Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lying to Pharoah, Truthful to God

Exodus 1:8-2:10
August 24, 2014
William G. Carter

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families... 

This summer, we have been working through the family stories of Israel. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven brothers. We haven’t told all the stories, but we have heard of God’s persistent blessing. God selected an old man named Abraham and said, “You and your children are mine, all mine!” Just to prove it, God gave him a son.

Regardless of whatever happened after that, God had a family, one generation after another. The family grew. This was God’s original promise: “Abraham, look into the sky and count the stars, if you can. So shall you descendants be!”

But as we heard today, there was a reaction to the promise. God’s family grows, now many of them in Egypt, so many that the new Pharoah gets nervous. This Pharoah didn’t know Joseph. All he could see were Joseph’s children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The Hebrews were not from there. They were immigrants. And now there were so many of them, they were taking over the land!

Pharoah says to his court, “As long as they stayed a minority, we could keep them out of the way. We could give them menial jobs. They could be cooks in Egyptian country clubs and domestic servants in the Egyptian homes. They could shine our Egyptian sandals and clean our Egyptian toilets.” That’s where we want them to stay, said Pharoah, “but there are just too many of them. Too many of these immigrants. So we have to deal shrewdly with them, lest they take over what we have…”

Wow, that’s some story, isn’t it? Some might say it’s the kind of story that repeats itself over and over again. I think it’s the kind of story we can interpret a number of different ways, depending on where we stand.

Maybe you saw the newspaper cartoon. A blustering white American in a suit and tie yells, “It’s time to reclaim America from illegal immigrants!” The Navaho next to him says, “I’ll help you pack.”

Or did you hear the angry man in suburban Saint Louis? This week he was overheard to say, “Our town was fine before those people moved in.” He has conveniently forgotten the ancestors of “those people” did not choose to come here; they were dragged from their African homes to be slaves in a foreign land.

That’s exactly what Pharoah does out of anxiety and fear: he enslaves the Hebrews for the sake of his economy. He didn’t know about Joseph, didn’t care about Joseph – all he wants is “those people” under his thumb, and while he’s at it, he will build an empire on their broken backs. Twice in two sentences, the Bible calls him “ruthless.”

We cannot handle these matters lightly. Anybody who is paying attention that racism is an issue. Immigration is an issue. Exploitation is an issue. Fear and violence -- these issues are with us every day.

What is fascinating about our Bible story is that it offers a woman’s perspective on some of these matters. The men might think they are running the world, but the women see the men running it into the ground. Pharoah forces the Hebrew slaves to build entire cities out of bricks and mortar. If Stephen Spielberg is to be believed, the Hebrews built a few pyramids, too, although the Bible doesn’t make that claim. No, what the Bible says is that some women stood up to Pharoah. They refused to go along with his brutality.

It’s a remarkable story. Rather than be robbed of dignity, there are a lot of women who find ways to resist, to push back, to stand up for themselves.

Years ago, Maya Angelou wrote a poem. She said it’s about an old Black woman she noticed on a New York City bus. The woman was a domestic maid who rides the bus every day. When the bus goes too fast, she laughs. When the bus picks up somebody, she laughs. When it misses them, she laughs. Maya said, “What is that? She looks like she’s smiling, but she’s not smiling. She is wearing a mask as an old survival apparatus. And Maya writes a poem for her:

When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke,
a dance what’s walked, a song what’s spoke.
I laugh so hard I nearly choke, when I think about myself.

Sixty years in these folks’ world, the child I works for calls me “girl.”
And I say “yes, ma’am” for workin’s sake.
I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.
So hmph, humph, ha, ha, humph, I laugh until my stomach ache,
when I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side. I laugh so hard I nearly died.
The tales they tell sound just like lyin’. They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh so hard, I start to cryin’ when I think about myself.[1]

Have you ever put on the mask? The mask “that grins and lies / it shades our cheeks and hides our eyes”? When some people are put down, this is what they do: they hide what’s really going on inside them. It’s a way to survive, a way to stand up to Old Pharoah, a way to say, “I may work for you, but you don’t own me.” For some, it’s the only way they know to claim their God-given dignity.

There are other ways to resist, of course. I recall a memorable scene from the movie “The Help” involving a chocolate pie. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie for a rainy day, although you may lose your appetite for dessert. “The Help” is the story of house maids in Jackson, Mississippi, telling the truth about their servitude.[2] Some essentially enslaved women stand up to the people who oppress them – and their weapon is telling the truth. Telling the truth.

But here’s the thing about Shiphrah and Puah, the two woman who are heroes of the Bible story of the heroes: they lie. That’s what their weapon is. They lie – and the story goes like this: Shiphrah and Puah were midwives, Hebrew midwives. Pharoah called them in, and said, “Now, when you are delivering babies for the Hebrew women, if you see it’s a boy, get rid of it; if it’s a girl, that’s OK – no threat to me.”

Well, these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, ignored him. They paid no attention to Old Mister Pharoah. If you have eaten a Kosher hot dog, you remember the Hebrew National ad campaign: “We answer to a Higher Authority.” So did Shiphrah and Puah. They honored God, and so the boy babies kept coming.

Old Mister Pharoah kept seeing little boys, and called in the midwives. “Why have you done this? Why are you letting the little boys live?” The Hebrew midwives said, “Well, Mister Pharoah, you have to understand. Hebrew women are sturdy and vigorous. They’re not like the delicate flowers of Egypt. Those Hebrew Mamas pop those babies out and we don’t even know about it.”

