But They Feared God

Exodus 1:6-22 and Luke 16:1-13
Francisco Pelaez-Diaz
June 24, 2018
Jump to audio

I would like to start by expressing my gratitude on behalf of my family for the opportunity to participate in the life and ministry of this church. We have been blessed not only by the wonderful sermons, music, Sunday school classes, retreats, small groups, and worship in general, but more importantly by the warm and welcoming treatment extended to us by the pastors and the congregation in general.

It is not always easy to participate in church functions and worship with a baby, or a toddler, or a “big niño” as my son Oliver refers to himself nowadays. In our case, Oliver’s level of energy and his need to move, walk, climb and talk is more than some people feel comfortable with in certain public settings. Despite the challenges, my wife and I have decided to cling to the spirit of Jesus’ words when he said “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belong to such as these.” (Mt. 19:14 NIV) We are grateful that such spirit is reflected in the words printed in every Sunday’s bulletin: “Children are always welcome in our services of worship.”

We have reached the point where Oliver sometimes wants to come by himself to the front during the Time with Children and also attend Sunday school classes. But we wanted to give him the experience of being together as a family during worship as long as possible. We truly believe that it is important to experience church as a family. We believe in the importance of being together as a family. We want him to feel that he is part of a family, and we want him to experience that feeling of belonging to the church that is both implicit and explicit in his baptism, which as some may remember, took place in this church in February of 2016.

And precisely because we value and enjoy so much being together as a family, the topic that dominated the news this past weeks hit us so hard. I am talking about the separation of immigrant families at the US-Mexico border as a result of the “zero-tolerance” policy implemented in April of this year. In early May, when I selected the Old Testament passage that we read today, I had recently watched the official announcement of this policy and started reading about the implications for those who were coming to this country as a family. The story in the book of Exodus, chapter 1, came to me as a story that could shed some light as to how to respond to a situation such as the one we are witnessing these days.

Verse 17 of Exodus 1 stood out to me: “But they (the midwives) feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” The story in Exodus chapter 1, in my view, is about resistance, courage, cleverness/shrewdness, humanity, faithful witness to the principle of human life’s worthiness, and, ultimately, clear priorities that are in line with those of God. Each one of these themes emerge as a response to their opposites: Oppression, abuse of power, fear of “the other,” foolishness linked to prejudice, contempt or disregard towards human life and ultimately towards anything that doesn’t align with the interests of the powerful.

