The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Poet, author and activist, Maya Angelou once wrote: “We are braver and wiser because they existed, those strong women and strong men… We are who we are because they were who they were. It’s wise to know where you come from…”
There are a number of strong women in the story of Moses found this morning in our Old Testament lesson. Their story is worth telling.
The lesson begins “Now a new king arose…” And with these words, an ominous shadow is cast upon the narrative, because this new king chooses not to remember Joseph’s role in keeping the Egyptians alive during a time of famine. Think of this as a willful act of “not remembering” rather than a simple act of forgetting. It’s not that the Pharaoh didn’t personally know Joseph, rather, he deliberately chose to ignore history. And that enabled him to enslave a people and murder their children. It’s an act which comes with disastrous consequences for the people of Israel.
This king, he is fearful of the Israelites and says “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies. And so begins an era of oppression and suppression, and, eventually, murder when the Pharaoh takes a further step to ensure the ultimate destruction of the Israelites, a people he has come to hate. He asks the Hebrew midwives to kill every baby boy that they deliver to Hebrew mothers. And it’s here, that we see the beginnings of resistance emerge.
The midwives, Shiprah and Puah (note a curious fact. Pharaoh does not have a name in the Bible, yet these women, midwives—no less, they have names!) Shiprah and Puah are having none of this. They engage in an act of civil disobedience and concoct a lie to explain the continued existence of these baby boys saying: “Ah, these Hebrew women—they are so strong and vigorous (hint----unlike weak Egyptian women)—they give birth to their babies before we arrive. What can we do?” At which point, Pharaoh commands his people to drown the baby boys in the River Nile.
And now, more women come to the scene to defy the order of a murderous monarch. Who are they? Certainly, the midwives, but also the mother of a baby who will eventually be named Moses, his sister, Miriam, Pharaoh’s own daughter and her ladies in waiting. Notice, they are all women—and notice, as well, that they come from all strata of society; from the lowest of the low—the slaves, to the daughter of Pharaoh himself. Take a moment and consider this to be one of the first recorded feminist conspiracies in history. And it’s right here in the Bible? So, how does it work?
The mother of Moses gives birth to her son. She places her child in a basket and strategically places both the basket—and Moses’ sister, in a place where he will be discovered by someone who has both the power and the compassion to save him. The scheme works. Pharaoh’s daughter is a willing participant, as are her ladies in waiting, and—what’s more—at the urging of Moses’s sister, Pharoah’s daughter turns around and hires Moses’ mother to raise her son! Absolutely remarkable—especially when one pauses to consider the consequences should any of them be caught.
Think of the beginning of the book of Exodus as a lesson on two ways of living: reacting out of fear, or choosing to respond out of compassion. As we see at the beginning of the narrative, it is fear and hard-heartedness which drives the actions of Pharaoh. Pharaoh fears how great Israel is becoming, and in reaction to that fear he orders their workload increased and their male children be slaughtered.
It’s the women who confound that fear with compassion. From the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to Moses’s mother and sister, to Pharaoh’s own daughter and her ladies in waiting; each of them refuse to live into a narrative imposed upon them by anotheer. They choose compassion and life instead.
Now, this may be a story from 3,500 years ago—but, make no mistake, this is a familiar narrative. Fear destroys. It brings down buildings, brings about war, separates families and loved ones, and causes ruin and chaos. Fear breeds hatred, contempt, blame and bitterness. Fear feeds on falsehood, racism and bigotry. But compassion—compassion brings about life. It renews and builds up, restores and enables us to live with dignity and Godliness. Compassion brings light, clarity, strength, reason and hope. Unlike fear, which seeks to tear down, isolate, condemn and destroy, compassion builds up, offering life in the face of death.
True enough, we see the results of living with fear each time we look at the news. But turn off the computer, or the TV, and take a look at your own life for a moment, and see how fear also has the capacity to dominate our daily existence. How much of our energy (particularly during this fractured and challenging time in which we are living) goes into protecting, insuring, and risk-managing?
Now, don’t get me wrong, a little fear is a healthy thing—particularly during a pandemic. For instance, socially distancing and wearing a mask, these are both compassionate and smart things to do. But when fear drives our narrative, particularly in relation to peoples perceived as different than ourselves, when it becomes the primary engine driving all of our decision making—when it comes at the expense of the health, well-being and humanity of others—then it destroys.
There are a good many heroes in today’s story, but one I would like to focus on in particular is Pharaoh’s daughter. Here, she shows us a more excellent way. She could have feared this child of another race. She could have feared her father’s reaction should he discover a fugitive being housed in his home. But she didn’t allow this to happen. Despite having a great deal to lose, her narrative wasn’t dominated by fear, but rather compassion, and in this, she helped to save, not only a baby, but also a nation.
This reading reminds me of a story of a person who came face to face with a large crisis and asked why God didn’t send someone to make things better. And a person nearby replied: “It seems to me that God sent you.” Just as Shiprah, Puah, the mother of Moses, his sister, Pharaoh’s daughter and her ladies in waiting all became agents of compassion, so are we. Today’s story is a reminder to us that when we see something that is wrong in the world (even if it doesn’t immediately impact us or our loved ones; even if we could turn away and easily ignore the problem); when we behold something which stirs our hearts and causes our conscience to cry out, we are to respond.
Consider the week ahead. And imagine, what if what you do this day, and in the days to come, has the capacity to change history and the world. Perhaps you are tempted to think you are merely one person in a world gone awry, reasoning: “What can I possibly to do to effect meaningful change on a local, national or world-wide scale?” Yet, each one of us can do something—and whatever that something is, bear this in mind, it is very, very important that you do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.