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"Defiant: Jochebed"

"...when Jochebed looked at her son, and saw that he was “good”, she decided to disobey Pharoah’s command. She did not immediately throw him into the Nile."


"Whispered Moonlight Prayers” by Amy Parker
"Whispered Moonlight Prayers” by Amy Parker

Exodus 2:1-3

June 23, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Last week we heard how Pharoah’s genocidal plans were defied by two Hebrew midwives.


It was a triumph for those who would bring life into this world; a demonstration of bold faith in God; and a glimpse into the possibility of subversive creativity!


But it was not the end of the story.


Pharoah’s fear and hatred would not be denied.


If he couldn’t get two midwives to kill every Hebrew baby boy, he would command the entire population to cast the boys into the Nile to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles!


 

Think for a moment about the social order created by that single command –

a community where pregnancy was not an answer to prayer, but a heartbreaking risk;

where a baby’s birth was not a joy to be shared and celebrated, but something to be covered up;

where the natural instinct to protect a young life was thwarted, murderous acts encouraged; and people given a perverse incentive to inform on their neighbors.


Into that sort of compromised community, we are told, a woman conceived.


Later we will learn her name is Jochebed. She has already had a daughter, Miriam, and a son, Aaron, so she knows the joy and pain of childbirth. But this time is different. The first two were born before Pharoah’s deadly command. She must have spent this whole pregnancy fretting over whether she was carrying a girl or a boy.


Some might ask why she chose to have a baby at such a terrible time.


Kelley Nikondeha, author of Defiant, thinks she knows why. She has seen it first hand.[1]


She and her husband worked 45 minutes north of the capital in Burundi. Every week there was a funeral procession. All those tiny coffins broke everyone’s hearts. So they started a small health center with a nurse who could provide prenatal support and a feeding program.


She writes, “For too many women the world over, conceiving and bearing children is dangerous work. It might even be the most ordinary kind of defiance in the face of death.”


People go on having babies, she says, because sex is “an opportunity to connect amid daily hardship, a bit of joy to savor when all else is bitter,” and children are an investment in the future, the ones who will care for you in your old age. “They are your hope against the darkness!”


Maybe that grants some insight into Jochebed’s thoughts.


 

But Exodus tells us more with three, seemingly innocent, words: good, hid, and put.


First, it says that when Jochebed looked at her son, and saw that he was “good”, she decided to disobey Pharoah’s command. She did not immediately throw him into the Nile.


Now every mother thinks her newborn child is beautiful, but there is more going on here.


“Good” is the same word God uses in describing each step of creation.


Nikondeha puts it this way: “Jochebed’s son possessed the deep goodness of creation, stamped with God’s own image, a boy as good as anything God ever made.”[2]


Meg Jenista goes further, writing, “Looking in his eyes with his tiny fingers wrapped around her pinky, [Jochebed] knows with just as much certainty that Pharaoh’s plan is not good and she cannot let it break her family.”[3]


 

So she decides to hide him. For three long months. Can you imagine keeping a baby quiet for 90 days and 90 nights?


The story of Anne Frank tells us that hiding is possible, but it requires many allies.


Can you imagine the tension as Jochebed begs Miriam to help keep the baby dry and happy; as she asks Aaron to entertain his little brother; as she enlists the silence of her neighbors.


Nikondeha reminds us that Jesus once told a parable about another woman who hid a good thing: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and [hid] in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” The Greek word is enkrypto – from which we get the word encrypted, which carries the possible meaning of hiding something from prying eyes. Her subversive handiwork is setting something good in motion.[4]


When you hide yeast in flour, like the sourdough starter that so many dabbled with during the pandemic, the result is an abundance of bread. Nikondeha imagine that the woman in the parable shares those loaves with begging children, and widows wandering home from the market with empty baskets, and families that are struggling. She bakes, not to hoard for herself, but to share with her neighborhood.


So how is Jochebed’s hiding her son like that?  


Perhaps it was an act of individual, personal resistance and nothing more. But perhaps it blesses the community. Perhaps it was a witness … and gave courage to others to resist too. Perhaps it inspired hidden acts like the underground railroad, or the coded art of quilts that masked maps to freedom in patterns like wild geese flying and the north star and crossroads,[5] or the secret places for Jewish families in attics and behind false walls.


 

But after three months, Exodus tells us, Jochebed could hide her son no longer and so she constructed a tiny ark and put him in it and placed him among the reeds.


Nikondeha writes, “I had assumed she launched her son across the river in the hope that he would make it safely over. But there is another way to read this story: [perhaps] Jochebed guided the basket across the river herself and put it in [a chosen] thicket of reeds. [If that is so, then] she took on the danger of negotiating the waters, [to ensure] that neither Leviathan nor Pharoah would claim her boy’s life.”[6]


How did she come to dream up such an audacious plan?


Anna Carter Florence puts it this way:

“It's a brilliant act, a symbolic act, designed to save life as well as to bear witness. And it is heartbreakingly limited. A Kevlar ark can't save a child for long. He has one day, maybe two, before he will die of exposure; one day, maybe two, to live. And anyone who finds him will get the mother's message, loud and clear:


This is what we've come to, in Egypt.


Take a look: Kevlar cradles.


It's all I could do for my child.


All I could give him was two more days.”[7]


Placing implies careful intent. She is not just casting him in the Nile and praying all will be well. She is expecting her message will get through. She is trusting someone will be moved.


 

Last week I asked whether you could imagine being a midwife – bringing life into a world full of death. This week, I’m asking you to put yourself into Jochebed’s place.


Can you see good when most can only see bad?


Do you have the courage and creativity to hide something so it can bless others?


Will you put a plan into action and trust others to respond?


It is holy work … and it makes space for God to bring deliverance. Amen


[1] Here and following from Defiant, pages 45-48
[2] Ibid, page 43
[3] From her reflections on the text for the Center for Excellence in Preaching, 8/27/23
[4] Here and following, from Defiant, pages 48-50
[5] I’m drawing here on the book Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson
[6] From Defiant, page 56
[7] From her sermon, “The Girls in the Reeds” 1/31/16

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