This is the scenario: A few generations after Joseph’s and his brothers’ death, a new king came to power in Egypt. For this king, Joseph meant nothing. A commentator’s translation says: “Then there arose a new king over Egypt who did not care about Joseph”[1] or “who did not want to have anything to do with [Joseph].”[2] These translations allow the interpretation that the king probably knew something about Joseph but such knowledge meant nothing to him or perhaps, he did not like what it meant and therefore he decided to ignore it. A common occurrence in human behavior is the tendency to forget or ignore history. There is a broad spectrum of reasons and degrees of intentionality behind this tendency. The spectrum could go from simple ignorance to ideological commitments and/or political agendas with many other possibilities in between. In the particular case of the presence of the Israelites in Egypt, we know through the book of Genesis (chapter 47) that such presence came about through God’s extraordinary intervention and through human relationships. First, Joseph interpreted dreams for people he met in prison. One of them was Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer who later referred Joseph to Pharaoh when Pharaoh had the dreams that no one else could interpret. And then, fast forward, when Joseph’s family came to seek refuge in Egypt due to the famine, they were welcomed and given land in Egypt, thanks to the relationship that Joseph had established with Pharaoh. Relationships allow trust to flourish. Put in negative terms, the lack of meaningful relationships is one of the most fertile soils for the growth of fear and suspicion. I think this is what happened with this new king of Egypt. He did not know Joseph because he belonged to a different generation, which is not his fault of course, but apparently, he did not want to know about Joseph despite the fact that he was surrounded by Joseph’s descendants. Instead of trying to understand why the Israelites were there, or how they got there, or what benefits Egypt received from them, the king succumbed to his paranoia, exacerbated perhaps by his lack of relationships with them. He was not interested in a more comprehensive analysis of the presence of the Israelites. He simply created a problem where there was none. There is no indication that the Israelites posed a threat or that they were a problem, and even then, the king of Egypt, relying on a mere hypothetical situation, decided that the course of action should be the reduction of the number of Israelites in Egypt. Is this hypothetical situation totally unfounded?  Not necessarily. Part of the reality of being an empire is the constant risk of being involved in a war. In case of war, you certainly need to watch your back. The problem here is twofold: On one hand, the king of Egypt highlighted only one aspect about the Israelites: their big number. He says: “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us” (v. 9 NIV). On the other hand, the king took a small portion of the reality of being an empire, namely, the risk of the Israelites becoming allies of their enemies and used it to instill fear. And then, he made of all this the whole story about the Israelites. The king proceeded to use this story to justify a plan to reduce the number and control those who otherwise were living peacefully in Egypt. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie has described moves such as this as the “danger of the single story,”[3] which occurs when one takes a portion of the reality of human beings –such portion is in some cases called stereotypes- and make of it the only and whole story. When we do that, Chimamanda argues, we dehumanize individuals and entire groups of people. In fact, such dehumanization becomes more acute and dangerous when we add fear to the equation.  The king of Egypt did both things –used a single story and instilled fear-. As an immigrant myself, the topic of migration is on my radar pretty much all the time and I can see how these two elements are being constantly used against immigrants, not only in the U.S. but pretty much everywhere. Immigrants are constantly defined as a problem (crime, burden, threat) and fear is being instilled. Once fear is instilled in our minds, it’s easier to justify and even participate in the humiliation, dehumanization, and ultimately, the annihilation of the “other.” 

Going back to Pharaoh, he then said to the Egyptian people: “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them…” (v. 10a NIV) It is revealing that the king of Egypt explicitly proposed to act “shrewdly,” and ended up failing miserably. Some commentators say, “Pharaoh thinks to act shrewdly, but is really [a] wicked fool…”[4]  One definition of shrewd is: “A shrewd person is able to understand and judge a situation quickly and to use this understanding to their own advantage.”[5] A more colloquial definition says “shrewdness is the ability to use the resources that a person has to get what he/she wants.[6]” So the resources that Pharaoh had were huge: He had political power and the power to enforce the law. Why did he fail as we’ll see in the following verses? It seems as if he did not use the right resources or did not apply them in the right way to obtain what he wanted. But there is also the possibility that there was something in his way every time. Here are two of Pharaoh’s attempts and his failures:

The first strategy attempted to reduce the Israelite population was enslavement. Some have suggested that the exhaustion caused by intense labor under harsh circumstances would take away the energy required to reproduce. According to v. 12 (NIV), this was not the case: “…the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” But is not only about the ability to reproduce but more importantly, the ability to give birth and raise children. As Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley has pointed out, the strength of women carrying to term babies and raising them to adulthood defies the logic that these things would be impossible in the midst of such terrible conditions of exploitation and suffering.[7] In other words, the king’s logic was right, Dr. Lapsley suggests, but the Israelites and specially the Israelite women were stronger than he thought. These strong women were in Pharaoh’s way.

