Monday, July 16, 2012

The Nameless Revolution

"Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live."  - Exodus 1:22

Maybe its because deliverance is in the title of the book -"ex odos" - literally, "a way out", or maybe its because the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea are some of the very first stories we learn if we grew up in church but either way we usually begin reading the book of Exodus knowing that deliverance is not far off.  As a result, it can be difficult to force ourselves to sit in the pure horror that is Israel's circumstance.  We can be so quick to jump to God's mighty acts that we rush over the desperate situation that made them necessary.  Never mind the brick making.  Pharaoh's edict of death alone is enough to qualify this as an atrocity, a genocide, a holocaust.  "Every son that is born to the Hebrews..."

Imagine the consequences of such a decree if fully enforced.  Did half the births among the Israelites, occasions that should have been joyous signs of life, instantly become occasions for mourning the moment the child's gender was revealed?  Did the sight of one's niece insight jealousy and pain because it was a reminder of the loss of one's own son?  When the Hebrew men went to make those bricks, did they notice that no young men were joining them in the fields?  When the Hebrew women went to the Nile to gather water for the day, did they do their best to ignore the infant sized corpse floating down the river or had they become so accustomed to this sight that they were now cold to these reminders of their oppression?   This is a Hitler/1994 Rwanda/current Syria kind of evil.  And an evil backed by the highest earthly power of the day.  What can possibly be done in the face of such an insurmountable and hope-stealing force?

In the midst of Pharaoh's death-dealing decree, life goes on.  A nameless Levite man marries a nameless Levite woman.  They have a child - a boy.  But this nameless woman refuses to submit to the most powerful man in the world.  She hides her son for three months.  Isn't this a fool's errand?  She can't possibly expect this son of her's to go unnoticed forever in an environment where there are no other boys walking the streets.  She could probably be executed for her disobedience but at the very least isn't she stealing precious food and resources away from the daughter she already has and wasting them on this child who has no chance of survival?  When she can't hide him any more she follows Pharaoh's orders but with her own subversive twist.  She does place her son in the Nile but she does so in a basket - or an "ark" to translate the Hebrew word more exactly - reminding us of another story in which God provided a miraculous way out in the midst of watery chaos and death.

Here in the story enters another nameless, powerless, woman.  She is probably even more weak and powerless than the decree-defying mother for she is really just a girl - she is the baby boy's sister.  This sister watches her brother from a distance "to know what would be done to him."  I imagine that she watches with the kind of hope that only a young child or early adolescent could muster; a hope that hasn't yet been corrupted and pared down by "reality," a hope that believes this baby boy could somehow survive in a world without baby boys.

Her hope puts her in the right place at the right time when yet another woman enters the story.  This woman does have some power relative to the other two since she is Pharaoh's daughter but surely even she would have no one to protect her if her father's wrath turned against her.  She has come down to the Nile to bathe, sees the child in the basket, and pities him in direct contrast to the law of her own father.  Now the sister sees the opportunity that only she, in all her naive hopefulness, could have possibly hoped for and (should we imagine her, previously unnoticed, breathlessly bursting out from her hiding place among the reeds?) asks "Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?"  The Princess of Egypt consents to the offer proposed by this unknown, nameless, and powerless little girl who then runs to get her mother so that the Princess can pay her to nurse her own son.

Moses is saved by being placed in the very river that Pharaoh meant to be the means of his death.  He is drawn out of that river by Pharaoh's own daughter and his mother will be paid to nurse him out of Pharaoh's own treasury.  Pharaoh's edict of evil has sown the seeds of its own demise for it is this same Moses who represents the end of Pharaoh's seemingly endless power.  It turns out that all it took to topple this insurmountable and hope-stealing force was three women who refused to submit to the deadly ways of the Empire.

There is another important character in this story who goes unnamed:  God.  To be sure, by the end of the book of Exodus we will know this God and his magnificent, plague inducing, slave liberating power quite well.  He will be named with many names (I Am, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, compassionate, etc.) and show himself to be the one true God over all of creation.  But before all the fireworks he calls Moses through the quiet, calm burning of a bush.  Apparently God refuses to light these fireworks alone.  God wants a servant through whom he can work...and that servant, Moses, does not exist apart from the subversive acts of these three women.  Their civil disobedience is not accompanied by the obvious displays of God's power which Moses will enjoy.  Indeed, here at the oppressive and hopeless beginning of this powerful story - in the midst of the brick making and infant murdering - one might wonder if there is even a god who is worth naming.  But it seems this is how the inauguration of God's kingdom always takes shape; not with brute force and obvious displays of God's power and presence but in the anonymity, weakness and vulnerability of an infant, of a cross and a tomb, of three women who refuse to submit to the powers that be.  These are the makings of God's revolution.

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