A Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Exodus 1:8-14, 22 and Exodus 2:1-10.
The Book of Exodus is a fantastic narrative filled with drama, suspense, action, adventure, and mystery—
The plot to protect baby Moses from genocide.
The murder of an Egyptian that causes Moses to flee.
The burning bush which God uses to summon Moses.
God sending Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
The confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh.
The plagues God cast upon Pharaoh’s kingdom.
The Israelites fleeing Pharaoh’s army and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea.
The Israelites wandering in the dessert and endless complaining.
God showering down manna from heaven for the people to eat.
God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai (an event the Presbyterian Women’s circles will begin exploring this week)
Moses’ destroying the idolatrous golden calf that the Israelites build.
The creation of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Moses’ death and the Israelite’s arrival to the Promised Land.
I’ve loved this epic since I was a boy and have probably read it more times than any other book in the Old Testament. However, despite my familiarity with the grand story of Moses (whose legendary exploits have inspired numerous books and films), I recently discovered there is an aspect of the Book of Exodus that I, as a man, have overlooked for decades:
The role that women play in the beginning of the story.
If it wasn’t for Moses’ mother, Jochebed, his sister Miriam and the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses would’ve never lived past infancy. And there certainly wouldn’t have been an exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.
Before the spectacular Divine events of the burning bush, the Ten Commandments and the Red Sea, all of which centered on Moses’ response to God’s instructions, there was the most extraordinary of ordinary acts:
God’s choosing of three women to save Moses in the first place.
The actions of Jochebed, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter, the choices they made when their lives were unraveling in a world of genocide, led to the eventual destruction of an oppressive system and the end of more than 400 years of captivity. In her painting, “Imperfect Ally” which is today’s bulletin cover art, Lisle Gwynn Garrity of A Sanctified Art says:
Moses’ mother and Miriam plot a clever plan, but it’s far from foolproof. The risks far outweigh their chances for success. What if the basket they place him in leaks, drowning him instead of keeping baby Moses afloat? What if the current gets too strong, or the winds pick up, or he gets stuck in a tangle of reeds? What if the wrong person finds him and fulfils Pharaoh’s command? What if Pharaoh’s daughter is moved with disgust when she sees what floats into her private bathing quarters? Even if Pharaoh’s daughter decides to keep the child as her own, what will keep Pharaoh from killing Moses when she’s not looking?
Their plan is too perilous, too fraught with danger for any infant to endure. And yet, we know of mothers who risk desert heat, fatigue, illness, dehydration, criminalized border crossings, and facilities with cages to pursue the slight chance—the mere hope—of survival for their child. Why would they do this? Because to stay home and succumb to the sure threats of genocide—or gang violence, or civil war—is far more dangerous.
In this image, I gave the viewer the vantage point Pharaoh’s daughter might have had. What melts her heart with mercy when she sees this Hebrew child float downstream?
Was a well of rebellion rising up within her, making her eager to subvert her father’s orders? Was she poisoned like most Egyptians with bias against the Israelites, but did the innocence and vulnerability of an infant shift her heart toward love? Had she desperately wanted a child of her own? Regardless of her motives, Pharaoh’s daughter uses her power and privilege to act as an ally to Moses and his family in their worst unraveling. It’s not a perfect solution, but God doesn’t need perfection to achieve liberation.
The risks that each of these women take to ensure that Moses lives is awe-inspiring. They had absolutely everything to lose. And yet they are the most perfectly suited for the part they play as I learned by reading some insightful character studies.
Recognizing that my own examinations of Jochebed, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter would be insufficient, being that I’m a male preacher, I feel I would do better to create space for the voices of renown female biblical scholars and preachers to speak more about the women who helped save a child and liberate enslaved people.
In her creative book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne,The Rev. Wilda Gafney writes the following analysis regarding Moses’ mother:
Being born in Egypt, Jochebed did not experience the famine in Canaan and immigration to Egypt or witness the dramatic family reunion with Joseph. She may have lived through the death of the pharaoh her elders knew and the ascension of the pharaoh whom they did not know.
