Exodus 1:8-2:10 “A Shrewd Dreading”
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 27 August 2017
“Now a new king arose over Egypt.” That statement has the power to awe, to inspire, or to terrify those who hear it. Power is that way. It is tricky, and disparate, varied, in its use and effect. Good and bad miss the point. Expressions of power have the potential to induce dread in any direction, and bring salvation in even the unlikeliest of places.
It never ceases to amaze me how comedic such life and death moments in the Bible can be. In the face of great violence and even potential genocide, the resistance maintained by the seemingly powerless is laced with sarcasm and making fun of those with obvious power. And the thing that makes it so funny is that the one seemingly more powerful has no idea what is going on.
There is this Pharaoh, who will go unnamed, which is odd itself and an important piece to remember. He speaks to two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are named in this story. This is our first clue that something is up. Usually it is the powerful man in the story who is guaranteed to be named and mentioned. The usual power structure must be cracking.
Anyway, he tells Shiphrah and Puah to kill the Hebrew boys as they are born. They go about their work and flat refuse to do it. But they know that if they refuse outright he will punish them or find more willing people. Instead they give this ridiculous excuse that Hebrew women are so strong that they give birth without even giving it a second thought.
The Hebrew people are powerful, because their women are healthy and strong. It might be worth considering this in our own society.
It is difficult not to read the midwives’ response without a sarcastic tone. “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
The unnamed Pharaoh misses the sarcasm, and now instead of conspiring in secret with two midwives, he takes his fear and anger to all the Egyptian people. He makes a public call for killing newborn babies, and the public is apparently willing to comply.
To be clear, the midwives are being asked to kill children because Pharaoh commanded it, and the average Egyptian had no problem doing it when that didn’t work. You may recognize the reuse of such a story in the gospel of Luke when Herod the Great commanded all the baby boys to be killed in hopes of getting rid of Jesus.
Of course his parents fled to Egypt in that story, of all places, right? That should tell us something of how horrible Herod was. He was so bad that they fled back to Egypt so many years later.
There is little evidence that Herod’s attempt is a historical reality, and there are conflicting gospel accounts of the travel plans of Jesus’ family around the time of his birth. However, I am not very interested in proving the historic accuracy one way or the other.
But back to Exodus. It maybe the source story for Luke’s gospel, but it is obviously a powerful story in its own right, even if it may not be strictly tied to historical realities itself. I repeat this for a purpose. I point out the possible factual ambiguity so that we don’t get caught up in the exacting of historical possibilities in stories, but rather the communal meaning of the story.
As they say, Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Mark Twain said this about truth and fiction: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt also said, similarly: “The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.”
If not to avoid humiliation, there is at least a great freedom in adapted fiction.
What is obvious is that this story has meaning, and that meaning was such that Luke felt compelled to reclaim it for another round.
We all have power. It varies for different people in different situations. But we are never completely powerless or all powerful. Truth be told is that what we might see as power on the outside is often overcome by power that may appear considerably more constrained. It is tricky. Power fools you into thinking you have more than you do and less than you are capable of harnessing.
The origin story of Moses is such a story. The powerless harness what power they do have and it confounds what would appear to be insurmountable power.
There are three holders of power in the story. If we spent more time we could dig even deeper and uncover an even more complex layering. Maybe that is a conversation we could have during fellowship after the service, or sometime this week.
For now I will focus on three: The unnamed Pharaoh, the named women (the midwives as well as Moses’ mother and sister), and the general Egyptian public.
All three of these groups have power. It varies, but the story reveals the way each uses or does not use their power, whether for good or harm.
Pharaoh has great power over his empire. He can call forth armies and create laws in order to maintain his power. But there are also limits it seems. He knows that his power is limited by public perception.
That is why he first goes to the midwives in secret to accomplish his deadly aim. He probably guesses that to publicly call for the killing of other people’s children would risk his control, or else why would he only mention it to non-Egyptian midwives?
