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Safe and sound in a dangerous world

July 14, 2015

Exodus 2: 1-15                                  Tuesday 14 July 2015

Did you spot in the first reading the violence of the men whenever they appeared in the story, contrasting with the compassion of the women? I think this story today – the beginning of the exodus – there’s a GodIess aspect to it: we heard yesterday about how the Pharaoh wants to abort and kill all the newborn Hebrew babies. That’s Godless. And then on the other side, Godliness. And they are sort of identified by the male and the female: the differences of approach.

So what is happening this morning? Remember Abraham, 2,000 years before Christ. We have now moved on. I said it’s easier to remember in 500-year chunks… the first ‘stop’ 500 years after Abraham being the story of Moses (actually it’s about 400 years – it doesn’t matter, it’s about half a millennium). In that time the People of Israel had been in Egypt, taken there by Joseph. They started off, we learn from Genesis, with about seventy people: the family of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. The numbers grew. The Israelites became an integral part of the Egyptian economy.

People became xenophobic, they worried about this ‘nation within a nation’ if you like – the Egyptians became frightened of the Israelites in their midst. And at the same time, over those 400 years, Israel had drifted away from the ways of God. 400 years is a very short period in the history of a nation really, but Abraham had drifted into the background. Abraham, the man who had identified the one, single God, and had worshipped accordingly, those revelations, those memories had faded, had become a bit vague. The people incorporated into the lifestyle of Egypt: they followed the ways of Egypt; they had forgotten God; they had drifted away from worshipping the true God. They were even worshipping the pagan gods of the Egyptians.

You can see that happening today – history repeats itself all the time. Very rapidly, if people are not in the right environment they drift away from God. We’ve seen that in our own lifetimes. From the 1960s the number of people who have fallen away from God, who then forget about God… they say God isn’t important, they say they have other things that are more important (they are their gods). This is a terrible thing. They can be of the right background – two good Catholic parents, Catholic grandparents, a Catholic upbringing. But then they go out into the world, they are in an environment that pulls them away. All is not lost! They can be saved. This is a story of Moses going back to Egypt to save his people. And to put it into modern terms, it’s an example of ‘nature-nurture’: we are what we are because of our genes, what we have inherited; but also what we experience.

That is why, at the beginning of today’s reading, it makes it very clear that there is a baby born to a man and a woman who are both of the Tribe of Levi. The Tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes descended from the sons of Jacob. Well, the Tribe of Levi was the ‘priestly’ tribe. So what they are saying here, in the Book of Exodus written by Moses, is: ‘this child is born of good parentage, of a priestly line.’ Remember how people thought Jesus was Moses when He arrived? Jesus was ‘of a priestly line’. Just remember that!

BUT…. How we turn out, in addition to our parentage, our genes, also depends on our environment. That newly born child was in extreme danger, but he was put in an environment that kept him safe. His mother looked after him for three months, then it got too much, too noisy, whatever happened she couldn’t hide him any more. And the edict was that such boys were to be thrown in the river. What did she do? She did put him in the river, but in a special container, in a papyrus basket coated with pitch to make it waterproof.

There’s a parallel here with something before Moses’ time, told in the Book of Genesis – and that is the Ark of Noah. That story of Noah’s Ark is symbolic of God looking after His Creation, protecting it from the world, a bad environment. And there’s also something that happened after Moses, which is something we hold very dear: sometimes the Blessed Virgin Mary is called ‘The Ark of the Covenant’. She carried God within her, in a safe place, and kept God safe in a hostile world. She had a womb, the Ark of the Covenant, full of water. Again, that symbol of water. Christ is born coming forth through water, saved.

The Hebrew word for ‘womb’, the word linked to womb and femininity etc in Hebrew is ‘racham’. Men haven’t got a womb. Sometimes you see mediaeval painting of Jesus and there is a circle painted on His stomach. It is a symbolic womb. A man with a womb? Well, God is neither male nor female. Jesus was born as a human man, and sometime the ancients put in a circle to say there is a womb there.

