Proper 16A

August 18, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 16:13-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Exodus 1:8-2:10

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    A coffin in Egypt.

    The last four words of Genesis are “a coffin in Egypt,” referring to what the family of Joseph did with his body following Joseph’s death at the very end of Genesis 50. It does not look like a very hopeful ending to the Bible’s opening book. The great patriarchs are all dead: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis ends in death and, what’s more, it ends with Abraham’s descendants outside the Promised Land. All through Genesis God’s promise of land was key. Abraham had briefly begun to stake a claim in that good land, but through a series of events, the clan wound up living in Egypt, and as Genesis concluded, they appeared to be stuck there, too.

    So Genesis ended with some suspense. Would there be any great figures on a par with Jacob and Joseph to lead the people of Israel? Would they ever get out of Egypt and back to Canaan? Questions like that hang heavy in the air as the curtain rings down on Genesis, and they are still there as the curtain goes up on Exodus. As the action of this new book begins, we are again reminded of death. Verse 6 reprises the rather grim ending of Genesis by telling us that Joseph and everyone of that generation had died. But the people are still stuck in Egypt. So as Exodus 1 opens, we are left to ponder what is going to happen next.

    Speaking of which . . . where is God in Exodus 1?

    It seems to be the question to ask as readers of this book because I think the author of Exodus wants us to feel like we are in a situation similar to that of the Israelites themselves. The people in Egypt were likewise asking where God was. What ever happened to the covenant with Abraham? What has become of all the wonderful promises about living in a Promised Land? Where was God and why wasn’t he doing something to help them, especially now that a new and cruel Pharaoh had come to power. By the time the action in Exodus 1 gets rolling, the people are not just living in Egypt, they have become enslaved there.

    Verse 13 sums up their plight quite succinctly: the Egyptians used the people ruthlessly.

    If ever they had needed the hand of God to intervene, now was the time! But God appears to have gone off-duty. Oh sure, a few people remembered the stories of the olden days. Once upon a time God supposedly talked with Abraham, visited with him and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre. Once upon a time the old one named Jacob had God-inspired dreams of ladders to heaven. But that all was long ago and far away. What had God done for them lately? Had God spoken to any leader of the people in recent times? Fact was, the people had no leader and, from the looks of things, they didn’t have any God worth bragging about, either. As time went on, God became the stuff of legend, of old memories, of long-lost hopes. Whatever God was, he was not an active presence in Egypt.

    Truth was, the only obvious power in Egypt was the sinister, evil muscle of the new Pharaoh. It is this man, and not God, who is the subject of this chapter’s active verbs. The Pharaoh is decisive, active, and shrewd. He sees, with growing alarm, how numerous the Israelites have become and so decides to enslave these people and, while he is at it anyway, also concocts his own Nazi-like “Final Solution” to curb the population growth. So he calls in the leading two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and orders them to strangle all the male babies born to Israelite women.

    But somehow these two women found it within themselves to resist Pharaoh. They feared God more than any punishment the Pharaoh might dish out and so they simply ignored the Pharaoh’s order. Eventually they made up an excuse, telling Pharaoh that the Israelite women were such strong folks that they were shooting those male babies out even before the midwives could arrive. It wasn’t their fault the male babies were surviving–they could not get there in time. It actually wasn’t all that good of a cover story, but the Pharaoh apparently bought it. In any event, he doesn’t have Shiphrah and Puah executed but he does seize on a new and terrible course of action: his own troops would undertake the task of tossing male infants into the River Nile. And it is on that horrible note that Exodus 1 concludes.

    Again, just reading this chapter gives us a small taste of what the Israelites must have been going through. Pharaoh looms large as a dreaded and terrible presence. But God recedes to the background–he is nowhere to be seen. He is scarcely mentioned and is said to do no more than reward Shiphrah and Puah with their own families. But all things considered, that doesn’t seem like a very big deal given that even Shiphrah and Puah’s children would grow up to be slaves. If giving these two midwives children of their own is the extent of God’s actions thus-far in Exodus, then compared with the real problems the people faced, it just didn’t amount to much.

    Where is God? On the surface God appears to be doing nothing. But perhaps that is why we should delve below the surface. Where is God in Exodus 1? For those with eyes to see, God is on shining display already in verse 7 (which the Lectionary would oddly have us miss by starting at verse 8). “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous.” After you read that verse, you need to flip back quickly to Genesis 12. Because it was there, for the first time, that God told Abraham, “I will make of you a mighty nation . . . your descendants will be like the sand on the seashore.”

