Exodus 1: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah;3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy[a] in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.
8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labour the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
John F. Kennedy said that “those who forget the past are deemed to re-live it!” and such is true with the story of Pharaoh the leader of the Egyptians, who had forgotten the story of Joseph saving his nation, instead he saw the people of Israel -honest and law abiding citizens who have made their home in this nation and contributing to the society- as a threat and sought to eradicate them.
In many ways this story chimes with our modern society where many sadly look at people who have made their home here and contribute to our society and fear them, feel threatened and seek to remove them. Tragically Xenophobia, racism and prejudice are not new things. One can imagine the narrative in Pharaoh’s
Palace to sound eerily familiar with some of the Britain First and other groups on the intolerant right in this country. He would probably call his policies “a protectionist agenda for the Egyptian people” -maybe even using slogans like “Making Egypt Great again”.
From here the people of Israel are robbed of their dignity and freedom, exploited and becoming slaves of the Egyptians. When we look at the great atrocities in human history this always begins with the erosion of human dignity, the Nazi’s called the Jews “rats” and the Hutu called the Tutsi’s “Cockroaches” -dehumanised, ‘other’ and ‘less than human’ -splitting people into ‘them’ and ‘us’ rather than realizing our kinship with the whole of humanity.
Sadly, from feeling of fear and paranoia stems bullying, abuse of power, and exploitation lead to persecution which lead to infanticide and genocide under Pharaoh’s orders.
We know from the stories of Able, Noah and Sodom in the unfolding narrative of scripture that God will not sit idly by whilst his people are exploited and murdered.
What is our response when we are living in times and places of darkness and sin? How do we speak truth in a world that is fully of noisy lies, how do we live pure lives in a contaminated world and seek justice in a world of oppression and exploitation?
The excuse that “everyone is doing it” is no justification, instead we are called to be salt and light in the world, light that hurts the eyes and makes us wince when we have become accustomed to the darkness, salt that stings and makes us thirsty for pure-water.
One of my heroes is Dorothy Day who once said that are problems is “our acceptance of the whole stinking system” we have forgotten that the world is fallen and have accepted that which is unacceptable, we have become desensitized to injustice and exploitation by our continued exposure to it. In the Sitcom “Yes Minister” they talked about getting Ministers ‘house-trained’ when they don’t notice the flaws and the failures of their department.
She is someone who challenges me to live differently as a follower of Christ, and alien ambassador, someone who is meant to “shine out like stars in the heavens” and yet I fear at times I am more of a Chameleon that blends in!
In the passage, Pharaoh orders that all the little boys are to be killed. Yet, the midwives refuse to obey him, and let the children live. They lie to pharaoh. As I thought about that I am reminded how often I hear people justifying their own bad behaviour because of the influence, manipulation or pressure of someone else, the Midwives could have said “I’m just following orders, it’s not my fault” -yet the did the right thing and disobeyed Pharaoh.
Are we people who buckle under pressure? Do we compromise when perhaps we should stand firm? Does our integrity waver when the consequences look challenging? Do we look the other way sin and then shirk our personal responsibility and blame the system.
Now the passage doesn’t say much more about this, but I suspect that Pharaoh was someone who was vengeful and not used to being thwarted and perhaps might have punished the midwives -certainly that was a risk they faced when they disobeyed him. Sometimes the fear of painful consequences (which often can include those we love, if you lost your job could you put foot on the table for you family?) makes people do the wrong thing.
I think these remarkable women whose bravery is glossed over, need to be admired and commended because without them God’s nation would have ceased to exist and no Saviour could have come from that line if it was extinct.
Our actions -both good and bad- produce fruit, which in turn produce more fruit, both can snowball and we have seen in human history amazing moments of goodness cascade and sin snowballing out of control, which challenges me to ask “what is our fruit like?”
I think these women are a great challenge to us, they did what they could, they chose the right thing in a time when the wrong thing had the upper hand, and challenge us to think about how we live out our faith in the world are we people the subvert evil and have a prophetic imagination for righteousness, justice and the Kingdom of God? Seeking to live out and embody the Kingdom of God with who they were and with what they had.