Midwives Trump Kings
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Reading: Ex 1:8-11, 15-19, 22, & 2:1-10
If I asked you, or someone on the street, what Christianity is about, you’d say Jesus. And you’d be right. But if we asked Jesus what his faith is about, he’d answer differently. He’d say, “the Exodus.” We’re going to learn from this older wisdom for the next few months through Easter. The Exodus is the basic grammar of the Christian language.
Someone described Judaism well with these three pithy sentences: ‘they tried to kill us. We’re still here. Let’s eat.’ As Christians we have much to learn here. Humanity starts out life in slavery, death. God moves us, through difficulty, to unimaginable life. You see the pattern in this story. God has chosen a family through whom to save the world: Abraham and Sarah, and all their unlikely descendants. Fifty chapters of Genesis tells how this family winds up as beggars in Egypt where their cast-out son Joseph runs the whole country and feeds and forgives them all. Then our reading from the start of Exodus and some of the most terrifying words in the Bible: ‘there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ Anyone who’s seen a new boss come to power who has it in for you knows that feeling. Touch up the resume. Call in all favours. Going to need some help up in here.
Pharaoh puts the Israelites to hard labour. Makes them slaves. Every enslaved or abused person can see themselves in this story. God’s people . . . are in shackles. That’s not all. Pharaoh wants to wipe out the Israelites from the globe. A 20th century full of holocausts and genocides is forecast here.
But hold on a minute. How smart is it to destroy your own free labour force? The hatred that stigmatizes another people makes the hater stupid. Pharaoh shows more. He’s the first person in the Bible to recognize the Israelites as a people. It happened in our passage. You probably didn’t notice it. I sure didn’t. His words: “The Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we.” Before, in Genesis, they’d been just a family. Now they’re a nation, more powerful than the Egyptians. Pharaoh speaks more truth than he knows. God commands in Genesis to go forth and multiply. Sarah and Abraham’s family have done just that. God calls more people a blessing. Pharaoh calls more Hebrews a threat. He worries they will “escape the land,” that is, they’ll make Exodus. He’s right again, unwittingly again. This whole story sets up Pharaoh, god-king over Egypt, most powerful man alive, as a buffoon. Historians know the names of loads of Pharaohs of Egypt. You can learn all about them at the ROM down the street. Pharaohs left grand records in gold and stone. But the Bible never bothers to mention this Pharaoh’s name. ‘Oh yeah, Pharaoh, I don’t remember which one, who cares? They’re all idiots.’
You know how in our imagination the embodiment of evil is Adolf Hitler? Well, before that unfortunately mustached Austrian, when folks thought of the embodiment of all evil, they thought of . . . Pharaoh of Egypt. We’re about to see what God does with powerful evil.
The names of the first five books of the Bible are in Greek. I got to visit Greece some time ago. And in the airport in Athens, I laughed out loud. I know enough Greek to read a few signs. And all the exit signs said “Exodus” this way. “Exodus” that way. The word just means exit. Way out. Very mundane. But the Exodus itself is far from mundane: it is who God is: the Exoduser! God makes a way where there is no way. That’s the whole story. God sets people free. From substances. From debt. From self-loathing. From arrogance. Or if you’re like me most of the time, you might not even know what you need freedom from yet. The only thing God doesn’t get rid of . . . is people.
Pharaoh thinks he knows how to get rid of a people. But remember, genocidaires are stupid. The Nazis committed resources to the Holocaust they could have used to fight. The holocaust wasn’t just an unparalleled moral atrocity—it was bad war-making. Pharaoh asks the Hebrew midwives to kill all the boys. They say okay, yes sir. And then they don’t do it. They work for life, not death. And when Pharaoh asks why, they don’t just explain, they even sneak in an insult of all of Egypt’s women. They say, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth even before the midwife comes to them.” Pharaoh’s knowledge of birthing is, shall we say, limited. Notice how beautiful this is. These two midwives run circles around the most powerful man alive, even insulting his mama. The Bible does name these two: Shiphrah and Puah. I’d love to name a church after these two heroines of the faith.
So then Pharaoh democratizes his murderous plan: everybody throw every male baby into the Nile, these peacenik midwives are terrible murderers. I’ve been on that river in a fiberglass boat with a hand motor. The boat felt big enough when we set out, tiny once the danger came. There were so many crocodiles and hippos in the Nile you stopped counting. And those were just the dangers I could see. Moses’ mother takes papyrus, tar, pitch, makes a basket, and sets her baby afloat in all that danger. Imagine her grief. . . But the story reminds us of another boat. Also made of pitch and tar and tears. On which God saves a vulnerable family through water. Noah’s ark.
Remember y’all these aren’t just stories. They’re patterns. They’re how God always works.
Now also notice Moses’ mom does exactly what Pharaoh commands. She throws her son into the Nile. . . Pharaoh said nothing against putting a basket in first. Civil disobedience to unjust laws can take many forms.
Moses’ sister follows the basket downriver. It’s found by Pharaoh’s own daughter. She knows it’s a Hebrew boy. . . and she disobeys her own father. Most powerful man alive, claims to be a god, and he can’t even get his own flesh and blood to follow his orders. Pharaoh’s daughter is also described as being like God. In Exodus, God hears the people’s cry, comes down, and delivers them from death. Pharaoh’s daughter hears Moses’ cry, comes down, and delivers him from death. We shouldn’t be surprised to find good people in any religion or none at all. The Bible tells us this is so. And people of any kind can be expected to disobey murderous laws. Moses’ own name is an Egyptian name. It means “I drew him up out of the water.” The perspective of a pagan princess of an enslaving nation is inscribed into the name of the most famous Israelite ever. Think about that.