    It seemed like such an unlikely promise at the time. Abraham was an old man, Sarah was an old woman, and even in the springtime of their lives they had never succeeded in bearing children. It almost looked as though God made things tougher on himself by choosing that particular pair of senior citizens. Surely there must have been other people living in the world back then, including people with big families. Somewhere there had to have been a married couple with nine or ten kids running around. Wouldn’t it have made sense to choose a family like that over against a childless retired couple?

    God stacked the deck against himself by choosing Abraham and Sarah to forge a great people, but doing it that way did have the advantage of making it abundantly clear that if and when the promise came true, there would be no denying that it was a miracle of God himself. Well, now we come to Exodus 1 and in verses 7 and 9 there is a tiny little Hebrew word that gets applied to Abraham’s descendants. For the first time in the entire Bible, Israel is called am, which is the Hebrew word for “nation.” They are a nation! Indeed, a mighty nation!   From childless old Abram and Sarai some 500 years earlier to a nation so populous and strong-looking that Pharaoh justifiably saw them as a potential threat. Amazing! The covenant really is moving forward, even as God said it would when he first called a man named Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees.

    True, the other half of the promise involved having a land of their own, and God will get around to that part in the next chapter. But for this evening we’ll stick with just Exodus 1 and the fact of Israel’s having, against all odds, become a mighty nation after all. Where is God in Exodus 1? He is present in the lovemaking and childbirths of thousands upon thousands of Israelite couples. God is in their bedrooms and in their delivery rooms. God is there as mothers nurse babies and as babies grow into children and then adults who in turn begin families of their own.

    But that’s not the only place you can locate God in Exodus 1: God is also to be found in Shiphrah and Puah.  Where is God in Exodus 1? He is squatting on a birthing stool delivering babies!

    Does God thunder onto the scene in Exodus 1? No. Does God intervene in miraculous ways that no one could possibly miss noticing? No. Here there are no events as stunning as things that will crop up later in this book, like plagues, fiery pillars, and the parting of the Red Sea. But no less here than later on, God is most certainly at work. What’s more, it’s not just random work but wonderful work that is completely consistent with, and that is bit by bit fulfilling, the ancient covenant with Abraham. As such, this chapter is a fine reminder that God can keep his promises through the ordinary as surely as through the extraordinary. In Genesis God kept his promise by helping a 90-year-old woman conceive a child named Isaac. That was really something. But in Exodus God is no less at work in overseeing the conceptions in the wombs of 20-year-old young women. And that is really something, too. A bit later in Exodus God will be at work in obvious ways through the heroics of Moses. That will really be something to see. But before we get to that God is quietly at work in Shiphrah and Puah, and that’s really something to see, too.

    As Exodus 1 closes, things look grim for Israel. We have not yet heard of anyone named Moses. The people are being used ruthlessly and despite the faithful defiance of Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh has found a new way to kill off the Israelites after all. But for those with eyes to see, and even before you peek ahead into chapter 2 and the birth of Moses, there is reason for some hope. God is there. He is at work. He has actually done far more than just give children to Shiphrah and Puah. God has birthed a nation, even as he promised. Pharaoh seems to be pushing forward, but God is way ahead of him. God, not Pharaoh, will have the last word. For anyone desperate to hear some word, any word, from God just now, there is hope. The Lord is never silent.  He is speaking.


    Illustration Idea

    Back when I was in seminary, one of the first comprehensive exams I had to take was the Bible Knowledge exam. Among other things, in preparation for that exam my friends and I compiled a very long list of just about every significant name we could find in the Bible. And it was a pretty sizeable list that included not just obvious names like Esau, Moses, Samson, and Solomon but any number of lesser-known biblical characters like Ehud, Zipporah, Amaziah, Mahlon, and others. But even so, when you think about all the thousands and maybe millions of Israelites who ever lived, the Bible really does not record a very thick percentage of names.  (The text of Exodus does not even give a name to the Pharaoh or to his daughter!)   The Bible records even fewer names of women. The vast majority of people who lived in biblical times remain anonymous. So out of all the possible names that could be remembered, it is remarkable how prominently the names of Shiphrah and Puah are recorded and preserved for us.

    But there is of course a good reason why this was so: the author of Exodus discerned that these two women were no less than God in disguise. Shiphrah and Puah’s names echo down along the centuries because were it not for their faithful defiance of Pharaoh, Moses might never have been born and the people of Israel might never have been rescued.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 138

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 12:1-8

    Author: Stan Mast