AND THESE ARE THE NAMES
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The book of Exodus is such a sweeping epic, you could imagine it would make a good movie. We’re going to spend some serious time in the book of Exodus – 12 weeks. It will take us all the way to Advent (for those who like to anticipate Christmas, though I’m not trying to do a “They already have the Christmas decorations out in Costco and it’s only August” type of thing here). The events in Exodus constitute the delivering moment for the people of Israel – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” For the Christian, the events of Exodus constitute the proleptic delivering event of Christ. The first “going through the water” as it were.
Exodus is central to the entire body of Scripture. The Psalmist refers to it in places like Psalm 29:3 and 78:13. The prophets refer to it in places like Micah 6:4. In the Gospel of Matthew we see Jesus coming up out of Egypt, we see him teaching on a mountain, we see Moses appearing to him along with Elijah. Paul refers to it in places like 1 Cor 10:1. The Song of Moses is echoed in the song of Moses in Rev 15. It’s a big deal.
We’ve been talking about Exodus around here since a couple of Easters ago when we sang “O Mary Don’t You Weep.” Pharaoh’s army got drowned. The original saving event. The original delivering, freeing event. Bob Marley sang about it in a song that has very much been in my head since August:
Jah come to break down pression,
Wipe away transgression,
Set the captives free.
The story is not simply about being delivered, however. If it were the book would end at Chapter 15. The question we must consider in the context of the whole story is “What were the Israelites freed to do?” The answer is “worship God.” Serve God. This is for what we have been created. The story moves from forced labour to the people of Israel voluntarily building a tent in which the presence of God will dwell. One writer has described the first half of Exodus as being about God’s power, the second half as being about God’s presence. These are things we’ll be looking at over the next 12 weeks.
In the middle of that, we have scenes set in the highest seats of power. We have God working through everyday people. We have conversations between God and Moses. God speaks! We have hymns. We have liturgy. We have laws. We have God making himself known. All in the context of a story. This is a story of God, friends. It’s the word of God. As such it has spoken to God’s people for thousands of years. It’s not up to us to make it relevant. We want to consider what this relevance is and ask God to make it clear to our hearts, and in so doing teach us more of who He is and who he calls us to be. All in the context of a story. Taking a look at what it means for our stories to be caught up in the story of God. Let us turn to the story friends. Before we do let us pray.
You might think that an epic like Exodus might start off with something pretty grand. The birth of a hero maybe. Some sort of foundational theological truth. The voice of God maybe. It doesn’t start with any of those things. In Hebrew it starts with a conjunction – “and”. This is actually the name of the book in the Hebrew Bible – “And these are the names.” We call is Exodus after the Greek name of the book in the Greek translation of the Bible – the Septuagint. Exodus. Leaving. You see the same word today on exit signs in Greece. The Hebrew title and the start of the story is “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household.”
The family has become a people. The family is the one to whom a promise was made. The start of the story looks back. It remembers. We must never underestimate the role that memory, that remembrance plays in faith. A promise had been made to Abraham. That he would become the father of a great nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. One writer puts it like this “Israel is God’s starting point for realizing the divine intentions for all.” Through the nation of Israel, God would work out his redemptive purposes – his purposes to bring all things back to Himself. His re-creative purposes. God is working these purposes out even when God is not significantly evident. God’s purposes are to bring life and to bring blessing. Part of the promise made to Abraham was that Abraham’s descendants would be numerous. We read in v7 “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong so that the land was filled with them.”
God is a keeper of promises. The faithfulness of God means that when God makes a promise, He keeps it. Notice that God is not mentioned in this chapter until v 17, and he’s not the subject of a sentence until v 20. God is a keeper of promises, even when he is not readily apparent. To start the summer we spent time looking at the promises of God. We listened to promises of rest, promises of upholding, promises of accompaniment. We listened as we shared how these promises have played themselves out in our lives. Sometimes this kind of thing is only seen in retrospect. Here we have God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled. The land was filled with them. A family has become a people.
There is a problem, however. “Now, a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” We don’t know who this was exactly – it could have been Ramses II as the exodus is generally thought to have happened in the 13th Century BCE. The word for “know” is not much known about but be committed to – have one’s interests at heart. There was no knowledge of what Joseph had done, of how God had used him to save numerous people from famine.
