Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20
“Born into a world of genocide, he is nurtured in fear.” That is how the great Jewish author Avivah Zornberg introduces us to Moses, whose birth is featured in the first lesson for this Lord’s Day. How do her words strike us? Would we want to have to say those words about a child we bring into the world? What kind of future would we expect for him, if he indeed we believed he had any future at all?
This lesson is remarkable, not least because of what it follows. Last time we learned that Joseph and his brothers and his father were about to be together again. Joseph had forgiven his brothers and provided for them. Then Joseph safely settled them in Goshen, the most fertile region of Egypt with plenty of food. Jacob was buried in Canaan. Joseph, the great savior of his people, was laid to rest after promising God’s people that they would one day return to the promised land.
That is how Genesis ends. Could there be a starker contrast? For while Genesis ends on a note of peace, Exodus begins on a note of terror.
It is a disturbing story, not least because it reveals to us disturbing facts about this world. This world is a war zone, in which there is a fierce conflict between the power of life and the powers of death, between God and God’s plans, on the one side, and those who are hostile to God and opposed to those plans, on the other.
The lesson begins with the news that a king arose in Egypt who did not know about Joseph. This itself is an indictment of Egypt. Why shouldn’t they have preserved his memory? For Joseph saved all Egypt from famine, not only his own family.
Incidentally, that is why communities and nations erect monuments. But if the legacy of that person is rejected, then the people tear the monuments down, as we have seen in recent weeks in our own nation. It’s their attempt to efface the memory of that person, and of what that person stood for. Once they destroy the monument, they hope that the memory of that person will fade away with time.
Figuratively speaking, the Pharaoh tore down Joseph’s monument, and the Egyptians forgot the gratitude they owed him for saving them from famine. The Pharaoh and the Egyptians deny the vital links to their own past history (Zornberg). That explains why they can turn viciously on Joseph’s people, oppressing them and subjecting them to harsh labor.
At this point we need to highlight the significance of Egypt in Jewish and Christian spirituality. Obviously, Egypt is a literal place, but what it represents is not tied to any one place. Egypt is a symbol that represents bondage and oppression and death. These are the powers that have menaced God’s people then and now. These are the powers from which they need to be rescued then and now.
That God stands opposed to these powers is already seen in Israel’s resilience in the face of this harsh treatment. They more they are oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so much so that the Egyptians are sickened by the them. Contrary to expectations, the harsh treatment, the exhaustion, the unbearable weight of the burdens that Egypt lays on their backs—these serve only to make the Israelites reproduce at a faster rate (Zornberg). Already here we see a fulfillment of God’s promise to Jacob: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (Gen. 46:3).
This of course does not deter the Pharaoh. If the policy of persecution does not prevent fertility, then a policy of genocide will. He orders the midwives to distinguish between the girl babies and boy babies to which the Hebrew women are giving birth. If it is a girl, they are to let it live. If it is a boy, they are to kill it.
Two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, fear God, and defy the Pharaoh’s order. The fear of God depends on the prior knowledge of God. The midwives know that God stands on the side of life, that God is therefore opposed to death, so they let the boys live, even at the risk of their own lives.
The Pharaoh reproaches them, not with negligence, but with giving or preserving life. And it’s at this point that the first words of opposition in Exodus are spoken. To the Pharaoh’s implicit question, “why life” (1:18)? They answer: the Hebrew women are vigorous (Zornberg). The word here in the original is actually “lively.” In the terms of their own language then, their response is: “these women are alive; that is why they give birth before the midwife comes to them” (1:19).
Let’s pause here and reflect on what this has to teach us about God and God’s ways. God is omnipotent. That is to say, God is all-powerful. That means God could annihilate Pharaoh in a direct confrontation. But God works inconspicuously, behind the scenes. Moreover, he tends to use unlikely people, people considered weak and insignificant, to accomplish his purposes.
Here we are reminded of what the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Christians: “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1: 26-27).
