrah and Puah were the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the Nazi resistance, and the Freedom Riders of their day.
When we read this story as Christians in general, and as American Christians in particular, we need to pay attention to how we read it. We need to understand our place in this story. We need to be willing to open our eyes to the characters portrayed and our ears to what God is trying to tell us. This story that we love, this story about Moses' birth and his life and how he eventually leads a captive people to freedom is, for us, not a celebratory story about freedom but a cautionary tale about power.
In our collective history as Americans, we are more often the Egyptians, not the Israelites. In our collective history as Americans, we have enslaved, mistreated, and abused others out of fear. In our collective history as Americans, we have created laws designed to keep whole groups of people marginalized. In our collective history as Americans, we have lived in fear of others. In our collective history as Americans, we have been more willing to follow the law than we have been to stand up for those whom the law oppresses.
We need to pay attention to this story not because we are Moses and the Israelites; we need to pay attention to this story because we are Pharaoh and the Egyptians. And the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we might be willing to stop oppressing minorities and begin recognizing the face of God in those whom we fear and marginalize.