Commentary on Exodus 1:6-22; 2:1-10; 15:20-27; 16:1-8
Introduction: A Sprawling Story — The Exodus
This week’s assigned narrative lectionary text is a big, sprawling story — the story of the Exodus, plus a few verses from the start of the Wilderness story.
The challenge is rather daunting: how does one preach such a long story?
Wouldn’t it be a great deal easier to preach a parable that is just a few verses long? Of course! But this reality is the very thing that gave birth to the reason why something like the narrative lectionary is necessary — people don’t know the longer stories of the Bible. And people don’t know the overall biblical story.
So embrace the challenge with us and tackle this long, sprawling narrative.
Preaching such a long story may require that we all figure out how to preacher longer sermons.
(That’s right — I said longer.) Preaching this story may also require that we break up either the reading of the lesson or the delivery of the message with music or other liturgical interventions.
Now, to the text.
The first part of the lesson begins by reporting the death of Joseph and his brothers. After which, it is implied, a long time passed: “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so the land was filled with them.” It might be important to remind worshipers of three things about this little verse.
First, “the land” here is not Israel, but Egypt. At the end of Genesis, the people who had been chosen to be “blessed to be a blessing” had moved down to Egypt in order to seek refuge and food in the midst of a great famine.
Second, this dislocation from the land of Palestine put at risk one of the three central promises that God had made to Abraham. God had promised Abraham and Sarah a land, but the book of Genesis ends with their descendants displaced, down in Egypt.
Third, by becoming “fruitful and prolific,” the people were fulfilling God’s command in Genesis 1 (which we read just a few weeks ago) to “be fruitful and multiply.” As can often be the case, when God’s people follow God’s commands, the world around does not understand and can be threatened.
Then follows one of the most famous lines in the Old Testament: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (verse 8). What does it mean not to “know Joseph”? Many things! It means that the new king (Pharaoh) does not remember the good and wise leadership of Joseph, nor the blessings that flowed from him. In turn, Pharaoh does not know that God is at work through this people — blessing those who bless the people, cursing those who curse the people. Finally, it means that Pharaoh will not recognize Joseph’s people as belonging to another lord — as belonging to the Lord.
Pharaoh’s lack of recognition will in turn result in a conflict between Pharaoh and the Lord about whom these people really belong to. It will result in a conflict between two types of lordship, two types of leadership, two ways of ruling people. On the one hand is Pharaoh — whose leadership is about diminishing life, limiting growth, possessing, keeping people enslaved, and killing when one is threatened. On the other hand is the Lord — whose leadership is about multiplying life, being fruitful, setting people free, being in relationship, and who only resorts to killing as a way last resort in order to free those who have been enslaved.
The rest of Exodus 1 is well known to preachers. A few interpretive comments about this well-known text must suffice.
First, Pharaoh’s type of leadership and lordship are all about being threatened and seeking control through killing and through multiplying suffering. To limit the potential threat to his lordship, Pharaoh orders the death of children. When the people of God prospered, Pharaoh — like the anonymous oppressors of every generation — increased their hard labor and their suffering as a means of control.
Second, at first blush, God seems absent in the story. Where is God? In the first chapter of Genesis, God is transparently present and active in practically every verse, speaking creation into being. Compared with that, in the first chapter of Exodus, God is present only in hints. Where is there a hint of God’s movement in the story? Answer: In the agency of two, slave, minoritized (Hebrew), barren midwives!
This answer is almost as countercultural today as it was in the ancient world — God was stirring to rescue the people through Shiphrah and Puah. In the ancient world, it would have been harder to search down any lower on the cultural pecking order than Shiphrah and Puah. And notice that the two of them are named! And Pharaoh, the anonymous oppressor, is not named.
As the story of the Exodus unfolds in Exodus 1-2, the countercultural work of God continues. God continues to work through the least powerful. In all, God works through six women in order to begin the movement to be faithful to the seed of Abraham and to rescue the people. Those six women were Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother (“a Levite woman”), “his sister” (Miriam), “the daughter of Pharaoh,” and “her maid” who was sent to rescue the baby Moses.
In Exodus 1-2, we have an Old Testament example of what Martin Luther called the theology of the cross. A theologian of the cross, according to Luther, “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”1 The story is an example of the theology of the cross, because God meets the people in their suffering. God does not act through the glorious and powerful agency of the Pharaoh and his army, but through the lowly service and obedience of women.
As Luther later wrote, “true Christian religion does not begin at the highest as all other religions do, but at the lowest. Therefore whenever you are concerned to think and act about your salvation, you must put away all speculations about the Majesty, all thoughts of works, traditions, and philosophy — indeed, of the Law of God itself. And you must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace this Infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him — born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things.”2
What next? Well, “the rest of the story,” of course. Moses’ flight, his call, the conflict with Pharaoh, the plagues, the Passover, the flight to the sea, the rescue at the sea. All of that.
But the narrative lectionary moves through the story — at least for this year — by skipping ahead and continuing the story with the agency of women. Particularly, with the agency of “the prophet Miriam, Aaron [and Moses]’s sister” (Exodus 15:20).
What follows next are two of the oddest stories in the Old Testament — and two of the most important. The stories of the Israelites complaining against God at Marah and again at (the ironically named) Sin.
If one thinks about the stories from the perspective of human nature, one can only conclude that these stories were both remembered and placed in this key canonical location in order to be a commentary both on human nature and on divine nature. To put it another way, what sort of nation or people tells these types of stories about themselves?
The story of the Exodus is THE canonical story of the Old Testament. It defines who God is (throughout the rest of the Old Testament God is “the one who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). The story also defines who the people are (throughout the rest of the Old Testament the people are those “whom God brought up out of the land of Egypt”).
So, what stories do the people tell about themselves, about God, and about this formative time in the people’s relationship with God? Unflattering stories! Stories in which the people portray themselves as complainers, as whiners, as lacking basic faith or trust in God.
The story makes the point better than any “point of the story” could do, but just to be clear: After God elects a human being or saves a nation, human nature does not change — the people are no more likely to be grateful, faithful, or trusting. Sin “clings so closely,” as Hebrews 12 puts it. Human nature persists — in its fallenness, in its brokenness, in its sin.
And God’s response? Grace.
How does the Lord meet this rebellion, this complaining, this lack of faith? By giving the people sweet water to drink, sweet bread from heaven to eat, and enough meat to sustain them on the journey of faith. “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites,” responded God. And the response? “In the morning you shall have your fill of bread, then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
1“Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31, 52.
2“Commentary on Galatians,”LW 26, 30.