Egypt First - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Exodus)
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Common English Bible (CEB)
1:8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
2:1 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” 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’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”
Jacob and his family joined Joseph and his family in Egypt, where they found refuge (Genesis 46-50). But a time came, when a “king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” This new king looked out over the realm and saw that the Hebrews had been fruitful and they had multiplied, and pharaoh become concerned. The demographics of the nation were changing, and the powers that be feared that Israelites would become so powerful, they would replace the Egyptians. And so, Pharaoh decided to do something. He decided to implement an “Egypt First” policy. That entailed enslaving and oppressing a people who had migrated to Egypt hundreds of years before. While he hoped that these oppressive methods would limit the growth in numbers and perceived power, the community continued to grow, despite the oppression. That led Pharaoh to turn the screws even tighter, “forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.” Still, the community grew. So, he chose to engage in even more drastic methods, to purify the land, and keep the foreigners at bay.
There is something familiar about this passage, something contemporary. If we look backward, we see this thread that links one generation to the next, with each generation of Abraham’s descendants carrying forward the covenant promises. But at each stage of the journey there are barriers and hindrances. Now, we jump forward again, and the community that carries the covenant promise is under duress. There is fear of this people, because they’re different. They might take over. They could side with Egypt’s enemies. So, Pharaoh decides that he needs to take care of his own kind. That means, for him, enslaving the people who had originally come to Egypt as refugees, fleeing famine. They had come at the request of their kinsman, Joseph, whom God used to save Egypt. But now, all of that is forgotten. It’s ancient history. The people who had been a means of blessing, now are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of life. Therefore, in the mind of Pharaoh, these people must be oppressed, and even eliminated. Yes, Egypt First!
Pharaoh new plan involved the midwives who delivered the babies in Egypt. He ordered the midwives to kill the baby boys, but spare the girls. In his mind, the boys were more of a threat. When the midwives followed God’s directive and refused to participate in infanticide, Pharaoh ordered his people to take the situation into their own hands. If they encountered an infant male Israelite, then they had permission to kill the child. Apparently, Pharaoh found some support for the policy, probably because he had instilled in them fear of the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant (even though the Israelites had been in the land for several centuries, they were still seen as foreigners).
One family came up with a plan to resist Pharaoh. A couple from the tribe of Levi, had a child, a male child. Instead of allowing the child to be killed they hid the child and then set him adrift in the Nile, but in a specific spot, one that was across from the place where Pharaoh’s daughter went to bath. The child’s sister (I’m assuming this is Miriam), accompanied the basket, which was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who, when she opened the basket, felt pity and compassion for the child, even though the child was a Hebrew, a foreigner. When Miriam, recognizing that Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion on the child, she approached the woman, and asked if she might find a Hebrew nursemaid, which turned out to be the child’s mother. This was agreed upon, and then when the child was weaned, he was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son, calling him Moses, because she drew him out of the water. That meant Moses grew up as the grandson of Pharaoh, a person of importance, even as Joseph had been a person of importance in Egypt. More importantly, the covenant community continued to live on because of his position. As the story continues, others will emerge, through whom God will work so that the covenant people will be saved (through water).
The story of Moses’ adoption is an important contribution to a key biblical theme, especially in the New Testament, and that is adoption. I happen to by reading at this moment Kelley Nikondeha’s book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a FracturedWorld, (Eerdmans, 2017). IN developing this theme, she points us to the story of the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter. She writes of the gift that was Moses and the gift that was adoption:
Bithiah received Moses as an unexpected gift. He, in turn received maternal love from her as he grew and matured. His Egyptian mother, who knew him to be Hebrew utterly other and different from herself, offered him daily care and unequivocal acceptance. And his dual identities became a pivotal gift that God empowered for a future act of emancipation. (Adopted, p. 52).
Solidarity between relinquishing mother and receiving mother provided Moses with life and opportunity. That sense of calling on the part of mothers is key to the biblical story. It is a reminder that uses responsive hearts, even if they are not counted among the covenant people. Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter joined in the resistance movement. She apparently didn’t buy into her father’s ethnocentric vison. She didn’t buy into the myth that the Israelite population had reached such a state that they outnumbered native Egyptians. She didn’t buy the idea that these people would conspire with their enemies. She simply saw a child who needed a home, and she, being in the position to do this, conspired against her father and welcomed the child into her own home. God used that responsiveness to emancipate God’s people from Pharaoh’s grasp.
What a beautiful vision of humanity. Pharaoh’s daughter became an ally and made it possible for God to call her adopted son as the savior of his people. There is a parallel story to this one. It gets told in the Gospel of Matthew. There is another king who grows fearful, this time it’s fear of a potential rival. So, Herod has all the little boys, two years and younger, murdered, so that this potential rival will not live to see adulthood. In this case, the child who will save the people is smuggled out of the country and into Egypt of all places (Matthew 2).
We hear the story a new at a time when ethnocentrism and nationalism and fear of the other is rampant in society. May we join with Bithiah and lay the groundwork for liberation.
Picture Attribution: He, Qi. Finding of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46089 [retrieved August 22, 2017]. Original source: heqigallery.com.