“A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” Do you remember Joseph, the dreaming youngest child of Jacob and Rachel? Jacob lavished Joseph with fancy gifts like a multi colored dinner jacket. Every now and again Jacob sent Joseph to check on his older brothers as they camped out in the fields with the free-ranging herds. Joseph wore his fancy jacket instead of muck boots and blue jeans. The Bible does not tell us if Joseph did any farming, only that brought his dad a bad report about his brothers’ work. The next time Joseph visited the fields, his brothers tore up his coat, tossed him into a well, and sold him to a slave caravan. Enslaved in Egypt, Joseph rises through the ranks. At that time, Eygptian slavery was not race based, but a fabricated racially tinged accusation sends Joseph to prison. In Jail, Joseph keeps on singing, reading, and praying. With spiritual wit and grit, Joe gets out of prison and saves the nation! He becomes second only to Pharaoh in power. Genesis ends with Joseph not only forgiving his brothers but perhaps the nation that enslaved him. In the grand finale, Joseph reassures those very brothers who sold him into slavery: “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something evil for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as God’s doing today. Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children. So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them.”
After a prologue, Exodus opens: “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” I grew up with the notion that politics and preaching did not mix, except with regard to certain moral issues. Which is strange because politics are a set of beliefs and principles about a common life. Exodus is a political book, Kings and Judges may be too. We pray “God’s kingdom (kindom) come on earth as in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” Matthew reads like a political platform: end hunger, provide clean water, welcome immigrants, clothe people, provide healthcare, and care for prisoners! There are different ideas about how to achieve this political goal, but “love of neighbor” must test any Christian’s polotics.
Exodus is the most significant Old Testament book. Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. In the New Testament era, Moses has become shorthand for God’s Commandments: the “law of Moses, Moses’ seat, the prophets and Moses.” The New Testament names Moses 84 times. Exodus tells us how God uses people to undo systemic multi-generational racial injustice and oppression. Moses battles Pharoah with prophecy, protests and plagues. Hear God’s call: “The Lord said, ‘I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians… So I am sending you.’” In our story today, Shiphrah and Puah battle systemic oppression with silent disobedience.
How did slavery arrise? I doubt Pharoah woke up and thought “let’s build an unjust system.” Unchecked injustice festers and grows slowly like an invasive species or weed. Only 70 members of Joseph’s family immigrated to Egypt. Time passed. Individuals sow injustice- but any dehumanizing system evolves slowly. Exodus uncovers a multi-generational pattern of racism and oppression slowly chokes out the community’s collective conscious. It tells us how Egypt lost it’s better angels.
The first choking weed arrives silently, “Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” The new king forgot how a foreign born hero once saved the nation from a global famine. We forget our treaties. We forget that the Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery. We forget how Sergeant Isaac Woodward, a 27 year old, decorated World War II veteran, still in uniform, was pulled by a sheriff from a Greyhound bus and beaten so brutally that he permanently lost his eyesight. I only learned after George Floyd’s death that a shocked President Truman created the first Presidential Civil Rights Commission which led to the desegregation of the military in 1948. Whenever we forget or devalue a people’s sacred worth, we open the door for evil and oppression.
Pharoah sows the second choking weed by peddling fear and promoting nationalism. The Bible tells us that Pharaoh used the slogan “The Israelite are larger in number and stronger than we are.” Surely he had a better slogan? A weak ruler needs to divide a nation and create enemies. Words are powerful tools of systemic oppression. Pharaoh says, “Let’s be smart.” Not all hate speech is vulgar, crass, and mocking. God cares about what we say. Jesus warns that we will be judged by our words. Don’t say you idiot… And if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be in danger of fiery hell.. (Matthew 12:37; 5:22) It breaks my heart that Christians with conservative politics do not actively rebuke the President’s angry and mocking speech. Have we just grown desentized to it?
The third choking weed grows as the culture accepts Pharaoh’s message. “As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work.” Playing on fear, Pharoah calls for law and order, “they will join our enemies and fight against us.” Armed gangs and local sheriffs made life hard for jewish people. That sounds like Jim Crow or Eric Garner. Why such a system? The oppressors benefited economically from cheap oppressed labor. And yet God was with the oppressed: “the more the Hebrews were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread.”
