Meditation on Exodus 1:8-2:10
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Pastor Karen Crawford
Aug. 23, 2020
I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up as a child of privilege. White, middle class. Both of my parents were college educated. Our family of 5 lived in a bedroom community that by its location near Washington, D.C., was a place of privilege and opportunity.
My parents had good jobs and owned a home when I came along in 1965, after my sister and brother were born. We had not one but two color TVs and two cars, including a station wagon that carried us on family vacations every year.
I was a child of privilege for other reasons, too. We had many books in our house, and my parents loved to read. I remember my father with a book in his hands every night after washing the dishes, dozing on the couch before bedtime. My mother used to take us to the public library to check out more books every week in summer. We hung out at the community swimming pool, reading books, eating snacks, and lying on towels spread on the grass.
Living in suburban, Montgomery County, Maryland, we had nice schools before I knew that some kids in other places didn’t have schools that nice. We had all sorts of important visitors to our schools, including astronauts in the 1970s who let us try on their space suits and consume freeze dried food and packets of Tang Instant Breakfast Drink.
Opportunities for learning, recreation, and service were always there for me. I was taught that I should always work hard and do my best. Nothing, including my gender, should ever get in the way of what I wanted to do for a living. I was taught that my voice mattered, and, when I answered a call to ministry in my 40s, that I should use it to help others and serve the Lord.
God has always used women to do amazing things—both women of privilege and women from more ordinary and humble means. Think of Mary, the ordinary, pious young woman who was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. And there are many others in the Bible.
In our OT reading today in Exodus, both a woman of privilege, the pagan daughter of the Pharaoh, and two ordinary women of extraordinary faith, Hebrew midwives, are used to ultimately, rescue the perishing and set free God’s people from slavery in Egypt. All are in the right place at the right time to do important work for God.
The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are given a monstrous command. The king of Egypt tells them to kill all the Hebrew baby boys as they are born. Their ancestors had come to Egypt when Joseph was second only in power and authority to the Pharaoh of the time. He interprets the Pharaoh’s troubling dreams and saves the lives of countless people—Israelites and Egyptians and all the other refugees to Egypt during a great famine.
By the first chapter of Exodus, Joseph has died, with all his brothers, and that whole generation. A new king, who didn’t know Joseph, comes to the throne. He doesn’t like the Israelites. He’s afraid of them. There’s too many of them! He tells his people that before you know it, they will be in power over us and Egypt will belong to the Israelites, who will “join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Fear works for the king. He turns the Egyptians against the Israelites, who have lived as neighbors for more than 400 years, and have respected Joseph and his people for his service to Egypt during the famine and beyond. They learn to “dread the Israelites” and become ruthless in the tasks they impose on them, enslaving them, oppressing them into forced labor, building supply cities for the Pharaoh, making their lives bitter.
But the midwives fear the Lord and courageously allow the male infants to live. This draws us back to that Romans reading—how we are a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God and this IS our worship, living in submission to God. We shouldn’t be conformed to the evil of this world. We should resist! The Hebrew midwives—again, ordinary women with extraordinary faith—are examples to us. And they are clever! They play into the king’s prejudice by coming up with a story about how Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. This is what the Pharaoh already believes—they are less then human, a worthless, throwaway people. Hebrew women are “vigorous,” Shiphrah and Puah say—again, playing into his fear of their strength and increasing numbers. They give birth before the midwife arrives to help them, they say.
And the other heroine of the story? The Pharaoh’s own daughter who rescues the Hebrew baby whom God will call as his prophet. The Egyptian princess, whose name we will discover later is Bithiah, sees the basket with the Hebrew baby among the weeds. She has so much privilege that she sends one of her maids to fetch it and bring it to her. She sees the handsome child, hears his cries. God stirs her to compassion. Compassion is a divine quality that leads us to serve. In Matthew 8:35-37, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. (And) when he saw the crowds, he was moved to compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.’”
Bithiah spares the Hebrew child’s life, and she returns him to his own family to be raised, under her protection. And not only that, she pays Jochebed, the infant’s mother, for what is usually the unpaid work of mothering! The child doesn’t go to live with Bithiah in the palace until he is raised in his Hebrew family, learning their faith and culture. When he grows up, Jochebed keeps her promise and brings her son to live with the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Don’t you wonder what the Pharaoh thinks of his daughter, adopting a Hebrew child? This doesn’t seem to be a secret, for the princess is the one who names him “Moses,” from the Hebrew root that means “to pull out or draw out,” because,” she says, “I drew him out of the water.”
Bithiah disappears from the story and from the book of Exodus, then. And wouldn’t you like to know what happened to her, as Liddy Barlow, a Pennsylvania minister asks in this week’s Christian Century magazine? How did she feel when the baby she had saved became an exiled murderer? How does she feel when the child she drew out of the water one day while taking a bath returns to Egypt as a prophet with a speech impediment and demands of her father, “Let my people go,” in Exodus 5:1? How does she feel throughout the horrible plagues that visit Egypt because of her father’s refusal to release the captives?
How does she feel on the night Moses brings his people out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea on dry land and leading her father’s armies to drown behind them?
In Jewish tradition, though not in the Bible, she was exiled by her father. What we know for sure is that she is listed in the genealogies of Israel in I Chronicles 4:17-18 under the descendants of Judah.
The Egyptian princess who had been attended by servants became a wilderness refugee with Moses, wandering with her new family for 40 years. She marries an Israelite named Mered and names her daughter, Miriam, after Moses’ older sister, the brave girl who was charged with following along the riverbank that day to watch the baby in the basket float downstream.
The genealogy in 1 Chronicles 4, then, makes Bithiah the great great aunt of Jesus, says Liddy Barlow, “an unlikely ancestor winking from the family tree.”
Think for a moment how God has blessed you. Think of the times that the Lord has rescued in your distress, guided you through the wilderness, and how God has used you to help others, perhaps while you were hurting. You don’t know all the ways God has used you, but you know some of them!
How has the Lord put you in positions of privilege or simply in the right place at the right time, like Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who spared the lives of the Hebrew babies, and Bithiah, who drew God’s would-be prophet out of the water and adopted him as her own son?
Though their lives are very different, Shiphrah, Puah, and Bithiah have hearts filled with compassion and courage when God desires to use them for his loving purposes. They resist the temptation to give in to fear and be conformed to the dark world around them. They are willing to risk everything, their very existence, to do the right thing. Their hearts would not let them do otherwise.
Their voices mattered, just as your voice matters! Are you using your voice to help others and serve the Lord? I hope you will!
The one who stands out to me in our Exodus passage today is the woman of privilege—the daughter of the Pharaoh. For after she used her privilege to help others, she gave up her life of privilege to embrace a new life of trusting in the God of Moses as a wandering wilderness refugee, marrying into the family of Jesus.
Be courageous like Shiphrah, Puah, Bithiah, and Moses. The Lord your God will be with you as He always was with them.
Remember God’s everlasting love and forgiveness for you. God has a good plan for your life—for your wellbeing and not your harm. A future filled with hope, no matter how dark the world around you may seem. Cry out to the Lord, and he will answer you.
“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we are grateful for the privilege of calling you Father, for being chosen to do your work. Thank you for the promise of transformation and that you will renew our minds and allow us to discern your will—what is good and acceptable and perfect—when we seek you. Thank you for using people of privilege and ordinary, humble means to accomplish your loving purposes. Help us to be courageous and use our voices to serve you and help others in need. Give us grace to see one another as you see us—not as we are, but what we will become as you transform us. Help us to be patient with ourselves and all the circumstances of our lives, trusting in your goodness, compassion and love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.