The significance of ‘womb’, (racham in Hebrew) is that it is linked to the Hebrew word ‘compassion’. We might say almost a ‘gut-wrenching’ compassion for others. ‘Compassion’ is a Latin word meaning ‘with passion’, ‘with suffering’. And compassion is about identifying with other people, and really, deep down, feeling that you must do something to protect them. That is what the women did today. Pharaoh’s daughter….. Pharaoh’s daughter had looked after a Hebrew child when Pharaoh had said these children were to be murdered! She took baby Moses into the court, next to Pharaoh. This was tolerated, she could do this because she was in a privileged position, and she used her ability to influence events. Not a safe thing to do, but she looked after that child. Not only that, did you notice how Moses’ sister was there at the riverbank? She is traditionally known as Miriam. Miriam was there and she sees the princess take the child, She goes forward and asks,

‘Would you like someone to suckle the baby, a wet nurse?’

‘Oh yes please. Do you know anyone?’

‘Yes, I know someone.’

It’s the mother, isn’t it!

So Moses was brought up by his own mother working as a nurse in the Pharaoh’s Palace. What an environment to grow up in!

And Moses became a powerful man in Egypt.

[And here’s an intriguing thought. The princess knew he was a Jew. They would know that he was a Jew from the circumstances of being found in the river. Also his mother knew he was a Jew. Here’s a strange thing: did Moses know he was a Jew? He had drifted away from his roots.]

Somewhere along the line Moses discovered he was a Jew. Then he realised that his kinsfolk were being mistreated, and he went out to see the conditions they were working under, perhaps to try and improve their conditions. He sees a fight, sees bullying, and kills the perpetrator and buries him.

Here’s a parallel as well: Joseph went to Egypt because he was betrayed by his brothers, wasn’t he. They didn’t like him, he was the youngest, and he was betrayed, even though he was a good man. And what happen to Moses? He had been raised by the Pharaoh, becoming an important man – again, something akin to a prime minister. There would obviously be Egyptians around who resented this guy coming in, an adopted son if you like. It’s ironic that there is a Jew there, helping to run Egypt; Moses discovers he is a Jew; he helps a fellow Jew. That Jew he helped then betrays him, because the day after Moses has saved him from a beating or from being murdered by an Egyptian, he is in another fight (so he is a bit of a roughneck). Moses says,

‘What are you fighting for?’

‘Who are you to be bossing us about? Who do you think you are? Are you going to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian?’

He has betrayed him. The very man who was saved. That is what happened to Joseph. And that’s what happened to Jesus. He was betrayed by the people around Him whom He had looked after.

These are parallels that the first Christians would have spotted.

So Moses escapes to Midian.

There’s another parallel here. Moses runs off from a powerful job to nothing. He is about 40 years old, and he spent 40 years in Midian. What was he doing? Well, he comes across a man called Jethro with daughters, etc, etc, and Moses becomes a shepherd for him. A shepherd!….. from being the prime minister! What a change! What a change of environment! God has moved Moses from an evil environment into a nurturing environment. (Again, like the womb).

And how long did he spend there, being a shepherd? 40 years.

The number forty is significant in Hebrew literature. It means ‘a long time’.

And after 40 years Moses went back to Egypt. And how long did they then spend in the wilderness again? 40 years!

There was another shepherd in the Bible. David. That was 500 years after Moses, 1000BS. David was a shepherd-boy, unlikely to be selected as the leader; he was selected as the leader! This is the way God works.

And then there was another man who was unlikely to be selected as a leader. Born in obscurity. Not important in any way. A carpenter. Not a big deal. He became ‘The Good Shepherd’.

These were all things the first Christians would have picked up from these stories.

So, God is preparing Moses for a great mission, his true mission. He is of good lineage, priestly stock. He receives a good environment to raise him, but finds himself in a very difficult environment. God moves him from that environment.

There is hope for us all. Moses, after all, murdered someone didn’t he? Is God forgiving? Does God understand the circumstances we’re operating in? Yes, He does. I’m not suggesting you go out and murder people, but sometimes circumstances arise that such a thing could happen. You might be suddenly drawn into something where somebody is killed. This does happen to people doesn’t it. Some very violent person happens to be killed by someone defending themselves or defending someone else… is that person ‘doomed’ because they have killed someone? No, not at all. And that is indeed what happened to Moses. There is hope for us all.

Moses is in exile for 40 years. A nobody. So he comes back, aged 80! (theoretically, but we’re not quite sure how long the years were in ancient scriptures.)

Tomorrow we will see what happens as a result of these 40 years of preparation. After a lifetime of preparation, Moses is coming back to Egypt. And guess what’s going to happen? It’s my favourite word at the moment! Moses is going to see God in a ‘theophany’….. it’s the Burning Bush tomorrow.

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