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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/26/1996
And Joseph died, and all his brothers. . . . But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the whole land was filled with them. Now a new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people, "Behold, the sons of Israel are mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and in the event of war they also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us, and depart from the land. " So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. . . . But the more they afflicted them the more they multiplied. . . . And they made their lives bitter with hard labor. . . . Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah, and the other was named Puah. And he said, "When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth . . . if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live." But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this and let the boys live?" And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them." So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God that he established houses for them. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, "Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive."
"What did you learn in Sunday School today?" the little boy was asked as the family sat around the table for Sunday dinner. "Oh, it was great!" the boy replied. "It was all about how the Israelites escaped from Egypt. They were headed for the Red Sea with the Egyptian tanks in hot pursuit. But the Israeli army fought a heroic rear guard action while the people crossed on pontoon bridges. Then, when they were over on the other side and the Egyptian army tried to follow, Moses called in an air strike and blew the bridges and the Egyptians right into the sea!" "Now, is that REALLY what the teacher said?" his father asked pointedly. "Well, no," the son admitted. "But you would NEVER believe the way she told it!"
How I tell it remains to be seen. How Moses told it remains central to the faith of both Jews and Christians after three and a half millennia. And how you hear it will have a great deal to do with how you relate to the One that Dorothy L. Sayers called "the only God with a date in History." He has actually had several dates in history. And of the two most significant so far, this was the first.
Why is it important for us to understand the Book of Exodus? In the first place, because IT IS FOUNDATIONAL TO THE OLD-TESTAMENT RELIGION that prepared the way for the coming of Christ. What the Cross is to the New Testament, the Exodus event itself was to the Old: God's greatest act of redemption for his people. What Communion is to the New testament, the Feast of Passover was to the Old: the greatest memorial of that redemption. What the Resurrection is to the New Testament, the crossing of the Red Sea was to the Old: the greatest confirmation of that redemption, the greatest witness to the fact that Life had been snatched from the jaws of death. What the Church is to the New Testament, the Tabernacle was to the Old: the greatest focal point of God's presence in the world. What the Epistles are to the New Testament, the Ten Commandments were to the Old: the greatest explanation of what life in the light of God's covenant should be like. What the Gospels are to the New Testament, the Book of Exodus itself was to the Old: the greatest record of God's saving act. The Book of Exodus is absolutely foundational to the Old Testament religion that prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
Precisely because Exodus is so foundational to the Old Testament, IT IS FOUNDATIONAL ALSO TO THE NEW TESTAMENT. You cannot understand the identity and nature of the God who sent Jesus without this book. And you cannot fully understand the New Testament account of that sending except by reference to this book. In Luke 9:31, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are speaking to Jesus literally about the "Exodus" he was to perform. What did they mean? The Gospels continually draw parallels between Christ and the Israel of this book, applying to him for example the Old Testament language that "Out of Egypt I called my Son." How shall we understand a word of the Book of Hebrews unless we have studied the Tabernacle? How shall we understand the Sermon on the Mount unless we have read Exodus 20-24, the Text on which it is a Sermon? The Book of Exodus is absolutely foundational to the New Testament as well, so much so that it is no exaggeration to say that without it we can never fully understand what it meant for Christ to come.
Finally, because it is foundational to both the Old and the New Testaments, the Book of Exodus is also FOUNDATIONAL TO THE CHRISTIAN LIFE. Where shall we learn more of God's plan, his power, his patience, his holiness, his ways, his character? Where shall we learn more of the consequences of faith and obedience, or of unbelief and disobedience? Only from the Lord Jesus Christ and his Apostles--but we shall not learn it nearly so well from them unless we come to them with this book under our belts. Therefore, let us begin by examining in chapter one the conditions that led up to that great Intervention that was the Exodus itself.
Jacob's family had come to Egypt to escape a severe famine when Joseph was Prime Minister of Egypt. For four centuries they stayed there--and multiplied. They were fruitful, they increased, they spread out, they became mighty, to the point that a generation of Egyptians who had forgotten how Joseph had delivered them as well as his own people started to get concerned. And they did well to be concerned, for there was a spiritual significance to all this fruitfulness and increase, both for the Israelites and for the Egyptians as well.
For the Israelites, it was the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham--to bless him and make his descendants like the sand of the sea. We will see that this has more to do with God's faithfulness than with their's. With the exception of the midwives, many of them were not necessarily prepared to follow God fully and without murmuring, even when he had delivered them. But for those who remembered their own heritage, they could see God's faithfulness to his Covenant everywhere they looked. It was constantly under foot!
To understand what this increase meant to the Egyptians, you have to see it in terms not just of the availability of resources or of demographics, but in the context of ancient fertility cults. Fertility was central to the Egyptian form of paganism, with the life-giving Nile flowing right through the middle of it. Fertility of crops, of herds, and of offspring was one of the chief ways that their gods bestowed their blessing. That was part of what made the Egyptians so concerned about Israel. She had not really shown any tendency to disloyalty. But if she were constantly more fertile, you started having the nagging feeling that maybe the gods were favoring her. So let's get rid of this inconvenient evidence by oppressing these pesky people who are multiplying like flies! By verse 12 you are starting to get really worried: the more you afflict them, they only multiply faster! Despite everything you can do, their god (which you understand in terms of fertility cults, the only framework you have) keeps showing himself stronger than yours. That is what justifies the word "dread" in that verse. Israel had no army, and Egypt had the strongest army in the world. You might be concerned, but you would not be in dread of these people just because they had lots of children--not unless something more than demographics was motivating your concern. But instead of trying to figure out how to be pleasing to this god themselves, the Egyptians turn up the heat and try to set up a system of institutional infanticide. They have understood what is happening as a conflict between the Israelite god and their own pantheon, and they do not intend to lose. So what we see is that the "hardening of Pharaoh's heart" against the true God that is explicitly mentioned later actually begins quite early. Anyone in tune with the culture, with the nature of ancient fertility religions, would realize that the story is taking the shape of a contest over whose gods are stronger from the outset. And from the outset, the Egyptians are deliberately turning a blind eye to the increasingly obvious fact that it is not going to be much of a contest.
