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Co-Conspirators -- Exodus 1:8-2:10 (Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost)

This is the beginning of the Exodus story – the story of God’s liberating action in the world – as God hears the cry of God’s people in Egypt and brings them out of bondage into freedom. It is a story of liberation, so it’s not surprising that it begins in a world of oppression. A new king has risen to power in Egypt – he has watched this Hebrew people thrive – and their very thriving becomes for him an imagined threat. And so he enslaves them.

As we enter this story, we see a world of slavery. We see a world where a people who have settled in the land are singled out, named as different, and oppressed. We see a despot who stirs up fear of the other as a means for solidifying his own power. We see government action to kill the children of this people, a genocidal plan. And we see the systemic impact of all that – the structures of oppression that emerge – as these Hebrew people are worked harder and harder, with no wage for their work, building storehouses for Pharaoh.

And at the very beginning of the story, in the first words, we discover that one of the things that has gone wrong is that Pharaoh has forgotten his history – has forgotten their history.[1] “A new King arose who knew not Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets how, generations before, these two peoples had lived together and survived famine together. He forgets their humanity, and their story. And that allows him to re-write this other world – this world that sees the other as enemy and oppresses and kills.

So lest we forget too, it might be good for us, at the outset, to remember our history – to remember and name our own history of slavery – the slavery that plagued this nation at its inception, and whose reverberations have echoed down over the generations. If we remember our history, we might see how our dominant culture has singled out and marginalized those who are different, again and again. We might see our leaders, past and present, as they demonize those they label as foreign, to maintain their own power.

We might see how our own government cages children and kills young women and men. We might see the systems that we have put in place to keep all this going – unjust economic systems, education systems, policing systems, incarceration systems – all interconnected. If we consider their history and ours, we might see in their world a reflection of our own. If we remember.

But then also remember: This is a story of liberation. A story of how God enters into all of this and leads a people out into freedom. And this story begins with five women. It begins with the midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – and a sister, and a mother, and a daughter. The sister we know to be Miriam. The mother of Moses we will find out is Jochebed. And the daughter of Pharaoh will later be given the Hebrew name by the Hebrew people – Batya.

Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, Jochebed, and Batya – these five women are – as my friend Rabbi Meredith Cohn loves to say – they are “the women who started the revolution.”

A king has come to power who knows not Joseph, and he becomes deathly afraid of the Hebrew people. There’s no real reason given, except that they are living and thriving and free. And so the king stirs up this fear, enslaves them, and then sets out to kill them off. He does this by inviting in the Hebrew midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – and commanding them that when they are with the Hebrew mothers and their sons are born – while the mothers are still on the birthing stool, the midwives are to kill the mother’s sons.

But Shiphrah and Puah say No. They leave their meeting with Pharaoh, and the next day or maybe the day after that, they are called to the birthing room. They coach the mother, reminding her to breathe, and when the baby is born – they hear Pharaoh’s command – and in their hearts, or maybe out loud – they say “No.” And the babies live.