She would have watched the material circumstances of her people change from abundance, to sufficiency, to lack. She would have lived through the edicts restricting and oppressing her people until the pharaoh happened upon his final solution. I see Jochebed prefiguring European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or even recognized. In response, Jochebed became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
Gafney then offers this observation of Miriam:
“Miriam’s name has two meanings. In Hebrew it means “bitter-water-woman”; in Egyptian it means “beloved.” Miriam was undoubtedly the beloved of her family, her people, and her God, and she tasted the bitter waters of slavery. …It is likely that Miriam went with her mother into royal service. … My sanctified imagination finds Miriam exposed to Egyptian culture, as the child of a slave in service to the princess and a slave herself, behind the scenes. … Miriam would’ve been fully aware of the harsh realities of the slavery she and her people endured, in spite of her perspective—through the bars of a gilded cage.”
Lastly, Gafney pontificates about the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh whom she chooses to call Sheshan which is the Egyptian word for “lotus.” In ancient Egypt, the lotus flower symbolized life, fertility and resurrection. Gafney says that she views Sheshan as an ally of the Hebrew people—”a person who uses his or her privilege to work for justice on behalf of oppressed people.” Then, in a practice of holy dreaming, Gafney provides this interpretation:
“Sheshan was the flower of Egypt. Her father thought her too sentimental and overly attached to their slaves. He thought she would grow out of it. He turned a blind eye to the way she ran the small household that he permitted her. What did a few dignities afforded to a few slaves matter in the long run? He had more slaves than he needed, and it was time to thin the herd. Sheshan was appalled at her father’s policies. She thought that if he could see the Hebrew people as people, he could never sanction the wholesale slaughter of their babies. Sheshan sought to prove to her father that a Hebrew was just as good as an Egyptian. She would show him by giving the right cultural training and values to a Hebrew child, taking him as her son and her father’s grandson. Sheshan’s plan was doomed to fail. No matter how well integrated and assimilated Moshe was, he and his people would always be “other” in her father’s eyes. Nonetheless, Sheshan and Yocheved conspired to give Moshe a rich bicultural formation in both heritages, believing that his access to privilege could one day be used in service to his people.”
In a sermon given in 2016, the Rev. Anna Carter Florence, professor of homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary, emphasizes how the ability of Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter to defy Pharaoh and speak truth to power are even more remarkable considering they are not adults themselves:
“Sometimes, the truth is the most radical thing you can say. Just to name it: what you see, right in front of you. … This must be one of the Hebrew’s children, because no other mothers are reduced to this: making little arks to float in the Nile. Trying to save their babies from a flood of hate. One truth calls forth another, especially when you’re in the reeds. One girl, stammering out the truth about what she sees, invites another girl to speak up, too. One girl, pausing over unspeakable evil, encourages another one to stand with her. “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children,” said the princess, and then the sister got an idea. “Do you want me to find a nurse among the Hebrew women?” she asked, stepping out from her hiding place. “Do you want me to find someone to nurse that child–for you?” And just like that, they had a plan. … And it was about the craziest plan you could think of, to take baby Moses back to his Hebrew mother for a few years and tell everyone it was just fine because it was on Pharaoh’s daughter’s orders: really. But they did it, and they got away with it.”
As you’ve likely surmised, much has unraveled in the circumstances surrounding Moses’ birth:
Jochebed’s and Miriam’s hopes that the newborn child can live safely in her home and not have a death threat looming over him.
Pharaoh’s edict to kill every Hebrew boy and enslave the Hebrews for eternity.
The Hebrew’s hopelessness that they will never be freed from Egyptian oppression.
Pharaoh’s daughter inherited prejudice against the Hebrews and her expectations of living comfortably without risk of imminent death for the plan she’s concocted.
What might unravel for us if we were another character in the background of the story: a Hebrew slave, a Hebrew parent, a Hebrew child, a maiden of Pharaoh’s daughter, or a guard in the Egyptian palace? What might we say and do?
What might unravel for us if we were to commit an act of defiance today like Jochebed or hatch a crazy plan like Miriam or be an ally like Pharaoh’s daughter to those treated unjustly?
How might we seek God’s protection, liberation and salvation for ourselves and others in those moments of unraveling?
How might we take risks to care for people drowning in pain? How might we draw them from the waters of oppression and the flood of hate?
The answers to those questions is the rest of the storythat only you and God can imagine, live, tell, and unravel.
Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 97). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 96 and p.97). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 98-100). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Rev. Anna Carter Florence, “The Girls in the Reeds” January 31, 2016.