In contrast to Pharaoh, who maintains a chauvinistic contempt for this foreign god in spite of the evidence already mounting against his stubborn and self-defeating position, the Hebrew midwives "feared God." They refused to cooperate in the king's initial strategy of selective infanticide, sparing the male children in spite of their orders. So we see in them a picture of what it means to fear God: it means to take him seriously, to take him more seriously than they did Pharaoh, in fact, and therefore to obey him rather than Pharaoh, even though Pharaoh had the power to destroy their bodies. To fear God is to respect him in ways appropriate to his deity--his absolute authority, power, and majesty. And it is on that basis to have a respect for human life, made in his image, in contrast to the cheap way in which individual life was often held in ancient times.
But the midwives raise an interesting question in the way they went about dealing with the crisis. They lied to Pharaoh--technically, they "stretched" a real truth about the Hebrew women in a way that deceived him about their intentions in sparing the male children. Should they have done so? A majority of commentators on this passage say, "No." They were blessed by God for the fact that they saved the children, but not for the way in which they did it, i.e., by lying.
This is a very important question, a crucial point of ethics that has come down to us in the classic dilemma of the person asked by the Gestapo agent if he is harboring any Jews. There seems to be a conflict between the obligation to save a life and the obligation to tell the truth. It is a difficult question indeed, one about which even Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsy disagreed. We know how the midwives would have responded! But were they right?
Well, I cannot go along with the majority view of Evangelical scholars at this point; I cannot find it in my heart to condemn the midwives for their method (lying) any more than for their aim (saving). And my dissent is not primarily derived from the fact that the distinction between end and means seems a tad artificial here--though I think it does. Nor is it from the utilitarian argument, the realpolitik, that if they had told the truth it would have meant an immediate end to their ability to save any more innocent lives--though it would have. Rather, it flows from the fact that there is not the slightest hint of any criticism of the midwives in the passage itself, nor any hint of a distinction between what they did and how they did it. Note the critical position of the "so" in verse 20: The midwives told Pharaoh their little stretch about the vigor of Hebrew women, SO God blessed them. But how could he bless them for breaking one of the Ten Commandments?
The fact that the Ten Commandments had not yet been given is not really relevant--they were only a clearer statement of moral principles that were already basically known. And since the Moses who records them in chapter 20 is the same one who is writing this account, presumably at some point after he already knew what the Ten were, I think we are justified in taking his attitude to the midwives here as a commentary on how to read the Commandment. That commentary tells me that it was never the intent of the Commandment to obligate us to provide the truth to a Gestapo agent. Does that Commandment forbid all deceiving? No. It forbids false witness against one's neighbor. Not every deception is false witness any more than all killing is murder. Most people have enough sense to realize that the Commandment simply doesn't apply to the temporary deception required to pull off a surprise party or a harmless practical joke; it doesn't apply to the head-fake a receiver in football gives to try to get open for a pass; it doesn't apply to strategic attempts to fool the enemy into thinking you are attacking at a different place or time than you actually are in a just war. To feel a need to justify such actions in the light of the Commandment is simply to have missed its point. In none of those cases are you bearing false witness against your neighbor. Gestapo agents--people, in other words, who have set themselves against every standard of divine righteousness or human decency--have no right to the truth, for they are not true--they have no intention of using it for a true purpose. Therefore, you are not breaking the Ten Commandments if you responsibly refrain from giving it to them. And this conclusion flows from a careful reading of the Commandment itself, in the light of the way it is applied to the actions of the midwives in passages like this one.
What then should we take away from this story? First, it reminds us that we ought rather to obey God than men. For most of us at most times, the context in which that rubber hits the road will not be in the kind of civil disobedience practiced by the midwives or the head of a safe house (though we must certainly be prepared for that), but rather the context of peer pressure. The true test of spiritual maturity, of how much we fear God, is not so much how often we attend Church or how loud we sing or how inspiring a testimony we can give, as it is what choices we make outside the Church in the presence of our secular friends.
Second, it reminds us to read the Ten Commandments in the light of how they are applied in the rest of Scripture. Read them in the light of the concrete situations and contexts they deal with; do not be too quick to turn them into abstractions. God's moral absolutes do not contradict themselves, nor does life really put us in situations that require us to choose between them, when we understand them accurately as they were given in the full context of Scripture. The Ninth Commandment is not so much about deception in the abstract as it is about the very concrete issue of false witness against one's neighbor who can be hurt by what we say. For most of us, the most practical focus of that Commandment is not really lying at all, but gossip!
I can summarize it all in three principles for life: Trust God, for he is sovereign. Fear God, and he will bless you. Keep his Commandments personal (i.e., do not make them abstract), and you will find them applicable. May this familiar story remind us to do so this week.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams