I think the gift to us here is to again recognize that we have here the work of an intergenerational group of women.
Natalie Owens Pike:
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Join us each week as Yale Divinity School professors look at an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
I’m your host, Natalie Owens Pike, Yale Divinity School Class of 2023. Today is our 100th episode. In this episode, we have Joanne Jennings, Director of Black Church Studies at Yale Divinity School and Bill Goettler is Associate Dean for Ministerial and Social Leadership and Lecturer in Parish Leadership and Church Administration at Yale Divinity School. They’re discussing Exodus 1:8-2:10, which is appointed for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in Year A. Let’s listen in.
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 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.”
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “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.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
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.”
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
“Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
This particular passage has so many lovely pictures for us, and the first is the fact that there is a new king in the land who knew not Joseph, and it reminds me of how important it is for us to understand our history, our context, so that we can be aware that before us, there was someone, and after us, there will be someone. It’s the wonderful rhythm of how God works, is that God continues throughout history to position people before us and after us; and in this case, this king missed an opportunity to know that there were resources that were well available to him, that he. misinterpreted and saw as being enemies. This king also shows us something about how our fears can skew our understanding of our environment, because his fears were the thing that caused him to assume that the growth and the prosperity of the Israelite people were somehow a disadvantage to him. Kind of familiar, isn’t it?
And then there’s the story of the wonderful Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew slaves, who challenged the law, because the law was wrong. And they conspired to stand up to the power. Now, it doesn’t say this, but I can’t imagine that they did that alone. Behind them were so many others in that community who stood for what was right, for what was holy. And when the midwives refused to follow the law, they too refused. I don’t know if they would’ve said that they stood for what was of God, but they certainly were standing for what was holy and what was right.
And they also were living into who they were. Their identity and their life’s work was around facilitating life. And they were being asked, by this particular law, to actually live outside their own values, their own training. And so, they refused to do that, because they recognized that sense of calling they had. They had obviously trained as midwives, learned how to midwife, given themselves to that work; and then to be asked, “Oh no. Despite your training, we want you to do something very different”–they refused, and I think as we can be faithful to the callings to which we find ourselves led, then other people have the capacity, then, to live authentically into their own calling. So, I agree there probably was a community, but because they were the leaders, they also probably empowered other people to live into that kind of calling.
And then there’s another agreement that seems to be made between some women there. There’s the mother of the boy who will be named Moses and the boy’s sister, Miriam; they seem to have made an arrangement with the Pharaoh’s daughter. God works miracles, certainly; but so often, those miracles seem to happen through very human hands.
There is that way of thinking about how their life story sort of coalesce at this moment in a way that allows Moses to become, eventually, the man and leader he becomes. I think the thing that strikes me about this is the creativity and the willingness to navigate a system that was designed to kill Moses. Here is a mother who does what is very difficult for a parent to do–with any age child–and that is to relinquish a child. One of the things that I find fascinating about Jochebed is that immediately as she sees this child, she sees something in the child. And that, I think, is a wonderful gift for not just a parent, but for leaders, to be able to see the gift that’s in their hands, and to know how to release that gift: recognizing that “my role at this moment is done; let me see what comes next.” And so, in her releasing of him, he actually was able to flourish. Had she held on tightly and said, “Oh, I’m gonna hold to my child, hide him under the bed,” I wonder what would’ve happened for Moses.
But miraculously, the newborn is placed by his mother into a papyrus basket and set down among the reeds at the bank of the river. And miraculously, the daughter of the Pharaoh just happens to walk by at that moment, and find that child, and call it her own. And just as wonderfully, there is then a Hebrew woman nearby who’s ready and willing to nurse the infant.
The Pharaoh’s daughter. The adopted son named Moses. “Moses,” she says, “because I drew him out of the water.”
And think of Pharaoh’s daughter: clearly growing up in a system, and hearing all her father’s rantings about these Jewish people flourishing, how he’s going to develop a law that’s going to cut down their growth as a people, and having, somehow, the capacity–because she recognized it was a Hebrew baby–having the capacity to press back against all of that voicing that she’s heard, all of those internal things that have been drilled into her about the Hebrew people; to be able to agree that “I’m going to take this child into our home, even though I know it’s a hostile place, but I feel like I can create space for him,” that’s pretty incredible.
A story of wonder upon wonder…
…Of strong women after strong women, who work together for an amazing and miraculous life.
And let us not forget Moses’s sister, because I think the gift to us here is to, again, recognize that we have here the work of an intergenerational group of women. Let’s not minimize what she offers to this whole rescue of Moses and how she is also pivotal in being able to secure for him the kind of future and training that he needed. It’s an exciting picture, and for me, as a woman in ministry, it’s a wonderful picture of how women of different ages, different races, can collaborate to see life come forth, and something, and someone, develop in a way that they can live into their calling.
Natalie Owens Pike:
Thank you for listening. And thank you to our professors for your insights on this scripture.
The transcript of this audio and lots more Bible study resources are available at yalebiblestudy.org.
Chapter, Verse, and Season is a production of the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School and is produced by: Creator and Managing Editor, Joel Baden; Production Manager, Kelly Morrissey; Associate Producer, Aidan Stoddart; Executive Producer, Helena Martin; and me, your host, Natalie Owens Pike. Mixing on today’s episode, and our theme music, are by Calvin Linderman.
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