Early in Exodus Opposition to Racism Matters

A sermon based on Exodus 1:1-2:10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 27, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Since we are at the start of a new football season I thought I’d begin with a short football story that even non-fans can appreciate. An American college student took a newly arrived foreign exchange student to her very first football game. After the game the American asked the exchange student if she liked the experience. “Oh, I found it fascinating,” she replied, “but I just couldn’t understand why all the violence is focused on 25 cents.” Baffled the American asked “What do you mean?” “Well, they flipped a coin, and one team got it, and then for the rest of the game, everyone kept screaming, “Get the quarter back! Get the quarter back!”

That joke reminds me of misunderstandings about the focus of the Bible and Bible stories. Today’s lesson, that Bobbie read so well, I am guessing has most of us thinking primarily about two males Pharaoh and Moses. Most of us have been taught to hear the story as focusing on the awful acts of Pharaoh – and Moses’ survival of those acts.

Pharaoh’s actions and Moses’ survival are essential elements, but like the coin toss in a football game Pharaoh’s specific decree to the midwives is not the primary action our lesson today focuses on. Sadly Pharaoh’s fearing alien workers and racist attitudes about the Jews being a threat to the homeland – by getting more powerful and plentiful– appears to be an age old story. I am struck by how we can hear Pharaoh as essentially thinking and saying “Jews will not replace us!” . . . and acting on it.

As the events in Charlottesville earlier this month painfully remind us there are some who still think and say and act on this particular sinful idea and other racist notions here in 21st century America. We heard their chilling god-awful, angry, racist chants in Charlottesville. Racism, including, but not limited to, white supremacy movements is – and always has been– abhorrent and evil. It is a sin. It is a secular sin that cannot reasonably be justified or acceptable to Americans who value the founding declarations of equality and inherent rights. It is a sin in religion too that cannot be justified or acceptable to church, clergy or adherents of Christianity who value Jesus’ declarations to love everyone and treat others as you want to be treated.

Racism must be denounced and affirmatively resisted. Indeed opposing racism is required by God’s mandate in Micah posted on the walls up here, that humans are required to seek justice and love kindness. And it is paramount that in our quest for justice, and in our love for kindness, we resist racism with love, not hate for any human. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 1
The lashing out at, and the oppression of strangers – those cultures falsely consider others based on race, nationality and religion– is a problem addressed over and over in the Bible with edicts and stories against such lashing out and oppression. God sides with oppressed strangers again and again from Abraham and Sarah, to the Hebrews, to Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, to Jesus and the Syrophencian Woman, to the Good Samaritan, to The Ethiopian Eunuch, to Paul’s fight to include Gentiles into the Christianity and of course to jesus Christ himself.

God opposes oppression of anyone. This is often illustrated in the Bible with mandated responses to oppose oppression of strangers and to tend to their the well being.

Pharaoh’s oppressive acts against the Jews, the people in his country of another race, includes working them to ill health and death. And executions– we are told he specifically ordered midwives “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him . . .” It is this terrible racist, anti-Semitic decree that causes Moses to become sort of like a football – albeit a very precious living one– in the story. Moses is not so much a player as the precious thing handed off and passed and run toward a goal line– SURVIVAL. Moses’ life clearly matters to God and to others, if not to racist, anti-Semitic Pharaoh and his henchmen.

At this point in the Bible narrative Moses has no control over his death or his survival– God has given the task to do God’s will to humans. And in our Bible story God’s will is to get Moses over the critical goal line of survival and into a position of power through privilege in Pharaoh’s household. God’s strategy is for Moses to later deliver all the Jews in Egypt from racist, anti-Semitic oppression. And God’s strategy in our lesson does NOT include supernatural miracles by God, but rather the natural miracles of love and compassion provided by humankind.

Most of us have probably been taught to hear this part of the Moses’ story, those critical first few months, as being about two males leaders in the history set out in the Bible, Moses and Pharaoh. But I’d like to suggest that, that actually makes us misunderstand the focus of the lesson. It’s sort of like thinking football is about the coin that is flipped, when really it is about how the players– actors– play out their roles. When we think it is about the male king and male infant-leader-to-be we gloss over the most important part. Which is the courageous, correct and cosmic altering choices made by every day human beings in the story. The lesson most especially is about choices WE can make.

And ironically while we tend to focus on the male leaders in the story, it is extraordinary ordinary-to-the-culture women who perform God’s acts and do God’s will. It is non-elite-second-class-to-power-people who denounce and affirmatively resist. They do so not with darkness but with light; not with violence but with non-violence; not with hate . . . but with love.

