TBT to “Hope is Born,” a sermon Pastor Erica gave on January 21st, 2018, which retold the story from the Book of Exodus about a ruthless king who created policies to tear children from their parents and the ordinary women who worked to save them; read or listen to it and may you be empowered to be agents of hope in the world.
In these challenging times, do you believe that you can change the world? I think you can; let me tell you why through a two chapter story from the Bible, one that specifically plays out in the Book of Exodus yet is timeless, having replayed itself again and again across the ages.
Chapter one: A new king rose to power in the nation of Egypt; this king, like many rulers, was intent on increasing his influence and quickly found that fear and blame were effective tools to control the masses. Exhibiting a remarkably short memory on his own nation’s history, he designated the Israelites as the cause of many of Egypt’s problems, conveniently forgetting that these same Israelites had helped build the nation. With calculation and cunning, he had them categorized as foreign threats to society and soon the dominant narrative became that the Hebrews were having too many babies, they were taking their resources, and they were potential terrorists who could aid their nation’s enemies in harming them—bottom line, the Hebrews were not like Egyptians and needed to be contained. Unsurprisingly, the label “Hebrew” became synonymous with anyone the state deemed untrustworthy, dangerous, problematic, or undesirable—you could say that the king thought of them as people from shithole countries.
The king was shrewd and set up policy after policy to severely limit the capacities of the Israelites while using them for his own ends; in effect, he classified them as beasts of burden, slaves. Hebrews were allowed only one option in their lives—hard labor building the storehouses for the crops, weapons, and resources that the king was stockpiling for his own surplus to wield economic power in trading with other nations, something especially potent because of the famine that other regions were experiencing. They did literally backbreaking work in purposely brutal conditions, enforced by Egyptians who were tasked with oppressing them—that is actually what the text says. Their government job was to oppress and enslave the Hebrews; it was state sanctioned violence.
Nonetheless, the plan backfired and the population of Hebrews grew which only fueled the dread and resentment of Egyptians. Gripped by irrational fear, the king issued what can only be described as an absolutely insane edict—he ordered two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the male babies they delivered at birth, as if he were culling animals from a herd. You have to wonder about all the other government officials, and whether or not they made any effort to stop this reckless abuse of power by the king; in any case, one cannot miss the irony of the midwives’ plight, women who were gifted with the task of bringing new life into the world instead made into executioners, allotted with a terrible command to take life.
The Hebrew midwives were nobodies as far as the king was concerned; they were only useful in that they had access and proximity to carry out his dirty work. He had every reason to expect they would obey him since they were slaves under his domain that he could easily crush and get rid of like lame livestock. It was a sinister plan meant to both eliminate threats and spur division and conflict within the Israelite community by turning them against one another. And yet, these women were the first people to be named in the story, unlike the nameless king, and when we read about Shiphrah and Puah it is in the context of one of the first acts of civil disobedience recorded in the Bible as they defy the king. Knowing the risk to their own lives—kill or be killed—they decided to continue delivering and protecting life though the law demanded otherwise.
When the king realized that there were still male Hebrew babies around, he summoned Shiphrah and Puah to demand an explanation. Capitalizing on his prejudicial beliefs, they slyly used language to imply Hebrew women were like animals, “vigorously giving birth” before they could even arrive. It worked, perhaps because it reinforced a derogatory narrative about the Israelites the king was wholly sold on, and the two women managed to avert their own demise. Undeterred, however, the king expanded his edict commanding all citizens of his nation to throw every male, Hebrew baby into the Nile River for death.
Chapter two: Some time passed from Shiphrah and Puah’s daring act of civil disobedience but the king’s edict was still in force. Countless families had been traumatized by the murder of their newborn sons, and people desperately sought ways to save their kids. One such couple was from the Levite clan who already had a daughter when a son was born to them. What should have been a joyous occasion instead became a frantic effort to conceal what had happened; it is hard to imagine the kinds of conversations which took place in that household as they hid the young newborn. When it became clear they could no longer conceal him without dire circumstances for the whole family, the mother took her young daughter and the baby to the Nile River for judgment day.
She knew this day would come from the moment he was born and she had been plotting her own subversive implementation of the king’s edict. She “threw” him into the river according to the law but housed in a waterproof basket, lined not only with bitumen and pitch but also with her love, hope, and a prayer. The timing and location were no accident; she knew exactly who would catch sight of her last ditch effort to save her child—the king’s own daughter. After instructing her daughter to stand watch to see what would happen, she returned home for the longest wait of her life.
