Summary: Introduction to Exodus
Today we begin a new series of sermons on Exodus. (Outline available) As I said in that outline the story of the Exodus is the story of the people of God. What we find here is a precursor to what we find in the gospels and in a sense is a mirror of our own experience of being part of the people of God. So as we go through this book let’s think about how the history of the ancient Hebrews intersects with our own story? How does the way God interacted with his people back then reflect how he interacts with us today.
As we begin I thought we might think about where our picture of Exodus comes from? For many of us, I imagine, our picture comes from Hollywood: from Cecil B de Mille. Moses is tall and assertive, strong and courageous, destined for leadership, a champion of the poor and mistreated; sent by God to rescue his people from slavery. But that’s not actually how the story begins. In fact it’s the opposite. Moses is a hothead who runs at the first sign of danger. As we’ll see next week, even when God confronts him and tells him that he’s been chosen to lead his people to freedom, Moses does all he can to get out of it. No, as the story unfolds the early heroes are much less well known. These heroes aren’t the sort of people that Hollywood would have portrayed in one of its epic movies.
But we’ll come back to that. First look at how the story begins. The sons of Israel, that is the sons of Jacob, have come to Egypt during the time when Joseph was Prime Minister. Joseph, you may remember had saved Egypt and the surrounding countries from one of their greatest famines and in the process had made the King of Egypt, the Pharaoh, incredibly wealthy. So as the family of a national hero, they were warmly welcomed when they arrived. There were 70 of them in all, but that had been some 200 or more years before. By now, that generation had died and their descendants had multiplied and were becoming a sizeable ethnic subgroup within Egypt. So much so in fact that when a new King came to power he began to worry about their political and military might. It was a bit like the way certain people today worry about the influx of Asian migrants to Australia. The Pharaoh wasn’t interested in their contribution to the nation in the past. He was worried about what they might do if they didn’t like some of his policies? They were even getting to the point where they might mount a military threat to the government.
So he acts the way tyrants always act. He becomes paranoid. He begins to fear these people who are totally under his power. He begins to oppress them. He puts them to hard labour. They’re set the tasks of building two new store cities for the King, Pithom and Rameses. But not even that ploy has any effect. The people continue to grow strong. The more they’re oppressed the more they multiply and spread and it seems something of a mythology grows up around them so the people begin to dread them. And so we find the people working in bitterness and suffering.
But then we find a wonder. The King of Egypt gives the Hebrew midwives a directive: they’re to kill all the boys who are born to the Hebrew women. He doesn’t want to do it himself, so like all good tyrants he tells someone else to do his dirty work. And he does it from within the oppressed people. Now notice this. The King, as important as he is, is not named anywhere in this book apart from the title Pharaoh. But the two Hebrew midwives are. They’re Shiphrah and Puah. These are ordinary, probably untaught, women, probably barren, who had found a role to play in delivering the children of other women. No one would have remarked about them as they went about their daily chores. But then this word comes - from the absolute ruler - a God-King in fact. And it’s a word of genocide.
Shiphrah and Puah were nobodies: no armies gathered around them. They just had their lives and their work - and their orders. But they didn’t obey. This is the wonder. They refused power. They refused to kill. Think about how they must have felt. The fear, the anxiety, the self doubt. Who are we? What difference can we make? If we don’t do it someone else will. All we’ll achieve is the anger of the King. He’ll probably have us put to death.
Imagine how they felt when the King called them in. As they went from their poor village into the opulence of the King’s palace. Tall columns, beautiful furnishings, probably a throne set high above the people - all designed to overwhelm and impress. But they’re not overwhelmed. In fact the opposite: they turn aside the King’s question with a veiled insult to the Egyptian women. Don’t miss the irony here. Here’s the King thinking he’s going to deal shrewdly with the Israelites but it’s actually these two country bumpkins, these two women from a poor village, who end up dealing shrewdly with him.