“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Anxiety from the top levels of government about immigrant labor foments fear and results in oppression…
We recall how the sons of Jacob and Rachel migrated to Egypt. Their eleventh son, Joseph, was sold to some Arab traders and wound up in an important administrative post in Egypt. When climate change caused famine in the land of promise Jacob and his sons migrated to Egypt. After an initial challenge they were received with honor but then, when the administration changed the text says the King: said to his people “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. As it began, the policy was apartheid, plain and simple.
I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty contemporary. Fear, from the very top. Identifying an oppressed people as the enemy – well, how can you be sure they won’t side with our enemies and their homes are scattered through out all our neighborhoods and they have a different language and a different religion.
But it got even more difficult. The Pharoah announced a practice of eliminating male children. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
We don’t know anything about Moses’ parents other than the text says a man from the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman and their male child was born at this time when Pharaoh required that all Hebrew male newborn were to drowned in the Nile. That Moses’ mother hide her son for as long as possible testifies to the first act of civil disobedience recorded in scripture. The midwives refused to carry out the kings orders and Hebrew sons continued to be added to the number of the feared immigrants.
The infant was put in a water proofed basket and floated in the Nile. When the king’s daughter came to bathe in the river she found the basket. She surmised that the child was of the race of slaves but saved him from the water anyway and despite the policy of the king chose to raise him as her child. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Being adopted by Pharoah’s daughter changed the life of one insignificant immigrant boy. In the first part of his life he was raised by his own family, protected by wages from the king’s daughter. But then, coming of age in the family of Egyptian aristocracy endowed him with a real sense of ambiguity and mixed loyalty. At what point did he really understand his unique position and the opportunities that it presented? Yet the text seems clear that he wasn’t at all confused about who were ‘his’ people. Time and again what gets Moses in hot water is his low tolerance for injustice.
11One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
In these couple of verses we have a story of abuse by someone in authority – I mean the Egyptian who beat one of Moses’ kin. Moses reacts to violence with violence and stealth, kills the Egyptian and buries his body. And then there is an example of how being oppressed and struggling to survive divides rather than unites people. I guess we could call it Hebrew on Hebrew violence. In interceding in the fight Moses learns how vulnerable he is. So –
Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. That would be some where in the wilderness of the northwestern Arabian peninsula and out of Pharoah’s jurisdiction.
16The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. Another example of Moses standing up against injustice.
The daughters returned with the story of how this Egyptian had come to their aid against the ruffians and how he had watered their livestock. . So Jethro invited him to come to supper and he ended up marrying one of the man’s daughters. Moses says of himself: “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
After what is called ‘a long time’ the Pharoah from whom Moses’ fled died. With the change of administration the burden of slavery increased and God heard the people’s groanings.
3Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Did you notice, the Lord, in the text, doesn’t answer Moses’ question “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Who am I? He was the child of immigrant stock who suffered under policies of apartheid and we enslaved and oppressed. He was an adopted son of the Egyptian royal family. And now he was the son-in-law of a nomadic Arabian herdsman, taking care of his flock and raising a family. Who am I? Moses asks. And what God tells him is important. God simply says “I will be with you…” And the sign of God’s presence with him wouldn’t be known until “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
Why does God tell Moses “I am who I am”? It seems like a riddle. They tell me that in Hebrew it’s a play on words. To speak “I am” is very close to pronouncing the name God has been given “Yahweh”. I’m not a Hebrew scholar but those who are say that God is saying to Moses “I know you are anxious, but do not fear, I am with you.” Living into the reality of God’s real presence brought Moses peace, a solid confidence which enabled him to move forward and brought liberation and an end to oppression and injustice to his people. And as God called Moses to service, to what is God calling you? If you think about it, it might upset your whole life. For Moses it called him from a beggarly existence, then from living the life of a one percenter and then from the life of a shepherd. That’s what happened when he took the time to turn aside and explore that strangely burning bush. So, what is God calling you to be about. It might cause a panic attack, not only for you but also for those who depend on you but the good news in our story today is that God still is and says “I know you’re anxious, but do not fear, I am with you.”