We have strong laws when a child is abandoned in our society. These laws come out of our revulsion that a parent would be so callous as to leave a child defenseless and alone at any place. We assume that only the parents are responsible for a child and if a parent leaves a child, they should be severely punished.
Last week, a Swedish woman was at a Massachusetts restaurant ordering food, leaving her child outside. The boy, a one-year old, was in his stroller for about ten minutes.
Well, the police were called, she was arrested, and the boy went to Child Protective Services. The woman said it is not unusual for this to be done in Sweden and did not understand why all the fuss was made.
A similar thing happened to a Danish woman in New York City in 1977. The courts awarded that woman $66,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for her arrest.
What might have happened to Moses’ mother if Egypt had child protection laws like ours? Their assumptions are not like ours. For their society and for still most of the world, it takes a village to raise a child. The responsibility for a child lies with the parents and the parents’ neighbors, not to mention extended families. In our country, Moses’ mother would be in jail. Moses would be with CPS and perhaps placed in foster care and not with a princess.
Our Old Testament reading picks up where Genesis ends. At the end of Genesis, Joseph, Israel’s son, was in charge of Egypt. His brothers, who sold him into slavery, were welcomed back as well as his brother Benjamin and his father, Jacob. He saved Egypt and by association Israel from famine. While they were in Egypt, Israel’s or Jacob’s descendents were fruitful and multiplied.
We are told that a new king ruled in Egypt who did not know Joseph. In other words, the connection between the rulers of Egypt and their Israelite savior was broken. This probably wouldn’t happen in a culture of oral history and tradition. But Egypt had a written language using hieroglyphics. The record of Joseph’s service were lost – and apparently lost for all time. We have yet to find definitive evidence of Joseph’s stewardship of Egypt, though there is circumstantial evidence.
When Pharaoh saw how many Israelites were in his kingdom, he felt fear. Fear, real or perceived, causes people to behave irrationally. Pharaoh was afraid that in case of war, the Israelites would side with Egypt’s enemies. And then they might even escape from Egypt! World leaders use this perverted logic to this very day.
Since Pharaoh had power, he was going to exercise that power over the Israelites, even though one of the pretexts for his actions is that the Israelites were more powerful. The Israelites were enlisted into forced labor camps. History repeated itself during World War II with the Japanese internment camps. The Israelites built the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses. If Pharaoh names one of these cities after himself, then we speculate that Rameses was Pharaoh at this time.
The problem with this strategy is that it makes people angrier over their situation. If the Israelites were not connected with the Egyptian regime, then they were more disconnected now and even more resentful. If the Israelites were too numerous, then an angry Israel would be a greater threat to Pharaoh. But dictators or kings don’t see things that way. They tend to think only in terms of force.
This scheme backfired. The more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they reproduced. Maybe forced labor is invigorating. This caused even greater fear among the Egyptians. So they were even harder on the Israelites. They were forced to make bricks and mortar along with working the fields. In other words, both genders were forced into work. They were slaves.
Forced labor, in history, has always failed. But it continues today. A couple of weeks ago, an 11-year-old German boy called police to report his own mother with enlisting him into forced labor. The boy’s mother explained to the police that she told him to pick up papers off of the floor. That poor kid! The inhumanity!
Pharaoh needed to do something about the exploding Israelite population. Pharaoh next responded by bringing two Hebrew midwives in for a talking to. The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are apparently heroes because their names are remembered. (Oral tradition is very powerful.) There were likely more than two midwives. So, these two were likely the leaders of the midwives organization.
Pharaoh ordered the women to kill the male babies and let the girls live. I guess Pharaoh never heard of polygamy. If Pharaoh was serious about reducing the population it would be the girls who were killed instead of the boys. Though he may have thought, boys can be made into soldiers and perhaps the women would eventually wed Egyptians.
The midwives knew God and disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders. They must have known that death would be the penalty for disobeying. Or maybe they feared God more than Pharaoh. Of course, word got back to Pharaoh that there are little Hebrew baby boys around.
So, he sent for the midwives again. The midwives were favored by God and the Israelites continued to multiply. I almost get the impression that people were tripping over babies. Even the midwives had children. Finally, all the people of Egyptwere ordered to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Ironically, this will be the last plague that the Egyptians will suffer later in the story. Mistreatment of immigrants continues to this day.
Some time after Pharaoh’s order, two Levites got married. And of course, she had a son. He was a beautiful boy. Aren’t they all? His mother hid him for three months. Once the little bugger started crawling, there had to be a Plan B. She got a basket, sealed it with tar, placed the baby in the basket, and placed the package in some reeds at the banks of the Nile. This was so the basket wouldn’t go downstream. Ironically, she is obeying Pharaoh’s order by placing the child in the Nile.
His sister kept watch over him some distance away. Not by coincidence, Pharaoh’s daughter came by about the same time for a bath. She saw the basket and ordered it fetched. Lo and behold, a baby was inside! Being a soft touch for crying babies, she felt pity for the boy. Pharaoh’s daughter deduced that it must be a Hebrew boy, probably set adrift to die.
The boy’s sister immediately came over and volunteered to find a wet nurse. So, guess who that would be? The boy’s mother! And she gets paid for caring for her own son! Instead of arrest, she gets rewarded for abandoning her son. When the child was old enough, the boy’s mother brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him. He was named Moses, which means “to draw” in Hebrew or “is born” in Egyptian.
This is an all women conspiracy. All the women are unnamed. There is first Moses’ mother who hid him and then made his boat for the Nile. Then there is Pharaoh’s daughter who takes the obviously Hebrew boy into her household. Then there is Moses’ sister, who is probably coached into watching and recommending a wet nurse for her brother. The plan fell neatly into place.
Besides introducing Moses, one of the great heroes of the Bible, this story sets the stage for the exodus. The Israelites seem to be complacent in Egypt. There is plenty of food and plenty of pasture land. In fact, the land is very fertile because of the Nile. Why would they leave Egypt, crossing a forbidding desert to go to a land they do not know or even care about? Because they were oppressed and mistreated by the Egyptians who even brought infanticide on their heads. So, why would they stay?
With the birth of Moses, God brings hope to the hopeless. Even if we feel hopeless, God is with us. In a German forced labor house or an abandoned baby on a Massachusetts street, God is there. Jesus will not leave our side.
[Zach Howard with editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton of Reuters contributed to this sermon.]
Text: Exodus 1:8–2:10 (NRSV)
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 dealt 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 Hebrewsa you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2 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 pitch; 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 child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses,a “because,” she said, “I drew him outb of the water.” 
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