Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, March 05, 2021
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Doing Right in All Circumstances August 23, 2020

Romans 12:1-8 and Exodus 1:8-2:10

The story of Moses and the Exodus, the great act of deliverance in the Old Testament begins here with an act of defiance. Pharaoh’s orders are ignored. The law is disobeyed.

A new Pharaoh has risen to the throne, one with no knowledge of the service Joseph had rendered to the kingdom centuries earlier. None of the Pharaohs are named in the Bible, so that leads to much speculation. Who were they? When did these events happen? If you’ve ever seen the movie The Ten Commandments, they go with the theory that the Pharaoh in question is Rameses II, which is a popular theory. And sure enough, the name Rameses shows up in the story, right? The Hebrew slaves have to build the city of Rameses. The thing is, the name Rameses, just means, “born of Ra,” the sun god. It was a common enough name. And the other issue is that the timeline doesn’t work well. Rameses II was Pharaoh in the 13th century BC, and the Exodus happened a couple hundred years earlier. Other scholars suggest Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, Ahmose I, Thutmoses III, and still more.

Here’s something we do know. In the 17th and 16th centuries BC, much of Egypt fell under the control of the Hyksos Dynasty. The Hyksos were not native Egyptians. So it seems likely that the Pharaoh who knew nothing of Joseph was either the first of the Hyksos Pharaohs or the first of the native Egyptian Pharaohs after the Hyksos were defeated and removed from power. That would put this either around 1650 BC or 1550 BC, depending on which end of the Hyksos dynasty is correct.

It was kind of a thing in ancient Egypt to erase the past. When a new dynasty came to power, they wanted to bury the last dynasty. A good example of that was the Pharaoh Akhenaten. He wanted Egypt to start worshipping only one god instead of many. That didn’t make the priests of all these gods very happy, so after he died, they “erased” him. They smashed the faces off all the statues of him. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Joseph would be forgotten.

Pharaoh says, “There are too many Israelites. They might join with our enemies.” That might suggest this Pharaoh is the first of the new Egyptian Pharaohs, worried they will join with the Hyksos. So he puts them into slavery. The Egyptians called dispossessed foreigners living in the land, the kind of people you might force into slavery, “Apiru” or “Hapiru.” I’ve always thought it was intriguing how similar that word is to the self-description of the house of Israel, Hebrew.

They put them to work building Pithom and Rameses. These cities were about 60 to 80 miles to the northeast of modern Cairo. They were “regional capitals” of a sort. Rameses was actually the place where the Hyksos dynasty ruled.

They were forced to make bricks. When we think of Egypt, we think of the pyramids, which were built of stone. That’s why they’re still there. It was too expensive and difficult to build everything of stone. So they used mud bricks, mud and straw formed into a brick about 12 x 6 x 6 inches and dried in the sun. They weren’t fired bricks, so they just didn’t last. But they were cheap. And when you needed hundreds of millions of them, cheap was good.

Still the Hebrews increased in number. So, the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, were told to kill all the Hebrew boys. Midwives were the OB/GYNs of the ancient world. They did prenatal care, childbirth, infant care, and so on. Were there only two of them for the whole nation? Probably not. Maybe these two were the “senior” midwives. Or maybe they were just notable midwives. In any case, they disobeyed. Pharaoh’s word was law, and they said, “No thanks.” They are but the first of many examples in Scripture of people of faith who defied lawful authority. Daniel, Esther, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Peter, John, and the disciples all did likewise, saying, “We must obey God rather than men.”

One of the weakest ethical arguments is “It’s legal” or “It’s not illegal.” But people appeal to it. I mean, really, adultery is legal. Are any of us going to argue it’s ethical, then? Laws do not establish ethics. Those who are in positions of power are seldom really concerned with issues of injustice. Why would they be? They’re on the inside looking out.

So Pharaoh expands the order to all of Egypt. Everyone, every single person in the nation is told to throw Hebrew boys into the Nile.

A baby boy is born into the tribe of Levi. After hiding him for a time, his mother dutifully “puts him in the river.” In a basket, that is. By the way, the Hebrew word for “basket” is the same word as “ark,” as in a place of salvation.

And of all people, who defies Pharaoh’s orders to kill Hebrew boys but one of his own daughters. She has compassion and breaks the law. And by a providential hand, who should end up as this child’s wet nurse but his own mother. Wet nurses were common in the ancient world for aristocratic and wealthy families. It seems kind of weird, but the practice actually continued at least until the early 20th century in Europe and North America. It still takes place in some parts of the world.

Pharaoh’s daughter calls him Moses. That actually might have been a “generic” name because the Egyptian word MOS just meant “boy.” But it was very similar to the Hebrew word that meant “to draw out.” And one thing we learn in the Bible is that they sure liked word play.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court. In Pharaoh’s court, he would learn reading and writing, the art of warfare, diplomacy, foreign languages, and public speaking. In other words, he would be well prepared for the role God has in mind for him.

I think there are a few takeaways from this story. One is that God provides. God provided safety for Moses. God provided a way for him to be prepared for the work he was to do.

A second is that we should always do what is right, no matter if it is easy, or legal, or acceptable. The Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter are both examples of doing right even when it was “wrong.” We can’t expect to be applauded or commended every time we do right. Sometimes we’ll be questioned, scorned, maybe even arrested. We should do right anyway.

The third takeaway is that we should not discount small actions. It may not have seemed like much at the time, but the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the freedom of God’s people. We never know how our small actions can set the world moving in the right direction. Or the wrong direction. So we should do what is right and godly in every situation.

Romans 12 says, “Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed.”

Maybe you or I will have the chance to move the world in the right direction this week. A small action might be all it takes.

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