All of this was unknown to the Pharaoh. Much of what we face in life is unknown. No matter what our age or station or situation, we face uncertainty. Sometimes you’ll see an organization with a slogan like “The future is clear” and I always think “Surely the situation is anything but clear.” We face the unknown continually, it’s been a part of the human condition since humans have been around. This is why stories like this speak to us. They invite us to take a position of trust in God and God’s promises in the midst of a lot of questions. The story is told of a wise old rabbi who was breathing his last breaths. A crowd of younger rabbis was around him to hear what his final words of wisdom might be. One of them asked, “Speak to us one last truth, Great Teacher.” The rabbi whispered back “Life is like a river.” The word got passed from one young rabbi to another out of the room down the stairs and onto the front porch. It got to the last rabbi – a seminarian – who asked back “What does it mean?” The question went back up the stairs and into the room. The rabbi closest to the Great Teacher leaned in and asked: “What does this mean?” The Teacher answered back – “So, life is not like a river.” This is life. Paradoxical. Changeable. Unexpected.
This can make us fearful or trustful. I said earlier that Exodus is not only about deliverance but about worship. Who or what is worthy of our worship? Who or what is worthy of our worship in the face of life’s uncertainties and adversities? Some trust in chariots and horses, but we trust in God, is how the Psalmist put it. The problem for Pharaoh is he wanted to make sure that Egypt continued to be great. It was the superpower of the world. Not exactly Make Egypt Great Again but Keep Egypt Great. He worried that they would take over. That they were dangerous. That they could be some sort of Fifth Column in the event of war. That they would leave. Pharaoh is concerned for life – the life of Egyptians. Ironically, his concern for life is leading to death for the Israelites. “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour…But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” God is dealing life even in the midst of this oppression. The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
Because this is what oppression does. It dehumanizes not only the ones being oppressed, it dehumanizes the oppressor. They’re different from us. We must keep them subjugated or our way of life will be destroyed. We can’t trust them. All this seeking security in oppression led to on the part of the Egyptians was fear and dread. They became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick, and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. This was disordered. Oppression is disorder. I remember watching animated Dreamworks film “The Prince of Egypt” with our young niece and nephew when it was in theatres in the late 90’s. Our niece was maybe 6 or so at the time. It showed some Egyptian taskmaster whipping Israelite. Workers. It scared her. She started crying. We said, “What’s wrong?” She was frightened to tears of what she was seeing. A little child grasped the wrongness of it.
God is a God of life and blessing. God’s will for humanity, God’s will for all of creation is to bring all things back to himself. We call this redemption. Deliverance. God will act against forces that seek to deal in death. Forces that seek to thwart God’s will for His beloved creation. God’s will for me. God’s will for you. This is a theme that runs through the first part of the Exodus. It is a theme that has inspired people groups who have faced oppression. It’s maybe a little harder for those of us who are in the ascendancy, who might more easily identify with the Egyptians. Who is being oppressed in order that we might live lives of relative ease? Who is going without that we might have more? These are hard questions and they’re ones we should be asking ourselves, myself included. After the events in Charlottesville, I heard Dr. Cornel West from Harvard Divinity speak about churches and other organizations (but especially churches surely) being prophetic witnesses standing for love and justice. Where is God calling us to do this, because if there is one thing of which Exodus will remind us, it is that God is a God of justice whose delivering work – which is always ongoing, it’s not a matter of God stepping in as much as God’s delivering work intensifying when His people are crying out – will not be thwarted.
The wonderful thing is, God, invites us to take part in his delivering work. We go from the highest office in the land to a couple of Israelite midwives. Call the midwife. Thank God for the midwife. Pharaoh steps up the game. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah (the king is not named but these two women’s names are recorded), “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” He’s asking them to do something that is so completely contrary to who they are and what they are about – they are deliverers of life after all. Speaking of deliverers of life, look at what we read. “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” They told Pharaoh they couldn’t get to the Israelite women on time. A little creative truth telling? We can discuss the ethics of this in our small groups.
But this is what I want to point out now. The response of the midwives to the promises of God was trust. Pharaoh’s fear led to failure. The trust of the midwives led to success. They feared God – they held God and the things that God is about – love, mercy, justice, compassion, forgiveness, grace - in awe and reverence. It led not only to continued life for the newborn Israelite boys but also for the midwives. God gave them families –households – sustenance. We needn’t be paralyzed by issues we see in our society or around the world and think that surely it is only at the highest levels that these issues can be dealt with. God invites midwives along in his delivering work. He’ll invite a man with a speech impediment who killed a man. He calls you. He calls me. May God continue to speak to us friends as we make our way through this great work of his power and presence.