It is the weak who have the power to transform: a sermon on Exodus 1

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

There’s a profound irony in our first reading for today, an irony that is played out in many different ways, throughout Scripture.

The king of Egypt, fearing the number and power of the Israelites, decides to eliminate half the Hebrew population.

It is an act of genocide, motivated by fear.

Pharaoh orders the midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool,

if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

Obviously, the king of Egypt fears that it is the male population of the Hebrews that will be his undoing…

He doesn’t fear the women, assuming that they are too weak, too helpless to do anything defiant.

That’s why he orders the boy babies to be killed, not the girls.

And yet, the irony is, of course, that it is the women, from beginning to end of today’s

reading from Exodus…

…who defy Pharaoh, and who help set the Israelites on their course of liberation from

slavery in Egypt.

In fact, this passage is considered to be one of the most feminist texts in the bible, where the saving power of faithful women can be seen most clearly.

It is not lost on us that the two midwives who defy Pharaoh, Shiphrah and Puah, are named, while even the king of Egypt remains nameless.

Shiphrah and Puah refuse to harm innocent children.

It is Moses’ mother, named in later texts as Jochebad, who sets the infant Moses

afloat in the river…

It is Moses’ sister, who Exodus later names as Miriam, who watches out for the baby and speaks up for him…

And it is Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescues and later adopts him…

All five women, Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebad, Miriam, and the daughter of Pharaoh, all of them defy the command to murder and to harm…

And end up saving Moses, the hero of the Israelites, who will bring God’s people to the Promised Land.

The power to save, to transform, and to liberate, lies with the very people who are thought to be the most helpless and the most weak.

In this case, the women.

They are the ones whom, through their faith in God, are able to do God’s work in the world, even in the face of oppressive worldly powers and danger.

Weakness and power are reversed.

In the end it is the weak who have the power to transform,

and Pharaoh is left helpless in the face of what God does through and on behalf of God’s people.

There’s a message in here for us.

If you are like me, then you have felt, lately that the news at home and around the world has been very bad.

We’ve recently witnessed racially motivated violence in Charlottesville and other places.

Venezuela is dissolving into a political dictatorship, where civilians are unable to gain adequate access to food and clean water.

Refugees from Haiti are fleeing to Canada in unprecedented numbers.

And these are just a few examples.

We don’t have to work too hard, I am afraid, to stretch the metaphor of a Pharaoh ordering the slaughter of the most vulnerable of his citizens…

…to compare it with the other worldly powers, class divisions, and perversions of justice that are happening in our own time and place.

And we feel about as powerless, as the women of Israel and Egypt were presumed to be.

Unable to do anything to help, anything to stop the awfulness from happening.

And yet, we know, from today’s reading, that those who are presumed to be weak, with faith and courage, can, literally, turn death into life.

Destruction into transformation.

Slavery into the path towards liberty.

And this is where the irony of today’s reading from Exodus takes another turn.

Because it is not just ironic that the weak defy the powerful.

It’s especially ironic, how they do it.

What Pharaoh feared, was that he would be overthrown by something akin to armed rebellion,

or attack, by the armies of the Hebrews whom his kingdom had oppressed.

Pharaoh was overthrown, but not by any action as big or as bold as an army.

He was overthrown by small acts of courage, made by women who had the opportunity at hand.

Think about it.

Shiphrah and Puah don’t organize a massive revolt.

They simply go about doing their job, delivering humanity into life, rather than death.

They follow their true calling, what they are already called by God to do, without letting the oppressive powers use them for its own ends.

It takes courage to defy Pharaoh, they risked their lives no doubt, but they do it simply by doing well what they are already called by God to do.

To help life come into the world, not destruction.

Jochebad, Moses’ mother, gives birth to a fine baby boy.

In fact, the word that is translated in today’s text as a “fine” baby, is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe God’s creation.

Jochebad wants to save him, her beautiful child, this wonderful person who is part of God’s creation..

Jochebad doesn’t flee with her baby to the wilderness, she doesn’t place herself between her infant and the sword.

She puts him in a basket, and sets him afloat.

The word for “basket” is the same word used to describe the ark of the covenant, a container for protecting that which is sacred.

It’s a brave move to put your child afloat in a basket, but also one that requires a profound trust in God’s power to protect and save.

Jochebad does what any parent would do to save their child, but she does it in a particularly trusting, faithful way.

Miriam stands at a distance, watching to see what will happen to her brother Moses.

She doesn’t do anything dramatic, she doesn’t pull him out of the bushes, or take him to the palace.

She simply observes, carefully, what happens around her.

And when the opportunity comes for her to speak up for her brother and her mother, to advocate for the vulnerable

She takes it.

She summons her courage and speaks to royalty.

Miriam is the first woman in the bible to be named as a prophet.

And she is called a prophet because of her ability to speak God’s truth when it needs to be spoken.

And Pharaoh’s daughter…

The text doesn’t say what she thinks about her father’s edict.

She certainly doesn’t go down to the river intending to rescue and adopt a child.

She goes down to bathe, with her entourage with her.

It is purely by accident, we are led to believe, that she sees the basket with the baby among the reeds.

But she is moved by compassion and pity, and she acts on it, plain and simple.

Oppression and destruction isn’t undone by armies, or massive acts of rebellion.

It is undone by individual people being moved to love, courage, and pity…

Doing things they already do, doing small things among their own families, their own neighborhoods, their own kingdoms…

Small things, that still have the power to change the world.

We all know what happens next in the Exodus story.

Moses grows up and becomes the leader and rescuer of the entire nation of Israel. But none of it would have happened without five brave women.

Five women, who did something, small things, that changed the world.

What can we do?