Two Mothers and a Round Trip Ticket
Bible Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
“Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
As children, we couldn’t resist this story of a baby on an adventure, a baby on a boat ride down a river. But now, we are older and we hear this story with different ears; we listen anew. Let God’s presence unfold as we look for hope in the story of Moses’ birth.
Read Exodus 1:8-2:10
Birth stories are important. The more radical birth narratives are the ones that stand out of course. One mother I know was in labor for 44 hours. Another baby came so quickly she and her husband didn’t even make it out of the house and into the car. One baby came in the middle of the worst storm in the history of storms, that one that dropped 22 inches on us back in 2011, you remember it?
Some babies come early, others take their sweet time. Sometimes it is the dads that take their sweet time. One father I know, full of expectant nervousness, had to stop at the drive through to buy a cheeseburger on the way to the hospital.
Sometimes our lives are retold through the lens of our birth story. I know that my parents attribute some measure of red-headed stubbornness to the fact that when my mom went into labor, I was still facing the wrong direction.
Birth stories are important.
They mark the beginning of a life, the creation of a family, the start of something new. There is hope and anticipation, a name that holds meaning, a renewed promise to care for the little one now bundled in your arms. Moses’ birth story is probably the most popular birth story in scripture, second only to Jesus. You know, we tell that birth story every year.
And really, Jesus and Moses’ birth stories have some semblance of similarity: the story of a baby whose life was threatened from the beginning, whose life was saved early on in Egypt, whose life was complicated even before he could walk. Moses’ birth story sets him apart, it gives him a future that is decidedly different from any of the other Hebrew babies whose lives were equally threatened.
Moses’ birth story starts us wondering what might happen next for this child who was sent down the river in a basket and then brought back to the arms of his mother in a simple twist of fate.
By way of Dysfunctional Family Vacations, Moses’ family life does have its own form of dysfunction, yes? His mother gives him up into an unknown future, sending him down the Nile River. Then the Egyptian Princess draws him up out of the water and claims him as her own, adopting him without thought of consequences from her father, the Pharaoh. So, Moses’ wet nurse is his biological mother, the Egyptian Princess is his mother by adoption, and the Pharaoh by extension becomes his grandfather by adoption.
By way of vacations, Moses’ journey down the Nile River is most certainly not a cruise ship voyage, but he finds himself in an interesting watercraft nonetheless. The Hebrew word used to describe Moses’ basket is the same word used in the book of Genesis to describe Noah’s ark. The ark, for Noah, was a place of safety in the chaos of natural disaster, and now for Moses, his mini baby-sized ark is a place of safety in the political chaos of oppression, slavery and infanticide.
In this political chaos, Moses’ survival is dependent on a handful of women who deliberately break the rules, an interesting twist to the birth narrative of the man who ultimately establishes the 10 commandments and the 613 other “Laws of Moses on the books in the Old Testament.
The midwives have to lie to Pharaoh, saying that the Hebrew women just give birth way to quickly for the midwives to ever be able to kill any of those pesky baby boys. Then, Moses’ mother does end up somewhat superficially following Pharaoh’s law that says that all Hebrew baby boys are to be thrown into the Nile River. She partially follows this law, right? Of course, before she “throws” (read “gently places”) Moses in the Nile River, she makes him a safe mini baby-sized ark. But she does put her baby in the Nile River nonetheless.
And finally, Pharaoh’s daughter participates in the biggest act of rule breaking, going against her father’s rules and not just letting this Hebrew baby live, but adopting him herself to raise under Pharaoh’s own roof.
We should not forget the saving act of Moses’ sister, who secretly waits and watches as the Princess pulls Moses up from the water, and then only when the moment is right does she offer help to the Princess in figuring out someone to nurse this baby for her.
Pharaoh must not have known how active the women might be in foiling his plot, when he twice said that the Hebrew baby girls could live. He must not have known the power of ancient Egyptian and Hebrew women.
These women: the midwives, Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sister all put a fine point on how drastically different today’s lesson is from last week. The Dysfunctional Family Vacations of Joseph and Moses are almost complete opposite. To start, unlike Joseph, who found new life in Egypt when the Promise Land brought only suffering and famine, Moses faces the dual horrors of murder and slavery in Egypt.
Then you notice that Joseph’s story is populated with almost exclusively male characters – 12 brothers and their families – and Moses’ story is almost exclusively female characters, save for Moses and Pharaoh. Then, unlike Joseph, who saves all of his brothers because he is in a position of power in Egypt, it is Moses’ sister who ends up saving him, even though she is likely the character with the least amount of power in this whole story, being not just a child, but also a girl in a patriarchal culture and a person from the oppressed culture. And finally, Joseph saves his people by bringing them into Egypt, and ultimately Moses will save his people by drawing them out of Egypt. The stark differences between Joseph and Moses drive home the point that much has changed in Egypt, and a leader must emerge to bring about change.
