August 23, 2020
Rev. Deborah Dail
Denbigh United Presbyterian Church
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 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.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 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. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 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. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 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. 6 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. 7 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 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. 10 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.”
It was in Mrs. Jean’s preschool Sunday School class at Cedar Cliff Presbyterian Church that I first learned the story of Baby Moses. I imagine the story troubled me, but I don’t really remember. I suspect some of the more troubling details were left out, and we all know flannelgraphs, costumes, and puppets can make even bad stories easier to take.
What we’ve heard today from the Bible is actually a more familiar narrative than we’d like to admit. People at first coexist peacefully, despite their differences, just like the Egyptians and Hebrews did after Joseph’s family (the Hebrews) came to Egypt for food during a famine, stayed, and experienced numerous “baby booms.”
Then a ruler gets paranoid about the minority group which they fear may one day become the majority – just like the new Pharaoh got worried the Hebrews would become a threat to national security. The leader creates and spreads a false narrative about the group he fears, pitting “us” against “them,” and it goes from there. In the case of Pharaoh in our Bible lesson from Exodus, it goes all the way to genocide, and he wasn’t the last to take it that far. Enslavement and brutal forced labor came first, then an order to midwives to kill infant boys when they were born, then the all-out massacre of all Hebrew baby boys by throwing them in the Nile River.
The women in this Bible story demonstrate courage and what Valarie Kaur calls “revolutionary love.” I met with Valarie on my sabbatical several years ago and she has recently written a book titled See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. She defines “revolutionary love” in this way:
“’Love’ is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor; fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving – a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. ‘Revolutionary love’ is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community.” (See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, p. xv-xvi).
The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, demonstrate revolutionary love. I assume they were to do something discreet at the moment of birth to kill the babies and make it look like a natural death, a still birth. But, at great risk to their own lives, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the Pharaoh’s order and tell the Pharaoh that the Hebrew women give birth quickly, even before the midwives can arrive. In an act of bold, non-violent protest and civil disobedience, Shiphrah and Puah do not do as Pharaoh commanded. They revered God more than Pharaoh – as it should be. They saved lives through revolutionary love. They let go of obeying the law of the land in this circumstance and for this season in order to obey the law of God. They let go of caring only for themselves and preserving their lives in order to preserve the lives of others.
I am reminded of all the people who risked their own lives to rescue and hide children during Hitler’s Holocaust. Families would pretend their Jewish friends and neighbor’s children were there own to save their lives as their parents were taken away to concentration camps.
In the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, in south-central France, Pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda along with Edouard Theis led their community in acts of peaceful resistance by sheltering and saving the lives of Jewish children from certain death. Years later writer Maggie Paxson wondered what prompts a community to show this kind of revolutionary love. She concluded that while growing up, “they learned how to treat strangers. They learned how to handle their own identity – their sense of clan, or tribe, or nation – and made it (their own identity) at least equal to the needs of strangers. They learned that they shared a common humanity with them. She suggests that they learned those things so well that acting otherwise would have been unthinkable . . .” (Time Magazine, “What We Can Learn About Being Good From a Village That Saved Thousands During the Holocaust,” Maggie Paxson, September 18, 2019) In essence, they did what Valarie Kaur’s book title says: they saw no strangers. They loved their neighbors as they loved themselves. They let go of the idea that only “their own” mattered and risked their lives to save the strangers in their midst. One day when the Nazis came to Le Chambon, they asked Pastor Trocmé for a list of the Jews in the community. He replied: “I do not know what a Jew is. I only know human beings.”
As we return to our Bible story, we learn that Pharaoh was not to be deterred when his Plan A to be carried out by the midwives didn’t work. Plan B was more comprehensive: throw all the baby boys in the river, and this would presumably be carried out by his officers, not midwives.
Parents were terror-stricken and then grief-stricken. Their sons were torn from their arms and executed because the Pharaoh feared them – he feared the strangers.
We read of one mother who made a plan to save her child. Perhaps he had already been spared by Shiphrah and Puah at birth, before the new edict came down. His parents hid him for several months, but that couldn’t be sustained. In another act of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience one mother put her baby boy in a water-proof basket – a tiny ark (the same Hebrew word as the ark which Noah built, and which preserved life). She put it among the reeds on the bank of the river. She did so with a hope and prayer that somehow, some way her child would be spared death even if it meant giving him up.
I cannot imagine letting go of my baby like this. I cannot imagine being faced with the impossible choice with which this mother was faced. Yet, mothers and fathers are faced with these types of choices this very day in places where they know if they keep their children with them they will likely die and sending them alone across a border into a new land is also unsafe, perhaps even deadly. Impossible choices.
In an act of revolutionary love, the baby’s mother let him go. She and her daughter watched and waited, hoped and prayed.
Though God is not mentioned in this part of the story, we see God’s fingerprints all over it. In an unexpected plot twist, it is the daughter of none other than Pharaoh that discovers the baby in the basket. Surprisingly, Pharaoh’s daughter seems to “see no stranger” in this helpless baby. It’s clear she knows that the baby is a Hebrew – one her father has sentenced to death – but she takes pity on the child. She adopts him. She names him. She knows her identity. She knows the baby’s identity. She looks into the eyes of the crying baby and sees a fellow human being. She lets go of what she has surely heard from her father that the Hebrews are a threat and, instead, “sees no stranger” in this child. In keeping with the other women in this scripture, the Pharaoh’s daughter also disobeys her father. She peacefully engages in civil disobedience, like Shiphrah and Puah and the mother and sister of Moses, all for the sake of the stranger in the basket.
This really isn’t such a sweet children’s Bible story after all. But it is nonetheless instructive and thought-provoking for us.
For me, this passage of scripture challenges me to ask some questions of myself. Namely, what might God be calling me to let go of so that I can move more toward revolutionary love for others. What might God be calling me to let go of so that I can see no stranger, like Jesus saw no stranger? What might God be calling me to do that could change lives for the good . . . even if it requires peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience? Would I have the courage to do that? How can we learn how to better love others, to love even our opponents, and to love ourselves? I don’t know all the answers, but I cannot escape the questions as I wrestle with this Bible passage in Exodus.
One thing that Valarie Kaur says in her book that may help us. She speaks of wonder, saying “When we choose to wonder about people we don’t know, when we imagine their lives and listen for their stories, we begin to expand the circle of those we see as part of us.” She recommends we approach all people with a sense of wonder. “Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them.” (Kaur, p. 10-12)
The Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt stopped wondering about the Hebrews, he stopped seeing them as “part of him,” as fellow human beings. He lost empathy, believing they were something other than him. He made them slaves, he treated them inhumanely, and he killed their children. Sadly, this story has been repeated many times over in many places and eras of history. By God’s grace, there have also been others who have seen “only humans,” who have seen no strangers, who have sacrificed to help others . . . Shiphrah, Puah, Pharaoh’s daughter, the people of Le Chambon, and many others.
This week, let’s consider what we might need to let go of to love others, even our opponents, even ourselves. Let’s try to wonder more about those we’ve written off, those toward whom we are prejudiced, and those whose stories we’ve never heard or bothered to listen to. May we, like Jesus, see no stranger. May we, like Jesus, practice revolutionary love.
See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, 2020, One World.
Exodus “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” series, Terence E. Fretheim, 1991, John Knox Press.
Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year A, Volume 3, Editors Green, Long, Powery, Rigby, Sharp, 2019, Westminster John Knox Press.
Time Magazine, “What We Can Learn About Being Good From a Village That Saved Thousands During the Holocaust,” Maggie Paxson, September 18, 2019
Wikepedia article on André Trocmé