Even with a king, official legal injustice only arises after a culture of disgust and dread has come into the hearts of the Egyptians. “So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 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.” This official action comes only after a culture of disgust, dread, division, desentization, and dehumanization is generally accepted. Name calling allows people to overlook another person’s humanity and legally treat them differently. If you think of human beings as ‘illegals’, it’s easier to support separating families. If you call police officers “pigs” or curse them, you deny their sacred worth and ignore the difficult work they do in a culture filled with guns. We must never forget everyone’s sacred worth.
The fifth but not final weed shocks us with its wickedness. Pharaoh tries to kill people. Being savvy and sick, Pharoah hides this plan from the people. He tells two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, “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.” It will get worse; Pharoah will ultimately mandate genocide.
Well, where is the Good News in the midst of this sermon? The Good News is carried by h two hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who quietly resist evil, injustice, and oppression. They refuse to obey an evil king. We find more Good News in Chapter 2, as Moses’ mother and sister hide the beautiful boy and hatch a scheme that floats Moses right into Pharaoh’s palace. Not only that they will help raise Moses teaching him to identify with the oppressed. Hear, the Good News is that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor. Moses will prophecy, pray, protest, and bring plagues until Pharaoh’s world class armaments ( the swiftest chariots on earth) bog down in the Red Sea’s mud. And I believe it is Good News that we will all look Jesus in the eye and give an accounting of our words and deeds especially as they affect those who are hungry, immigrating, thirsty, poor, sick, and in prison.
Until Moses comes to liberate or we go and see Jesus, Shiphrah and Puah model for us God’s silent persistent resistance: “Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order.” We help build God’s kin-dom by undoing oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr., letter from a Birmingham jail put it like this: Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (people) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. …. God uses people to break oppressive yokes and build a kin-dom of love and justice.
Every day Shiphrah and Puah, helped bring life into this world. They are OB-GYN Nurses and doctors. They respect God too much to obey an immoral law. The king notices his plan failing and says, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?” Shiphrah and Puah tell a lie. “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” Did you take some delight in the dig within the midwives’ lie? They manage to prick Pharaoh’s sense of superiority while lifting up the oppressed! “The Hebrew women are much stronger.” I imagine they sat around laughing and high fiving about that line for years… long enough for it to make into our sacred story!
But what about this lying? Is it okay? Why not tell the truth and become a martyr? Tell the truth and let Pharoah find others willing to do harm. There is a kind of morality that only sees actions as right or wrong, black and white, or good or evil. Such clear cut morality usually struggles to understand multi-generational systemic injustice. It can’t understand how “Black Lives Matter” and “Boston Strong” are both messages of unity and solidarity. It understands “do not kill”, but demands Shiphrah and Puah “not bear false witness.” It understands why slavery is wrong, but struggle to see why the Israelites looted their Eypgtian oppressors as they headed out of town! It forgets that Jesus shut down the Temple market while holding an improvised whip. It clings to a simple faith in a complex world. But Biblical and human morality is more advanced than a set of rules or commandments. The scriptures tell us that God blessed Shiphrah and Puah for lying. “So (for preserving life by disobeying and lying to the king) God treated the midwives well (showed them favor), and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong.” Shiphrah and Puah are heroes of the faith, setting the tone for quiet resistance until God uses us to liberate people from bondage. Jesus’s greatest commandment sounds simple, but it is complex: Love (act with redemptive goodwill) your neighbor, the stranger, and even your enemies as you love yourself. Love is not clear cut, black or white, or easy to encase in a set of rules! Love is systemic, multi-generational, and at times works much slower than we care to admit.
So how do we pull these oppressive weeds that have infested God’s garden? How do we remove oppressive systems that pollute our homes, neighborhoods, schools, churches, business, towns, politics and nations? How do we break every oppressive yoke?
- Never forget Joseph or anyone else’s’ sacred worth.
- Refuse to support leaders or systems that belittle, mock, or dehumanize others.
- Test your politics by Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Golden Rule, Great Command and Matthew 25. And do not mistake your party for the Gospel- that is idolatry!
- Resist evil, injustice, and oppression in the ways you can.
- And know that God is working on the side of the oppressed, disinherited, hurting, sick, and forgotten. Somewhere Shiphrah and Puah are bringing life into the world. Somewhere a mother is weaving a basket for Moses and raising a freedom fighter. Somewhere a Moses is protesting. Somewhere Aaron is crafting a new narrative. Somewhere Miriam is dancing. Somewhere Jesus is feeding the hungry, providing water to a village, welcoming an immigrant, providing free healthcare, and caring for prisoners.
Hang on, God is using us to remake this that God so loves. Amen.