8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God death well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pith; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 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. 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. 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” 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 will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the children grew up, she bought 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.”
We talked about Joseph the past two Sundays. And what we learned at the end is that for the purpose of preserving life amidst the famine, Joseph allowed his father Jacob’s family to immigrate to Egypt, all under God’s orchestration. So, Jacob brought his whole household with his eleven sons, plus their wives, children, servants, and more. (It's also interesting to note that the wives are not counted in the total count of Jacob's faimly, cf. 1:5.)
Now, for the next nine weeks, I would like to talk about what happens next to this family of immigrants in Egypt. Perhaps, it is one of the more well-known stories of the Bible and it involves one of the more well-known figures in the Bible: Moses from the Book of Exodus. Now, as I did before, I would like to recommend you a movie: Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt. I would say it has one of the best soundtracks of all time.
So, what happens to this family in Egypt? Some time has passed—maybe 300 some years, more or less. And during this time, the Israelites continue to grow and grow some more, to where its population becomes greatly noticeable in the land of Egypt. And as the time passes by, the old passaway and the new arise. And one of the new is a king who does not know Joseph or his legacy. Here, “not knowing” is often a code for not seeing, not caring, and not loving. Thus, this new king of Egypt has no regard for Joseph’s people. “Not knowing” is also an element that instills fear. We fear what we don’t know. Thus, the new king also fears the Israelites, as these unknown people continue to multiply.
Today’s story begins with this very king establishinga structure and a policy that keeps outsiders, foreigners, and ethnic minorities under control. The king forces the Hebrews under slavery and has them serve Egypt—building up its cities and laying down its infrastructure. By enacting such a policy and social structure, those officials and subordinates working for the king are ruthless against the Israelites. In fact, they deliberately make the Israelites’ lives miserable.
This is not just a reality unique to slavery but seen in all forms of oppression. The oppressor dehumanizes the oppressed, rejects their sacred worth, and chokes the life out of them, the very breath of life God has breathed into.
By oppressing the oppressed, the oppressor plays God, having the people serve them instead of serving God. The oppressed is forced to serve the oppressor—serving them in labor and their ego’s desperate need to be superior. This contradicts the fact that we are no god and we cannot serve two masters. Oppression is against God’s design and desire.
We often think freedom is when we are personally devoid of bondage, when we are not bound to orders, commitments, or people. But I beg you to think of freedom with a wider lens. The true freedom is found when we find ourselves in a community where we can truly be who we are, where our true worth is recognized and celebrated, and where we can live life and have life abundantly. And this is the kind of freedom God offers. In the New Testament, Paul talks about this freedom often.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
God desires for us—all of us—to live as a free people, which means to live as God’s servants, loving one another as ourselves. It may sound paradoxical, perhaps even countercultural; but true freedom God promises is found in the kind of community where life is preserved, valued, and celebrated, where we cannot help ourselves but to live life, share life, protect life, preserve life, and love the life of all God’s creation. Thus, as Terence E. Fretheim writes, the liberation that we are about to read in Exodusis “not a declaration of independence, but a declaration of dependence upon God.”
After seeing the birth of my daughter with my very own eyes in a delivery room, it is hard not to think of women’s roles in the process of birthing and preserving life. Professor Stacy M. Floyd-Thomas reflectson an old adage, “Because God couldn’t be everywhere, God created mothers.” Floyd-Thomas writes,
But those of us who have been loved by the divine gift of a mother know, because we have mothers we are certain of the omnipresence of God, for the love of a God-fearing woman is an extension of God’s love.
And this is not limited to mothers, but to all God-fearing women. And this is exactly what we see in today’s story as this divine mission for the preservation of life begins.
First, we see that it was God-fearing women who defied the king’s order to preserve life. Likely frustrated at seeing the Israelites continue to grow, the king decides to go low by targeting the most vulnerable and helpless: ordering to kill every Hebrew baby boy. The king orders the lowest members of its society, the least valued people in society, the Hebrew midwives to cooperate in this violence by killing male infants upon their delivery.
But we are told that the two Hebrew midwives fear God, which entails and implies that they understand that human life is sacred. So rather than obeying the most powerful man in their country, they risk their lives by defying the king’s command and protecting the lives of infant boys.
Second, we see that the unintended collaborative work between the Hebrew women and the Egyptian woman gave life to Moses, the to-be leader of the liberation movement for the Israelites.
In the midst of the oppression and genocide, a mother gives birth to her son and protects him until she can no longer do so. Therefore, the mother puts her 3-month-old son in a papyrus basket and leaves him in the river. His older sister stands at a distance, not only out of curiosity to see what happens to him, but also out of concern and sympathy for her helpless baby brother’s fate. And ironically, it is the king’s daughter who notices the basket and finds the baby boy inside. Out of pity and compassion, she rescues and takes him in as her own, also giving him the name “Moses” meaning “to drawout [of water].” And with courage and cleverness, his sister, who was standing nearby, offers to find a Hebrew woman (which ends up being his actual mother) to nurse the baby for her. So, we see this interesting development of baby Moses getting adopted by the king’s daughter but also getting nursed by his own birth mother.
And this is how the great liberation movement for the Israelites begins. Its future leader is born and stays alive, all due to the courage of these women of different walks. And the scripture explicitly highlights these women’s roles in today’s story, even saying the names of the two Hebrew midwives—Shiphrah and Puah. As biblical scholar Cheryl Exum states, "The courage of women is the beginning of liberation."
For whatever reason, Exum’s statement does not only sound like commentary of an old Bible story but also one of what’s going on around the world today. But this is not to put unfair expectation on the shoulders of women, expecting them to be ever courageous and ever sacrificial. But rather, this is a testimony of then and now, that God uses the weak, what is low and despised in the world, to shame the strong; that God uses the weak, what is low and despised in the world to love us, to save us, and to liberate us—so that we may have life and have life abundantly.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
God desires for us—all of us—to live as a free people; and Christ’s salvific work is always in action—that even in this very moment, God is working to set the oppressed free. And it is our call to recognize how God is working in our midst, and it is our prayer that we would be partakers of this salvific work, becoming a community of people of love that celebrates and preserves life.