Sermon from August 24th, 2014. The text for this sermon was Exodus 1:8-2:10.
A Lot and Nothing
Last week I talked about how important it is for us to know who we are and whose we are. It is easy to answer the question of who we are or whose we are with a simply answer, “I am a child of God,” for example. But simple answers, as true as they may be, can rarely do justice the complexity of life in a messy world. So the Bible isn’t full of simple answers but messy stories, so that we might know who we are in a messy world. This week we begin one of the formative stories of Israel’s history, the Exodus from Egypt. And at the beginning of the story, we find ourselves in a difficult, but familiar place. The Hebrew people have forgotten who they are.
We begin the story with a new Pharaoh over Egypt. The text says, “He did not know Joseph.” In other words he didn’t know that Joseph and his people were a part of Egypt’s prosperity, and he didn’t know the grateful Pharaoh who gave them sanctuary in his land. The new Pharaoh did not know who the people were. And fearing that they could turn against him, he oppressed them. The Hebrews were forced to build great cities for the Egyptians to live in and great pyramids for the Egyptians to die in. For 400 hundred years, we’re told, they lived in slavery. And 400 years of oppression and slavery will grind a people down into nothing. After 400 years the Hebrews, too, had forgotten who they were.
It takes a lot and nothing to oppress a people. It takes a lot because you cannot hold a person down without constant pressure. It takes nothing because if you aren’t under that pressure, you might not even ever know its there. It takes a lot because if you watch it happen to your child, it’s a never-ending stream of insults and indignities, each more unbearable than the last. You catalogue all the ways the world was brutal to your child and you can see the whole apparatus, hundreds of people and institutions that all work together to make your child think he’s nobody. It takes nothing because if he’s not your child, and you only see it one piece at a time, it was just an odd comment, a strange coincidence, an unlucky break. You don’t understand what the big deal is.
You have to wonder how Pharaoh turned the Hebrews from treasured friends into slaves. He may have begun by suggesting that Hebrews simply aren’t as civilized as Egyptians. They’re uncouth, and lazy; if you say it enough times people will start to look for it. Any Hebrew who isn’t perfect will be proof that he’s right. If a Hebrew gets angry about these nasty rumors, Pharaoh would say look, see, didn’t I tell you? Those Hebrews are quick-tempered, dangerous. Word would get around. Jobs would dry up. They would tell the Hebrews, “I know you’ve got bills, but there just aren’t any jobs for people like you. But I’d be happy to give you a loan against your truck. Interest rate’s double, of course, but you’re a risk.” Can you imagine what they said in the Egyptian court when they heard that Moses had struck the foreman and killed him? What a shame, more Hebrew violence. It was nice that the princess tried to raise that Hebrew with some culture, but you know what they say. You can take the boy out of the bulrushes, but you can’t take the bulrushes out of the boy.
It doesn’t matter that the foreman was hitting a man when Moses hit him. That wasn’t violence, that was discipline. It takes a lot and nothing. You normalize the violence of the system. Then you call them violent when you . For the Hebrew man 400 years after the first Pharaohs start “acting shrewdly,” the whole system is too great to bear. His whole life, everyone has told him that he’s violent, lazy, wild, uncouth. Doesn’t even bother him anymore. It’s the surprise that hurts the most. When he does something good or kind, or intelligent, and the response is total surprise, as if they didn’t even think it possible for a man like him to behave like a human. That’s what makes him know that his life is worthless to them. (And because he knows his life is worthless to everyone else, it is worth less to him, too)
And into this story come two women. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. And they have a different view. The Egyptians say that Hebrew boys are dangerous. But Shiphrah and Puah say that Hebrew boys are to be treasured. They remember who they are. The Bible says that Shiphrah and Puah feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells him that in order to protect the people’s safety, these Hebrew boys cannot be allowed to survive their birth. But Shiphrah and Puah disobey. But they cannot disobey Pharaoh directly, so they tell him a lie.
So both the Pharaoh and the midwives lie, but the midwives are righteous and the Pharaoh wrong? Yes. There is a lot of lying and trickery in the Bible, both by the righteous and the unrighteous. David does it. Jacob is famous for it. And Abraham and Moses aren’t far behind. But what you’ll find is that the Bible still stays consistent. When a powerless person tricks a powerful person, the Bible praises the man. When a powerful person tricks or tries to trick a powerless person, the person is punished or condemned. Think of David. When Shepherd David sneaks out the window and leaves an idol with horsehair in his place to escape from Saul: good. When King David wants to trick Uriah into raising his bastard: bad. It’s just what my Dad taught me. Don’t ever hit someone smaller than you. If you’re going to fight someone, punch up. And so it is with the midwives and Pharaoh. When Pharaoh deals shrewdly with the Hebrews, it shows that he is evil. When the midwives deal shrewdly with Pharaoh, the Bible uses it to show us that they are clever.
And this clever little lie? It is nothing less than the same lie the Pharaohs told of the Hebrews.
“Of course Pharaoh we would love to do what you ask, but you know those Hebrews, they’re so rough, and wild, and dangerous, labor isn’t anything to them. They pop those babies out before we can even get to them.” It is a tiny little lie, and a great heroic act. It was nothing to pretend to believe the system’s lies, and it was a whole lot to stand up to Pharaoh. And without them, there is no Moses, no Exodus, no plagues, no Promised Land.
One of the great things for me about the Bible is learning about people like Shiphrah and Puah, the minor characters of the Bible. It reminds me that there are so many more stories than the ones we’re most familiar with. And it reminds me that the Bible isn’t made up entirely of extraordinary spiritual superstars, but of ordinary people doing the little things that make ordinary people great.
Shiphrah and Puah found themselves in a unique position where they had the ability for a small action of theirs to make a big difference in the lives of many. And they chose to turn the machinery of oppression on its head, and save the ones it was going to destroy. We all have opportunities like this. Because the truth is that history isn’t changed through grand sweeping actions, but many small ones. It’s done by looking at our unique position in the world, and thinking about where we have the opportunity to make a change. Where a small thing from us, whether it’s a word of encouragement or reprimand, an expression of support and solidarity, a few dollars or a few hours, can make a huge difference in the life of the world. It’s done by punching up, making sure we’re never in a position to take something from someone weaker or more vulnerable than we are. It’s done by rejecting the lies that keep people from flourishing, and hanging on to truths about who God is and who we are.
It takes a lot and nothing, to take apart our structures that tear people down, and to build something in their place that lifts people up. It takes a lot, because it will take the work of all of us, together, for years, to shape this world into what it can be. It takes nothing, because it will take nothing more than refusing to forget who God calls you to be.