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LENT: Week three, Wednesday: Religion


Yusef and Scott at the cafe

Religion is not ethics. In fact, it can be argued that as religion declines, ethics ascends to take its place. From Taoism we learn that religion is a mode of connectedness with the creative force of life. When one is thus connected one’s actions are responsive to the needs of life; when one is truly part of the body of humankind, then a hurt in one part of the body will trigger remedial action in other parts.

But when we lose this connectedness with life, with one another, then we need a code of ethics to tell us what we ought to do. When life is fragmented and disconnected, our organic relations with one another are replaced by “oughts.” And eventually these oughts, these ethics, become an abstract system of thought far removed from human needs, a creed to be defended rather than relation to be lived. The spiritual life teaches wholeness, integration with all being, and out of that wholeness come true power and true action. Life beyond ethics s no libertine life, no denial of moral discipline; on the contrary, to live a life of true connectedness is a spiritual discipline of the highest order. John Middleton Murry has said it well, I think: “For the good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which his previous rectitude was flowery license.”

Parker Palmer

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moral Jujitsu – A Strategy for Winning

Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.

The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now. 

 We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time. 

 Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time.  In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct. 

 The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency. 

What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.

 The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.

 The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.  

In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept. 

 Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: In the Circle with All the Other Killers and Adulterers

Matthew 5:17-48, part one 

“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us. 

This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.] 

The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.  

Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.  

In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.  

Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions. 

The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.  

The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts. 

Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another. 

Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.

-John

UPDATE: Being Salt, College Students Take Over the Roundtable, Youth Group Takes Over the Cafe, New Living Local Blog

locavore.jpg

Hi Folks, 
 

Busy week at the House, please check out the schedule HERE, and join us if you can. 
Highlights include an invigorating scripture study, Lenten Morning Prayer, a Roundtable featuring some of our most active college students, and a Cafe run by high school youth group members. 

Also, we started a spin-off “blog” for any of you who mght be interested in learning along with us to live more locally here in Gainesville: What We Need is Here: Learning to Be Local.  As many of you know, a primary goal of the GCW has been to support local farms and businesses with what we do at the house.  We’ve learned some things and have a lot more to learn in how to live more deeply here in Gainesville, using and appreciating the resources available to us and being more conscientious about how our decisions affect others.  We would love to hear your insights and ideas as well, so jump in and add a comment.  
 

And we are still waiting to get the new listserv set up.  Hopefully you’ll get an email soon asking if you want to remain on it. 
 Have a good week.  Hope to see you!  

Gainesville Catholic Worker
218 NW 2nd Avenue
Gainesville, Florida 32601
352.271.6941
www.gainesvillecw.org
 

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Goes from the Sideline to the Frontline

Last week, we started to look at a long section (2:23-4:17) of the story commonly referred to as “the call of Moses.” In 2:23-3:10, there are several things we want to note which give context to the overall passage. The first is that a long time has passed following Moses’ murder of the Egyptian, subsequent flight from Egypt and his “settling down” in the land of Midian. He has gotten married, had a child, and become part of the family business (“tending the flock” in verse 3:1). In short, what the story tells us is that Moses is long past the distress of seeing his “kinsfolk” oppressed by the Egyptians which led to his killing the Egyptian and the confusion over witnessing the behavior of his fellow Hebrews, both to each other and toward him. He has forgotten, or suppressed, or chosen to leave behind that situation and that part of his history.  

We are also told that, back in Egypt, the Pharaoh, under whom Moses’ presumably lived and who sought Moses’ death, has died and been replaced by another Pharaoh. But despite the change in administrations, the basic reality in Egypt has not changed for the Hebrews. Their slavery and oppression continues. 

Finally, we have this remarkable encounter around a bush, which, “though on fire, was not consumed.” From the burning bush, Moses is addressed by God, who says that “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers” and proposes to send Moses to Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.” 

In 3:11, we hear Moses’ reply to this mission from God, and the reply is evidence of both Moses’ reluctance to accept God’s invitation and also his concern about his acceptance by the Israelites. The question for us is: Why is Moses reluctant? What has changed that has made him less than enthused to be part of the liberation of “his kinsfolk,” as he named them back in 2:11? The roots of Moses’ reluctance lie in his earlier killing of the Egyptian then witnessing his own people’s brutality toward one another and their distrust, or at least suspicion, of him. The consequence of those events was an identity crisis for Moses. Born a Hebrew but raised in the palace of Pharaoh as part of his family, Moses found that despite his self-identification as “Hebrew,” he shared little in common with those of his people who had lived under the jackboot of Egyptian authority. Indeed, it could even be said that Moses’ own lifestyle up to this point had been built on the oppression of the Hebrews for the benefit of the Egyptian royal family. And despite his attempt to provide some remedy or relief from Egyptian brutality (i.e. killing the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew), he is aghast when he comes the next day and witnesses the brutality of one oppressed Hebrew against another oppressed Hebrew, and is confused by his “fellow” Hebrew’s questions of him and accusation that Moses might be thinking of killing him “as you killed the Egyptian.” The overall result of this encounter is that even though Moses has destroyed the protection he enjoyed as part of the Egyptian royal family, he has also recognized the distance between himself and the other Hebrews, a distance which he chooses not to try and overcome. Overwhelmed by his actions, by what he has learned about the society in which he lives, by the threat to his life, and by a crisis of identity, Moses chose to flee the situation, to leave it in the dust. So, God’s invitation to enter back into that situation must not strike Moses as particularly appealing, especially since he has now set up and built for himself a fairly good life here in Midian.  

