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Aug 24 2017

Deeper Reading

“Exodus 1:8-2:10”, our Bible Study schedule read as we gathered on a recent Tuesday morning. The lectionary was taking us into the primary salvation story in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our energetic and inspired group dove in, reading the text passage by passage and reflecting generously on what we heard and perceived. No matter how well we think we have known a story, there is always new revelation.

Many of us learned the story of Moses’ birth when we were young: of Moses’ mother putting her tender child into a simply crafted basket and placing it among the reeds along the shore of the river. And how the daughter of Pharaoh, coming to bathe in the river, sees the basket, and looking inside, discovers the baby. She realizes that it must be a Hebrew child, eventually claiming the boy as her own son. But there is much more to the narrative, isn’t there?

Moses and other male Israelite children like him are only alive because the Hebrew midwives have dedicated their considerable personality, faith, and guile to outfox the murderous plans of Egypt’s new leader. This Pharaoh has no memory of history nor any caring about Joseph’s beneficial relationship with the previous king and the people of Egypt. Instead, he feels threatened by the growing numbers of Israelites and designs to enslave them, benefitting from their labor, while simultaneously ordering the Hebrew midwives to stem their population growth by killing the male children at birth. The faithful women resist.

Shiphrah and Puah. These are the names of the brave and inspired midwives. How come we are not more familiar with them? As one of our folks said, “They should be in the pantheon of the saints.” Though Shiphrah and Puah lack the armies and bombast of Pharaoh, they “fear God”, taking great risk to preserve and defend life. They recognize the king’s ignorance, that he doesn’t really know any Hebrew people. So they tell him that the Hebrew woman are not like Egyptian women, and “drop babies so fast” that the midwives can’t get there in time! They are people of verve and ingenuity in their loving. The whole story changes because of them. I think these are good characters for our children to learn about!!

Nevertheless, the angry Pharaoh coerces the other citizens of his nation to do his dirty work in the name of nationalism. What results could be a scene from Hotel Rwanda. This is painfully difficult. How will we teach the whole story, and its lessons, to our children? And learn the story “by heart” for ourselves?

The beautiful infant has been hidden for three months, but his promising life cannot escape public attention forever. So Moses’ mother comes to the river in desperation. We are not told if this is a temporary plan to shield the little one from immediate attack, or if this is a last, desperate resort, hoping he might be found by someone who does not recognize his origins or who — by God — doesn’t discriminate. The scene is excruciating, right down to Moses’ sister following her mother to the river and anxiously watching events unfold. Receiving the story requires us to pause and imagine ourselves first in the shoes of the mother and then in her young daughter’s. Dare we consider the guts of their prayers to God?

Coming near the water, the princess sees the basket and has her maid bring it to her. This is when she discovers the child, and his crying moves her heart. She feels compassion for him, while simultaneously identifying him to her attendants as one of the Hebrew children. The narrative is now at another life and death juncture. It is not clear what will happen next.

Behold, Moses’ sister discerns the opportunity, presents herself, and asks Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Here clearly is someone — even in her own tender age — who has been nurtured in the community of Shiphrah and Puah! The scene is quite striking, this daughter-to-daughter interchange, where the young Hebrew child guides the older offspring of power and privilege. When Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, Moses’ sister fetches her own mother, who is reunited with the child of her womb, quite apart from the princess’s understanding. Moses’ mother is commissioned to “nurse it for me”, and promised payment.

Verse 2:10 is one easily overlooked in popular renderings of the story: “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.” Intimated here is that Moses’ early formation has not been shaped by the household of Pharaoh. If our own impressions have been drawn from a movie like The Ten Commandments, we have mistakenly imagined Moses as having grown up a child of privilege to become a powerful mover and shaker in Pharaoh’s empire, albeit it one with a conscience. No, it is the “suffering and full of life” community of his origin, the enslaved yet radically free people of God, who continue to nourish him and shape the young person he will be when he winds up being “delivered” to the house of Pharaoh!

It strikes me that in our North American context many of us may have misunderstood the baby’s salvation as taking place when he is “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and “rescued” to live life in a safer and protected environment. Surely this is God’s plan! But that’s not exactly how the story has unfolded, is it?

God’s beating heart and life-giving breath have been manifested from the midst of the slave quarters, even as Pharaoh tries to master them. The child is first “saved” through the bold faithfulness of Shiphrah and Puah, then by the remarkable facility of the baby’s young sister. He is then nursed at his true mother’s breast and in the values of the community of faith, whose radical trust in God drives this part of the story. So that when the time comes for him to be “given” he has been prepared in a foundational way that continually unfolds and grows in real time.

Pharaoh’s daughter, when she “takes him” as her son, designates the name of Moses, because, she says, “I drew him out of the water.” She imagines herself as the author of his life. Even as we give thanks for God’s presence in the fullness of events that bring the narrative to this place, we are meant — I believe — to recognize the mischaracterized way the young man is named. This will be corrected later when our biblical hero encounters the presence of “I AM”. And Moses will come, again and again, to learn and to claim who he really is!

So, I ask again: How will we teach our children the full story? How will we learn the story “by heart” for ourselves? On both counts, we will do it best by becoming the kind of community Moses is nurtured in! By that, I mean being a community infused with the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah and Jesus himself; a community of gutsy prayer, of verve and ingenuity in our loving, radically free in the service of God. We will be a church rich in lived values, where we delve deeply into the biblical stories and meet them with the integrity of our own stories, knowing that God is ever-present. We will interpret the text with our congregational life, and learn lessons to apply to the injustices of our own time. We will be nourishers and shapers of the young.

BTW, Sunday School begins on Rally Day, September 10th. The Tuesday Bible Study meets weekly at 10:15 am, year-round. Confirmation commences in October. And we can schedule evening studies, too, for those who want to “dive in” yourselves. Just sayin’.

Shalom,
Scott

 

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