Sermon by Rev. Laurel Dykstra (no pronouns or they/them)
the prologue to the Exodus is an incredibly rich passage -it deserves about a week of unpacking but I’m going to limit myself to three themes – Nature, Names, and Collective Resistance
Like the work of Salal + Cedar, nature and justice are interconnected in this passage.
The stage is set by the Joseph cycle
remember -Joseph’s family were climate refugees, Joseph and Pharoah accumulated wealth by buying people for food?
a new king arises who did not know Joseph and he is afraid his people will be outnumbered by immigrants -sound familiar?
and then in the plagues unjust human relationships are represented by distortion in the natural world -not divine punishment but natural consequences
When Peter walked on water, we talked about storm type scenes -where the life of God’s people is at risk afloat. Baby Moses among the reeds on the Nile is one such story. A connection that is much stronger when you learn that the name for his basket appears one other place in the bible -it is the word for Noah’s boat.
the midwives’ refusal to obey Pharoah because “they feared god” -Fear of God is not about punishment and wrath but awe and wonder, in the wisdom tradition has roots in observation of nature. Who better that women who had aided in hundreds of births to be in awe of God’s creative power.
If we assume that Moses’ sister is Myriam, she is consistently associated with water -here she knows the shoreline well enough to be undetected the reeds, she leads the people song of victory by the reed sea, a well accompanied Israel in desert, at her death ppl without water.
Jewish commentator Norma Rosen suggests that Pharoah’s daughter’s understanding of her role and agency comes from her observation of the interdependence of life in the “teeming Nile.”
You can see how nature and justice weave through this passage.
Now what about names?
In Hebrew, consonants for “Egypt” are the same as for the word meaning “hardships, straights, or narrow places” suggesting a situation of oppression, Egypt’s narrow fertile corridor and the birth canal. So every time you hear Egypt think of a hard, place where something new is born through water. (where midwives might play a critical role)
The passage gives the names of only three people.
Despite the many references to Pharoah’s power, wealth, military strength he is unnamed but Shifra and Puah two (unimportant?) midwives are named.
In the bible most often God or fathers name children. But Pharoah’s Daughter names Moses. It is an Egyptian name derived from the word for birth. Atmoses, Tutmoses, Ramses. Meaning “son of the god At, Tut, Ra…
it is fitting that Moses whose father is unnamed and who speaks for a God who will not be named, bears this ambiguous appellation, “son of who?”
The text says she named him Moses “because” she said “I drew him out of water” but In Hebrew moshe actually means “the one who draws out” So Pharaoh’s daughter not only saves the savior she commissions him as well.
In Christianity the name of this book Exodus, but in Judaism it is named for the first words “Now these are the names” these are the names of the 12 sons of Israel (Joseph and his brothers).
Feminist scholar Jopie Siebert-Hommes points out that in the prologue the role of daughter is uniquely emphasized and that there are twelve women mentioned: Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives; a daughter of Levi, Moses’ mother; the infant’s sister; Pharaoh’s daughter, and the seven daughters of the priest of Midian. The twelve tribes of Israel owe their deliverance to the actions of twelve daughters.
It is this conspiracy of daughters that makes up the bulk of this reflection. The Exodus is one of the big stories in our tradition but these little stories at the beginning set the stage.
Historian David Daube, calls this story of the midwives the oldest record of civil disobedience in world literature. Womanist scholar Renita Weems puts it differently saying the women stand in the royal chambers and defy Pharaoh long before Moses and Aaron will. Shifra and Puah’s resistance starts the resistance story of Exodus.
The national identity of the midwives is ambiguous, the text says: “the midwives of the Hebrews.” They could be Hebrews midwives to their own people. Or Egyptian midwives, Pharaoh’s spies. This ambiguity is a great gift, because wherever we come in systems of power we have a role to play in dismantling them. All of us are called to be a part of God’s liberation project;
Pharaoh’s great downfall is making assumptions based on gender. He thinks that the real Israelites are the men, telling the midwives, when a baby is born “if he is a son, kill him; if she is a daughter, she will live.” But these midwives are daughters. His own daughter brings Moses into the palace. Pharoah is undone by daughters.
Pharaohs of this world make gender and gender expression into a hierarchy. But at the end of the story: “God dealt well with the midwives. He made them households.” Like the patriarchs they were recognized as head of household, the person whose name is connected with that line of descent (like Abraham). Just as the midwives refused to acknowledge Pharaoh’s gender distinction, so does God.
The text also tells us that Shiphrah and Puah had each other. It’s really, hard to stand up to Pharaoh by yourself. All of us need companions in resisting empire.
Shiphrah and Puah communicate to one another and to the community that they’re not willing to participate in Pharoah’s covert campaign of genocide. They force Pharaoh to seek other accomplices; causing him to clearly reveal that he is an agent of death. Shiphrah and Puah show that resistance is possible, doing what Dr. King calls “arousing the conscience of the community.” They are the pollinators. The story of the midwives’ refusal is immediately followed by more resistance. Moses’ mother, refuses to throw her baby into the Nile, and then there is Pharaoh’s daughter.
The early chapters of Exodus are a contest between gods: Pharaoh and YHWH in which Pharoah’s Daughter takes sides. In this cosmic struggle Pharaoh’s daughter is compared to God and contrasted with both her father and the pharaoh who succeeds him. Her father orders all Hebrew infant males thrown into the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter takes Moses out. Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes the child who will become God’s messenger, yet Pharaoh refuses to recognize God in the signs or plagues. Pharaoh’s daughter conspires and collaborates; her father commands. The pharaohs deal death while Pharaoh’s daughter guards life. Pharaoh hardens his heart but Pharaoh’s daughter has compassion.
Compassion is the critical motivator. Like our compassionate God, Pharaoh’s daughter delivers Moses from the reedy waters just as YHWH delivered Israel from destruction in the Reed Sea. She sees the endangered child, just as God sees the suffering of the Israelites. As God adopts Israel she takes Moses as her own.
Pharaoh’s daughter acts decisively. She works together with others despite differences in class, nation, and age; she forms alliances. Action, compassion, and relationship.
Perhaps the greatest gift of this passage is found in the interaction between Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sister.
What happens is subtle and yet incredibly profound. A woman of rank, privilege and power, in a crisis situation, listens to perhaps the least powerful person she is likely to encounter: the female child of a slave. And she allows the child to offer the plan, to tell her what to do. To listen and to be directed by the least may be the beginning of our journey out of Egypt.
Is it any wonder that Moses becomes a resistance leader, with such women influencing his early life? That baby in the basket becomes the man who demands that his people be free to worship God and marches with a band of slaves out of the house of bondage. The midwives’ civil disobedience is the beginning of the end of Pharaoh’s tyranny. So with Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’s mother and sister, Pharoah’s own daughter and all of those who seek justice, refuse to cooperate with gendered hierarchy, Let us act together across the differences that seem to divide us.
Laurel Dykstra is priest of Salal + Cedar Watershed Discipleship Community www.salalandcedar.com