Exodus 1:8-20 God Hears the Cries of the Oppressed


A sermon preached on August 27, 2014 based upon Exodus 1:8 – 2:10.

This old, old story has a very familiar ring to it — it has been replayed in various forms throughout human history, right up to the present day.

Pharaoh has power and privilege and wants to hold onto it and so he sets out to use violence to oppress the people at the bottom of the social ladder — the very people the backs upon which much of his wealth has been achieved.   In a kind of paranoia common to people obsessed with holding onto power, he sets out to crush the Hebrews in an attempt to render them incapable of rising up in revolt.

In the story that continues beyond this week’s reading, God is revealed to be a God of compassion who hears the cries of his people suffering under Pharaoh’s cruel oppression, and who is at work in the lives of the people to bring about their liberation.

There is little mention of God, however in this the opening of the great story of liberation that is at the heart of the Jewish faith; indeed, to the people being crushed by Pharaoh’s violence,  God must have seemed altogether absent from their struggle.

But God was quietly at work in ways easily missed, like the mustard seed hidden in the soil of which Jesus would later speak.

In particular, God was at work in the hearts and minds of a handful of brave women who — in the eyes of the world — must have seemed lacking of any power whatsoever.

First there are the two Egyptian midwives — Shiphrah and Puah — who, we are told, “fear God.”  The fear spoken of here isn’t what we think of as fear:  it is not terror or panic, but rather it is  a deep sense of reverence and awe.  They know that God is the creator of life  — that it is precious, a sacred gift from God — and therefore babies aren’t to be killed.  The midwives’ vocation is to bring forth life – not death.  And so they defy Pharaoh’s orders, refusing to kill the male Hebrew baby boys, concocting a lie for Pharaoh that plays into his paranoia:  “The Hebrew women are stronger than Egyptian women, they give birth before we arrive!”

Next comes the Hebrew mother of one of these persecuted baby boys, and the baby’s older sister, who together hide for a time the family’s newborn baby boy.  When they can no longer safely keep the child out of sight from Pharaoh’s goons who are constantly out on patrol, searching for babies to kill, they hatch a bold, divinely-inspired plan.

I’ve heard this story since I was a kid in Sunday School, but it never really made any sense to me — that is, until I began to think about it this week.

The place where Pharaoh has commanded his goons to take the male Hebrew babies to dispose of is the River Nile.  It is the nature of evil that it hides out in the darkness — in places where it won’t be easily seen, easily named for what it is.  The goons are to quietly kill the babies out of sight of the public’s view by throwing them into the river where their little bodies will be carried downstream and be drowned, never to be seen again.

The plan the baby’s mother and sister come up with never made any sense to me because it is “counter-intuitive”:  instead of fleeing from the place of death, which you would think they would want to do, they will hide the baby in the river itself.

They will place the baby in a water-proof basket and then carefully rest the basket among the reeds along the shoreline — the reeds will hold the basket so it won’t drift off down the river.   The sister will hide nearby to keep watch over her little brother.

The boldness of the plan is compounded by the fact that the place they choose to leave the basket is a particular piece of shoreline close to Pharaoh’s own palace — the place where the women of Pharaoh’s own household come to bathe.

Evil hides in the darkness, and so in all likelihood, Pharaoh and his henchmen denied that there was any official policy of extermination of Hebrew baby boys.  Surely, the Hebrews knew these atrocities were being committed, and the women of Pharaoh’s household must of heard the rumors, but who wants to believe their government is capable of such a thing?   And out of sight, out of mind.

So the mother and her daughter choose this location trusting the fact that the bodies of all women have been designed by God to nurture life, and so when the women of Pharaoh’s household see the actual face of a baby boy, and hear the sound of his crying, abandoned in the waters of death, they will be instinctively moved by his plight, and recognize the reality and horror of the atrocities that Pharaoh is having done in their land.

The plot works just as intended, leading to both the baby’s life being saved, AND I suspect the eventual cessation of the policy of genocide.  Pharaoh’s daughter joins the chorus of strong, defiant women standing up to her father’s policies of death.  In the baby crying alone in the reeds of the Nile she sees only a baby in need of a mother’s care — it makes no difference what the baby’s nationality is.  She takes the baby into Pharaoh’s palace determined to raise him as her own, naming him “Moses” — the one pulled out of the water.

So it is a striking thing this theme of God working through women who quietly work in this world to resist the violence wrought by men.

So I want to step away from this story and talk a bit about the concepts of masculinity and femininity, particularly in light of what the Bible says up front about the nature of God and human beings.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, on the sixth and final day of creation, we encounter this verse: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)  It’s repeated again for emphasis in Genesis 5:1.

This is a foundational verse:  Our belief that every human being has an inherent sacred value — that each of us has within us an innate capacity to express the very image and likeness of God — is expressed in this verse.

It’s no small thing that this verse contains a reference to the distinction between male and female.   Traditionally, God has been most commonly referred to as a male, but if we take this verse as our starting point, we realize that God is both male and female — or rather, that God contains both qualities that we think of as masculine and feminine.

We think of feminine qualities being things like gentleness, sensitivity and empathy.  The feminine is nurturing, it involves a capacity for vulnerability and the fostering of human connection.  

