Subverting the Egyptian Empire

Before we get to the heart of the Exodus story, Scripture includes three interesting stories back-to-back from Exodus 1:15-2:15 right after introducing how the Pharaoh has brutally enslaved the Hebrew people.

In the first, Pharaoh has ordered the Hebrew widwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill any boys born to the Hebrew slaves. They didn’t follow this order, though, because they respected God more than they respected Pharaoh. Instead, they come up with a reason why they could not possibly carry out Pharaoh’s orders, claiming that Hebrew women give birth so quickly that they couldn’t get there in time to kill the sons. This act of defiance that could seem small on its own saved at least dozens of lives if not hundreds or thousands – exactly how many we don’t know because it doesn’t specify how long they carried on with this “failure” to do as they were told.

In the second story with similar context, we meet Moses and his mother. After giving birth, she manages to hide him for three months, quite an impressive feat to not be caught considering how much attention babies need. Simply crying too loud when the wrong person walked by the house would have put these efforts to an end, quite possibly killing the mother for not following orders as well as Moses. She then does the best she can, putting Moses in a basket and floating him down the river, hoping that somebody else will be able to save him. Sure enough, it isn’t just an arbitrary somebody else who saves him – it is the daughter of Pharaoh out for a bath! She takes pity on Moses and then, at the suggestion of Moses’ sister, actually hires Moses’ mother to nurse him.

In the third story we see many opposites. Moses, now an adult, is in a position of power as the adopted grandson of Pharaoh. It’s more than likely that he wouldn’t have been close to the front of the line for the throne and would never be completely in charge, but he was clearly spending his days with those who were making the large national decisions. One day he goes out from his comfortable palace. He sees an Egyptian foreman beating one of his own people, another Hebrew. Moses looks around to make sure he isn’t going to get caught and then kills the foreman. Apparently he wasn’t as sneaky as he thought though, and both the Hebrews and Pharaoh turn against him.

Each story, I think, is a powerful example of working within your sphere of influence. The various women in the first two stories – Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter – are primary examples of nonviolent resistance within their sphere of influence that created significant change. They save lives and in the process chip away at the oppressive power structure.

Moses, on the other hand, despite his great intentions of helping out of his people who was being hurt, simply causes more division. The Hebrews found out and do not praise him as a hero as he might have expected. Instead, they are worried about this grandson of Pharaoh who has such a temper and resorts to violence so quickly. He may have been motivated by feeling like he was one of them and therefore having to help them, but in many ways he had much more in common in Pharaoh: the wealth, the freedom, and the violence as a primary tool to get his way. Maybe if Moses had responded closer to the reactions of the various women described, he could have used his power for the great good of both the Hebrew and the Egyptian people.

We sometimes see a similar attitude in Social Justice work. There are a lot of very passionate people in the world. They are, in most cases at least, usually correct that the cause they are passionate about is a good cause. Unfortunately, many – not nearly all, but many – respond like Moses. They act in a way that doesn’t actually operate in solidarity with those oppressed and definitely does not respect the human dignity of those who disagree with them on the cause in question. In the realm of International Development, this is a common concern: the rich world rushing with very good intentions to help others often cause more harm because the ways we try to help are the same kind of ways that caused the problem in the first place! Instead of those ways that control others through power (physical violence or otherwise), we see in the women of the story that there are creative alternatives to confront injustice, alternatives that are often much more effective.

Fortunately, even Moses with his temper could be redeemed. After fleeing to the desert for years, God calls this man of all people to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.