When Pharaoh’s daughter caught sight of the basket, she sent her maid to fetch it. The sister watched from afar as she opened the basket and peered inside for a very, long time. Hearing the baby’s cries, she could not help but pick up and comfort him, likely what his mother had been betting on. And then she said, “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children.” Such an obvious statement, but powerful nonetheless; the princess knew exactly what was going on, her father’s cruel edict and the desperation of Hebrew mothers. There was no other reason for a baby to be left in a basket to die on the Nile River, and she spoke the truth aloud. Sometimes calling a spade a spade takes tremendous courage, and naming this truth meant she named what was going on—infanticide. As the king’s daughter, she was expected to tip the basket over, or at the very least, push it further down the river and walk away; she was a princess in the royal court after all. But as she held the baby in the absence of her father’s murderous rhetoric, she paused to absorb the gravity of the situation. That moment was long enough for the baby’s sister to step in, close the gap, and offer another choice. “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
Who knows how long the two daughters looked at each other, with the loudest unspoken conversation ever going on between them. This was conspiracy, this was a crazy risk, this was her little brother…and finally, the princess answered, “Yes.” And when the sister returned with her trembling mother, the princess placed the baby back in her arms, promising wages to feed her own child. It was both an incredibly huge and miniscule act, given the thousands of other babies being killed, but these women who were not supposed to associate with one another, colluded together to save at least one of them and a tiny spark of hope flamed stronger. Over the years they continued to scheme and eventually the Hebrew child went to live with the Egyptian princess, the final part of their plan to save him. The king’s daughter named him, Moses, and hope was fully born.
The heroes of this story were nobodies on the world stage—they were women who had little power and zero influence on the rulers of the day; they were very much at the mercy of overwhelming events that were beyond their control. Yet, their actions in their ordinary lives changed the course of history. Perhaps the defiant acts of two Hebrew midwives in the face of the Egyptian empire were what gave the mother enough courage to try an improbable plan to save her baby. And evidence of that wild hope embodied in a papyrus basket on the river disrupted the princess’ normal routine sufficiently to make her pause and consider a different way of moving forward. Maybe that was the moment the sister needed to gather her nerve to approach the princess and save her brother. Though small on their own, each of these actions was significant and led to a child being saved, the child Moses who would later help lead the Israelites to freedom.
We live in times when news of tragedy, disaster, and conflict threaten to overwhelm and paralyze us into thinking there is nothing we can do to make a difference. Yet as this story and Taya’s story from the work trip in Louisiana remind us, that is simply not true. It is instinct to be captivated by the devastation and forget to look up—in Louisiana over 100,000 homes, 90% in Denham Springs, were flooded more than a year and a half ago! But what a miracle that twelve people who had no connections to any of the residents who live there, gave their own money and time to go down and help in whatever way they could—so as the hole in her home was being patched, Mawmaw was filled with hope that her life could be rebuilt. Who knows how Mawmaw will move differently in her own life because of the infusion of faith given to her by a group of folks from Wisconsin, and what ripple effects that will have upon those in her community. Though seemingly small and ordinary acts, they have the power to catalyze significant hope and change.
There is a temptation to think only big, showy acts have an impact and our culture tends to highlight the flashy hero. The biblical witness tells us a different story though, one in which the leading characters are nobodies who live quite ordinary lives but undoubtedly make a difference in the world in their own quiet way. Let that empower us regular folks to find ways to bring hope to the circles of people we come in contact with—you never know what impact a seemingly small action may have. Talking with a person you are not supposed to talk to, extending yourself to protect the dignity of someone, sharing your resources however limited they may be. In those very acts, we are making way for hope to be born. Amen.
“Hope is not barren. She does not stand alone and aloof, a haughty, disconnected figure far above the pain and misery of the world, so that her very solitude is a defensive wall against our longing for her and our hunger for justice. She is not a shimmering mirage in the heat of the desert, unreal and thus unattainable so that our hope for life becomes a mockery of life. She is not an aimless wanderer in the wilderness whose voice is not heard because it is only the echo of the sounds of our anxious, fear-filled nights. Augustine speaks of her not as fiction, holding her up as a lesson in morality, but as a person, a woman, a mother.” –Allan Boesak, “Dare We Speak of Hope?”