For the past two weeks, we’ve heard about Jacob and his sons and how they were a part of God’s plan. Today we turn our attention to the story of another patriarch… Moses; but before we get ahead of the story, let’s catch up on the situation in Egypt where we last left the Hebrew people.
As you may recall, Joseph invited his family to settle in the land of Goshen. They were happy and cared for and flourished for the rest of their days. But time passed and a new king arose over Egypt who did not care about the way things were when Joseph was in charge. All he noticed was a mass of foreigners who lived on Egyptian soil. He feared their number was greater than his own people. A jealous and foolish tyrant such as this king, had to take measures to insure that this group of outsiders would never be so strong and powerful that they’d revolt and overthrow his regime. So after many years of peaceful coexistence in the land of Egypt, the Israelites were headed for hard times.
The king ordered taskmasters to enslave the Israelites. These taskmasters treated them badly. The Israelites were forced to build supply cities for Pharaoh. One way to show your enemy how well-equipped you are is to have them see all your resources. In addition to building the cities, the Israelites were forced to work in the fields and to make bricks. Under these kinds of harsh circumstances, you’d think the Israelites would have been crushed… demoralized and shamed into submission. Not so! You see, the promise to the ancestors was still very much alive in the Israelites.
Not even hard labor could break their spirit at this point. It seems that the harder they toiled, the more fruitful they became. They multiplied and increased like rabbits! It seems Pharaoh’s enslavement of them had the opposite effect. Instead of causing their numbers to dwindle, the Israelites grew and spread. Pharaoh was not pleased, so he put his Plan B into motion.
Plan B would surely curtail the growth of the Hebrew population, thought Pharaoh as he summoned two Jewish midwives. When Shiphrah and Puah stood before Pharaoh, their orders were to kill every male child born to the Hebrew women, but they could let the girls live. Now if you think about it, this was a flawed Plan B. It would make more sense to kill the girls since they were the ones who would grow up and produce children. If all the boys were saved there would be more workers to add to Pharaoh’s labor force. But I guess Pharaoh didn’t see it that way because he gave his orders and sat back, waiting to see the results.
Meanwhile, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, had no intention of listening to Pharaoh. They were loyal only to God. They knew about the promise to the ancestors. Israel’s baby boom was proof that God was still making good on the promise. Every time a Hebrew male baby was born, the midwives let the infant live!
After a while, Pharaoh noticed that Plan B was a failure because there were more and more male children being born to the Hebrew people. Pharaoh decided to launch an investigation to determine what was going wrong. Pharaoh summoned the midwives to find out why they were allowing the boys to live. Standing before Pharaoh, the midwives were questioned. Instead of telling Pharaoh the truth… about the promise to the ancestors… the midwives lied. They told Pharaoh that Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women. Hebrew women were much more vigorous and robust and would birth their babies very quickly. The poor midwives would always arrive upon the scene too late! The babies were already born and there wasn’t anything they could do about that.
Pharaoh accepted that explanation without question. The midwives punked him big time… and Pharaoh was clueless. As a result, God blessed the midwives with families and the Hebrews became many in number and very strong. Pharaoh still had a major problem on his hands with these Hebrews, so he decided to develop another plan. This time, he would ask his own people to help.
All Egyptians were commanded to find Hebrew male babies and throw them in to the Nile River. Again, the girls were allowed to live. It is ironic that Pharaoh decided that death to the male babies should be by drowning. The Nile River was the source of life to a desert people. Water in the desert was a miracle! Rivers and streams in the desert were cared for and treated with respect. Once again, Pharaoh was not thinking clearly when he called for the baby boys to be thrown into the Nile. How could their life-giving river be abused in such a way as to become an instrument of death? Aside from the symbolic mess Pharaoh was making of his river, lots of dead babies floating in the river were going to create pollution and contamination problems for his own people. But, did Pharaoh care? Nope. He was too consumed with trying to wipe out the foreigners to think what the consequences might be for his own people.
