Exodus 1 - Reflection

The midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do.’  Exodus 1:17

Brothers and sisters, beginning today we are going to be working our way through the first fifteen chapters of the amazing book of Exodus. Likely this book—especially the bits we’re going to study—will need little introduction. There have been many films and plenty of the stories are contained in children’s bibles. My hope and prayer is that we’ll come away from our reading of Exodus more fully trusting God, more confident that He will keep His promises to us, and more aware of His love for all people, especially those who are marginalised and persecuted. Well, with that introduction, let’s dive in with Exodus Chapter 1, and verses 6-7:

‘Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.’

Right there, we can see how this story is a continuation of the story of Genesis. Right at the very beginning the connections are made to the story of creation and to the family which began with Abraham. We get glimpses of those creation promises in verse 7. When God created the world, the commission for human beings was to be fruitful and multiply; then when it came to the Jewish people God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. Here is a reminder that God keeps His promises including the growth of Abraham’s family. God’s promises are still on track. This is a God whom we can trust, and both the Jewish people and us will need to remember that as this true story unfolds. For things are about to take a turn for the worse, verse 8:

‘Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country’.’

In a world not so different from our own, the migrants—who through Joseph once saved the Egyptian people—are now looked on as a threat. Worried about their cheap labour choosing to leave, the Egyptians decide to ‘deal shrewedly’ with the Jewish people. We quickly see what ‘dealing shrewdly’ looks like when we’re told in verse 11: ‘So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.’ ‘Dealing shrewdly’ means slvaery. God’s people may have multiplied but they are still vulnerable to attack and enslavement, and as the history of the twentieth century shows nothing much has changed. The fact that the state often acts against Jews—against people who look different, who worship in a different way—is a tale that runs all the way from the Old Testament to the modern-day Holocaust. The Church, too, has often found itself oppressed by the state and this story has been a one which has helped Christian believers in every land, and at every period in Christian history. In the U.K. in 2023 we may not yet be in the situation God’s people find themselves in in verse 11, but we are certainly in a situation like verse 8 where the state has forgotten the Christians who made and frequently saved this country. We exist now somewhere between verse 8 and verse 11; somewhere between being forgotten and being persecuted; and we must pray and work to ensure that the U.K. does not end up a place where those who follow God are excluded, marginalised, imprisoned or enslaved. Evil comes and goes, rises and falls, in every society and in the Egyptian society of Exodus 1, the state turns on God’s people. However, if slavery seemed bad, well it’s about to get a whole lot worse, verse 15:

‘The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live’.’

Now murder, genocide, state-imposed killing is brought forward, in a way seen only too recently. This is the attempted extermination of a people. What can we, what can they, what can any of us do, in such a time? Our answer is found in some unlikely characters, hidden away towards the end of our reading. Did you notice, the only named people in this entire chapter—and thus from the writers perspective the only really important people in Exodus 1—are two powerless ladies, two powerless midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Amongst the horror of enslavement amongst the evil of state-sanctioned genocide are two ordinary ladies, doing an ordinary job. What makes them special is their faith, and the actions which flow out of their faith, verse 17: ‘The midwives, however, feared God and [because of their faith] did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.’ The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of my favourite film series, and in that film Gandalf, the Christ figure, says to the ordinary little hobbits:

‘Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.’ 

What can we do? What can any of God’s people do, when great evil turns against them? Love God and love the people around you! Obey the Lord rather than the state, even if that means you get in trouble! Commit small acts of great love and trust that God will see you through! That was the response of the midwives of Exodus 1, and has been the response of saints throughout the ages. Let me give you one modern day example: Rosa Parks. Rosa was born in Alabama in 1913 into an African-American community, and moved with her mother to a farm just outside the state capital, Montgomery. Rosa and her family were deeply involved in the church and had a profound faith. Rosa later wrote: ‘Prayer and the Bible became a part of my everyday thoughts and beliefs.’ On the evening of 1st December 1955 Rosa took the bus home and sat in an empty seat at the front of the section reserved for blacks. As the ‘whites only’ section became full, the bus driver moved the ‘colored’ sign behind Rosa and three other people, and ordered them to give up their seats. Three of them did but Rosa remained seated. When asked, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’ she simply responded, ‘I don’t think I should have to stand up.’ When writing about this moment later Rosa said,: ‘I instantly felt God give me the strength to endure whatever would happen next. God’s peace flooded my soul, and my fear melted away.’ The police were called and Rosa was arrested and charged under the segregation law, found guilty and fined. Courageously, she appealed against her conviction and Rosa’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where segregation was ruled unconstitutional.

What can we do when faced with evil, when our faith is attacked, and immoral laws are added to the statue book?Simply: Be faithful in the little things. Pray. I know I bang on about this, but it is so important. Pray everyday, be faithful in this little thing, and watch what God does. Battle against your grumpiness, fight against your sarcastic tongue, rebel against your lazy nature, turn away from critical comments; be faithful in these little thing, and watch what God does. These day-to-day little battles are the foundation, they are the weeding of the soil, which allows more heroic deeds to flourish. Rosa’s historic act didn’t come from nowhere. It came after a long life of prayer of battles against her human nature, of being faithful in the little things. The midwives’ historic acts didn’t come from nowhere, either, they too will have had a long life of prayer, battles against their human nature, and of trying to be faithful in the little things. Today, and in the weeks and months to come, most likely you will not have to defy dictators set on genocide like Shiphrah and Puah, or have to defy racist laws like Rosa. However, you can, as it were, plow the field of your soul, you can build the foundations in your heart, so that if such a moment comes you are already prepared. ‘Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check,  but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.’ So brothers and sisters, what about you? What can you do when the state, when your friends and neighbours have forgotten about God? What small acts of kindness and love could you do this week because of your faith? Who will you commit to pray for? Which part of your character will you work on changing? Sisters and brothers will you dare to be faithful? Will you strive to be like Rosa Parks, like the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and be faithful in the little things? If you do, do not be surprised to see great things happen, and great evil defeated through those little acts of love. Be faithful in the little things, and watch what God does. Amen. (from Fr Mike).