Being Drawn Out: Rebel Midwives, Empires and Little Hebrew Babies (Exodus 1-2)

Here is my message from August 21, 2011 (slides can be found here).

_a birth story

How many of you have given birth or been present at a birth before?

[I told Story about L’s birth and the power (for me) of her “being drawn out” of the womb]

This morning we’re going to talk about an ancient birth story, a birth story not just about Moses but of the entire people of Israel. Exodus is a birth story about a lost and oppressed group of people called the “Hebrews” who are then rescued by YHWY, drawn out like a newborn child, and made into an alternative society.

One thing I learned this week while reading is that “Hebrew” actually meant back, in the pre-Exodus days. Back then it “referred to group of marginal people who have no social standing, own no land, and who endlessly disrupt ordered society.” (Brueg. 694). Today we might think of Gypsies, or illegal immigrants.

And in keeping with a birth story about people like the hebrews our heroes in the story this morning are unlikely heroes:

N. Gordon Cosby — “Without the breaking of the empire’s law by the midwives and by Moses’ parents [and the king’s daughter], what is perhaps the greatest deliverance in history would not have occurred. Thus begins one of the great chapters of [our Christian] tradition.”

And then this opening Exodus story closes not with the birth of the baby, but the adoption of a Hebrew baby by the king’s daughter. This is symbolized by her naming the little one, Moses, or Mosheh, whose names in ancient Hebrew means, as the text says here “to be drawn out of the water.” But Mosheh is an Egyptian word, unsurprisingly since the Pharaoh’s daughter was Egyptian, that means “is born.”

So being made a son of the Egyptian princess, this little Hebrew named moses is now the ______fill in the blank________? Moses the drawn out one is now a prince!

_the story behind the story

This morning we’re starting a series in Exodus that is going to go through the end of October. I’ve been pretty excited about doing this because Exodus is arguably the most important book in the Old Testament.

Exodus is not only the creation story of an entire nation of people, but Exodus is also the central place where we initially learn about the Hebrew God in a very personal way. We learn that God’s name is YHWH (I am, what I am) and we learn what and who this YHWH cares about. One of the main things we learn in the book of Exodus is that YHWH stands in solidarity with “these Hebrew” people. Those who were often treated as slaves for the betterment of the empires they were controlled by.

And the book of Exodus is also the story that stands behind so much of the New Testament as well.

Can you think of some of the connections between Exodus and the NT?

Jesus new Moses (threatend by a royal edict, called out of egypt)

  • Tempted in the wilderness
  • Not only celebrates the passover, but for Christians is the passover lamb
  • His primary sermon on Ethics, is like a new set of commandments that fulfill Moses
  • Jesus also lives under the rule of an empire and is ultimate killed by that empire
  • Jesus stands in solidarity with “Hebrews” – the poor, sick, lame, women, tax collectors.

Exodus for us is the story behind the story. It is a story that gives shape to our story. And the better we understand the Exodus story, the better we’ll understand our own Gospel-story. Because of this Exodus contains within it some of the most central themes as well as images of Scripture. But before we get into all of that let’s do a little background work for the book.

_dawn of history

Back a long time ago, most people think sometime during the bronze age (1220 BCE). [SLIDE] The bronze age is the period just after the stone age, but before the iron age. During the bronze period people were able to smelt ore to make weapons, tools, and other kitchen appliances.

But besides just being able to make cool bronze things, this period is also known as the “Dawn of History.” I don’t know exactly who this is known by? I doubt that it was known by the people living in the bronze age:

“Hey Charlie, what year is this?”
“I don’t know Bob, my mom told me this was the ‘dawn of history.’”
“Whoa, the dawn of history, that sounds really important. What does it mean?”

During the dawn of history was when people stared learning how to write and so this is when our written records go back to. But it was also the time when people started to get more organized under what is known as the state. Up to this point Charlie and Bob were people who were more mobile, more nomadic in nature, but with the ability to build powerful tools and weapons with bronze, certain people gained more wealth and power and were able to enforce “imagined” boundaries around geographical areas.

So you can imagine bronze age Camas — “Okay Charlie, says Bob, after they grow up, since I’ve got all the ore and lots of swords, I’m going take from here to the hillside, over to the paper mill, and along the river. And, why don’t you come and work for me.” He says with a toothy grin.

These more migrant people, like Bob, who in this time lived in the river valleys along the [Euphrates and the Tigris], were eventually corralled by those with more power and forced into labor. The rulers of the times were able to organize those they ruled into work-gangs for small and large-scale cultivation projects that met the ruler’s needs. So here you have Pharaoh in Exodus 1 having the Hebrews build “supply cities” for all his surplus.

Exodus begins by telling us that Pharaoh’s empire was built on the backs of the poor and the oppressed and their labor was used to help him amass more power, more surplus at their expense.

Look at the words used to describe what happens to the people: “let us deal shrewdly,” taskmasters, oppress, forced labor, oppressed, ruthless, imposing, bitter, hard, labor, ruthless, tasks, imposed.

