by Lindsey Krinks
(In Exodus 1:15-2:10, the Israelites are enslaved in the land of Egypt and a new Pharaoh comes to the throne. He orders two Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys born to the Hebrew women because he feels threatened by their numbers and strength. The midwives disobey Pharaoh’s orders and then Moses is born and saved by his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter.)
Resisting Empire: A Vessel for Liberation
If you have seen the news in the last week, you know that Pharaoh isn’t the only one passing unjust laws. The powers that be in Tennessee have just passed a law that makes sleeping, camping, and cooking on state property a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Homeless advocates argue that since there is not enough shelter space for everyone on the streets, this new law criminalizes homelessness. While Governor Haslam certainly isn’t Pharaoh, this new law is an example of the age-old practice of rulers taking away the rights of their people and passing laws that benefit the privileged at the expense of the poor. Let’s explore how the people of God responded to Pharaoh.
Our text for today opens with a story of two midwives—Shiprah and Puah—who have been called into Pharaoh’s court. Despite the harsh and ruthless labor that Pharaoh placed on the Israelites, they continued to multiply and were becoming more and more of a threat to his kingdom. He feared that they would join his enemies if a war broke out, so he decided that he would convert the midwives into executioners who would kill all the baby boys on the delivery table. This would show the Israelites who was really in control. If he couldn’t break them with labor, perhaps he could break them with grief.
Now Shiprah and Puah had to make a decision. Would they obey Pharaoh’s orders and get recognition and praise from the empire? After all, Pharaoh made the laws and held all of the power in the land. What would happen if they chose to go against him? Would they be imprisoned? Enslaved? Murdered? Exodus tells us, however, that these women feared God more than they feared Pharaoh, and finally, they decided to disobey Pharaoh’s orders in hopes that God would protect them.
When Pharaoh heard that the baby boys weren’t being executed, he was furious. He demanded that Shiprah and Puah be brought to his courts at once so that they could give an account for themselves. But ever so shrewdly, they gave an excuse to Pharaoh that incriminated no one. Pharaoh was livid and declared that all of the baby boys must be thrown into the Nile immediately after their birth. The Israelites cried out to God, hoping that God would hear their prayers and see their suffering.
The midwives were not the only ones to creatively resist Pharaoh’s harsh decrees, however. The quick thinking and resourcefulness of Moses’ mother and sister made it so the very waters that were meant to drown Moses carried him to life. The basket he was carried in across the Nile was called a tebah which is the same word that was used for Noah’s ark—the vessel that rescued God’s people from the waters of death and destruction in Genesis. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the infant in the small ark, she had pity on him, paid his mother to be his nurse, and later took him into her home to raise him.
Through the civil disobedience of the midwives, the strategic planning of Moses’ mother and sister, and the compassion of Pharaoh’s own daughter, God began preparing a way for the liberation of the Israelites. Perhaps Pharaoh should have been just as fearful of the Hebrew women as he was of the men.
The persecution of the Israelites, however, didn’t begin with this Pharaoh’s fear. To understand the roots of the Israelite’s oppression and enslavement, we need to look back to Joseph.
Reinforcing Empire: A Vessel for Enslavement
When we think of Joseph, most of us think of the young dreamer with a colorful coat who was sold into slavery by his own brothers. We remember him as the man with integrity who fled from Potiphar’s wife, was enslaved, interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, received the promotion of a lifetime, and saved the land of Egypt from famine. So what does Joseph have to do with the enslavement of the Israelites?
When God helped Joseph interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh learned that Egypt would have seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of famine. He appointed Joseph over the project of stockpiling food in storehouses across the empire. As professor Douglas Meeks explains in his book God the Economist, Joseph’s “economic power grew into massive political power… In the midst of extreme famine the people came to Joseph to buy food. When their money [ran] out, he required them to pay with their cattle and flocks… their means of livelihood and work. And when the money and stock were gone, he required their land and work in exchange for food… He used famine as a way of centralizing power, gaining control over the land, and creating a labor force.” [i] As Genesis 47:20-22 tells us, “Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh… The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had enough food from that allotment.”
So why didn’t Joseph empower the people to collect their own stores of grain and sustenance? If Pharaoh hand-picked who he freely gave grain to (like the priests), why didn’t Joseph also give out free grain to those who needed it most? Why did he use the hunger of the Egyptians and Israelites to enslave them? Why did he exploit his own people to build up Pharaoh’s empire?
This economy of enslavement is still going on today. Just as Joseph worked with Pharaoh to concentrate wealth, power, and land in the hands of fewer and fewer people, so we, too, are often complicit in allowing the powers to do the same thing today. In 2010, it was reported that the six biggest banks in the United States now possess assets equivalent to 60 percent of America’s gross national product. Back in the 1990’s that figure was less than 20 percent… Together with the Federal Reserve, these six banks represent the real financial power in America… [Like Joseph and Pharaoh,] they can make money if the markets are going up, and they can make money if the markets are going down. For example, in a newly released email from the height of the housing crash, the CEO of Goldman Sachs bragged that his firm ‘made more than we lost’ by betting against the housing market.”[ii]
While these banks are paying off politicians on the right and left, getting mammoth tax breaks, and making money from people’s losses, they are enslaving countless men and women—especially minorities—through debt and predatory lending. In December of 2011, one report stated that Bank of America alone was required to pay $335 million dollars for [their] role in discriminating against [minorities].” According to CNN, an investigation found that they had discriminated “against at least 200,000 African American and Latino borrowers from 2004-2008 during the height of the housing market boom…. [Those] who qualified for prime loans were steered into higher-interest-rate subprime loans.”[iii] A tidal wave of debt, failed mortgages, and foreclosures followed. And many of us, knowingly or unknowingly, participate in this injustice through our support of these banks. But why?
