This is the first in a sermon series on the life of Moses.
SCRIPTURE – Exodus 2:1-10 – Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Delivery Man Sermon Series
1 – A Basket Case
June 21, 2015
Today we start our summer sermon series looking at the life of Moses. I’m sure this is a story that’s familiar to you. Next to Jesus, Moses is probably the most dramatized character in the Bible. From “The Ten Commandments” to the animated “Prince of Egypt” to this year’s epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the story of this castaway-turned-deliverer makes for compelling storytelling and even better special effects. But as often is the case, with no offense meant to Charlton Heston or Christian Bale, the Moses we have met on the screen isn’t the same Moses we meet in the pages of scripture.
During this series, we’ll seek to meet the real Moses, starting with his enigmatic birth story. But to understand that story, you have to understand how we got to the events in the second chapter of Exodus. At the end of the book of Genesis, the entire nation of Israel had moved to Egypt to be with Joseph, Israel’s son who had become Pharaoh’s right-hand man when Egypt suffered a crippling drought. To thank Joseph for his service, Pharaoh invites Joseph’s whole family to come and live in the lush land of Goshen.
But that Pharaoh dies and a new one comes to power, and this new guy isn’t too keen on these foreigners occupying such prime real estate. Not only that, but the Israelites have taken seriously the command to be fruitful and multiply, to the point that they are more numerous than the Egyptians. Pharaoh fears a possible revolt from this underclass, so he enslaves the Israelites, making them indentured servants of the Egyptian empire, building sphinx and pyramids and such.
That doesn’t stop the Israelites from multiplying, so Pharaoh takes a more drastic step. He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill any boy born to an Israelite woman, because in Pharaoh’s eyes, the boys were the threat. But the midwives outwit Pharaoh, telling him that the women are so vigorous they give birth before the midwives can get there. And Pharaoh, in his infinite wisdom, completely falls for it. And he thought the boys were the threat! The Israelites continues to grow strong, so Pharaoh gets more extreme. He orders that every boy born to the Israelites should be thrown into the Nile river to drown.
So that’s where we start today, and I hope you can appreciate the irony and humor of the story I’m about to tell you. In this country we celebrate American Pharaohs, but this particular Egyptian Pharaoh is about to get his gold-plated headdress handed to him. Upon hearing Pharaoh’s murderous command, one young mother – we’re not even given her name – decides to hide her baby for three months. That may be the biggest miracle in this whole story, because if you’ve ever tried to keep a baby quiet, you know they don’t always cooperate. After three months of trying to protect her son, this mother realizes he’s getting too big to hide. So she makes for him a small basket, places him in it, and sets him off floating down the Nile. How ironic that the body of water the Pharaoh had destined for death this mother is trusting to save her young boy. Pharaoh says throw the babies into the Nile; this mother puts her baby onto it.
The boy floats along, with his sister watching from the banks, until he is discovered in the river by the daughter of the very same Pharaoh who commanded boys like him to be killed in the very same river. Rather than carry out her father’s command, the daughter rescues the boy with the intent to claim him as her own. Notice that her nobility has its limits. She’s willing to save the baby, but she wants not part of changing dirty diapers, so she commissions the boy’s sister to find a nursemaid for him. The sister gets the boy’s mother, who just moments before thought she’d never see her son again, and Pharaoh’s daughter actually pays her to take care of the boy. Not long before this the mother was releasing her son to the fate of the river, and now she is being handed both her son and a wad of cash by the daughter of the guy who wants him killed! I tell ya, you can’t make this stuff up.
Now, who would you say is the main character in this story? Who is the protagonist, the one who is responsible for moving the story along? You might say Moses’ mom, who gets the ball rolling by putting her bundle of joy on the Nile. Or you might say its Pharaoh’s daughter, who makes the decision to spare the boy’s life and ultimately adopts him as her own. You could even make a case for Moses’ sister, who orchestrates the reunion of Moses and his mother. You could try to argue that it’s Moses, but all he really does is float and look cute.
But there’s one person that we would probably all agree is NOT a major player in this story, and that is God. God is not even mentioned in these 10 verses of chapter 2, which may lead you to wonder if God had anything to do with what happened to Moses. That’s not unlike how we sometimes wonder if God is really present in our lives, as well. Well, if you dive below the surface level of the text, you’ll find a treasure chest of symbolism that shows just how active God is at the beginning of Moses’ life.