But what becomes clear in the conversation between Moses and God throughout this section is that there is one major difference between then and now. The major shift is that Moses will go to the Israelites not on his own behalf, but rather on the behalf of God. What hasn’t changed is the oppression of the Israelites; that continues in all its brutality and inhumanity. And while Moses’ first attempt to do something about that failed, this next attempt will not be rooted in Moses’ partial understanding of the situation, the fleeting passion of witnessing the brutality first-hand, nor the ideals of Moses’ youth; rather this attempt is rooted in God’s enduring love for and mercy toward those who suffer oppression. 

Furthermore, Moses’ crisis of identity will be resolved as well. In this section, we see Moses no longer referring to the Israelites as “my kinsmen,” “my kinsfolk,” etc. Rather, we hear the distance he has cultivated between himself and them. Now he speaks of them as “the Israelites.” But God asserts Moses’ identity as an Israelite. God commissions Moses to go to them, to tell them what God has stated. But to assure that Moses is heard, God gives him what amounts to good advice that many an adept organizer would recognize. Yes, God send Moses to the Israelites, but in verse 3:16 God specifies that Moses is to “assemble the elders of the Israelites” and share with them God’s concern. By convincing the leaders of this oppressed people—those who others respect and look to for advice and guidance—Moses will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And again, God states that it will be Moses AND the elders of Israel who will go before the Pharaoh to negotiate, not Moses alone. The people who were reluctant to claim or recognize him as one of them before, he will now lead. A struggle he had fled from because of his own limited understanding and abilities, he will now embrace—indeed, lead. God is calling Moses out of his comfortable, but inauthentic, life on the sideline to an uncomfortable, but deeply authentic and necessary life, on the frontline.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Whacks Egyptian, Solves Nothing

The Exodus story so far has unfolded against the backdrop of the oppression of the Israelites by Egyptian state power (under the direction of the Egyptian “god-king,” Pharaoh), as well as the resistance of both Hebrew and Egyptian women (the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids) to the official policies of the repressive regime. In this week’s passage, Exodus 2:11-15a, the story moves forward with the introduction of the person who will become the major character in the story, Moses. (While Moses appeared in a passive role as a baby in our earlier passage, it is here that he first asserts himself by becoming an agent of action and speech.)

The opening verse, verse 11, serves several purposes. The first is that it reveals for us who it is that Moses understands himself to be. The repetition of the phrase “his kinsmen/kin/kinsfolk” both at the beginning and at the end of the verse helps us to see that Moses considers himself to be a Hebrew. This might seem obvious to us because of our familiarity with the rest of the story, but we need to remember that the previous verses have Moses being “adopted” into the royal family of Pharaoh where Moses must have been at least somewhat shielded, if not completely oblivious, to the plight of his kinsfolk, the Hebrews, who have been treated as slaves. We can imagine that Moses has probably enjoyed a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle under the protection of Pharaoh or Pharaoh’s daughter despite his Hebrew identity. Second, the statement that Moses sees the Hebrews’ “forced labor” and “an Egyptian striking a Hebrew” reasserts for us the power dynamic of the time: the brutal oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians for the benefit of the Egyptian social and economic system.

Moses’ reaction to what he witnesses—the unjust treatment of and the use of violence against those he considers his people—is both passionate and calculated. The text reads, “Looking about and seeing no one, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Moses doesn’t simply fly into a rage, but rather discerns what he could do to rectify the injustice he has just witnessed without having to face retribution for his actions. He kills the Egyptian, the person he identifies as the perpetrator of the violence and injustice, and he gets rid of the evidence.

The next verse has Moses repeating the action of verse 11, i.e. “he went out again,” but this time the scene is somewhat different—or at least the players are. This time the violence is between two Hebrews. Moses asks the first great question of the passage, “Why?!” “Why?” he asks the one “in the wrong” or “the culprit.” “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” There is something here he doesn’t understand. Based on yesterday’s experience, maybe he thought he understood the situation. Maybe he thought he had “rectified” the situation, solved the problem—the problem being the individual actions of a particularly corrupt or abusive Egyptian overseer toward his Hebrew workers. But why, Moses wonders, would two people who share the same ethnic identity, his kinsmen who share the same general situation in life, act with such violence toward one another? Moses thought he understood the situation, but his simplistic analysis and attempt at solving the problem have not changed the overall situation of the Hebrew people. Perhaps the situation is more complex than Moses has understood. Perhaps there is a “systemic” problem here, one in which even some of the Hebrew people have internalized, and his simple recourse to violence has not changed anything except to give him some momentary satisfaction for his deep abhorrence of the injustice and violence he witnessed first-hand yesterday?