When this strategy failed, the king of Egypt thought of a more drastic and direct measure: Male infanticide. Dr. Dennis Olson points out that Pharaoh asks the midwives, those whose vocation was precisely to preserve and protect life, to execute the infanticide. In Dr. Olsen’s words, “Pharaoh demands that they deny their vocation and kill.”[8] This strategy was supposed to be discrete and deceiving. Some commentators suggest that the boys were to be killed in a way that made the mothers believe that the boys were stillborn.[9]  “But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt ask them to do.” (v. 17) We know the names of the midwives that received this terrible command: Shiphrah and Puah. We don’t know for sure if they were Egyptians or Hebrews. This ambiguity is interesting because the reason for disobeying Pharaoh is not related to any loyalty toward their ethnic identity. What we know is that they disobeyed because they feared God. Disobeying a king did not pose a minor risk. Often times doing so would mean to put one’s own life at risk. But the midwives understood that killing innocents would go against God’s will. They understood without a doubt the pain and suffering that a mother would experience for being separated forever from her child and they knew that such suffering being inflicted purposely and unjustifiably, was against God’s will. And they took a stand. They decided to resist. They decided to defy Pharaoh. But the form of their defiance was not an open one. The midwives also proved to be shrewd. But their shrewdness was successful, unlike that of Pharaoh. Once Pharaoh discovered that his command was not being obeyed, he summoned the midwives and asked them: “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” (v. 18) Again, following Dr. Lapsley’s translation and interpretation, the response of the midwives was: “Because not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrew women, for they are animal-like –before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth.” [10] This means, Dr. Lapsley says, that this response is a lie in the sense that the midwives are not revealing the reason for not killing the boys, which is their fear of God. But at the same time, the midwives’ response is true[11] because earlier in this passage (v. 7) there is an expression that is often used to refer to some animals’ prolific capacity to reproduce to describe the extraordinary way in which the Israelite population had grown.[12] Even more importantly, the response of the midwives was really clever because, in Dr. Lapsley’s words, “it plays to the king’s prejudices. The king likely already thinks of the masses of Hebrews as animals, in the negative sense of less than human, so that he is not inclined to doubt the veracity of the [midwives] account.”[13] In this way, the midwives deflected any punishment against them[14]. They were shrewd. They used the resources that they had, in this case the prejudices of Pharaoh against the Israelites, and obtained what they wanted, namely, the preservation of innocent lives, which was in line with God’s will. The notion of shrewdness is a complex one. In the Gospel reading of this morning (Luke 16:1-13) Jesus tells the story of a shrewd manager whose actions made his boss lose trust in him. Some have said that this is the most difficult parable in Luke because there are many details left out that make it difficult to determine the extent of the unethical behavior that Jesus ends up commending. The implications of this story leave us wondering if Jesus embraces a pragmatic approach and overlooks unethical actions. Going back to the Exodus story, as William Propp says, “like other biblical acts of defiance, the midwives’ heroism involves an element of the sneaky.”[15]

We are constantly witnessing or facing difficult or oppressive situations in which we feel that we must be obedient or compliant even though we know that these situations don’t align with God’s priorities and God’s will. This story, the story of the shrewd and faithful midwives, reminds us that our guiding principle to respond must always be God and God’s priorities. Our response can take different forms, and perhaps, in some cases, when there are risks for us, our response may require some shrewdness, and always, always must reflect our fear of God – this is, our faithful alliance with God and God’s priorities.

[1] Cornelis Houtman, Exodus, Historical Commentary on the Old Testament (Kampen: Kok, 1993), 219.

[2] Houtman, 235–36.

[3] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, consultado el 21 de junio de 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.

[4] Brevard S. Childs, The book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, Old Testament library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 13.

[5] “Shrewd Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary”, consultado el 23 de junio de 2018, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/shrewd.

[6] Dr. Joseph Castleberry, sermon preached at Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association Great Auditorium on June 17, 2018.

[7] Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament, 1st ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 72.

[8] “Commentary on Exodus 1:8–2:10 by Dennis Olson”, consultado el 23 de junio de 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=131.

[9] Houtman, Exodus, 254.

[10] Lapsley, Whispering the Word, 73.

[11] Lapsley, 73.

[12] Lapsley, 70.

[13] Lapsley, 74.

[14] Lapsley, 74.

[15] William Henry Propp, ed., Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 1st ed, The Anchor Bible, v. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 142.

© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.