And notably it appears from the story that women from different nationalities and socio-economic classes lovingly work to undermine and resist Pharaoh’s and a part of the culture’s hateful, racist, anti-Semitic ways. See each heroic woman in the story tends to the well being of the vulnerable expendable castaway person to some of the cultural elite with power . . . they rescue Moses. And each one of them actually provides for Moses’ well being and rescues him at great risk to herself by blatantly resisting racism, anti-Semitism and evil edicts. So while the lesson illustrates a male Egyptian king kicking the story off with heinous and evil racist anti-Semitic choices– and while the story ends with a male infant victim of those choices being snuck into the Egyptian king’s house to be raised– IT IS five females’ choices and action and courage that bring about that end . . . that bring about God’s will.

And I just love that, and so I want to make sure we understand that the lesson we are considering this morning is a very early recorded memory of heroic action by five heros, all of resisting, all them acting non-violently and all of them ordinary – even second class to the culture, since they were women.

The midwives, Shiphrah (who is thought to have an Egyptian name (and Puah (who is thought to have a Canaanite name) are asked by Pharaoh to see baby boys and kill them. X They choose to see God’s way instead and denounce and actively resist the evils of racism and anti-Semitism. The midwives see God in their neighbors, the expendable to the culture’s boys. What the every day people– woman across cultures– do is defy Pharaoh and let the boys live.

And the midwives deceive Pharaoh with his own racist lies about the Jews being different. We’re told Pharaoh “summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” We are told Shiphrah and Puah cleverly feed Pharaoh his own nonsense logic telling him it is

“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

So Shiphrah and Puah, two non-Hebrew females, do God’s will by doing their part to tend to the well being of children threatened by racism and anti-Semitism. This allows the Hebrew infant boy Moses to survive beyond birth.

The third female who keeps Moses alive is his mom. We are told after he was born

she hid him 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.

Then a forth female, Marian, Moses’ “sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.” When a fifth woman

The daughter of Pharaoh [!] came down to bathe at 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 [Miriam] 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 [ . . . Moses’] 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.

No less than five females from various strata of the culture work for Moses’ well being– as God would have everyone do. With courage and cunning they keep Moses alive and get him set up in a safe situation where he is both taken care of by his mom (who’s ironically paid by Pharaoh to be his nurse!) and by Pharaoh’s own daughter and household.
By looking at this play-by-play of the story we uncover a powerful coming together of people of different nations, wealth and faiths providing care, acting with common decency – with love– toward a person (a baby!) that Pharaoh and other racists wanted to do terrible violence to.

I am sure most people, male or female, would want to see such care and love provided to any child (and I’d hope, any adult). As I said, God certainly wants everyone to; and when necessary to do so just as these five heroic people did, without regard to race, religion nationality– and in defiance and resistence of evil conduct. The heroes don’t care what Moses’ race or religion or nationality is. The heroes don’t care what Pharaoh’s racist, anti-Semitic commands are. Rather, they contradict Pharaoh to do God’s will and care about others. They care about children. They care about Moses. They do what is right. They do God’s will.

And the consequences are astronomical. Five women keep alive and safe Moses, the one whom God later calls to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Without their courage and compassion that could not have happened. In fact, almost all of the Bible happenings, Old and New Testaments, would not have happened. There’s no Torah, no Ten Commandments, no Judaism as we know it, and no Jesus movement within it without adult Moses living to hear and heed God’s call out of a burning bush.

None of that happens if Moses is not rescued by five women hearing and heeding God’s call for love and care, and choosing to take actions for the well being of others. Those actions lead to keeping Moses alive and healthy and put him in a position to one day be the one God wanted and did . . . and could call to lead all Jews out of racist enslavement by Egypt.

And it’s not just a text opposing racism and anti-Semitism. This text amazingly can be heard as you have probably picked up on by now, as uplifting and honoring women. The Bible has this reputation of only having male leaders and heroes. Clearly this first chapter of the second book of the Bible belies that notion. The Women’s Bible Commentary notes:

The opening chapters of the book of Exodus introduce numerous women who play significant, although unelaborated, roles in the events described in the narrative . . .
One way in which the women of Exodus provide . . . leadership is through acts of intervention. The refusal of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to carry out Pharaoh’s order prevents the murder of Israelite boys. Decisive actions on the part of Pharaoh’s daughter and the woman identified as Moses’ sister . . . are crucial to Moses’ survival. 2

So our Lectionary lesson this morning is about people working together across cultures to oppose racism and anti-Semitism. It is also a story uplifting women, pointing out their brave and powerful acts and their place of equal honor with men in helping God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Simply put, we can hear this story as valuing the equality and inherent rights of all human beings across the board regardless of race, religion, nationality or gender. We can hear this story as a lesson as a call to heroic denouncement and resistence to oppression. We can understand that no less is expected by God’s requirements that we to seek justice and love kindness. . . . May we do so now and forever. AMEN!

1. King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love, p. 47
2. Women’s Bible Commentary, p 32