Pharoah’s Fear and the Courage of Women

Reflection on Exodus 2:1-10

{This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon that I preached on June 22, 2014}

{You might also be interested in this reflection I wrote for Practicing Families today–connecting the story of Moses with racial violence and oppression in our own time.}

In Sunday School, this story of the endangered baby in a basket was always presented as a story about Moses. It was part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.

But Moses, of course, is not actually the hero in this story. Moses is a helpless infant in this story, and it is the women who are the true heroes. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.

The story really begins the fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions. He insists that Shiphra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women. But they won’t do it. So Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile.

Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a baby boy. Somehow she manages to hide him for three months. When she can no longer hide him, Jochebed decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put her baby in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket once she had set it in the river, except that she had to.

Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. She is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water. That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.

Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.

Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!

The women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.

We still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.

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