Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Generation to Generation:  Bending the Arc Towards Justice

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Exodus 1:8-2:10, 2:23-25


“Now a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”   That is an ominous sentence at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  It assumes that, unlike the new king, we do know Joseph.  Of course, if we had been reading along from the beginning of the Bible, we would know, but we have just dropped into this ancient story from the 21st century.  Let us take a moment to remember. 


It started with a man named Abraham and his wife Sarah.  God made a covenant with them, promising to be their God and the God of their descendants.  From them, in their old age, came a son named Isaac.  Isaac married Rebekah.  They had twin boys Jacob and Esau who were rivals from the womb. Esau is not part of our story today. With his two wives, Leah and Rachel, Jacob had 12 sons.  His favorite son was Joseph.  You might have heard about his amazing technicolor dream coat.  That was a gift from his father and was only one of the things that made his brothers jealous.  So jealous that they sold him into slavery and told his father that he was dead. 

But he wasn’t dead.  He ended up in Egypt, where he became a valuable asset to the Pharoah of his time.  He predicted seven years of abundant harvests followed by seven years of famine, along with a plan to store the harvests into the famine time.  For saving Egypt from hunger, Joseph was well-compensated by the Pharoah.  In the time of famine, his brothers came to Egypt for food, found him there and were reunited.  The whole clan relocated to Egypt and was given prime grazing land for their flocks.  They were treated very well because Joseph was their brother. 


But that was then and this is now.  Now Joseph is dead and his descendants are numerous and a new Pharoah is in power.  This Pharoah does not know history.  He does not know Joseph and so he does not treat the Israelites well.  Joseph had negotiated terms of agreement for the welfare of his clan as refugees and resident aliens, but this Pharoah not only violates every standard of hospitality, he imposes a slavery that is brutal and atrocious.


He is afraid of the growing number of Israelites in his country.  His first attempt to curb the population is to impose even harsher labor.  Perhaps he thinks that a very long day of brick-making will make multiplication the very last thing on their minds when they get home.[1]  But it says that the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.


So Pharoah goes to Plan B.  Plan B is to instruct the midwives to quickly kill baby boys as they are being delivered. The Biblical writers convey that in addition to being cruel, he is not the brightest ruler on the planet.   Remember that this is his labor pool.  These are the babies who will grow up, if he lets them, to make bricks and maintain the great state building program.  If he really wants to reduce the population, it would make more sense to kill female babies.  This policy is “irrational, suggesting that fear and rage have produced a deep insanity in [governmental] policy.”[2]


The first recorded case of civil disobedience foils Plan B.  Shiphrah and Puah are the midwives who refuse to do as Pharoah instructed.  Their names are recorded.  This is evidence that they are considered heroic.  Their motivation for disobedience is also recorded  -- they feared God.  They answered to a higher power than Pharoah.   But they don’t tell him that.  They tell him that the Hebrew women are too vigorous.  They give birth before the midwives even arrive, thus depriving them of the opportunity to commit infanticide. 


There are two ways to read this excuse.  One way is to understand that there is a life force at work, a power or potential that is unrecognized and perhaps underestimated by the empire.  The other way is to hear the midwives saying “the Hebrew women are like animals” which is a racist pejorative that Pharoah will likely believe.


In this part of the story, the word Hebrews is used instead of Israelites.  Pre-eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann says this about that term,  “ [Hebrews] refers to any group of marginal people who have no social standing, own no land and endlessly disrupt ordered society.   They may function variously as mercenaries, as state slaves, or as terrorists, depending on governmental policies and the state of the economy.  They are ‘low-class folks’ who are feared, excluded and despised.”[3]


In case you might suspect that Bruggemann is using Bible study to make a comment about contemporary politics, let me say that he wrote those words in 1994.  The power of this ancient story is that it resonates again and again in human experience.  So we might envision “Hebrews” today as Syrian refugees falsely labelled as terrorists because of governmental policies.  We could imagine documented and undocumented immigrants as contemporary “low-class folks who are feared, excluded and despised.”


When the midwives are ineffective, Pharoah issues an executive order to the Egyptian population to throw all baby boys into the Nile. The general population may not have known about his orders to the midwives, but they do know about this one.  The Hebrew people have been targeted for extermination.  The understandable reaction is great fear, even despair. 


* * *


At the time of Jesus, the story of Exodus was still being told, as it is being told even now.  At the time of Jesus though, there were some additional variations on the story.   Several versions in Jesus’ time said that the Hebrew people were so demoralized by Pharoah’s order that husbands and wives voluntarily separated.  They divorced, rather than take a chance on having sons who would be drowned.  Such drastic action is a reflection of their profound and utter hopelessness. 