As you might guess, the lower classes that were forced into a stratified social system would try and rebel against the ruler. In history there are only a few hints of such rebellions because those who often knew how to write were from ??? (the ruling classes), so why would they write about those who tried to rebel?

BUT, but one group, and I don’t know whether Charlie was a part of that group or not, did succeed in rebelling and lived to tell their story (Ceresko 34).

And what was born out of that great escape is an entirely new vision of society that we still have today: [SLIDE] Exodus tells us about —

“an alternative social, political, and economic order which in many ways represented the very opposite in organization and values to that [model of the state they left behind].” [He goes on to say] ‘This novel experiment managed to embody ideals and insights expressed in the collection of traditions, stories and laws we know as the Bible. It offered an alternative which has served as a model and beacon of hope to peoples and generations and communities ever since.” (Ceresko 35).

This is the kind of birth story Exodus is about.

_rebel midwives, unnamed mothers, and little Hebrew babies

Exodus is about a rebellion that takes place by “hebrew” people, poor folks who had all the cards stacked against them, and who like Steve McQueen, who manage to make a great escape.

And the stars of our story this morning, and how this rebellion unfolded, tells us as much about who this God is as anything. The characters who God works through in these opening chapters to secure the escape of these oppressed people are themselves an unlikely bunch rebels, not your typical James Dean or the Fonze.

Not wanting to have any more of these Hebrew males born for fear they may “fight against us and escape from the land” the King of Egypt approaches some of these Hebrew Midwives and commands them to kill any boys who are born.

Now I don’t know how many of you know midwives, but the midwives are not generally the kinds of people who take kindly from getting to many orders. They are there for the mother’s well-being, and if you’re not there for that, well you might-as-well get out. I guess you could say that at least the mid-wives I know have a small rebellious streak to them. In keeping with the good tradition of mid-wifery, they resist the emperor’s orders and practice a little civil disobedience of their own.

And this is the only place that God is mentioned here in this opening story. We know that God is behind the plans to help his people, but it is here with these mid-wives that we learn God has a faithful audience already in place.

Our next unlikely character is an unnamed mother. One of these blasted Hebrews who hides her baby boy and keeps him alive, breaking again the royal decree. Then, she lays him in a te ba – which we translate basket here but is the same word as the one found in Gen. 11 for ark. So the nameless mother places this ark among the reeds which is a foreshadowing about the “sea of reeds” or the red sea where the Hebrews finally manage to escape Pharaoh for the last time. This ark, among the reeds, floats on the Nile river, which is to meant to be his death, but will for him be his very life, his very escape.

And then, as if this isn’t all unlikely enough, the Pharaoh’s daughter is out bathing in the Nile. I wonder if the little baby’s mother knew the daughter bathed there, hoping she’d find pity on him. But what do you think the daughter is doing bathing in the Nile? Isn’t this the Nile that is supposed to be the place of death for these little children? The text does not tell us, but given her own proclivity to rebellion against her father’s wishes, I can’t help but wonder if she may have hoped that by being down by the water maybe she was hoping to find out a way to help the Hebrews.

The daughter doesn’t just have pity on the baby but (as one author puts it):

“She spared the baby, entering into an alliance with him, and prepared to be his protector. Moreover, the princess knows exactly what she is doing. She recognizes that the baby is a “Hebrew baby,” a child from the slave community, a child under royal ban, a child under death sentence from her father – and she spares his life.” (WB 700).

This final image of help from the King’s daughter is a beautiful image of “God being behind enemy lines.” God showing that God can be found anywhere, among anyone, even the least likely suspects.

“Even in the Egyptian den of death allies are found.” — Pixley.

And then, to show that the daughter has finally, and fully adopted the baby she names him Moses and makes this Hebrew baby – the star of a Disney film — no, the Prince of Egypt.

Moses is literally drawn out of the water and given new life, and his new life, symbolizes the new birth, the drawing out that God is going to do for all of these “hebrews” of Pharaoh.

_closing

A couple weeks ago many of you probably caught the story about the boy “Charles “Dale” Ostrander” who was 11 and who was pulled in by a riptide out at long beach. And how he was under the water for about 20 minutes and then he was “drawn out of the water” and rescued and given new life. Later we learned there was a young girl on a body board who saw the boy in the water struggling, and she swam out to get him and drew him up on her board and hung onto him until another riptide came and knocked them both off. The girl got back on her board and the coast guard rescued the boy.

This story is a powerful image of being drawn up, out of the water, and given new life. This boy was rescued. In exodus, the midwives were the young girl, they were faithful to respond in the moment, Moses too is faithful to respond. But it is God who is the hero in the book of Exodus. It is God who rescues and draws us out. Especially those of us who are “Hebrews.” These are the people God stands in solidarity with and helps to rescue them out of the hands of the Egyptian empire.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.