However, he also fears the Hebrew people, that they may become more powerful than him or use their power to overthrow him with another invading army.
We have no indication that the Hebrew people were unhappy at this point, or an actual threat to Egyptian society. As we gather from the Joseph story that preceded in Genesis, the Egyptians considered the Hebrew people to be uncivilized and not worthy to eat with, even seeing them as somehow unclean. But as far as we know the Hebrew people had no such feelings towards the Egyptians. But of course we are reading their version of the story.
In the end Pharaoh’s seemingly irrational fear of the Hebrew people grows so great that he no longer hides it in secret among the Hebrew midwives, and commands all of his people to kill the Hebrew children. There is a sobering reality when this kind of violent maintenance of power becomes viewable out in the open.
The recurring open displays of radicalized hatred is such a reality. The pardoning of Joe Arpaio, who committed countless violent acts against immigrants and their communities for what seems to be his own pleasure is another. The use of drone strikes, when its scale was revealed to the US public, was an acceleration of a faceless attempt to enact control through fear and unseen power. It is designed precisely not to be noticed by us, those they are sent in the name of.
We might even look to a place like North Korea. Kim Jong-un, on a global scale, does not have very much power. He is the leader of the most isolated and one of the poorest countries on earth. But within North Korea he is all powerful. Almost. That is why any attempt to overtake his control is so fraught with danger. He is willing to go to great lengths to maintain his hold on power. And the scary part is that in the moment when he is on the cusp of loosing it, he may have no reservations in using great destruction as a last effort.
Nations are often this way. Even democratic nations, when there is a perceived loss of power by the population, when most options of maintaining control are gone, there can be great acts of violence and destruction.
Pharaoh must have felt that his power was on the edge, whether it is or not, and the risk of public backlash from his decree is calculated as worth it.
Unfortunately his calculation is correct. The Egyptians seem very willing to kill Hebrew children by throwing them in the river, and his power is maintained. Well, at least for a little while longer.
But the power of God working through the lives of people is persistent. After the midwives attempt to prevent death, Pharaoh takes it to the next level. But even then, when it seems too great, Moses is found by Pharaoh’s daughter.
She knows he is a Hebrew boy, and in another moment full of comedy in face of destruction, Moses’ mother receives him back to nurse, and is even paid by Pharaoh’s daughter to do it. Power in deed.
And this is the saving use of power we discover in the story. Being willing to release it, and shrewdly using what power you may have, is the dreading of the great and powerful. Perceived weakness will be feared. However, this negation of power is not feared because it threatens to overtake by force, but rather because the more obvious power wielded by the likes of Pharaoh cannot overtake such hidden power.
The question is not whether we have power, but for what purpose we use it. Unfortunately, it is easy for fear, whether it be real or imagined, to distort the power we think we have.
The question remains: Where does our power come from? And further, for who’s purposes are we after?
It is the Spirit from which the church has claimed its power, and the purpose is to be set free, to be liberated from the constant need to overtake the world for our own gain. Instead we are called not to be conformed by this world, but to renew our minds. We all have different strengths, different types of power. But it is for the common good that we work together as one body of Christ.
In this body, working together as the Spirit leads, we find our power. Not power to control, but to cooperate and build up, especially when times get difficult. Power to see the need of others and respond, to lay our needs bare for others to care for us.
It is in the releasing of the power this world says we have for a power that is obtained through Christ by letting it go.
It is a tricky story we are joining. The story of Jesus is like that of the midwives. Their power is found in refusing the power of Pharaoh. The power of Jesus is found in refusing the power of Rome and the willing compliance of the religious authorities of his day.
Do not chase the power of this world, whether in the church, our homes, communities, or civil structures. Such power is an empty foolishness and only demands its own preservation. The power we seek in the name of Jesus can never be taken from us, in life or in death. It stands as a gift from the Spirit, and continues only as far as it is used for the good of us all. Gaining power by letting it go. Not to be reclaimed but continually letting go.
Live into your power, and start releasing it. Amen