“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
That simple statement is a warning that difficult days are ahead for the people of Israel.
Joseph, the Hebrew boy who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, who through his courage, wisdom, and faith rose to save Egypt and his own people from devastating famine, has been forgotten.
There is a new king in Egypt now, one who cares nothing about the history of his land. One who looks at the Israelites and sees not the descendants of the man who once saved Egypt, but a threat to his own security.
The new king knows that one way to solidify his base is to turn people against each other, to sow the seeds of hatred, fear, and suspicion.
“Look,” the king tells his people, “ the Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we. Let us deal shrewdly with them.”
Two things are clear about the king of Egypt. He is quite powerful and he is a fool. Despite his attempts at shrewdness, everything he does back fires.
First, he makes slaves of the Israelites, oppressing them with hard, forced, physical labor. But the more they are oppressed, the more they multiply.
So the king tries a new tactic. He calls in two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and tells them to kill any baby boys they deliver.
But the midwives, women of great faith in God, defy the king’s orders and let the baby boys live.
“The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they tell the king when he demands to know why there are still boys being born to the Israelites.
The midwives are resisters, engaging in civil disobedience. They are willing to risk their own lives to preserve the lives of children. Their faith gives them the courage to defy the murderous edict of the most powerful and important man in their universe.
When the king realizes his plan is not working, he moves on, commanding all his people to make sure that any Hebrew baby boy is drowned in the Nile.
We don’t know how many people carried out this horrific command, but we do know that in at least one important case, the king is again thwarted.
A Hebrew woman has a baby boy and hides him for three months, another act of resistance. When she can not hide him any longer, she puts him into a basket on the banks of the river. The baby is discovered by the king’s own daughter, who takes compassion on the crying child.
The baby’s sister, who has been watching from afar, steps forward and offers to find someone to nurse the child. The king’s daughter agrees.
And so the baby Moses’ mother ends up being paid by the king to nurse the very child he had ordered killed.
And, of course, this child who in later life is raised in Pharaoh’s own home, is the agent God uses to bring the Hebrew people out of bondage and slavery.
This wonderful story abounds with irony.
The powerful king is subverted at every turn by lowly women.
There are Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives. Notice we don’t know the king’s name, but the names of the lowly midwives have been preserved for all time.
Then there are a lowly slave mother and daughter, and the king’s own daughter, all plotting against him.
God chooses five women to begin the liberation of Israel.
None of these women are leaders of their community. None, with the exception of Pharaoh’s daughter, are in any position of influence or political power.
And yet they are not powerless because they have the power of God working through them.
It is divine irony that God uses the weak, those who are low and despised in the world, to shame the strong. Rather than using power as it is usual.ly exercised in the world, God works through people who have no obvious power.
God’s actions of using the weak and powerless to further the divine purposes are not unique to this story. God has a pattern of using those who live on the world’s margins to further God’s work.
In scripture there is Rahab, a prostitute who saves Israelite spies and helps them reach the Promised land. This prostitute becomes a forebearer of Jesus, named in his genealogy.
Then there is David, the slayer of the giant Goliath who becomes the most powerful king of Israel. But before David was king, he was a lowly shepherd boy, the youngest of 12 sons.
By the world’s standards David was the lowest of the low, but God chose him to be king.
And of course, there is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Who but God would choose a young, poor unwed girl to bear the savior of the world?
This pattern does not end with scripture. Our own time is full of examples of God using the lowly to end oppression and shame the powerful.
It was 62 years ago that Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Her arrest galvanized the black community to organize a boycott of public transportation.
The resistance ended after 382 days when the laws demanding segregation on public buses were declared unconstitutional, and all people were able to ride the buses as equals. Rosa Parks’ simple act of resistance was the beginning of the non-violent civil rights movement in this country.
In the 1970s in Northern Ireland, the killing of three small children triggered three mothers, none of whom had been politically active, to protest. In less than 48 hours Betty Williams and her two friends had gathered 6,000 signatures calling for an end to violence.
They organized a peace march attended by 10,000 Catholics and Protestants walking together in silence. Other peaceful demonstrations followed. The rate of violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland fell by 70 percent, and Betty Williams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The story of the arrogance of nations and the abuse of power is as old as time itself, and is a consistent theme throughout scripture, and throughout history.
When we are in those situations, it is easy to be discouraged, to feel powerless and alone.
But the stories of resisters likes Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter, give us hope. They tell us that God is always working in unlikely ways, through unlikely people, to speak truth to power.
As Paul reminds the struggling church in the great and powerful city of Corinth: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”