Reflections on the Lectionary, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.
When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
This text is one of the most fruitful lessons for thinking about the political theology of scripture in the whole three-year cycle. It is also one of the most humorous texts in scripture, as the powerless subvert the powerful.
In Egypt, Pharaoh is not just a political figure, but a god. Thus the struggle in Exodus 1-15 is not just a political or economic struggle, but a cosmological contest between two rival deities. And it is no accident that the God of the slaves has a radically different agenda for the well-being of these slaves, namely their emancipation, than does the god of their overlords, who presides over their servitude and exploitation.
The humor of the story revolves around the agents of this emancipation, whom I call ” the Three Wily Women of the Exodus.” None of the them are named–all are known by the patriarchal relation which defines them most in their society, but these women who don’t merit a name are ironically used to block the Pharaoh’s scheme to cull the herd of Hebrews, whose numbers, like excess deer in a forest, present future trouble on the horizon if not reduced. Actually the three wily women have two supporting actresses, whose names do appear, the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. Their totally lame but inarguable assertion, that those Hebrew women are so healthy that they come in and out of labor and delivery so quickly that we barely have time to change the sheets before they are back to making bricks again, provides the cover the Hebrew women need to keep their babies safe. These midwives, the text says, fear God, thus signaling the reader even before the action heats up that the slaves know about the chinks in the Pharonic armor, and that they know how this conflict is going to end.
The story is a ringing validation of the divine intention for human freedom and a chilling assault on all forms of domination that would suppress it. The whole Egyptian economy was built on the premise that one could get something for nothing, that “nothing” being the uncompensated labor of others. The narrative encourages nonviolent resistance to such exploitative systems, as well as the subversion and conversion of others within the system (e.g., Paroah’s daughter) to a less oppressive way of life. And the narrative presents an ideal vision of socio-economic coexistence, not one where all distinctions are erased, but one in which the value of both the high and the low are recognized to each other, as the apparently childless daughter of Pharoah who has everything finds fulfillment in showing compassion and investing herself in the child of the despised “others”, while the Hebrew mother finds both safety and sufficiency in having her child brought up in the house of the ruler, and, to top it off, getting wages for what she would have willingly done for free! In short, the story offers the possibility of a world in which that which normally divides humanity, once reframed, becomes the foundation for a different world.
This offer of a new way of being will become a hallmark of biblical faith from this point forward, as will the corollaries that power and wealth without justice will ultimately fail, and that the poor, with God’s help, will one day see their fortunes reversed.
This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture. While the focus is on weekly preaching passages, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to Tim Simpson.