Moses’ sister suggests a nurse from the Hebrews. She brings Moses’ own mother. Tears dried, her child saved, all in the same day, plus a paycheck to nurse him. Y’all, pharaoh thinks Hebrew boys are his problem. He’s wrong. It’s actually Hebrew women. And Egyptian women. Midwife women. Rich women. Slave women. Royal women. Women related to him. A gaggle of women will undo Pharaoh. It is Pharaoh and his armies that will be drowned. And Moses, saved by Pharaoh’s own daughter, raised under his own roof on his dime, will be his undoing.
There is so much wisdom here.
The Bible never trusts powerful people, usually makes fun of them. But it does warn them. Try to drown a people, and you’ll end up drowned. Those with any power at all--and we have some in this room--should use it as gently as we would with our own children, our own beloveds. Power is not there to hurt one’s enemies. Power is there to bless everybody, including one’s enemies.
There is a very ancient church in Egypt, dates back to New Testament times, called the Coptic Church, I’d so love to visit it one day. Cornel West, famous African-American philosopher, joined that church since it’s an indigenous African church, never passed through Europe at all. The church in Egypt loves these stories. Egypt is the land where God’s people dwelt for generations. It’s the land where the holy family took refuge. Christianity is an African religion before it’s a European one. I have an icon in my office from the Coptic church that shows Mary peering at Jesus in the manger. But if you look closely, it’s also Moses’ mother peering at her baby, Israel’s liberator, in that fragile basket.
With God the patterns repeat. You can count on God to liberate the oppressed. But not when or the way we expect. God sends Moses. Not with an army, but with a multi-racial, multi-religious community of women. Iran is learning right now, defy your country’s women at your peril. Every pastor knows this: the church is run by women. It’s why we men tried to keep ordination to ourselves for so long: otherwise women have the whole thing. The Bible knows what some of the rest of us only learned with modern feminism: it’s women who give birth to the world. The women in our story get eternal names. The emperor’s name is drowned.
It is amazing that midwifery has made something of a comeback. Folks are newly wary of our medical system. We need more than drugs and surgery to deliver babies. So many use midwives and give birth at home. This is also back as a metaphor. Midwives don’t birth the child. They catch babies, is how they put it. That is, they help another deliver. Leaders know this metaphor. You help others bring to birth what’s in them, what only they can do. I think it’s a great image for helping someone come to faith. You or I don’t bring someone to faith. Only God can do that. We can help them deliver. ‘Breathe like this. Hold my hand. You’ll get through this.’ So too with encouraging another to faith. Yes, Jesus is Lord. Yes, it hurts to reorient our whole lives around him. It feels like death. But there’s life after. Slimy, mewing, beautiful life. I’ve talked with several of you who are right on the edge of a big step of faith. Hear me: God can be trusted. You got this. We’ll hold your hand. Now one more big push . . .
Exodus birthed the black church in the Americas. Africans were brought here against their will, with the murder of millions in the middle passage, and have been resurrected. Like the Jews their story is ‘they tried to kill us, we’re still here, let’s eat.’ And let’s forgive our oppressors. And for centuries songs from Exodus sustained that people. Nervous slavers would bring in white preachers like me to say slaves should behave and obey. But black people learned about Moses. The Exodus. The drowning of slavery. All despite being forbidden to read or write. And they knew this was the heart of the Bible. And they sang its songs. We’ll sing many as we preach from Exodus. The black church teaches the rest of us: God longs to set people free. All God does is make a way—an Exodus—out of no way.
I bring up Judaism and the black church, because of their wisdom for us. For white Protestants here our story isn’t they that tried to kill us. It’s that we built Ontario and Canada. But now others aren’t much interested in our faith, and no one’s asking us to build anything. It’s disorienting, isn’t it? Until recently broadcasting church membership was an important part of power in Canada. Now to act too religious can be deadly for one’s prospects. So, here's the question: what’s a church like ours for? Why does God need it? Here’s this story’s answer. There is a way to be church . . . when you’re not in charge. It might take us centuries to learn, like the old ways did. But it starts with singing the songs. Eating together. Telling the stories. ‘We used to be in charge here. We’re not now. Let’s eat.’ And here’s one way to do that this morning.
Every baptism in the Christian church draws on the Exodus. When God’s people were enslaved, God moved, and delivered them through water. We too are enslaved. God moves. And delivers us to life through water. I want us to remember our baptism this morning. I’ll say a prayer over the baptismal font like we’re having a baptism. We’re not, this is a remembrance only. You’ll come forward, like for communion. We’ll make the sign of the cross on your forehead with water and tell you to “remember your baptism and be thankful.” Now this may require some creativity. If you were baptized as an infant, like me, you won’t actually remember it! I encourage you to ask those who do. Where it was. Who did it. Who was there. When. What it meant. Certificates can tell you if relatives are no longer living. We baptize infants to show God claims us when we don’t even know our own name. Now some of you were baptized as adults and do remember. But even you won’t know the depths of what it means. God drowns us and resurrects us. Try understanding that. Some of you aren’t yet baptized. I’ll encourage you to “remember” a baptism that’s in the future. That’s fine too. And if you’d rather not come forward, please feel comfortable staying in your pews. God does not love the baptized more than the unbaptized, I promise you. This remembrance is like when you went out in high school and your mom called after you: remember who you are. Listen to the women. Friends, come forward, and like Moses, be drawn up out of the water by the God who loves freedom.