For example, in verse 2, when Moses is born, the Bible says, “When his mother saw he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months.” Now, there’s nothing unusual about that statement. Every mother thinks their baby is a fine baby, even if they look like a plucked chicken or a wrinkly raisin. And even she didn’t think Moses looked particularly handsome, it’s not like she was going to toss him out the window. No, what’s interesting to note here is the Hebrew word for “fine,” translated other places as “goodly” or “wonderful,” is “tob,” a word which with the original readers would already be familiar. In the creation story, when God makes each thing, he pronounces it “tob,” meaning “good.” For example, “God made the plants and animals, and God saw that it was tob.”
Why does this matter? Remember, the Israelites are now slaves in Egypt. They were originally promised, through Abraham, that they would inherit the Promised Land, but now they’re stuck. Their story has hit a dead-end. So the author connects the birth of Moses to the Creation Story as a way of showing that, through Moses, God was active here, creating something new. There is reason, in the midst of their oppression and slavery, for the Israelites to have hope, because God is with them. If that connection wasn’t strong enough, Moses’ mother puts him in a boat made with bitumen and pitch, the same materials used to make another boat, Noah’s Ark. God also used that vessel to create a new beginning for God’s people. By using these literary devices, the author is saying, “God is at work here, doing something new.” God will use this Moses to bring new life and direction to this dead-end story.
But that will only happen if the people that Pharaoh has discounted are courageous enough to act. You realize that this story simply doesn’t happen without the people in it deciding to do something. Isn’t it delicious that the people who undo Pharaoh – Moses’s mom, his sister, and Pharaoh’s own daughter – are all of the gender that Pharaoh tossed off us not even important enough to fear? And yet, they all demonstrate amazing courage. Moses’ sister risks her freedom to connect Moses back with his mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter risks her father’s wrath by going against his command. And Moses’ mother is courageous enough to let go of her son and trust him to the open waters of life. Is there a harder thing to do as a parent, to trust that God goes with our children when they get on the school bus or go off to camp or get behind the wheel of a car? Moses’ mom exhibits radical trust in God’s presence and protection, and that trust gives her the courage to act.
It’s her courage as much as God’s providence that saves Moses. Even when her infant son is sentenced to die, she doesn’t give up hope that God is with her, although it must not have felt like it at the time. No matter how dead-end the situation, we trust that God IS there. When Pharaoh makes his decree to have all the Hebrew boys killed, God doesn’t throw up God’s hands and say in exasperation, “Well thanks a lot, Pharaoh! Now what am I going to do?” God works through Pharaoh’s inhuman decision and a mother’s maternal instincts and a sister’s protective actions and Pharoah’s daughter’s desire for life over death to bring about good. There’s always going to be a Pharaoh out there, isn’t there? There’s always someone or something that’s threatening us or our loved ones with harm. When a man can walk into a church and shoot nine people because of their skin color, we are painfully reminded that Pharaoh’s death sentence lives on through hatred and prejudice. But that Pharaoh is no match for our God.
That’s what these women have to teach us today. With a mixture of fear and trust, Moses’ mom let go of Moses and entrusted him to God’s care. His sister kept a watchful eye on him, making sure that he was safe. Pharaoh’s daughter took him in and protected him. They didn’t just stand on the bank and pray for a miracle. They didn’t sit idly by and say, “Oh well, God’s surely abandoned us now.” They act, trusting God will be with them. God gives them the courage they needed to stand up to Pharaoh, just as God has given us what we need to stand up to our own challenges.
I can’t imagine the emotions Moses’ mom went through as she put that little ark in the Nile river. We’ve all been in similar situations where we’ve had to let go, to give up, to change our dreams to fit a more sobering reality. It’s not a fun place to be. But we don’t have to stay there. There are situations in our lives where we have a role to play, an action to take, a decision to make to live out our faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. When the hatred of Pharaoh strikes in our world, our country, our community, we can wring our hands and say, “Gosh, what a tragedy.” We can sit back and wait for God to do something. Or we can realize God is waiting for us to do something. We’ll never do so perfectly. We’ll learn next week about how much trouble Moses had in following God’s lead. But let’s remember the lesson this story has to offer us: God has given us the gifts and the graces and the supports to change things, to liberate ourselves from captivity, to defy the evil forces in our lives and in this world. You may be wondering where God is, waiting for God to fix things. But maybe God is right here with us, waiting for us to do the same thing.