Our Family Story: A sermon based on Exodus 1-2
Today we begin a journey through the Book of Exodus. We’ll be working through portions of this book over the next 12ish weeks. Likely, the outline of the book of Exodus is probably familiar to most who have spent time in the church. It’s about the birth of a nation, Israel. Jacob’s sons are in Egypt, they have lots of kids and get too numerous to count. Pharaoh worries they’ll take over, so he enslaves the sons of Israel. God raises up Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. After the Ten Plagues, the Israelites follow God out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. God gives the people His law. The people break it by making an idol. God threatens to leave them, but relents and promises to be with them and after the tabernacle is built fills the place with his overwhelming presence. What more is there to say about the book of Exodus? Quite a bit. In fact, the storyline of Exodus is really important for us to internalize, because this story is more real to us than most other stories we’ll ever read.
Did you notice how Exodus began? (Slide 2) “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt.” How many stories do you know that begin with the word “and”? Your not even supposed to start a sentence with that word, let alone a whole book! The word “and” is there to let us know this isn’t the start. Exodus is a continuation of what has gone before in the book of Genesis. Look at the next few verses of Exodus, (slide 3) where it says that “the sons of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very vast, and the land was filled with them.” That sounds like the narrator just lifted the words in Genesis describing when God created the animals, and instead put in the ‘sons of Israel.’ What this tells us is that in the story of Exodus, God has entered into a second round of creating. This time God is creating a people, his people, a people to bear his name, a people to represent Him to the other nations. So later generations that come later need to read Exodus as their story. To this day when Jews observe the Passover, they read the whole story of Exodus. This story is their story, that is what’s behind the number 70. (Slide 4) “And all these persons springing from the loins of Jacob were seventy persons.” Numbers in Exodus are never just numbers. The narrator is not only describing how big Jacob’s family got — 70 is a hugely symbolic number. Elsewhere in the bible when Israel is counted in multiples of seven, it’s a picture of complete Israel. Just like Creation was complete after seven days. So the number 70 signals that we’re talking about complete Israel, Israel in its fullness. That means that later Israelites hearing this story are no doubt intended to hear this story as their story. They are part of complete Israel. This story is their story. Yet, Jesus invites his followers into this family as well. The Gospels tell us that Israel wasn’t truly complete until Jesus came and made it complete. So that means that when we become a part of Jesus, we become part of complete Israel. That means when we read Exodus, we are reading our own family history. This story becomes our story. You’ve surely noticed how family members resemble each other, even right down to their facial expressions, I might smile like my mom, I might grimace like my grandma. Because this is our family story, the characters in these pages might find their way into your life in strange ways. You might begin to recognize yourself in these stories. God might have placed you as a Moses, or an Aaron, or a Miriam, or a Zipporah, or one of the Mid-Wives in the story. You might be faced with the same decisions and your life might tell the same story and proclaim the same Good News about God rescuing His people. Let me show you how this works by introducing a few characters.
As I mentioned, the way Exodus begins is an echo of the first story of Creation. Yet it seems that when God begins a new act of Creating something good, there is always some malevolent force intent on destroying God’s good work. In Genesis, it was the snake in the garden. In Exodus, it's Pharaoh. Exodus is the story of God creating a people called Israel. They have a specific job — to be a blessing to the nations, a light to all people. God’s intention is that through the people Israel, the whole world might come and learn to live in right relationship with God. Yet whenever God begins a new act of creating something good, there is always some mean force intent on destroying God’s good work. In Exodus, it is the Pharaoh, no doubt you can think of other Pharaoh’s throughout recent history. Rulers who seem to make it their personal agenda to destroy God’s order. Pharaoh played that role by shackling Israel with forced labour and working them ruthlessly. Yet God’s new cycle of creation was not to be thwarted by Pharaoh — the people of Israel continued multiplying. (Slide 5) So, “the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah. When you deliver the Hebrew women and look on the birth stool, if it is a boy, you shall put him to death, and if it is a girl, she may live.” Pharaoh adopted a policy of genocide, attempting to systematically wipe out the males of God’s people. He lets the females live, likely so they can be sexually exploited later on in life. The midwives do not obey, and scripture pays these two women the highest honour. They performed the first act of civil disobedience in written history. The narrator puts it this way: (Slide 6) “the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, and they let the children live.” This act is remarkable. Imagine an alternate universe where history books read, "The Germans feared God and let the disabled and the jews live.” Or “Canadian settlers let the first nation people live by not participating in forced assimilation.” Will our own cycle of history be different? Will we learn to be like the midwives who feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them. The midwives are themselves probably Egyptian. They had a stable and professional job. They may have overseen many midwives. These women show us what it looks like to refuse the temptation to hold onto your privileged position by disobeying your conscience. These women lay job security on the line because they feared God and did what was right. What else could they do? They had become friends with the Hebrew women. They’d entered their homes. They journeyed with them in the most intimate of life’s circumstances. They did not violate their personal and professionals integrity, they made a way for life to enter this world unharmed. You can hear the narrators joy as he tells us the story of how the most powerful man in the ancient world was thwarted by several women who feared God and did what is right.
