Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost — August 27, 2023

God is absent from the first two chapters of Exodus. But through the subversive and liberating activity of women, God is indeed at work. — Ginna Bairby

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Year A

Exodus narrates the central salvation story of the Hebrew people. But in these first two chapters, God is conspicuously absent.

Did you notice that? For all the action packed into these 25 verses, God is only mentioned in v. 17 (the midwives disobey Pharaoh because they fear God) and in vv. 20-21 (God rewards them for their faithfulness to families). That’s a rather paltry showing for the Lord of all Creation.

But where God is absent, two things are present in abundance: Faithful women and jokes.

First, the women. The five women who dominate this text act in ways that mirror God’s own activity in the life of Israel. Shiphrah and Puah save their people by outwitting Pharaoh, just as God will do through the plagues (Exodus 5-14). Moses’ mother “sees that [her baby] is good” as God saw God’s creation as good (Genesis 1). Moses’ mother builds him a “little ark” to keep him afloat in the waters of the Nile as God kept Noah and company safe during the great flood (“basket” in Exodus 2:3 is the same Hebrew word translated as “ark” the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9).

Moses’ sister watches over the baby until Pharaoh’s daughter rescues him and adopts him as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter “comes down” to the river, “sees” the basket, and “hears” the child’s cries; she has pity on him and draws him up out of the water. What Pharaoh’s daughter does for Moses, God will do for Israel (Exodus 2:23-25, 3:7-8).

Second: The jokes. Exodus 1-2 is replete with ironic twists and humor. The tale Shiphrah and Puah tell Pharaoh is so absurd as to be laughable. Still, he falls for it, and commands that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile — an order that Moses’ mother follows (she just puts her baby in a basket first). The scheme Moses’ mother and sister orchestrate not only saves Moses’ life but also allows his mother to get paid to nurse him. And of course, when Pharaoh’s daughter defies his order and rescues the child, we see that the one who will liberate Israel from Pharaoh’s hand will be raised in Pharaoh’s own house.

Women and jokes. The great irony that holds the whole text together is this: Pharaoh is out to kill the Hebrew boys and men, but it turns out he should have been worried about the women and girls!

This last joke continues beyond the text. In her book Preaching the Women of the Old Testament, Lynn Japinga outlines how male commentators through the centuries have downplayed, misunderstood and misrepresented the vital role of women in the first two chapters of Exodus.

John Calvin criticizes Moses’ mother for abandoning her baby in the river, calling it an act of grief and despair. Moses’ mother raises an eyebrow to that: “Did it never occur to this theological giant that I might have a plan?”

Abraham Kuyper attributes the saving action of Pharaoh’s daughter not to courage, compassion or defiance but to her maternal instinct. In the 1964 commentary Women of the Old Testament, he writes that she was captivated by the “lovely, dreamy little fellow,” for women are naturally “fond of all tiny, lovely forms of life.” The Egyptian princess rolls her eyes with so much force it’s almost audible.

The joke’s still going, of course. The Pharaohs of 2023 continue to misjudge the power of women to do God’s work in the world.

In June of this year, the Southern Baptist Convention doubled down on its commitment to exclude women from pastoral ministry. Shiphrah and Puah shrug their shoulders and shake the dust from their shoes.

Even in more progressive traditions like the PC(USA), I can tell you that one or more pastors will be pulled aside after worship this Sunday to be told by a well-meaning parishioner that they “preached a pretty good sermon, for a woman!” Miriam laughs, tosses her hair, and picks up her tambourine (Exodus 15).

The first two chapters of Exodus are the story of creation and salvation in miniature. Commentators say the women in this story reflect the activity of God, but I wonder: Might we have it backward? Could it be that God creates, sustains and saves the world in ways that reflect the activity of women?

When God seems absent, look around at the women. We may find God’s been there all along.

Questions for reflection

  1. Have you heard these women’s stories before or are they new to you? Will they be familiar fixtures or new characters to the people in your congregation?
  2. Are there people in your community that you or your congregation tend to underestimate? How might God be working in their lives?

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