Exodus: Walking in the Wilderness
Today, we begin a nine-week series of lectionary selections from The Book of Exodus.
Exodus is about the birth of the nation of Israel. Gilgamesh in Babylon, and Romulus and Remus in Rome are examples of the foundation stories in other societies. In Genesis we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and a host of others who represented the matriarchs and patriarchs, the ancestral tribes. In Exodus we witness the formation of a national identity as the tribes escape from Egypt, wander in the Wilderness, begin to formulate laws and worship practices that will define them as a people. In fact, the rest of the Torah and the books that follow in the Hebrew Scriptures are a continuation of these same themes that arise in Exodus.
The great prophets of Israel continually refer back to the Exodus period as the time when the essentials of Israel’s identity emerged—not unlike the ways that some people in our land refer back to the founders to find clarity about American identity and mission…Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and so on.
The Book of Genesis ended with Jacob’s son Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, administrator of Egypt’s vast food stores that had been put aside against a coming famine. The famine began and Joseph brought his extended family from Palestine to Egypt where they were shielded from starvation.
Exodus begins when, we’re told, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Actually, it was at least several hundred years later, and a new and different dynasty of Pharaohs had arisen. Over those centuries the Hebrews had flourished and multiplied.
The new king was afraid of this large number of foreigners in his land. So he “set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor to build supply cities for Pharaoh. But they continued to flourish and multiply, “so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” They became ruthless, imposing more and more harsh labor and tasks.
Finally “the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him . . . .’” But the midwives refused and they lied to Pharaoh with a tale about how the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before the midwives could arrive.
Then came the directive to the Egyptians that they throw all the male Hebrew children into the Nile to be drowned. Of course, this sets up the story of the birth of Moses and how he survived with the connivance of his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter.
These stories were so formative and powerful for the Jewish people that when more than a millennium later a young woman gave birth in the little town of Bethlehem, some early Jewish Christians told the story against the backdrop of Exodus: a child was born to be God’s anointed. When the evil king Herod heard the news, he tried to kill him by ordering the deaths of all the young male children. The baby Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, fled into Egypt, only to return some years later after Herod’s death. So the new Moses also came up out of Egypt. Moses the lawgiver on the mountain of Sinai; Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, reinterpreted the law. Exodus becomes a template which we can lay alongside subsequent experience in order to discover its meaning.
In our Exodus passage this morning, please note that the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are named. Pharaoh, the powerful king of all Egypt, is not.
John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, wrote the following in his commentary on this passage:
Telling us the midwives’ names makes them real people; not just anonymous functionaries. They are people who revere God. Exodus knows them by name; we know them by name; God knows them by name. We’ll later discover the names of Moses’ parents and his sister. They’re real people. It is less important for the representatives of the Egyptian court to be so. Not naming them suggests that they are subordinate to the story. . . . The Scriptures have a different scale of values; it’s not Pharaoh and his daughter who count. Pharaoh is someone the newspapers think is important and powerful, yet he can be defeated by three or four women.
We have all observed in recent decades, that the role and place of mainline religion and institutions have diminished in our society. New kings, new values have emerged, that don’t know the old ways. There are a plethora of new spiritual associations. The rise of social media have provided millions with virtual friendships and community that were once experienced in neighborhood faith communities. For some, the reaction has been a tighter grasp on what they call the fundamentals. Fundamentalisms have emerged in almost all of the world religions.
Others have simply left their faith traditions and communities. Some have called them the “nones”—n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s—the box they check when surveyed about their religious preferences; or what Bishop Spong has called “the Church alumni association.”
Still others, like you and me, are wrestling with questions about how to go forward when the landscape has changed. What do we do in this new environment? We’ve left the settled ways—as difficult as they might have been in Egypt. Now we wander in an unknown wilderness without familiar landmarks or maps. Is there a Promised Land in our future? What is it and what will it look like? How do we live in the meantime? These are the questions of Exodus.
So I invite you to walk this Exodus journey with our ancestors in faith, seeking their wisdom, their insight, and the light of God. They eventually left Egypt where they were enslaved and walked into an unknown future. They walked that way, some resisting, others trusting, but everyone uncertain. May we continue to walk this way together.
In the name of God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Amen.
 Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, John Goldingay, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2010, p. 10