The book of Exodus begins by saying that after Joseph and his brothers died, the Israelites continued to multiply and became exceedingly strong. The land was filled with them, and they had the potential to do wonderful things in, with, and through the Egyptians. But as the generations continued, Pharaohs came and went until one sat on the throne who never knew Joseph or his God. And as Pharaoh noticed the numbers of the Hebrews growing, he became concerned that if Egypt ever went to war, the Hebrews would fight against him and his people. Now, why would they do that…unless Pharaoh was already mistreating them?
So, he enslaved them—because, you know, that’s how you make friends and influence people. And he set taskmasters over them, forcing them into more and more oppressive and ruthless labor, making their lives miserable. He thought, somehow, that if he made it awful for them, they would diminish. Maybe he thought they would just go back home, but Egypt was their home, and later he denied them their leave. So instead, they continued to grow in numbers.
He ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill any boys they bring into the world and let the girls live. Because, you know, girls aren’t powerful or threatening. They’re weak and can be brought into submission, and can be bought and sold like any other possession. But the midwives feared God and told Pharaoh that the mothers giving birth were so strong that they had the babies before the midwives could even get to them.
So, Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill any boy that is born by throwing them into the river. But let the girls live.
Let’s backtrack to a few weeks ago when we heard about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. How he refused to let Israel go, not even when plagues hurt his own people. He didn’t care about his people or his country. He only cared about his power. I said that he was an archetype of tyranny and empire. He was “self-delusional, self-idolatrous, erratic, rage-prone, disconnected from reality, and listened only to his own voice.” He didn’t care how badly his decisions hurt even his own people. He just insisted on being right, no matter what.
This past week in our Bible study video, Brian Zahnd defined empire as “militarily powerful, economically wealthy nations who believe they have the right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history to their own agenda.” This is how Pharaoh saw himself and his leadership. And he would stop at nothing to make sure that didn’t change. Strange how this story keeps repeating itself.
Reading this story through the lens of the New Testament, we see a few things pre-figured here that the original writers could not have intended. First, infanticide in order to minimize threat. King Herod, like Pharaoh, felt there was a threat to his position and his power. Therefore, they each in their own context demanded the death of all little boys born—to all the Hebrew women in Pharaoh’s day and to all the women of Bethlehem in Herod’s day.
And because of this, two families took extreme measures to keep their children alive. Moses’ mother hid him until she could no longer do so. And then she left him in the very Nile he was supposed to be thrown into to die so that Pharaoh’s own daughter would find him and save him. Does anyone else see the irony here? Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt—the very Egypt Moses grew up in and fled from—in order to save Jesus from destruction. Again…irony.
In Exodus, Pharaoh’s daughter knew exactly what she had found—a child with a bounty on his head. And I suspect she also figured out that the nursemaid offered by Miriam was the boy’s mother. When she named him Moses, it was because she ‘drew him out of the water.’ Later, Jesus would enter the water of the Jordan in order for God to draw him up from it and give him the Holy Spirit.
Both men would later be driven into the wilderness where their vocation would be confirmed. They would return to their people to save them from life in bondage, most notably through the blood of a lamb. Their stories end in sacrifice, but they also begin with sacrifice. They begin with unexpected courage. They begin, in large part, with women of little value who said ‘yes’ when faced with unimaginable circumstances and difficult choices.
It’s really quite amazing how often those ‘people of little value’ play the most valuable roles in Scripture. Primarily in Scripture it’s women. Those who hold no power end up changing the whole trajectory of the people of God.
Just this past week, on June 29, the ELCA celebrated 50 years of women’s ordination in the church and its predecessor bodies. Just 50 years. And even now, many of our congregations refuse to call or respect the call of women in ministry. Yet, women have been God’s partners in ministry from the beginning. From the mother and sister of Moses, to Pharaoh’s daughter, to Rahab and Tamar, to Ruth and Naomi, to Rizpah and Bathsheba, to the Mary the mother of Jesus, to Mary and Martha of Bethany, to the woman at the well, and to Mary of Magdala, the first to tell others of Jesus’ resurrection. And let us not forget Paul’s partners in proclamation: Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Persis, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, and Junia.
This past year, the North Carolina Synod put together a video which compiled a list of things actually said to female pastors by other pastors and parishioners. The sayings were read by male pastors who were appalled by the very statements they were reading. Statements such as:
- You are the first woman preacher I’ve met. Are they all as good-looking as you?
- I just need a little kiss for comfort.
- What do I call you? Pastorette?
- That outfit looks really nice. We must be paying you too much.
- You don’t look like a Senior Pastor. (Or, you don’t look like a pastor—to which I respond, “Sorry, I just recently shaved my beard.”)
- We called you because we knew we could afford you. Women pastors are cheaper.
- You should just be grateful you’re getting a call at all as a female.
- So, when are you going to have a baby?
- What will you do on Sunday if your child gets sick?
- (after losing weight, gets slapped on the butt) Hey, you’re looking good!
- (pregnant pastor) Your belly is finally sticking out farther than your boobs.
- I heard you want to be bishop someday. Isn’t that going too far?
And many women in other vocations face the same thing. Yet, Scripture shows us just how powerful those who are underestimated and undervalued truly are. David—the scrawny kid from the country became king of all Israel. Esther, a beautiful Jewish girl, becomes queen of Persia and saves her people from a traitor’s anger. We heard recently about Ananias, a believer of the Way, who healed Paul’s sight and taught him the way of Jesus.
Who are the undervalued and underestimated in your midst? Who have you already decided has nothing to offer this world? Who has society written off as burdens, nobodies, abominations, the miserable and pitiful? Because it won’t be the powerful and privileged who God uses to change the world. It will be these little ones.
Look again at the story of Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter ends up raising him in Pharaoh’s own house. He provides for the one who will ultimately undo him. The baby in a basket will undermine the great power of the age—with a stick and a God who always sides with the little ones, the underestimated, and the undervalued.
And then hundreds of years later, another baby in a barn will undermine the powers of the whole world—and he won’t even have a stick. He will have God’s Word in his mouth, and it will be enough to threaten and upend the status quo of that day…and today. The Word will be killed for speaking up for the powerless and oppressed. God will be taken to task for loving those whom we have decided are unlovable and without value. And those of us who live with the privileges of this age will wonder, again, how we could have missed the signs of the kingdom.
And God will show us, again, what those signs actually look like—humility, grace, love, mercy, kindness, hope, welcome—all the things you can’t quantify or put a dollar sign on. And God will show us, again, those he will be found among—the homeless, the prisoner, those who experience body-shaming, the poor, the people turned away because of the color of their skin or who they love or the gender they express, the hungry, the cast out, the locked up, the addicted, the mentally ill, the tired—all those whom this society would prefer to hide and ignore and beat down and beat up.
And perhaps, someday, we will finally see Christ—not only in the faces of those looking out at us from the shadows but also in the mirror. And perhaps, someday, we will believe that we, too, are beloved.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church