Old Mister Pharaoh didn’t know what to say. Shiphrah and Puah bowed dutifully, slipped out of the palace, gave one another a high-five, and started having some babies of their own.

Now, wait, you say: they lied. Yes they did. The Bible makes no apology for that. Nineteen chapters later, God will chisel out a series of Ten Commandments, one of which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” Apparently that’s not the same thing as lying in order to save lives, especially the lives of the children of God’s own family.

This is an ethical matter. We teach our children to tell the truth and we should expect as much of one another. For too many people, words are cheap and promises are broken. Our economy sells products that are supposedly “new and improved,” and you buy it and it’s the same old junk they sold before. And then there is politics, a noble work until you get into it.

Throughout the Psalms, we are warned away from those with a “deceitful tongue.” Mark Twain may have said it best: lying is our “most universal weakness.” We should never tell a lie, he said, “except to keep in practice.”[3]

So what do we do with Shiphrah and Puah? They lie to Pharoah to save the children. For them, it is a matter of civil obedience, in the most extreme and necessary of circumstances. I can only imagine the campfire as the Hebrews told this story years later, laughing at Old Mister Pharoah as their tribes increased.

But Pharoah’s cruelty is no laughing matter. He’s still out there, you know. He goes by different names, but he’s still out there. Pharoah is still wherever women are put down, wherever children are endangered, wherever strangers are feared and immigrants enslaved. And when we see him, we have to stand up to him. That’s what the Bible is teaching us here. We answer to a higher authority. We answer to God.

When I was a college student, one of my teachers said, “You should read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Nobody told me about him in the church where I grew up, but in college I started poking around. Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. He earned his Ph.D. by the age of 21. To the shock of his highly cultured parents he became a Christian and a theologian, at a time when cultured people thought that was passé.

He was a Lutheran pastor, but what fired up my imagination is that he stood up against Adolf Hitler. One day immediately after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer made a radio address, criticizing the political changes in Germany. His broadcast was shut down in mid-sentence. Clearly he was the real deal.

So when I went off to Princeton to study for the ministry, and learned there was a course in the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I signed up. We learned he began an underground seminary up on the Baltic Sea, where ministers were trained to speak the Gospel and resist the Fuerher. We read his lectures on the Sermon on the Mount, titled The Cost of Discipleship, where he wrote, “When Christ calls someone to follow him, he calls that person to die.” We read his reflections on what means to live together as the church, in a book called Life Together. We read his sermons; they were direct, biblical, truthful.

And then, in my shock, I discovered he not only stood up to Hitler; he was involved in an assassination plot to get rid of Hitler. The plot failed. When the conspiracy was uncovered, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price. Admittedly Hitler was a bad guy, one more ruthless Pharoah determined to get rid of Hebrews. But I wondered: how could a Lutheran pastor get involved in an assassination plot? In fact, I wondered so long that I wrote a paper about it for my class.

Bonhoeffer never gave a direct answer; it would have incriminated him if it was discovered. But at least twice he referred it to it indirectly. Once was in a stack of papers hidden at the time of his arrest. After his death a friend edited them into an unfinished book on ethics. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The penultimate concern is not as important as the ultimate concern.” That is, the next-to-last matter is not as important as the final matter. And what is the final matter? God’s justification by grace and faith alone.[4] So, to quote Bonhoeffer’s hero Martin Luther, “Sin boldly, but believe in Christ more boldly still.” Sin boldly – because we’re going to sin anyway – but trust even more that the mercy of Christ finally covers us all.

The second time he referred to his role against Pharoah Hitler was right before his own execution. He turned to a fellow prisoner in the concentration camp and said, “Suppose you see a drunken madman hurling down the Autobahn toward innocent people. The Christian minister can do two things. He can wait and preside over a nice funeral. Or he can try to seize the steering wheel out of the hands of the mad man.” And so he did.

We answer to a higher authority. In the words of Psalm 2, God looks down upon the tyrants and bullies of this world and laughs. As God’s children, we do what we can, in the smaller places where we live, to declare that the God of Abraham and Sarah is the rightful Ruler over heaven and earth.

In fact, God is so supreme, that God will infiltrate Pharoah’s own house. That’s the end of today’s story that everybody knows. Pharoah had decreed the boys should be thrown into the Nile. A little Hebrew boy is born anyway and his mother floats him in a basket on the Nile to save his life. Then Pharoah’s own daughter finds him, sympathizes with his plight, claims him, and calls for a nursing woman to care for him until she can raise him as her own. The nurse happens to be the boy’s own mother. She calls him “Mosheh” - “Moses – which means, “I pulled him out of the water.” And that’s just the beginning of the story of how God will pull his family out of slavery in Egypt.

How appropriate that we should gather today at the baptismal font, to pull one more of God’s dear children out of the water! With the power of the Holy Spirit, we will tell her that she belongs to God, and not the counterfeit powers of Pharoah. And we will tell her what kind of God she has: a God who rejoices in her birth, a Savior who claims her from the powers of destruction, a Holy Spirit who calls her – just like the rest of us – to work for the justice of heaven on earth. Let it be on earth, as it is in heaven.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Maya Angelou, “The Mask.” One version available at
[2] I mentioned the movie in the sermon of May 4 and commend it to you.
[3]Mark Twain's Autograph," Atlanta Constitution, 9 September 1906, p. E3.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1949) 129-133.

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