So, we begin this exodus journey and yet this journey comes from what has happened before. We know from the account of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph that God’s presence and promise has been under huge threat because of human weakness, idolatry and sin, and yet, by God’s determination and grace, has prevailed – at least for now.
1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; 3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. 5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy[a] in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
God’s blessing of his people; his promise to Abraham of a great nation of descendants, a great name among the nations and a land of blessing in which to live is happening despite generations living and dying in between the life of Jacob and Joseph and this new beginning about to happen.
The Israelites are a minority group within Egypt. They have bred like rabbits! Verse 8, “Now there arose a new king in Egypt….” may jump as much four centuries. It seems the blessed nation have been fruitful and multiplied as God had originally commanded the first human beings to do (Genesis 1 and 2). This new King see a threat in this now huge ethnic minority group. They look like they might soon take over the country!
This is a fear-filled thing. I hear people saying things about what is happening in Australia that betray this kind of fear of foreigners. “The Chinese will take us over. The Indonesians will take over one day. The boat people will flood us and use up our valuable resources……”. Was it Pauline Hansen who gave voice to that fear a decade ago when she said “the Asians are taking us over….Asians out….”? A quick look at history will tell you that these kinds of fears have always been around. They have often led to great evil. Fear does that.
In this scene, the Israelites are almost like a plague! “They became exceedingly numerous so that the land was filled with them”, we hear. They are like mosquitoes at a BBQ, flies at a picnic, Fremantle Dockers supporters at the footy!
The Egyptian monarchy is worried for another reason besides being taken over from within. What if one of their competing neighbours like the Babylonians, Syrians, Assyrians etc… decide to take us on and enlist the support of this huge group of people who may or may not have any loyalty to us when push comes to shove? Egypt would be serious peril.
Of course, those us who live in the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world have little idea about what this really is. However, for anyone who has come close to poverty and/or any oppressive regime, the full force of this oppression will make more sense. The rest of us can only imagine…… no status, no job, no goals, no control over my day, no point thinking beyond today because it may be your last. Seeing your family brutalised on a daily basis. Seeing the places that you used to enjoy now out of reach and watching all the people you used to know carry on as if you were not even there. This is a complete removal of privilege and plunge into abuse, hatred, racial vilification, death and fear.
It is interesting though. Egypt is also full of fear (1:10). As the oppressors dehumanise others and violate their family and communal life, they themselves become sub human. Once this pattern of fear and oppression has been established, it brings in an entire way of life and behaviour for those caught up in it. Both become lost.
That terrible human descent into death now shows itself again. Just as it was for Joseph and his brothers, fear, then jealousy, then hatred and then physical and communal violence takes shape in this now fearful country. The Egyptians fear the Israelite’s capacity to threaten their way of life. They are very jealous of the apparent unstoppable blessing they seem to have as they “fill the land”. This “shrewd” plan to stop their increase and snuff out their blessed life does not work. Even though the Israelites were mistreated, their families grew larger, and they took over more land. “Because of this, the Egyptians hated them worse than before…”(Exod 1:12). Jealousy has given way to hatred – not just in theory but now actually done on a daily basis across the country – wherever Egyptians and Israelites live in the same place.
We can tell what is next; violence and death. “Kill all the baby boys” commands the fearful and inhumane Pharaoh. This has been a final step in the snuffing out a minority group for many a regime. It is a final desperate measure to kill off a threat. We have a very well known account of such a measure in the New Testament, as the paranoid King Herod the Great command the same when he suspects the promised Jewish Messiah has been born. We hear that every Christmas.
We then hear this account of very crafty mid-wives who commit an act of civil disobedience by directly disobeying the law of the land (1:15-21). The reason given for their act of rebellion in an oppressive regime is faithfulness to God (v17). They took their life in their own hands as they delivered new life everyday for the sake of obeying the God of life who gives life. He is also the God who alone has the authority as creator and giver of life to take life away.
This gets me thinking about Christian civil disobedience. When is it faithful to the Lord to directly disobey civil law? In the 70’s in Latin America a whole movement and theology came into being called “Liberation theology” where many Christians even went to the extent of taking up arms against brutal military regimes with leaders like Pinochet.
Here in comfortable and peaceful Western democracy, we hope it never comes to this. All we can do is thank God for his gift of justice and legal system and a shared will to keep it that way; even to actively support and work for justice and “pray for kings and others in power, so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives as we worship and honour God as St Paul urges us” (1Timothy 2:2).
Again the Israelite midwives, who are actually experts in handling God’s fruitful blessing when you think about it, outdo the murderous Pharaoh by keeping another one of their precious baby boys and ensuring that he lives through this horrible time.
How poignant it is to read that this desperate woman who somehow managed to have her son and then hide him for a few months as soldiers come house to house on a daily basis and take boys from their mothers arms and murder them, now places her precious boy in an ark. This word is so seldom used in the entire Old Testament. Here we are meant to remember that other “ark” of Noah and God’s saving work in those days. Humanity was so lost. We had descended even further into sin and chaos that God acts to bring order and life back to his creation. he does this my placing Noah and the remnant of his creation in that ark.
Later on in Exodus, we will hear that those foundational directives on how to faithfully live with the Lord and his community – the 10 Commandments – will also be placed in an “ark” – the Ark of the Covenant. Precious things go inside arks. Saving things go inside arks. Moses is now inside an ark. The hope of God’s saving love is in that ark.
And then we really come to the crescendo of this whole beginning account. It is amazing that of all people to give a sign of what God is going to do it should be an Egyptian – and Pharaoh’s own daughter at that! What does she do?
“…….she saw the baby and felt sorry for him because he was crying…”(2:6). Pharaoh’s daughter does three things in response to one thing. The one thing is crying. The three things are “seeing” and hearing (implied) and “feeling sorry” for this one crying.
“Feeling sorry” for him? In English that seems a bit week. The word for a woman’s womb in Hebrew is the root of this verb. This woman who has a womb experiences a womb wrenching compassion for this child who has just come from another woman’s womb. The compassion is of the deepest kind – from the womb. it is that compassion that comes from the human spirit – that women experience in pregnancy, childbirth and when new life is in infancy.
“Crying”: This is the situation of God’s people, according to God. They are “crying”. They are weeping in this terror in which they live. Labour, hard labour, misery, cruelty, mistreated – this is what is creating this weeping and crying out for salvation, for hope, for and end to it all.
Friends, as we leave it there, we can journey on knowing that we travel with a God who sees, hears and has compassion on our crying – whatever it is.
We can also trust that our God creates good out of evil and frustrated the working of fear, oppression and hatred.
We can also trust that our God is very happy to work with little things and little people – people like midwives, daughters, grieving mothers, crying babies and little “arks”. God works through these things to deal with the fear and trouble we as his people and we as part of his troubled world face.
In this little ark is the hope of God’s people and his promises acting in the world. His fellow Hebrew babies were thrown into the water of the Nile. But God ensured that this child of promise was “drawn out of the water” of the Nile. God undoes this horrible command of a king who thinks he is bigger than God.
His people will soon be “drawn out of the water” as they pass through that Sea of Reeds on dry ground and be born again as God’s people of blessing.
We have been drawn out of the water at baptism. Baptism was our Red Sea. It was us being drawn out of certain death to new life and blessing in Christ.
We walk this journey as God’s water people – people of hope. people in the ark or the boat of the church. We sit in the Nave of the church – we travel in God’s presence into the desert way of Jesus – the way of his cross, the way of God’s power revealed in the ordinary and seemingly weak things of the world.