Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10
The story that we tell today is one we know… we have the opening notes of the book of Exodus… the original big-budget epic. Even though some of the stories from Genesis have a cosmic scale to them, Exodus has all of the themes that really makes it work.
There will be spectacular special-effects, there will be a cast of thousands, there will be a sweeping that tells of the forging of a new nation, there will be the cry for freedom answered by the living God. But notice what I say… “there will be…” it’s a promise of something more… but not yet. It’s the anticipation of the story, of something to come, but even in these opening words the true power of the story is only hinted at.
We’re not going to get the whole story today… there’s just too much of it… but the way it sets things up, the way it draws us in is a reminder that we too are part of God’s ongoing story, God’s ongoing promise. We recognize what God has already done, but at its best, these stories remind us that God continues to be with us now, and that God’s promise is a promise of future hope… and we are very much a part of that. The opening of Exodus is simply a moment in the story that reminds us that there is much more to come… where we stop, quickly look back, and then move forward into the rest of the story. After all, it’s all been leading to this point that really puts us on the road to the Promised Land… but it is still about God’s promise.
Exodus, as a part of God’s ongoing story, is a story about new life, drawn out from the jaws of death… it is the story of God’s powerful interaction and intervention against the powers-that-be who oppress their fellow human beings in the name of “us” being somehow better than “them.”
As the story opens, it recalls the story of Joseph… you know the one… the guy with the amazing Technicolor dream coat? Yeah… him. As that story went, Joseph youngest son of Jacob, was originally cast out by his brothers, and exiled to Egypt, sold as a slave. Yet through a series of circumstances and by a lot of God’s grace, he became an adviser to Pharaoh himself. Joseph had given such wisdom to Pharaoh so that they avoided the ravages of famine. As it would happen, in the midst of the famine, his estranged brothers came seeking help. Joseph was reconciled to his brothers… and gave them shelter and home in Egypt. It was a good, healthy relationship… two cultures living side-by-side. From what we understand, they did so peacefully… for several generations… and in that time their population grew.
But as Exodus opens, things have changed… the people have become quite numerous…
The story begins with the words “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Things have changed… and not for the better. The Israelites, the children of Joseph and his brothers, came to Egypt to escape a famine… originally welcomed as guests, they were now resented as foreigners and squatters with a strange religion. They were treated with fear and contempt, and the local Egyptians were worried that these foreigners would “take over.” They had a derogatory name for these outsiders… these foreigners… “Apiru.”
So what did the Egyptians do? Like every nation with a large population of immigrants, they exploited them for cheap labour.
Of course, at this point in history, Labour laws didn’t exist. They wouldn’t even be thought of for several thousand years. There was no respect for individual rights, or what constituted fair and just practices. These refugees and immigrants were put to work, to “earn their keep,” and also put them in a place where the Egyptians could keep an eye on them. Over several generations, this would develop into a system of organized oppression and forced labour… a system where these foreigners became a driving engine in the economy and power of the land… and to let them go could mean a critical labour shortage and a collapse in their economy. So while the Egyptians became resentful of the people they once called welcome guests, they couldn’t let them go, because they needed them.
It’s amazing how some things change very little over thousands of years. When I was reading this, I was hearing the echoes of immigration debates in both Canada and the United States over the past few years… and similar logic has been used over hundreds of years. Maybe we need to re-read Exodus from this point of view the next time we listen to our own immigration debates… The fear of the foreigner/outsider can lead to some very unjust, unfair and oppressive policies and practices… all of which did not end well for the Egyptians.
After the initial set up, of course, Exodus clearly identifies with those who are on the receiving end of this fear and suspicion. This nation of immigrants had taken on that derogatory name the Egyptians and others had given them –‘Apiru… and turned it into their sense of identity: “Hebrew.”
Yet putting them under forced labour was not enough. Making life harsh for them wasn’t enough… such was this fear of these immigrants taking over that the Egyptian king… Pharaoh, had even tried to curb their population growth in the most brutal of ways. Slaughter of the innocents… the most vulnerable… the children… He begins first with the midwives, who resist at every turn, and then stirs up his own people to be willing to commit genocide.
It is into this hostile environment that a boy is born to the Hebrews… he is without a name… at least a name that we know. For three months, he is hidden by his mother… until a point when she can no longer hide him, and with a torn heart, places him into a watertight basket, and sets him amongst the reeds of the river.
The boy’s rescuer is an unlikely source: Pharaoh’s own daughter. Ignoring her own father’s orders, she finds the boy and adopts him as her own. She calls him “Moses”
And the stage is set…
The problem with opening story narratives is that they’re all about the set-up… it draws us in… but there’s much more of the story still to come.
And that’s where we sit right now… at these opening notes of the story of Exodus…
But at the same time, that’s a great place to be… there is still more of the story to unfold. When in university, I took a full-year class on Shakespeare, and the professor commented that the best of every story draws upon not only upon the hints of the story that went on before, but concludes with a hint of a story yet to come. With Exodus, God is going to do something very powerful. If anything, for this one chapter, God’s role seems to be more of a bit player rather than the Prime Mover. But really, it’s inviting us to be a part of that story, because our story with God is constantly unfolding. Always pointing us to something new, the next chapter, the next thing… God drives the story forward… and for us, that’s no different…
As a church, we continue to be a part of God’s ongoing story. It doesn’t make any sense for us to say that God is somehow less active with us than in the time of Exodus… because that would be placing some sort of limits on where God is. We’ve just become “less attuned” to see where God is at work. Maybe it’s because we’re looking for something big and spectacular like burning bushes, or parting waters that we miss the more common and yet no less profound moments that are part of our everyday lives. As Epic as exodus is, it still begins with the story of a small baby… something we can all relate to… and with this child, a promise of hope…
God is doing something wonderful… are we going to be part of it?