Readings: Exodus 1:8; 2:1-4; Hebrews 11:22-29
In my Jewish studies module years ago, we had a lovely Rabbi who taught us. He’s the one who gave me a lift home once and offered me a job. There was a shortage of rabbis at the time. His words were something like this: “it only requires a small operation”. As you can see I stayed with the Presbyterians.
I remember him very distinctly referring to this line in Exodus 1 as a key shift in the story and drama of his people. I’ll say it the way he said it because it’s much more authentic. And to see if you can pick it up. I’ll give you a clue – list for the last word which is a name.
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף
“There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
Genesis 50 ends with Joseph being embalmed in Egypt. Surely people would remember the one who saved them from famine in such an amazing way. The one who dreamed a dream.
The one who was at Pharaoh’s right hand and had all that power. They must have told the story in Egypt. That cup bearer surely remembered Joseph, or did he forget again like he did the first-time causing Joseph to spend an extra two years in prison?
That’s if you take the word “know” as “know about”. There are people who have no idea about their history – or the history of a nation and its heritage. It happens here – the Christian heritage is blotted out from peoples’ memories because the stories are not passed down. It makes it all the more urgent to tell them – teach them – remind people – giving them reasons for the hope that we have – because God is still at work in this country. And of course families have to pass on the story of faith to children and grandchildren.
But there’s another possible layer to that word “know”. It can also mean that he did not look with approval, or did not want to acknowledge his contribution. You know how we say that someone just doesn’t want to know something.
Either way this is about change. This is life. You have agreements – the next generation disregards them. You have a boss and a new one comes and everything changes.
Change is constant everywhere. That’s why the essence of the Christian faith is trust, and hope and not certainty or predictability.
You get changes at work, or move from work to no work. Changes in life when someone dies. Changes in health. Changes in marital status, things that shake your world and can shatter your confidence or self-esteem.
We have to hold on to God’s promises, just has Joseph did when he was dying held to the promises – remember from last week? Gen 50:24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Things can change suddenly – our white island volcano may erupt any day when we’re not expecting it. And especially when change happens, God raises up a new way through the wilderness or the flood or the fire – whatever the challenge is.
He always steps in.
This new king has a plan to kill the Hebrews babies. God raises up brave midwives who save so many of them.
We can’t read this whole story in one day. I just know that losing babies for any reason is one of the most appalling traumas and engenders huge deep grinding grief.
In the midst of terrible treatment of the slaves and this treacherous plan to kill babies, you get these verses of hope at the end of Exodus 1.
Listen as the story continues:
Exo 1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, Exo 1:16 “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” Exo 1:17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Exo 1:18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” Exo 1:19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” Exo 1:20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. Exo 1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
Of course, there have to be more than two midwives. Otherwise it would be a bit hectic like places in New Zealand where there aren’t enough of them. But this story records these two specifically. I love their answer about the Hebrew women being more vigorous than the Egyptian ones.
I love that they fear God and take risks in the face of tyranny.
But it gets worse in verse 22 as all people are ordered to kill these baby boys:
Exo 1:22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
You can imagine families listening to this being read to them as Jewish families passed on the story. How awful to imagine such cruelty.
But as the kids take a breather and go for a quick drink of water, they can come back to listen to the ongoing story.
Chapter 2: (says the reader/dad)
Exo 2:1 Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, Exo 2:2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. Exo 2:3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Exo 2:4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
This unnamed couple have a son. Of course he was a fine child. Every baby is beautiful! This is their third baby, and he must have looked really special.
The writer to the Hebrews backs this up in 11:23: (ESV) Heb 11:23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
The NIV has this: Heb_11:23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
The child was exceptional, elegant, well formed (in the Latin).
I love this passage. There is a sense of expectancy in the midst of their crisis here:
- There is this unusual child, as some of the translations say.
- Jochebed – the mother whose name we hear of later, hides him for three months. How do you do that. Did he never bleep?
- Miriam – the sister, well listen to the message’s version:
The baby’s older sister found herself a vantage point a little way off and watched to see what would happen to him. She was probably about 15.
Such anticipation. Mum sticks your brother in a basket in a river probably with crocodiles in it and you cross your fingers.
They would have no idea what the outcome would be. Or did they?
