Common English Bible (CEB)
8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
2 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out[a] of the water.”
The story of Exodus is one of the most cherished and pivotal stories in the canon of scripture. Over and over, the identity of the Hebrew people is wrapped up in the story of the Exodus, and it’s easy to see why. An oppressed people, saved by the hand of a Mighty God, so mysterious and powerful that this God can control the elements themselves. Fire, water, earth, all of them are under the domain of this God who calls us out of bondage and into freedom. It’s easy to let the mystical, mythical and miraculous qualities of the story overwhelm the stark realities that are described in between the wonders. As with all stories, there must be a beginning, and the beginning of this story revolves around the simple element of water.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the water. When I was a kid, my parents gave me swimming lessons, not because I was afraid of the water, but they were afraid I was a bit too enthusiastic for it and they wanted to make sure I was safe before I got in over my head. They wanted to make sure I had a healthy respect for it, because without it, I would just run headlong into the water without thinking. In truth, it was definitely a good thing they did, because water is a powerful thing. It’s a liquid that covers most of the earth; it provides the means for life to exist. Without water, all life would cease to exist. However, water can also mean death. Ancient peoples saw the water, specifically the oceans, as a representative of chaos. The untamable waves could carry you to safety, or crush the hull of a ship and drown you. Water is a powerful thing, and an element that deserves respect, which is why it is interesting that water is so prominent in the story of Exodus. It’s a primordial force, and it lends Exodus a feeling that this is in many ways a continuation of the creative nature of God that began in Genesis.
The grand story that we are all familiar with begins with a much more intimate, and yet eminently more political, setting. It starts with a pharaoh, unnamed and paranoid, worried about the growing power of the Israelites. Over a span of years, the more he oppressed the Hebrews, the stronger and more numerous they became. Even under enslavement, they were incredibly…reproductive. Why is he so paranoid about the growing number of Hebrew slaves anyways? I would think more slaves would be a good thing; those pyramids don’t build themselves, you know? However, you have to think like a monarch. Large numbers of disenfranchised people? Potential threat of uprising. Even larger numbers of disenfranchised people? The threat goes up. So this pharaoh decides to do something about it, in a way that only psychopaths would: let’s kill some male babies! (Why just male babies? I have no clue. That’s another one I’ll need to ask God in person later on.)
I don’t think I need to tell you how much horror this generates in me. It should definitely incite horror in you. When I worked in a children’s hospital, I often had to cover emergencies as a chaplain. This was definitely the hardest part of the job; I can’t stand to see children hurt. And so I see this and I ask: Why? Why kill innocent babies? Because this is the nature of power. Any perceived threat, no matter how small, becomes amplified given the right personality. Being king, you have the most to lose from an uprising, and killing people while their young is a lot easier to do than when they are older and stronger.
Thus we are introduced to Shiprah and Puah, the famous midwives who are charged with the killing of the children.
This, my brothers and sisters, is where this story gets really interesting, because it introduces an element that a patriarchal pharaoh would never think of: the power of women. Women don’t often get the limelight in scripture, but when they do, they really shine. In fact, I would say that women in the bible are most often the best representation of what faith can do in this world. It’s a shame that, more often than not we skip right to the Moses part of Exodus. Without women, Moses and the story of Exodus write large would never exist.
Shiprah and Puah, fearers of God themselves, have kind of figured out that, just by the virtue of him asking the question, the pharaoh is a few forks short of a fondue set. So they go about doing what women have always done in the face of oppressive power: subvert it, and out think it.
Hate to say it guys, but face it: women are a heck of a lot better when it comes to figuring out ways around a problem like this (I really don’t hate to say it). They refuse to kill the children, and instead blame the lack of dead children on the fact that “Hebrew women are just stronger than Egyptians and they push them out before we get a chance to get to the babies!” Which isn’t, in retrospect, the best of excuses, but like we said, pharoah’s a little on the insane side, so he buys it. And Shiprah and Puah live happily ever after, and that’s the last we hear of them.
Finally, pharaoh utters is final decree on the matter: send out the soldiers, and throw every male baby they find into the Nile river and drown them. Yeah, because that’s a rational thought. We can safely assume that this did happen, because the next thing we know is that the story jumps to the hut of a Hebrew man and his wife who have a son, and then try to hide him. Eventually they realized that they couldn’t hide him forever, which is a really horrible thing to have to admit to, isn’t it? I mean, this is probably the hardest decision that anyone could have to make. Could you, if you were in their position? Either face the threat of having your child drown, or giving up your child on a wing and a prayer that they find a good home and somehow don’t get killed by an insane pharaoh?
Already, we can see that the story of Exodus, once taken out of its shelf and into real terms… is not really a story fit for kids. It’s pretty grim. It’s terrifying, really. Which makes it all the more powerful to us how this story ends. This woman took a chance, a chance that it took more courage than I probably have, in putting her son in a basket and praying that he would reach safety. She had no reason to believe that he would. However, as there has been in this story one heretofore unseen character, we see the workings of God beginning at this moment, though God is not yet named.
Could it be anyone else’s hand that guided that basket down the river? Could it be anyone else’s influence that caused that daughter of Pharaoh to decide to take a bath in the Nile at that exact moment when the baby would be washing by? And could it be anything else but the mercy of God that caused her to take pity on the child and take it as her own? And could it be anything else but the cleverness of God to send the baby’s sister to come and make sure that his mother was still in his life after being saved by the pharaoh’s daughter? One could feasibly say that it’s a matter of coincidence, but it is quite a stretch if it is. I would be one to say it has more to do with providence than with coincidence.
What faith it takes to trust in something you don’t know? In the face of oppression, uncertainty, and possible violence, you can easily find yourself backed into a corner. But here we see true strength, true faith, and nothing less but a hope that wasn’t there before.
What makes it all the more important for us as Christians is the setting, and the name. I’ve talked before about how Hebrew names have serious meanings. Moses is no different. In Hebrew it’s pronounced “Moshe,” and it literally means “out of the water” or “from the water.” To think, the very water that meant the death of so many young Hebrew children also meant the salvation of the one who would eventually grow up to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Where water can mean chaos and death, it also means life. So too does it go for us.
When we do the full baptism liturgy, there is a great deal of it devoted to the importance of water in the scriptures, and central in the liturgy is the waters that delivered Moses, and eventually Israel, to life. As Christians, when we are baptized in water, it is done as both a cleansing, but also as a symbolic rebirth. Into the water we die, out of the water we rise in Christ. Adrift in chaos and death, we are snatched out by the hands of mercy and given a new life. This is how I choose to see this story being told and retold in our own lives. This is why it’s important to look to scripture again and again; we must find ourselves in scripture, so that we might grow closer to God.
So when you find yourself in the midst of chaos, adrift and without hope, remember that out of the water we can—and will—be saved. Thanks be to God. Amen.