The similarities, however, between the stories point us back to the themes that resonate again and again throughout scripture. In due time, Joseph is reunited with his family, as is Moses: the good news is that the lost becomes found. In the end, Joseph, who surely was dead was found to be alive, as is Moses: the good news is that life emerges even in the face of death. Joseph is once a slave, a man powerless to do anything to save himself, just like Moses, an infant in nothing but a small basket on the Nile River is powerless to do anything to save himself: the good news is that our salvation does not come from us, but from God at work in our lives.
Finally, as Joseph and Moses grow up, they both become persons of two cultures – at once Hebrew and Egyptian, bi-cultural people whose very lives defy what it means to belong in one culture or another: the good news is that God is at work, not just in the lives of God’s people, the Hebrews, but in the unexpected people who we might otherwise consider foreigners to God’s story.
Even Moses’ name emphasizes his dual citizenship. His name can be translated from Egyptian as “son” a name often found in the lineage of kings, and a name given to him by the Princess in the moment she adopts him as her own son. His name can be translated from Hebrew as “drawn out” meaning both that he was drawn out of the Nile River by the Princess into safety, and also that he will eventually be the one who draws his own people out of Egypt, out of slavery and into safety.
Moses’ birth narrative is a tightly woven tapestry, reminding us again that God’s plan for us does not unfold in quite the way we might expect.
In God’s plan, the good news is that the king’s laws are broken.
✥ The good news is that the baby has two mothers.
✥ The good news is that cultures cross paths.
✥ The good news is that women with little or no power are empowered to save lives.
✥ The good news is that the baby is thrown (oh, fine, gently placed) into the Nile by his mother.
✥ The good news is that the baby’s sister trespasses at the Pharaoh’s palace.
✥ The good news is that the Pharaoh’s daughter disobeys her father.
That is the upside down kingdom of God.
It is the same with Jesus, isn’t it?
A pastor told me recently about how she was talking to children about Jesus. Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, a woman that Jesus was not supposed to talk to, because it was against the religious law to talk to Samaritan women. A little boy raised his hand, very upset, and said that she was wrong. Jesus never broke the rules, the child said. Jesus was good, a good man, the child pleaded. Everyone should follow him because he was good and followed all the rules, the child reminded everyone.
That’s the thing about the good news of the gospel, the pastor told the child. It doesn’t unfold in the way the world might want it to unfold. Jesus upset the status quo, broke open the doors of injustice, changed the way people saw the world.
Moses’ birth narrative is the same, in fact it sets the scene for Jesus’ life to emerge the way it does. In Moses’ story, God’s presence shows up in the disobedience of a daughter and the powerlessness of a sister, the work of two culture-crossing mothers and their dual hope of freedom from injustice in a land of slavery.
So then, where are you in this story? What does this mean for us? This is always our question when we read the story of scripture, isn’t it? Maybe you have been Moses’ mother, sending your child off into an unknown future, not knowing if you would see your child again? Maybe you have been the Pharaoh’s daughter, who disobeyed her father for the sake of what was right? Maybe you have been Moses’ sister, unable to keep silent, unable to stay away from the one sent down the river? Maybe you’ve been the midwives, told to do something unjust, violent even, by a person in power? Maybe you have been the midwives, having to subversively do what was right? Maybe you have been the Pharaoh’s daughter, having compassion for someone who was outside of your community, outside of your family? Maybe you have been Moses’ mother, finding unexpected blessing and new life in the face of certain sorrow?
This story has the power to root us again in the love of God; our God who knows that all is not right with the world; our God who knows that laws are sometimes unjust, that cultural walls are sometimes too high or too well kept; our God who knows that power is sometimes maintained because of fear by violence or oppression or slavery or death.
The story of Moses’ birth gives us a wide view of the way the world is, not just the way the world was. It is up to us, the people of God of today, to figure out what our role is in the wide hope of God’s good news. As we say in our 8 am prayer, “every day is an opportunity to decide again that this day will be better than the past.”
How might you decide again that today will be better than the past, and that God’s upside down good news is for you?
In this call to God’s upside down, subversive, disobedient good news, I will leave you with a benediction prayer I learned when working at church from the United Church of Christ tradition:
Jesus said, “You ought always to pray and not to faint.”
Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men and women.
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, but for power equal to your tasks.
Then, the doing of your work will be no miracle – you will be the miracle.
Every day you will wonder at yourself and the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.