The Bible doesn't tell us how many babies were killed or if Pharaoh’s plan was even remotely successful. What the Bible does tell us is that a Levite man married a Levite woman. She conceived and bore a fine and beautiful son. A Hebrew folk tale tells us that the mother knew that this son was an extraordinary child for when he was born the house was filled with light. How could she let anything happen to this child? Taking no chances, she hid the baby for three months. Perhaps as he grew it became too difficult to keep him a secret, so the mother had to do something drastic in order to save the baby’s life. An interesting idea came to her. She would put her baby in a basket and hide him in the reeds on the banks of the Nile.
We aren’t told any more about her reasons for deciding to do this, but perhaps it is more important than just coincidence that the baby ended up close to the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe. With the baby’s sister hiding out nearby, she watched as the princess’s maid retrieved the basket. The baby was crying which must have evoked some kind of mothering instinct from the princess, for she took pity on him. She knew that this must be a Hebrew baby, but he was fine and beautiful and he was in need of comfort. All at once the baby’s sister appeared and asked the princess if she’d like to have a nurse from among the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for her. Pharaoh’s daughter said “yes” so the sister went and got her mother. “Nurse this child and I will pay you wages.” What mother wouldn’t love a deal like that? And it was so.
When the boy was weaned, he was brought to the princess and she took him as her son. It was then that the boy received his name… Moses. In Hebrew the names Moses or Mosheh sounds like the word mashah which means “to draw out.” The princess chose this name because she drew the child out of the water.
It is interesting to note that other mythological heroes were also drawn out of water. Legends about Horus, Sargon, and Telephus all involve some sort of rescue from water. According to ancient minds, charismatic men draw their special qualities from water. Water is the primordial, uncontaminated element which is the primal source of power and wisdom. And so, Moses has taken his place beside other heroes who were destined for greatness.
Another point to consider about Moses’ name is that he who was drawn out of water would go on to draw his people out of Egypt. Moses who was put in a wicker basket was saved in the same way that Noah and his family and all the animals were saved from the flood by living in an ark. Noah saved his family so that the covenant could be made. Moses was saved so that the covenant would go on. Moses, who was placed in the reeds would later lead his people through the Reed Sea. The original Hebrew says the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea as we are accustomed to hearing.
But perhaps we are getting ahead of our story. Do keep these things in mind however because the stage is set for the next chapter of the story. We know that this child has been saved for a reason. God is at work through a conspiracy of women to insure the child’s safety and well-being. What can we learn from this tale of power and wily women?
To quote that famous New York punk legend Patti Smith, “People have the power. People have the power… the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools… it’s decreed the people rule.”
First of all, God uses women as well as men as participants in the promise to the ancestors. In this case, if it weren’t for a conspiracy of women, a different story would have been told. Two midwives, a slave mother, her daughter, and a princess all team up to save a future savior. Perhaps their joining together was not intentional on their part, but someone orchestrated the events to teach us that people have the power. The power of this world does not always belong to those who are in positions of authority nor to those who possess the most wealth.
Pharaoh represents the world’s power in all its grand excess. He controls the world. People are subject to his every whim and desire. He is rich and invincible. The midwives, the mother and sister of Moses do not control much of anything. They are at the bottom of the power scale in Pharaoh’s realm, yet they defy the powers that be because they believe in a higher power than an earthly king. Their lies and deception made Pharaoh look like a fool. Even his own daughter becomes a player when she insists on taking the Hebrew baby and raising him as her own son. How did she get away with that? How did Pharaoh allow such a mockery to play out in his palace? What do you think?
The more Pharaoh tried to assert his kind of power, the more things backfired. The Israelites multiplied more. The midwives tricked him. Moses was saved and raised in the Pharaoh’s own home! What kind of power did the women have and where did it come from? The women were clearly under the power of God’s blessing. Human power cannot stop the power of God’s blessing. We also must recognize that the power of God’s blessing works through all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. It doesn't come only to the most religious or most intelligent people in the faith community. It often comes to those who have the least status. It comes to those who experience violence because of the way they look or the color of their skin. It may come to a small town or a small church. It may come to the youngest or the outcast ones. Just like Pharaoh, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. God sees a need and enters into human suffering… turning things around, defying logic, thwarting the powerful and befuddling the thinkers and planners. Throughout time, this is how God has shown power. You’d think we’d be used to it by now but somehow we still don’t always believe that God’s people have the power to turn the world around.
To quote Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Believe it, people.