Compassion and Babies

Exodus 1:15-21(1:20) – June 18, 2017

Exod 1 Pharaoh and the Midwives, Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, early 14th century, British Library,

“Compassion and Babies”

Who doesn’t love babies? Babies are sure to put smiles on the faces of many, many people, all over the world. Chubby little hands and feet, delicate ears, nose and mouth. They are adorable when they smile and yawn, and little angels when they are asleep.

I realize there are some people who are not wild about babies, but these are in the minority. Could we focus on one particular person who did not like babies at all? Our Scripture reading today from Exodus tells us a good deal about him. Starting at verse 8, “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”

Joseph and his brothers had been dead for many years—perhaps centuries. This king of Egypt did not remember anything of the marvelous things that Joseph did and the wonderful miracle he helped bring about, assisting all of Egypt and the regions surrounding to survive a great famine that lasted seven years. No, as far as the Pharaoh was concerned, he had forgotten all that history in the mists of a far-off past.

The King of Egypt had grown afraid of the numerous descendants of Jacob, who were growing more numerous and prolific all the time.14 The Egyptians made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” In other words, the Egyptians were using these newcomers to their land as servants, even as slaves.

But, this hard labor—forced labor—was not enough. Pharaoh and many other Egyptians continued to be intimidated by the Israelites. When enough was enough, the Pharaoh called the two midwives to him, the ones who helped the Israelite women to give birth, and gave them a terrible command. He commanded genocide.15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

I suspect everyone here can guess what the midwives’ reaction is to this terrible command. Horror, shock, and revulsion, followed by refusal and resolve.

According to Dr. Brueggemann, “This narrative plunges [us] into a world of danger, brutality and desperation. It is a world into which a settled congregation does not easily go.” [1] Sure, this Scripture reading from Exodus is definitely not warm and fuzzy.  Many congregations regularly romanticize the Bible, and thus ignore the difficult parts, the ominous conflicts, the slavery, wars, death and destruction.

Imagine, so many powerless little babies, just born into this world. Remember the children’s sermon? Remember how certain people today are powerless, too? Similar to our activity during children’s time, here is a story in the book of Exodus about babies in danger who needed help. The babies couldn’t help themselves, and others—the midwives—came along to be sure they were safe.

Continuing from Exodus, “The midwives answered to God, not the king, and so they let the boy babies live, too. The king called for them, and when they came, he asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives said, “Oh, king! Hebrew women are so strong—they give birth on their own, before we can even arrive!”

These courageous women defied the direct orders of the Pharaoh. “They feared God more than they feared the new king, and for that reason they refused to participate in the state-authorized killing.” [2] What is more, they give a wonderful reason for not carrying out Pharaoh’s horrible plan: they say that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly! These women are filled with vigor and a liberated power for life, and for life-bearing, too. [3]

The Hebrew women were not the delicate flowers that many Egyptian women supposedly were. Instead, the midwives appeal to what appears to be Pharaoh’s own prejudicial sense of the relationship between physical difference and ethnicity. They insist that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19).

The Hebrew word here for “vigorous” shares the root of the word “life.” The midwives deceive Pharaoh, and at the same time use language that also winks at the reader: the Hebrew women are full of life. [4] Their identity as God’s people resists death. Death is what Pharaoh demands to bring into their powerless lives—but it does not work. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, not only defy the King of Egypt, they also show compassion to the Israelite boy babies and their families, as well. Their community grew and became even stronger, and God was pleased with the midwives; their disobedience to the King was faithfulness to God.

According to the king, as Pharaoh, he was mighty, wily and powerful; on the other hand, the boy babies of the Israelites had no power, and neither did their parents.

Do we know what “powerless” means?  It’s to need help from others because we cannot help ourselves. Who else might be powerless? I mean, with less power in our world, or our own lives, or in their lives. Who are some people you can think of that don’t have much power in our world today? How can we help these people? Are there ways we all could show compassion and kindness to them?

This week offers us a story of humankind’s inhumanity to one another, and it is a story that gets played out in every generation. Why are we human beings unable to end our hunger for finding a group to be bullied or ostracized, be it on the playground at our local elementary school, in our neighborhood, or in the land that God promised to the Jews all those generations ago? [5]

It is the same old, same old story. One group of people come to consider themselves superior to another. Perhaps they think they are superior because of their appearance, or because they enjoy a more satisfying lifestyle, or they practice a particular religious faith. Maybe they feel they are superior because they have interpreted the Bible in such a way that they have come to believe God supports their views and lifestyle, and God condemns the views and lifestyles of those who differ from them. [6]

Who in our community enjoys favor and who is scapegoated? How does our church address these problems? Do we speak out? If not, why? Who stands to gain and who stands to lose from speaking out or keeping quiet? Can you put your own story into the story of the Hebrew people suffering under the abuses at the hands of the Egyptians? [7]

Thank God for these midwives, for Shiphrah and Puah. They stepped up, they came alongside of the Hebrew women, and they showed kindness and compassion.

How can we act today with kindness and compassion? How can we come alongside of someone in our neighborhood who is being bullied, ostracized, or even abused?

God willing, we can, and we will! Amen.

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, Exodus, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 696.

[2] Ibid, 695.

[3] Ibid, 696.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2169  Commentary, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

[5] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost4#notes1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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