In contrast, masculine qualities are thought to be things like assertion, toughness, clear boundaries — the capacity to go out into the world and make things happen.

Notice that I didn’t say that it is women who are gentle, sensitive and empathetic, and that it is men who are assertive, tough, set clear boundaries and make things happen, because if we are all made in the image and likeness of a God who has both masculine and feminine qualities, then inside all men and all women there are both sets of qualities, although oftentimes certain qualities can be buried or repressed in any given man or woman.

Jesus is our best picture of what it means to be fully human, fully reflecting the image of God, and in Jesus you see both masculine and feminine qualities.  He was tough and gentle, he had clear boundaries and strong capacity for empathy.  It is interesting to note, however that in the story we heard last Sunday, it was a Gentile woman who was able to bring him back to himself when in his fatigue he had lost his connection to the divine.

To be whole involves being able to embrace and express the fullness of who we have been created to be.  When males or females are forced into rigid stereotypes of what a male or female is supposed to be, there is a price to pay — they aren’t living whole. Certain qualities get buried; others end up getting faked in order to fit in.

And when individuals can’t be whole, the society at large suffers.

A man without any feminine qualities is a heartless SOB for sure who readily commits violence.

A woman with no masculine qualities is helpless and ineffectual.

At their best, marriages provide women opportunity to draw out their masculine capacities as a result of keeping the company of their husbands, and men opportunity to draw out their feminine qualities through relationship with their wives.

Sometimes though marriages can end up simply reinforcing the two rigid stereotypes.

I watched this documentary recently about Richard Nixon and the secret tapes he kept when he was in the white house.  His wife Pat seemed altogether feminine, strictly confined to the nurturance of the home,  completely unaware — as Pharaoh preferred his women be– of all that he was up to with Watergate and such.  It was as if Nixon himself was lost at sea in the masculine, without the benefit of the feminine. In his obsession to hold on to power, he was also similar to Pharaoh, developing a paranoia that, in the end, did him in.

In our story of Pharaoh the realm of governance is dominated by the masculine, and the result is violence.  It is men who have lost touch with the feminine that start wars and such. It takes the women to bring healing to this brokenness, but the women wouldn’t be able to be effective without manifesting some of what we think of as masculine qualities.

Back in 2003 in the country of Liberia, the women of the land got fed up after years of civil war, bloodshed and grief.   A movement was started of thousands of women praying and staging non-violent protests, which included withholding sex from their husbands, refusing to relent until the men got serious about beating their swords into plow shares.

Now the God revealed in Exodus is, as I said before, a God who hears the cries of the oppressed.  And it doesn’t matter what nationality; God is on the side of those who suffer injustice at the bottom of society.  That’s what Pharaoh’s daughter recognized on some level as she looked into the eyes of the Hebrew baby abandoned in the river.

A couple of months ago there was a distressing story in the news about a nineteen year old young man from Livingston, just home from his first year of college where he played lacrosse, who was savagely murdered as he was driving home late one night.  The story disturbed me deeply because it was easy for me with my feminine capacity for empathy to identify with the parents’ grief.  It was easy for me to relate to them:  I also have a son of about the same age — also an athlete — who at times has driven late at night in the same vicinity as the one where the shooting took place.   It could have been my son who was murdered.

I found it really upsetting, and it was right to be upset by it — it was horrible.

But it occurred to me that there have been countless murders of young men of about the same age that have taken place just a bit east of where this murder took place that haven’t disturbed me in the same way, and the undeniable truth is that the reason for this — I am embarrassed to admit — was that these murder victims were poor and African American.  Somehow this difference allowed me to keep the horror of their deaths from penetrating my heart, even though the grief their parents felt was no less.

So what does it take to have a moment like Pharaoh’s daughter had where we realize that all lives prematurely snuffed out should disturb us.

At first the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri left me wondering what the big deal was.  A police officer may have fired at an eighteen year old African American male when there was no reason to.  These things happen.  Investigate it, and if it is shown the cop did wrong, well prosecute him.

But the more I’ve paid attention, I’ve come to realize that what’s happening there is calling attention to a much larger issue, one people like ourselves are reluctant to acknowledge.

I read some rather stunning statistics this week:

38.2 % of African American children live in poverty.

46% of African Americans do not graduate from high school.

African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of Whites.

The prison population of people of color grew 700% from 1970 to 2005.

If present trends continue, 1 in 3 African American males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their life time.

Although Whites and Blacks use illicit drugs at approximately the same rate, Blacks are 10 times more likely to be sent to prison for drugs offenses.

A young Black male is more likely to die from gunfire than any soldier who went to Vietnam.

An estimated 1 out of every 21 African American men can expect to be murdered, a death rate double that of the US soldiers in World War II.

Let these sorts of statistics sink in and you begin to realize the way poor, African Americans, especially African American males have the deck stacked against them when they come into life.   And this stacked deck is the result of centuries of slavery followed by another century of racism.

If your son was facing these kinds of odds, don’t you think you would be enraged?

And so it begins to be understandable the rage that young black men can feel about the society they find themselves living in — the rage being expressed now in Ferguson.  Our society is doing them in — in a certain sense, they are the Hebrew baby boys of our age.

God hears the cries that arise from our inner cities.  If we are to be God’s people, we must allow ourselves to hear them as well.