Perhaps Genesis 47:51 gives us insight into why Joseph did what he did—why he enmeshed himself in empire and exploited his own people for the sake of Pharaoh’s gain. This passage reads, “Joseph named his firstborn Manassehand said, ‘It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’” You see, the name Manasseh means “causing to forget.” Joseph had forgotten who he was, whose he was, and all of the hardships he had been through. Whenever and wherever the people of God forget who they are, join forces with empire, and put profit over people, the poor are oppressed, criminalized, and enslaved.
Dangerous Memory and Overthrowing the Empire
Returning to our passage for today, we find another Israelite—Moses—who is also given the chance to join with empire. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s own household, lived a life of luxury, and enjoyed an education fit for a king. But there was something different about Moses. Unlike Joseph, he didn’t forget who he was. He remembered his roots and was plagued by the way Pharaoh treated his kin. Perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter had told Moses of the way she rescued him from the Nile. After all, she was the one who gave him the name Moses, which means “to be drawn out.” Whether he remembered it or not, his story of being drawn out of the waters of slavery and destruction remained with him.
One day, when Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, all of the tension, anger, and injustice that had been welling up inside him erupted in a fit of rage and he killed that Egyptian. Once word got out about the murder, Moses fled to Midian. It was while Moses was in Midian that God heard the groaning and cries of the Israelites and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
You see, memory can be a beautiful and dangerous thing. We, like God and Moses, must never become so enmeshed in empire that we forget who we are.
Consider the 25 churches that recently withdrew over $16 million from megabanks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase for Lent this year and instead, put that money into local credit unions. As the Huffington post reports, “The demonstration, which started on Ash Wednesday, aims to protest ‘the injustice that still dominates the banking industry in this country, unmasking corporate greed and dishonesty that is destroying our families.’” When these churches took a stand against the oppressive forces of banks that amass power while exploiting the poor, they entered into the company of the Hebrew midwives who refused to be accomplices of oppression and enslavement. They entered into the company of Moses’ mother and sister who took initiative and became vessels for liberation. They entered into the company of Moses who remembered who he was and drew out the people of God from their slavery in Egypt.
You see, the truth that the midwives knew deep in their bones was that God does not enmesh God’s self with empire. God is found among the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, and outcast.
In his book The Orthodox Heretic, Peter Rollins tells a parable[iv] that I have adapted for today. It goes like this:
There was once a mighty King who had known only victory and prosperity during his life. The King possessed vast riches, ruled with an iron fist, and established the largest army the world had ever known, yet his thirst for power was unquenchable. He longed for more wealth so he continued to exploit and enslave his people and conquer foreign lands.
One night, however, this great leader had a terrifying dream. In this dream, he witnessed his vast army laid waste before him and his great palace in ruins. Then he heard a divine voice saying, “There is a heavenly power at work in your empire that can bring your whole army to its knees, a power that transcends your earthly reign.”
The King awoke and said to himself, I must see this divine power for myself.
He turned to the great religious leaders of his land, offered sacrifices to all the gods, and promised untold treasures to any authority who could reveal this divine power to him. No matter how hard he tried, however, he felt no divine presence and witnessed no miraculous acts.
Then one morning, he overheard two of his servants talking. As he listened, he heard them speak of a wise prophetess who lived in a neighboring city. This woman was believed to be so close to God that she could uproot trees and part seas with a mere gesture. As the King listened, he heard that this great woman of God had contracted a terminal illness during her work in the poorest parts of the city. She was approaching death with only days to live.
The King called together an entourage of his soldiers and servants, and they left the palace at once. After some searching, they found the humble dwelling of the old prophetess. The King entered the house and looked at the withered, dying woman and said, “I have been told that you walk close to God. I am here because I have heard of this God’s power and wish to bear witness to it.”
“Is that so?” she replied. “I must warn you that the power of my God is unlike anything you have encountered before. If you truly seek it out, it will break you into pieces and destroy your reign over this land.”
“So be it,” said the King, “if what you say is true, then fate has spoken.”
With the last of her strength, the prophetess beckoned the King to approach her bedside. As he leaned toward her, she whispered in his ear, “Here is the power of my God: it is to be found in my rotting flesh, in my weakness, in the dirt and disease of this world. You have not seen this power because it is in the people you exploit and enslave; it resides in those you have mocked and killed, those who have suffered under your hand. The power of my God is to be found in the face of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner; in the outstretched hand of the starving beggar; in the slave whose back is bent from years of labor. This weakness and vulnerability is the power of God that rises up from the ashes—a power that can overturn the most powerful of empires.”
These were the last words of the prophetess, for then and there, she died. The King remained silent for some time, knelling beside her bed. He looked around at the poverty of the people who had stayed at her side throughout her suffering and he began to weep.
Blessed are the poor and diseased. Blessed are those who remember who they are. Blessed are those who disobey unjust laws. Blessed are those who stand up to pharaohs, governors, and megabanks.
Blessed are the criminalized, oppressed, and enslaved, for God hears their cries. Blessed are those who creatively resist oppression and join in God’s work for the liberation of all. Amen.
[i] Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and the Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 78-79.
[iv] Peter Rollins, “Overthrowing the Emperor,” The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Boston: Paraclete Press, 2009), 137-141.