“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
When I was in grade seven or eight, a few of my fellow students and I argued with our history teacher about the necessity of learning history. We argued against it. She, I think, was amused.
A new king arose who did not know Joseph.
A new king arose that did not remember Joseph. And because the new king did not remember Joseph he did not understand the relationship, and so he was afraid.
He was afraid of foreigners taking over, he was afraid of different languages and customs. People who do not remember history don’t understand relationships, don’t understand how we are all connected and how history has shaped migration patterns to this day. There are reasons why our ancestors sought a new land, and there are reasons why people do so today. Fear does nothing to address these.
This is how the story begins that stands at the beginning of the history of Israel.
But there is more.
Pharaoh makes the Hebrew people slaves, then decides to kill all males. When the Hebrew midwives resist his order, he orders the drowning of every baby Hebrew boy in the Nile. But which mother would not want to protect her child and one Hebrew woman floats her son down the river in a papyrus basket. Pharaoh’s own daughter spots the baby, adopts him, and hires his real mother to be his nurse. She calls the child Moses.
This is a fantastic story, marvellously told. Death is defied and life triumphs.
There are many biblical allusions on three levels. First Genesis:
Life comes up out of the chaos of the waters. It’s new creation story.
A little boat, floating on water, containing the destiny of God’s promises. It’s a new Noah’s ark story.
One human being, through whom God plans the blessing and deliverance of a particular people. It’s a new Abraham story.
In the first chapter, Exodus weaves together the themes of the Book of Genesis – the beginning, the new beginning after the Fall, and the blessing and deliverance of a people.
We’ve gathered for the breaking of the waters. We’ve come to see a birth, the birth of God’s people Israel.
What a wonderful text for Matthew’s baptism!
The Moses story also alludes to what will happen later in the exodus:
Moses and his mother are strangers at Pharaoh’s court just as the Hebrews are strangers in the land of Egypt.
Moses is set among reeds; later, he leads his people through the Sea of Reeds – the Red Sea.
Moses comes up out of the water just as the children of Israel will later come up out of the water. Moses’ mother’s unnamed sister plays a vital role in this rescue just as Moses’ sister Miriam plays a vital role in the crossing of the Red Sea.
The midwives of the Hebrew boys’ deliverance anticipate the way Moses becomes the midwife of God’s deliverance of Israel.
Finally, there are connections with the story of Jesus:
King Herod becomes a latter-day Pharaoh, seeking to destroy every young boy in Bethlehem.
Jesus’ rescue involves Egypt, just like the Hebrews’ rescue does.
Jesus goes down into the place of death and emerges, miraculously, as the first of many to find new life.
The story of the Exodus is often told as a story of liberation from slavery into freedom.
But it is also a story of vocation. Moses is rescued, but the story does not end with Moses’ rescue but leads to the rescue of the people of Israel, which in turn, are called to be a light unto the nations.
It is also a story of resistance. It is resistance that is part of the vocation of Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives. They defy Pharaoh’s order and in their defiance they mock pharaoh. They tell Pharaoh that Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay points out that the midwives are not telling the truth but that in the Old Testament truth-telling is part of a truthful relationship and that where there is no truthful relationship the imperative to tell the truth is used to keep people down.1 Shiphrah and Puah resist by telling a ‘white lie’.
This story tells of remarkable resistance to Pharaoh’s commands and all of this resistance is carried by women: Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother and aunt, and to some extent Pharaoh’s own daughter.
The story of the Exodus is not only a story of liberation but also a story of vocation. As the saving of Moses foreshadows his vocation, so the liberation of Israel is Israel’s vocation. This is reflected in the Schema Yisrael, where Israel is to remember to keep the commandments, and understand it’s identity as given in relationship to the One who led them in the Exodus.2
And so it is with our baptism into Christ.
God liberates us from sin, death, and the devil.
And, God calls us into a new identity and into a new life.
That new life will include resistance to all that defies God, which is what we pledge in the baptismal liturgy:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God,
the powers of this world that rebel against God,
and the ways of sin that draw you from God?
Israel learns what it means to live this new life in what pastor and writer Daniel Erlander calls the wilderness school, the 40 years God’s people spend in the desert.
Don’t hoard but remember that God will provide. Remember the stranger, for you were once strangers. Rest and give rest, for God rested and again, God will provide. Show mercy for God shows mercy. And when your society gets out of wack and there is a great divide between rich and poor, redistribute, because it’s all God’s anyway. The last one is called the Sabbath year. Be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 20:26)
In our Gospel reading the disciples are given a hint of the church. They don’t know much about it yet, perhaps only that it shall be built upon the disciple who had just sunk like a rock when he tried to walk toward Jesus. Whatever the church may be, however, this is an announcement that following Jesus is not what I do by myself but something Christians do together. And so it makes sense that we are baptised into Christ Jesus but also baptized into the church, for the church is the community in which we practise what it means to follow Jesus.
St Paul appeals to the church at Rome not to conform to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
That means that it is not always evident what it means to follow Jesus, sometimes it is, but other times it is not. It is in community that our discernment must take place. Before I came to Canada I wrote letters to two Canadian friends and asked them for their response to my intentions. Is this just me or is there more going on was my question.
In this way the church is also the place to discern the things that draw us to God and draw us away from God. It is the place where we discern when to resist and when to support. These are big questions and we are fortunate to live in a time of a smaller church when being Christian no longer simply means to be good, as Mike Yaconelli once said, “If being Christian is simply about being nice, I am not interested.”
Being Christian is about living in God’s kingdom which gets involved in the affairs of the world. Today Matthew is made a member of the church and a citizen of God’s kingdom. Matthew will be nourished at the Lord’s table. He will also be noursihed by the wisdom of the church, and it is in the community of the church that he will learn to follow Jesus, as do we.
1Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, Louisville, KY 2010: Westminster John Knox, page 9