The response that Moses gets is equally unsettling. Perhaps he had thought his action in killing the Egyptian the day before had won him some good will among his kinsfolk, or proven his identity as one of them. But in verse 14, the Hebrew worker puts forward the second great question of the passage: “Who?” “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us?” He goes on to query whether Moses plans on killing him, intimating that he understands Moses to possess the opportunity, wherewithal and power to kill him and get away with it, just as he killed the Egyptian. The question, “Who?” reverberates over this passage just as the question “Why?” did from the verse prior. For, as one of our folks in the study last night quickly pointed out, Moses’ identity is a central motif of this passage. Or in other words, Moses is having an identity crisis. Who does he see himself to be? Who do his fellow Hebrews, aware of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, understand him to be? Is the question about being appointed ruler and judge rhetorical on the lips of the Hebrew who knows where and among whom Moses was raised? Moses considers himself to be Hebrew, but what is it to truly be a Hebrew in Egypt at this moment in history? Does Moses really have any understanding of this? Has he lived as a Hebrew—oppressed, forced into slave labor, worrying over the safety of his newborn baby boy, etc? Who is he?

With these two great questions—“Who am I?” and “Why is it like this?”—Moses, realizing that he has lost the protection of Pharaoh by killing an Egyptian, and that no amount of pleading or justifying to any Egyptian institution will ever make it okay that a Hebrew killed an Egyptian, decides to flee. But he does not flee or seek refuge among his kinsfolk, his Hebrew family, with whom he so strongly identified at the beginning of the passage. Maybe the precariousness and systemic brutality of their life under Egyptian oppression is suddenly dawning on him. Where does he flee? To Midian, away from Pharaoh, and away from “his kinsfolk”—no longer with answers, now only questions.

– John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Holy Moses!

When we study scripture at the GCW, we look carefully at what the text actually says, often going through the passage a sentence at a time. Part of paying close attention to the story itself–identifying characters and what we know about them (social status, gender, occupation), the setting, the action taking place, the dialogue, etc–helps us to often see how different the passage can be from how we may have remembered it, from how it was told and interpreted for us by our churches, family members or even in the popular culture (i.e. in movies, TV, books, et al).

Our passage on Tuesday night, the birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10, gave us a good example of this. In the opening verses of this passage, we read about how a woman had a baby boy and kept him hidden for three months (the genocide of Hebrew male babies was Egyptian state policy at this time). When she could keep him hidden no longer, she put him in a basket and … and what? The NRSV version of the Scriptures reads “she put the child in it (the basket) and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Everyone present agreed that the popular telling of this story has the baby in a basket, floating down the river – a scenario found in movies from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But the text itself says nothing about the baby floating down the river; instead it shows a mother, fearing that the authorities are coming for her baby, very strategically putting the baby in a basket and hiding him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Furthermore, in verse 4, the sister of the baby is “stationed” at a distance to keep an eye on the baby.

Our popular understanding of this passage, a mother putting her baby in the river and abandoning it to fate, is challenged by a closer reading of the text. What we now see is a mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives, enacting what seems to be a concrete and strategic plan to protect her son–a plan which took intelligence, forethought, (having the bitumen, reeds and pitch on hand; picking out a safe place along the river bank), and strength of character to carry out. The baby being placed in the reeds and the daughter keeping an eye on him (far enough away not to draw the authorities to his hiding place) possibly suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Again, our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understand what she must do for her family’s survival, she is “street-smart” and adept at finding ways to resist the oppressive system she is living under.

Next Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby boy and identifies it as “one of the Hebrews’ children” in verse 6. She is faced with a dilemma. She knows that her father’s law is that all baby boys born to the Hebrew women are to be “thrown in the river” (notice the irony here of the Hebrew mother following the letter of the law while circumventing the spirit of the law). Yet she feels pity for the crying baby, and is faced with the dilemma of what to do – act on that compassion, or obey the law which she has surely been indoctrinated into, and kill (or at least ignore) the child. But before she acts, the sister of the baby boy pushes Pharaoh’s daughter to cross the line with a well-phrased question: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Notice how she helps Pharaoh’s daughter to identify with the child and to identify her responsibility to the child with that “for you?” And so Pharaoh’s daughter, who shares in the status and power of her father, will use her own power to diametrically oppose her father and her father’s policies. Where he used his power to inflict indiscriminate death on a people he despises, she identifies with those people who are being oppressed, breaks the law of the land, and uses her status and power to protect and nourish that life instead. She is risking much here, and she is modeling for future generations who read this story what it means for people who have power and status to practice solidarity – to use what they have on behalf of the struggle of those who are oppressed. It raises a powerful question for those of us who have some degree of power and status: Do we identify with those who oppress and enjoy the benefits of that oppression? Or do we identify with the struggle of the oppressed, practice solidarity alongside them, and risk losing what we have?

Here we have again, like the two midwives in Exodus 1, two women–this time from very different social locations–who model resistance to unjust power (wielded so far by men) and show readers, wherever we fall on the spectrum, what it is that we too are called to during our time in history–a time not so different than the one we read about in Exodus all those years ago.

– John