Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
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. 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. 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?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 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. 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.’
We heard a little bit about this story a couple weeks ago, so we know that these women’s plans work out. The boy will be ok. Life won’t be perfect, but he will not only survive and, he will be called up for special work by God. In fact, cradled inside their plan, with the boy child, is the salvation of their whole people. But, they can’t know that yet. We only know because we’ve heard the story before. Put yourself in the place of this mother and her elder daughter. You don’t know the future. You can only base your predictions on what you are observing in the present and what you know from the past. What you are observing now is powerful people hurting children for their own gain. What you know from the past is that neighbors can be turned into enemies by those who want only to protect their own power. With those two pieces of information, they knew they had to make a plan.
Pharaoh is both afraid of the Israelites and quick to underestimate them. We learned that in the previous chapter when we read of the midwives who make up a quick lie to cover up the fact that they had been delivering babies instead of destroying them. It is obviously a lie. They say, “These Hebrew women aren’t delicate like Egyptian women. They just push those babies right out before we get there. There is no time to enact harm to them without the mothers knowing.” Only someone who is fully committed to both hating a people while also not learning anything about them would believe such a story. Dr. Wil Gafney notes in her book Womanist Midrash, when the midwives are able to use the Pharaoh’s own cultural biases against him, they show us that the Pharaoh is not actually all powerful. With a solid plan, a little luck, and some divine guidance, you can defeat him. Dr. Gafney calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, the “first deliverers in the book of deliverance.” We are grateful that set salvation in motion.
The woman who makes the plan to save be baby isn’t initially named in this story. Neither is her husband. We are just told that they come from the tribe of Levi. If we keep reading, we learn later in the book of Exodus that her name is Jochebed. The first part of her name, the “Yo” is part of the Hebrews name for God. Dr. Gafney translates her name as “the honor or weightiness of God.” She also explains that the book of Numbers clarifies that Jochebed is not just from the tribe of Levi, but is actually Levi’s daughter. Levi was Joseph’s brother, one of the ones who sold him into slavery... one of the one’s who had to become a refugee in Egypt during a famine... one who eventually reconciled with his brother. Jochebed, because she was born in Egypt, would have experienced nearly the entire downward spiral of the relationships between her people and the Egyptians. Her lifetime would be spent experienced her people’s increased oppression and enslavement.
When the powerful are trying to destroy you, any act of creation is an act of resistance. Dr. Gafney reminds us of that. She says that the decision to build a family in the midst of Pharaoh’s destruction is a sign of radical and defiant hopefulness. She would not let the Pharaoh decide the size and nature of her family. She has a least two other children before the boy she will save in this story. They were probably born before the Pharaoh’s most recent calls for genocide. But, still, it would not have been easy to keep them safe. And, the one who seems to be her oldest, Miriam, will work with her to save the youngest. Great good can happen when generations work together.
Remember that part of the creation stories back in Genesis where God looked at creation at said, “it is good.” Well, that appears to be what Jochebed said when she saw her youngest son. Dr. Gafney points this out in her commentary. Jochebed saw him and said, this is a fine boy. And, she committed to saving him. She doesn’t even talk to her husband about it. Did you notice that? He’s not anywhere in this part of the story. She just does it. She hides him for three months. But, there comes a point when she can hide him no longer. So, she develops a plan. It is a risky plan, probably not one she would try had she more resources. But, she uses what she has: the baskets they carry every day, the process by which to make it water-proof, another child who can keep watch, and a river, and probably confidence in the honor of God. So, she puts the child in the basket and her faith in whomever finds him.
The daughter of the tyrant has the opportunity to choose compassion where he has only chosen destruction. She knows full well that her father had decided that Hebrew boys were to die. She also knows that the daughters of pharaohs have more leeway than the slaves of pharaohs. We don’t know much about her. We don’t know if she bristled against her father’s genocidal decrees or if she happily made use of the wealth his oppressive tactics had helped him amass. What we do know is, in the moment she saw this fine boy in her slave’s hands, she decided to help him.
Miriam is smart like her mom and offers to help the princess. She says, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” The princess says yes. And, of course Miriam goes to find their own mother and bring her to tend to the child. The princess will even pay her to care for her own son! As Lisle Gwynn Garrity said in the Unraveled devotional entry for this scripture, this is not a perfect solution to this family’s problem. What would have been perfect would have been for the Pharaoh to lift the killing decree and apologize, release the enslaved with reparations, and step down from power, turning the country over to the power of the people. What would have better would have been that the boy, named Moses, had been able to stay with his parents. But, there is a history of members of this family, starting with Jochebed’s uncle Joseph, being able to build something good with what other’s had intended for evil. And, God would do great good with Moses, who was raised in the household of the Pharaoh.
Jochebed knew that would only have so much time with her fine son. Dr. Gafney imagines that she made the most of it. I think she probably did, too. Here’s the scene as Dr. Gafney imagines that it could have been: Jochebed tells her son stories of their people and sings them the songs that Hebrew mothers sing to their children. The princess knows that this is the boy’s biological mother and allows them this time together. She nurses her son for as long as she can, maybe 5 years, taking as much time as she can so that he knows who he is and whose he is. Through his foster mother’s good will and his biological mother’s hard work, Moses is able to know is sister Miriam and his brother Aaron, the two who will become coworkers in liberation with him. And, he knows his father. Even as he benefits from being the Pharaoh's adopted grandson, he will know that he is Hebrew. He will be ready, though afraid, when the Hebrew God speaks to him. And, he won’t believe the lies that his people deserve oppression. And, that will be the first step to freedom.
I don’t know if you are feeling like Jochebed, making the best plan you can in a bad situation, or if you are Miriam, following the words of a wise leader. I don’t know if you are the princess, using your power to save one who did nothing to deserve danger or Moses, the one who has been saved. What I do know is that this story shows us that, as Lisle Gwen Garrity says, “God doesn’t need perfection to achieve liberation.” What God does need is you, being as brave as you can be, using all the tools that you have, to walk down to the water and find the life that is hidden there. May we follow in Jochebed’s defiant and hopeful footsteps.
Resources cited in this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.