Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 8, 2019
Read: Exodus 1:8-14 [15–2:10]; 3:1-15
It’s impossible to read this week’s text and not think about what is happening right now in the United States. The tale of a Pharaoh “who didn’t know Joseph” that fears the descendants of Jacob reminds us of a US President that fears a modern immigrant community, treating them rather harshly.
But, let’s slow down first. If you rush talk about a current crisis through this text, you might forget this actual story. Of course, we should do as the theologian Karl Barth tells us, to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In order to do that, we need to focus on the Scripture at hand first.
So, just what is going on here? There are a few things to focus on.
First, it’s important to know that the Pharoah didn’t know Joseph. Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob who was initially sold into slavery in Egypt and rose to become the Prime Minister of the kingdom. The rest of his family came as guests of the Pharaoh and lived as resident aliens for years and years.
Why didn’t Pharaoh know this history? Surely someone was keeping track of the royal history. For whatever reason, the king is ignorant of the facts. Instead he views the Israelites with fear. He fears that if Egypt goes to war, the nation will have traitors in their midst. He views them not just with simple suspicion, but out and out xenophobia. He has a plan to try to draw down their numbers. Pharaoh makes the Israelites slaves in the hopes that this will kill off a few, but this doesn’t happen. Then he asks the midwives to kill the male children. But two midwives, Shiprah and Puah are God-fearing women who refuse. They lie to the Pharoah that the Israelite women are so strong, they give birth before they arrive.
When that second idea fails, the Pharoah orders that all first born babies were thrown into the Nile to drown. One woman decides to send her son in a basket down the river. None other than the Pharaoh’s daughter sees, the child and claims the baby called Moses as her own. The Pharaoh is thwarted again, this time by his own flesh and blood.
We then skip to a grown up Moses, raising sheep far away from Egypt. He’s been on the run after killing an Egyptian beating up a Hebrew. He is contacted by God and chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and back to the promised land. But Moses doesn’t immediately say yes. He wants to know God’s name but God never gives him the answer he wanted. Moses goes to free God’s people never getting God to reveal God’s name.
Pharaoh and Moses both want to control a situation. Pharaoh is scared of the Israelites, so much so that he sees them as potential traitors. Moses is called to speak for his people in front of Pharaoh, but he wants to know who is this God that is sending him. In Pharoah’s case each time he tried to get rid of the Israelites, he is thwarted. What’s interesting is that in two occasions he is thwarted by women. The text is never clear that Shiprah and Puah are themselves Hebrews. For all we know, they could be Egyptians. What we do know is that they feared God and chose to disobey Pharaoh’s demands. The baby Moses is sent down the Nile and is picked up by the daughter of the Pharaoh. She and Moses’ mother are able to sabotage Pharaoh’s efforts.
Pharaoh and to a lesser extent, Moses want to be in control. But they are unable to get the control they want. The Pharaoh is the leader of a great nation and felt he could do anything he desired. When he didn’t know Joseph, it could also mean he didn’t know God. Because if he had known God, he would know of how Joseph’s God saved the nation so long ago. But he didn’t and thought Egypt was mighty and what God would stop him.
These early chapters of Exodus remind us that God is the one in control in the world even when it might not look like that is possible. May we have the faith of Shiprah and Puah and not the arrogance of the Pharaoh.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.