The story then shifts to the birth of Moses, this child who is only alive because of the courage of these midwives. Yet we don’t immediately hear much about Moses, instead we hear about three other women who feared God. Moses’ mom, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ mom and sister are in a different position than that of the midwives. They are the underdogs, they are the oppressed, they’re vulnerability is chilling. Pharaoh had charged the entire population to kill these Hebrew babies. Imagine nine months of fear that your pregnancy might end with someone killing your baby. It’d unbearable. She must have remained hidden for fear. Yet her community protected them, and the midwives feared God and Moses was safely born. Mother and son stayed in hiding for three months after the child was born, but this became impossible. She could not do this forever. But instead of despairing of life, we see astounding courage. The popular story is that mom finds a basket and sends it floating down the Nile with a hope and a prayer. Yesterday I watched the scene from the Disney movie “Prince of Egypt,” and baby Moses goes through rapids, dodges the mouth of crocodiles, navigates through the oars of boats, is nearly caught in a fishing net, all while Moses mom looks on helplessly crying and singing. Its a beautiful scene but incredibly disempowering for women. Especially when you consider the actual story. Watch closely: (Slide 7) “When she could on longer hide him she took a wicker ark for him and caulked it with resin and pitch and placed the child in it and placed it in the reeds by the banks of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance to see what would be done to him. And Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe inn the Nile…” This is not a picture of a woman’s rash and reckless act of sending her infant to float down the greatest river in the Middle East. Its a picture of a woman crafting a careful and cunning plan, attending to every detail, and entrusting that plan to God. She masterfully crafts the boat that will carry her child. She doesn’t send the child rushing down the river (what mother could do that), rather she strategically places the vessel safely in the reeds. She places it precisely at the time and place where she knows pharaoh’s daughter will come by shortly. She must have researched her activities and her disposition of this Princess. And to make sure everything turns out right, she stations her daughter, Miriam, to standby, watch and intervene. Miriam, shows no less command of the situation. (Slide 8) After the princess’s heart is captured by the weeping child, Miriam approaches Pharaoh’s daughter, and says, “Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews that she may suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” It’s almost as if Miriam tells Pharaoh’s daughter what to do and how to respond. And you can almost hear the narrator laughing with joy as he tells us how Moses’ mom now is paid by Pharaoh’s household to breastfeed her child — this child that God will use to overturn Pharaoh’s entire house and land. These women refused to submit to the lie that they were powerless, and with astounding courage and strategy they enacted their plan to protect a vulnerable child, trusting that God was with them. Moses would struggle his whole life to find in himself the same leadership qualities that we see in his mom. (Slide 9)
Let me make one more quick observation. The rest of chapter 2 tells us about how Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s household. His mom undoubtedly taught him his true identity as a son of Israel. As a result of his mothers’ education about protecting the helpless, he can’t turn away when he sees the Egyptian oppression of his brothers. But his first act of liberation didn’t go so well and he finds himself fleeing from the wrath of Pharaoh. He arrives in neighbouring lannd called Midian, and there he encounters the seven daughters of Reuel (later called Jethro). (You may find it interesting to note that in the first two chapters of Exodus, 12 women are identified. Twelve like the number 70, represents the complete Israel. One of these women, a daughter of Jethro, is given to Moses in marriage. Her name is Zipporah. Later on in their married life, they give birth to a son, but Moses neglected to circumcise this child. In this very mysterious story, Zipporah discerns that YHWH God has come to kill Moses for his disobedience. Yet she, like her in-laws, shows great presence of mind and resourcefulness. She circumcises her son and averts God’s wrath. Later it was only the priests that would circumcise the sons of Israel. Instead, here we see Zipporah step into this priestly role so that her husband might live and the story of God and His people might continue.
The Exodus Story is the story of how God singled out a people to be a light to the world, a blessing to the nations. This story was made possible by the most unlikely of women. Two midwives who refused to do evil, a slavegirl and her mom who refused to give into helplessness, a wife who obeyed God when her husband forgot. It’s through women such as these that God’s story advances. That’s our family story, and those are the people we are meant to become. It’s in our blood. How will you carry on the family story? Will you be like the midwives and stand in solidarity with victims of injustice. Will you engage in civil disobedience when confronted with unjust policies? Will you befriend those scorned by the powerful? Will you use your privileged and profession to protect the vulnerable? Will you be like mother and daughter in this story? Will you refuse to cower before tactics of intimidation by the powerful. Will you refuse to believe you are powerless ? Will you martial all your resources to plan and strategize how to protect the helpless? Will you entrust your efforts to God while doing your utmost to ensure your plans succeeds? And will you find yourself like Zipporah, who functioned as a priest for her family, making it possible for the story of her people to continue? Will you call others into holiness before Your God? The Exodus story is our family story, and it must continue in the lives of God’s people.
This is why we must be familiar with this story. Its our story. In the first two chapters, there aren’t many signs and wonders. There are no pillars of fire, there are no magnificent plagues, the sea is not split and two, there is no fire on the mountain. Yet in these first few chapters God is undeniably present. Listen how chapter two ends: (Slide 10) “God heard their moaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Maybe those women weren’t sure that God was present, but these verses pull back the veil and give assurance that God sees all. God sees all that you are going through. God hears your moaning. God knows the difficulty you face. God knows your circumstances. God knows the ills of our society. God is present. Your Lord Jesus shall stand with you no matter what you go through. He is with you by your side. So be strong and courageous. He will go before you. So trust in God’s goodness when the world says otherwise? Trust in God’s presence when you see it not? Stand up when you are tempted to turn a blind eye to cruelty. Be strong and courageous, your God and Saviour is at your side? He will guide you through to the story’s triumphant end.