The story goes on to say that a certain couple named Amran and Jochebed were among those who divorced, but at some point, Amran decided that that was the wrong thing to do.  He advised re-marriage for everyone and then God told him in a dream that his son would be special.[4]  Amran and Jochebed are, of course, Moses’s father and mother.    


When Moses was born, Jochebed hid him as long as she could. When she could do that no longer, she put him in a waterproof basket, his own personal boat on the Nile. Preacher Anna Carter Florence describes it this way, “She takes a bunch of papyrus, loams it with the ancient equivalent of Kevlar, and makes a snug little ark for her three-month-old son.  It’s a brilliant act, a symbolic act, designed to save life as well as to bear witness.  And it is heartbreakingly limited. . . . He has one day, maybe two, before he will die of exposure; one day, maybe two, to live.  And anyone who finds him will get the mother’s message, loud and clear:

This is what we’ve come to, in Egypt.

Take a look:  Kevlar cradles.

It’s all I could do for my child.

All I could give him was two more days." [5]



That message is received.  This time, the person who defies Pharoah’s direct order is his own daughter.  She draws the basket out of the water and understands immediately “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children” she says.  This must be one of the Hebrew’s children, because no other mothers are reduced to this:  making little arks to float in the Nile.  Trying to save their babies from a flood of hate.”[6]


She names what she sees.  She speaks the truth about the atrocities happening right in front of her.  And she acts.  She adopts the baby Moses as her own.  Eventually he comes to live at the palace with her, to be educated as a royal son, to learn the ways of the empire which he will ultimately defeat. But rest of the story of Moses and the Exodus must wait for another time.


* * *


This is the first Sunday of Lent, the season in which we make the journey with Jesus to the cross. This year, we focus specifically on the ways that our discipleship includes resistance, just as the cross represents resistance to the ways of Empire.  For the next several Sundays, we will remember Biblical communities of faithful resistance, resilence and joy. 


The story of the Hebrews and the Exodus echoes throughout history, providing perhaps more questions than answers.  The over-arching theological question is “Where is God in human suffering?”  There is a gap of more than 400 years between the promise to Abraham and the time of Moses.  Why does God seem to slow to act?  “Where is God in the daily round of casual atrocity, of violation of every code of decency, when humans become the playthings of fate, victims of social, economic and political forces beyond their control and comprehension?”[7]


If, as Dr. King said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” then my question is “what makes it bend?” 


“What makes it bend?”  I’m just asking the question.  I don’t have a definitive answer.  If you were thinking I would, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t.  However, I do find a few hints in this story.  First there is the moral courage of the midwives.  They know that the order to kill baby boys is evil.  They respond to the prompting of God and refuse to do what Pharoah says.   Then there is the endurance of the oppressed people.  They refuse to give in to despair, but keep hope alive in the very tangible form of babies.  And there is the truth-telling of Pharoah’s daughter.  Her willingness to speak the truth, to name the evil she sees and to act against it becomes the path through which God’s agent, Moses, stays alive.


What bends the moral arc of the universe? 

Courage, hope, truth, endurance of suffering. 


And one more thing.  When Moses grows up, God speaks to him from a burning bush.  God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings . . .”  It is then that God calls Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, to deliver them from bondage.  It is in this context that we find the very first mention of God’s name in Scripture, where the Divine Name is revealed, but still mysterious,  “I am who I am, I will be who I will be.”  God will only be known to the extent that God chooses to reveal God’s self, but God hears the cries of a suffering people.  And chooses to be known by them.  God chooses deliverance and redemption and liberation.  The long arc of this story for the Israelites is the Exodus and the giving of Torah as a way of life.  The even longer arc for Christians is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.


What bends the moral arc of the universe?  Courage, hope, truth, endurance of suffering, and a God who acts, on God’s mysterious timetable, for deliverance and redemption. 


Perhaps a better question is who bends the moral arc of the universe?  The Great I Am and perhaps also you and me, as we speak truth, enact courage and endure with hope.  May it be so.  Amen.



[1]John C. Holbert http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Pharaoh-Goes-Bonkers-John-Holbert-08-18-2014

[2] Walter Bruggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994). p. 695.

[3] Bruggemann, p. 695.

[4] Marcus Borg and J. Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s  Birth  (New York:  Harper/Collins,  2009),  p. 106-110. 

[5] http://day1.org/7045-the_girls_in_the_reeds

[6] Anna Carter Florence,  http://day1.org/7045-the_girls_in_the_reeds

[7] William Johnstone, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Exodus 1-19,

(Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2004), p. 42.