Sometimes things can be overwhelming and we wonder – what difference can I really make? It’s all too much. This world has crazy things happening right now.
There are heroes in this story who would have also felt their world was going nuts.
- Midwives are not supposed to kill babies.
- Mums are not supposed to put your baby in a basket in a river and let him float away.
- Men are not supposed to be treated so ruthlessly as those Hebrew slaves were treated.
Let’s hear the end of this chapter of the story as we end today and come to the table which symbolizes God saving people in hopeless situations through the cross of Christ.
This is the point of it all. God does work in impossible situations.
The outcome is neat. Precious really. Listen. Here’s the last reading for today:
Miriam is watching on tippy toes (v4). Imagine dad reading this to the kids before bed. They might have said “what happened next?”
Here it is.
Exo 2:5 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. Exo 2:6 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. Exo 2:7 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?” Exo 2:8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Exo 2:9 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. Exo 2:10 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.”
Perfect. What a great ending.
The baby killer’s daughter takes him out the river.
Young Miriam bravely offers to get a nurse for him – Moses’ mother– and there it is. The baby killer’s daughter even pays Moses’ mum a wage to nurse him. By about the end of his second year or maybe even the third she would give her son back to a princess.
God was at work. Using whoever he chooses for his purposes.
There’s a South African saying that goes like this: “Moenie worry nie, watch net.” Don’t worry, just watch this.
Be like Miriam at the river side watching on tip does to see what will happen to a three month old boy in a river at a time when he had a death sentence on him.
We used to sing this song by “Living Sound” years ago: “God can do it again and again and again, He’s he same God today as he ever has been, yesterday and today, now forever ever the same, God can do it again and again and again.”
What did I say earlier? There is no certainty in life that we can depend on – only faith. The centre of the Christian faith is not certainty or predictability, but faith – trust and hope. As Hebrews 11:1 reminds us: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen” (KJV) or “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV)
- Kings that don’t “know Joseph” are always rising up in the land.
- People in power will always manipulate the truth to get what they want (the Hebrews weren’t really getting to be more numerous than the Egyptians. It’s almost as if they become reclassified by today’s political standards as terrorists.
- Change is certain, and what does that call us to? It calls us to trust, to trust the Lord of the covenant who is constant in His love and in His self-giving in the midst of change.
- And the people in this story must speak to us about our capacity to make a difference whoever we are and however humble our position in life. There are five great women in this account who have no great power but yet have great influence (our Famous Five if you like).
Moses’ mother Jochebed, (named later in Exo 6:20) Shiphrah and Puah the midwives. Miriam the 15-year-old big sister. And The Egyptian princess.
it’s been described been described as a “cross-cultural intergenerational alliance of these women”. Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam and the Pharaoh’s daughter who all disobey the king. Our famous five live out faith with genius and courage.
A commentator writes this: “God uses what the patriarchal and power-hungry Pharaohs of the world consider as low and despised in their eyes (Hebrew women) as instruments to shame and overthrow the arrogant and the strong.” (Dennis Olson)
You get a similar theme of the lowly over throwing the strong in the prayers of two other famous women – Hannah and Mary. (Our famous five become the super seven!)
Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10) – 1Sa 2:7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 1Sa 2:8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; upon them he has set the world. 1Sa 2:9 He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness. “It is not by strength that one prevails;
Mary – Luk 1:46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord Luk 1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, Luk 1:48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, Luk 1:52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
Paul continues along the same lines in 1 Corinthians 1. – 1Co 1:26 Brothers, 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. 1Co 1:27 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. 1Co 1:28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 1Co 1:29 so that no one may boast before him.
And there’s this lovely connection with the bigger story. The word for boat/basket for baby Moses is only used one other time – and it’s the word for the ark (Noah’s ark).
And Moses’ is named by the princess (traditionally his parent name for him is said to have been Joachim.) And Moses (Mashah – Moshe) – means “one who draws out” – pointing forward as he will draw them out of Egypt. The Exodus story is that rescue.
More about Moses next time. The plot will thicken!
For today let’s remind ourselves of the one greater than Moses who is our rescuer as we come to the Lord’s table. We meet here with Jesus who also modelled humility before victory is totally trustworthy and he empowers us too.
Watch and see what God can do in our generation.
Through ordinary people like us.