What it Means to Have Power
Year A Pentecost 11
It would be easy to read this story from Exodus and say that it is a story about Moses. After all, it is the first time we see Moses’ names and he’s clearly the star. We know what happens after Moses grows up. He ends up leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt. But this story is not about Moses. Then it must be about Pharaoh. He’s an important guy, clearly very powerful. It’s not about Pharaoh either. If it was about Pharaoh, we would probably have a name for him. We don’t. This story is not about the powerful. It is about the powerless, at least the people who were perceived to be powerless.
It is full of irony and intrigue. It starts with a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, which means he did not know the story of Joseph. He did not know how this Israelite had actually saved Egypt from a devastating famine, which brought more Israelites to Egypt. This Pharaoh was probably only alive because of the actions of an Israelite who lived long ago. He was at a disadvantage because of his self-inflicted ignorance. He also seemed a bit paranoid, or possibly just horribly insecure. He was worried that if the Israelites continued to increase in number, they would join the enemies of Egypt and overthrow them. So he oppressed them, because as we know that is always an effective way to keep people in line. He also hoped that by working them so much, they would not procreate as much…they would not have the time and energy. Alas, this plan did not work. The more they were oppressed, the more numerous they got.
The Pharaoh called on two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Midwives were usually women who were barren. Barren women were pretty much the lowest social status you could be in this time since a woman’s main reason for being was procreation. The Pharaoh asked these women to kill all the male babies. The girls did not concern him. The midwives feared God more than they feared Pharaoh.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of fear of God. The word translated to fear is a tricky one. There is no direct translation, no English word that really works. A translation that might be more understandable is honor. They honored God more than they honored Pharaoh. They knew that the Pharaoh’s power was temporary and God’s was eternal. They did not tell him that they refused. They just didn’t obey. When Pharaoh realized all these baby boys were still being born, he brought them back in and questioned them. Their response is pretty hysterical. They essentially said, “The Hebrew women are just popping them out so fast, the baby is delivered before we even get there.” Apparently he bought that.
The Pharaoh then called on the Egyptian people to throw every male baby in the Nile so that they would drown. One woman hid her child and put him in a basket in the Nile River. When we hear basket, we think of a flimsy wicker thing. This was no ordinary basket. The Hebrew word translated to basket is the very same word that is translated to ark in the story of Noah and the Ark. Clearly, the mother of Moses had put some time and effort into this little ark. She wanted this child to be carried to safety, much like God wanted that ark to carry the people and animals to safety.
As luck would have it, the daughter of the Pharaoh just happened to be bathing by the river and she saw this little ark passing by. Of course, we know it had nothing to do with luck. God wanted her to be there. She knew that this was a Hebrew child, a child that her father had ordered to death. But compassion moved her when she saw him and heard his cries. I am sure she knew about her father’s policy, but seeing the effects of this horrific policy must been more than she could bear. So she pulled him out of the river. She knew that the ark while sturdy, could not last forever without her intervention. So the daughter of the Pharaoh disobeyed her own father and saved the one man that would end up delivering an entire nation.
It is fascinating to me that while the Pharaoh was so intent on killing all the males, it was the females, the ones who were already alive, who would be the means of his undoing. He feared that the Israelites would become so numerous that they would create an army. They didn’t need an army. They needed a couple of women who were considered completely powerless who would risk their own safety to save a child and to honor God. The Pharaoh’s daughter was probably not a worshipper of the one true God, but maybe she was. Jewish rabbis have surmised that she was at the river to cleanse herself of idolatry because she had discovered the one true God. There is absolutely no evidence to prove this, but it’s an interesting idea. What we know is that she was moved by compassion, a compassion that moved her to sacrifice her own interests for that of another. That is love in its truest sense. That is God.
There is another theory that the rabbis have for this story. They wrote that it was not the maid of the Pharaoh’s daughter who pulled the baby out of the water. It was actually her own arm. However, her arm extended to double or triple its length as she went to reach for this child allowing her to pull him out of the river. We hear the phrase divine intervention all the time. But God has always been fond of using human intervention for his divine purposes. Sure, he could have destroyed Pharaoh in some fantastic way and then carried the people of Israel in a cloud to the Promised Land. That is not how God operates. God likes humans to intervene.
God especially loves to use those people who would be considered powerless by most. Those Hebrew midwives had nothing but their courage and their faith in God. Moses’ mother had nothing but courage, love and faith. The daughter of the Pharaoh probably had more power than most women in that time, but it was still not very much. The power that each woman had was her willingness to risk her life for another. That is a power that God honors. That is the power that Jesus wielded centuries later to save all humanity.
There are so many times in life when people do not act because they feel powerless. They are powerless to change themselves or their lives or the world around them. God proves again and again that power does not come with wealth, prestige or connections but in an openness to the will of God, to the possibility of something more. We think that we can only reach as far as our arm will extend. Yet when we reach our arm out in love, God will always stretch us in ways that we never expected. We will find that we are more powerful than we ever imagined.