In the ancient near Eastern world, women were regarded as inferior, even less women who worked as midwives. But God chooses them as instruments in the service of life. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. In fact, we can find numerous instances of this throughout the Bible. This is only one of them.
Pharaoh’s next move is to command the public murder of boy babies: they are to be thrown in the river. This is where Moses enters the scene. When he is three months old, his mother places him in a well-caulked box, and sets him in the Egyptian river. In this way, she both fulfills and defies the Egyptian decree (Zornberg): “every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile” (1:22). Another woman, Moses’ sister, watches him from the bank, “to know what would be done to him.” Yet another woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, sees him in the basket and is stirred to compassion. By means of the protective care of three women, Moses is rescued. He passes through death to life.
The name of Moses means “to draw out.” Moses is drawn out of the destructive waters of the river by the women. But Moses in turn will draw the people out of Egypt, the place of their bondage and oppression.
There is a pattern that we can trace in God’s ways in the Bible, as we intimated earlier. For this reason, Moses can be seen as a type of the one who is to come.
We refer here of course to Jesus. He too is born into a world of genocide; he too is nurtured in fear. A homicidal king named Herod then also issued the order that all boy babies in Bethlehem two years old and under were to be killed. But this attempt to foil God’s plans also proved futile. God stands on the side of life, and therefore is opposed to death.
Jesus too grows up to draw his people out of their place of bondage, the bondage into which their addictions, their poor choices, their self-destructive lifestyles, led them. All God’s saving acts in history culminate in him. All who came before him point to him. This in fact is implied in our gospel lesson. He is neither Elijah nor Jeremiah. He is not John the Baptist. He is not even Moses. These served to point to him. Only Peter is able to identify him, to name him. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
This is the one whom God gives to us. This is the one who changes us. And, afterwards, this is the one who sends us out to witness to the power of new life that’s found in his name.
There are many in our world, indeed, here in Ionia county, who are in bondage, enslaved to their addictions and destructive habits. To change the metaphor, there are many who are in their own rivers, in currents that are too strong for them. The waters are pulling them under, and they feel like they’re about to drown. They need someone to draw them out; they need to be rescued.
They cannot do it on their own. They need to call on the name of Jesus, so they can experience the power of new life found in him.
There is a young woman who tells her story about her experience of Jesus. After she finished high school, she enlisted in the Navy. She lived a wild and dissolute life, and then went to college, where the parties continued. Soon afterward she gave birth to a son, and then developed an eating disorder, which trapped her in a violent cycle for four years. One evening she was in the bathroom to purge. With her head draped over the bathtub, with the water running, she asked herself: “How long will I keep this up, and will it ever stop?” Then, without premeditated thought, she said, “Jesus.” And her compulsion to binge eat and purge went away.
In the name of Jesus there is power. There is new life in him. This is what this young woman experienced. But there is also resistance to this name. After the woman’s experience of Jesus, she decided to tell her story to whoever would listen. She related that most people listened to her, but at the name of “Jesus” some became uncomfortable, and others even became outright hostile to her.
The world is a war zone, in which the powers of death stand opposed to the power of life. That is what we learned from our lesson in Exodus. It is no different today.
After Peter comes to a proper recognition of Jesus, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. The word “Peter” sounds like the word for “rock,” which explains the saying of Jesus: “On this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (RSV).
He says that the powers of death will not prevail against it. But think about it. The very fact that he brings it up implies that these powers are going to do all that they can to try. Because God has so arranged things that people usually hear the name of Jesus in church, the powers hostile to God and to God’s plans are opposed to the church. Let us not be naïve about this.
But let us also not be afraid of this. All power on heaven and on earth has been entrusted by God to Jesus. If we have fallen captive to the powers of death, let us call on his name. He will rescue us. If we have experienced the power of new life in him, let us be sure to witness to this power to those who desperately need this new life. Amen.