Week 5, Exodus 3—4; 15:1-22: “Moses and Miriam”–Moses’ Call: Names

Monday, March 27

When 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.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’  He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ . . . But 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?’  God 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.’”  God 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’” (Exodus 3: 4-6, 13-15).

Volumes have been written about the revelation and meaning of the divine Name—and no wonder! There is wonder and mystery here that it would take lifetimes to explore. But at its simplest, most basic level, what is going on in this classic encounter? God calls Moses by name. Then, God tells Moses God’s own Name (in Hebrew, YHWH; since the Name is regarded as too holy to pronounce, pious Jews simply say “Adonai,” or “My Lord;” most English translators therefore render the Name as Lord in all capital letters). This very familiar exchange happens every time we meet someone new. We introduce ourselves. We exchange names, and with that exchange, a relationship can begin.

That God already knows Moses’ name is no surprise. It is God after all who is the source of our identities: of course such a God knows who Moses is—better than Moses knows himself! God has also been known to Israel before, as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” But the giving of God’s name sets that relationship on a personal, intimate footing. God desires a relationship with this people who are no people, these slaves in Egypt, and it is that relationship that makes them a people.

Prayer: Thank you, Adonai, for calling us each by name, and for giving your own to us. Thank you for showing us in Jesus who you are, and inviting us into relationship through him. In Jesus’ own holy name, Amen.



Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 26

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:14-21).


Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Race and Identity

Saturday, March 25

“But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.  The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.  But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock.  When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come back so soon today?’  They said, ‘An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.’  He said to his daughters, ‘Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.’  Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage.  She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land’” (Exodus 2:15-22).

Curiously, those most obsessed with defining race precisely are those who are persuaded of the superiority of their own race—and the inferiority of others. For example, our Constitution once defined the inferiority of African slaves with mathematical precision: when counting population for the purpose of determining Presidential electors, a slave counted as three-fifths of a person. Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws once defined a person as “African” if she or he had at least one-eighth African blood. By contrast, African American theologian Brian Bantum has argued that race is “a tragic illusion,” born of the Western need to assert superiority by setting up a false dichotomy of “white” against “black”—a lie exposed early on by mixed-race children, living “in between categories of colonizer and colonized, human and nonhuman, slave and free” (Brian Bantum, Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity [Waco: Baylor University, 2010]; cited in a review by Edward P. Antonio in Christian Century 129 [February 8, 2012]: 38).

Moses’ story reveals what experience in our own multi-racial society is increasingly proving to be true: that Bantum is right. While Moses was born a Hebrew, he grew up as an Egyptian, the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. No wonder, when Moses helps Reuel’s daughters water their flock, they report to their father, “An Egyptian (!) helped us.” Moses marries one of those young women, named Zipporah, and settles down to live among Reuel’s people, as a Midianite. But he knows he is not truly one of them, either, as the name he gives his son makes clear: Gershom, here understood to mean “name of a ger”—that is, a foreigner, or sojourner (see the devotions for week six). There was nothing wrong with Moses being Midianite, or Egyptian for that matter—and he could easily have been defined, and defined himself, as either. But his identification with the Hebrews oppressed in Egypt will not let him go—and neither will the Lord.

Prayer: Free us, God, from our obsession with telling others who they are. Remind us that you have spoken our names, from before creation, and give us grace to accept and affirm one another. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.




Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Trying to Force God’s Hand

Friday, March 24 

One 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.  He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  When 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?’  He answered, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘Surely the thing is known.’  When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses” (Exodus 2:11-15).

Scripture and history are full of accounts of people acting to force God’s hand—and it never ends well. The Israelites attempted to claim the land of promise too soon, and were driven back (Num 14:40-45); they presumptuously carried the ark into battle without consulting the Lord, and were defeated (1 Sam 4:1-10). In 1524, German peasants inspired by the preaching of Thomas Müntzer believed that they could bring in the kingdom of God by taking up arms against their lords—and 100,000 of them died.

Moses’ murder of an Egyptian overseer may be an understandable response to cruel oppression, but it is not excusable. Surely if the cross teaches us anything, it is that God’s way is not the way of violence. Jesus did not come to lead an armed rebellion, imposing his will upon the world by force. Instead, he told his followers, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Prayer: O patient and compassionate God, help us to wait upon you, in patience and in confidence. But never let us turn that waiting into an excuse for inaction. Show us how to represent your kingdom in our world, without thinking that we can bring in your kingdom by our action, and without succumbing to despair when our efforts seem unfruitful. Through Jesus our Christ, who was rejected by those he came to save, Amen.


Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: More “Nasty Women” 

Thursday, March 23

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.  When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said.  Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’  Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother.  Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it” (Exodus 2:5-9).

When then-candidate Donald Trump referred to his opponent Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman,” female activists across America took up that insult as a badge of honor, proud to be known as “nasty women”! Strong, confident “nasty women” play an extraordinary role in the story of Moses and in the story of Israel’s deliverance. From the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to Moses’ here-unnamed mother and sister, to the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaids, women act boldly to undo the hateful plans of Pharaoh.

After Moses’ mother places her son in his tiny ark, trusting him into the hands of God, Moses’ sister (later we learn that her name is Miriam) follows along on the shore, “to see what would happen to him” (Exodus 2:4). What she sees must have horrified her. In what is surely the worst possible outcome, the little basket floats into the Egyptian princess and her attendants, who are bathing in the Nile. Remember, Pharaoh himself had commanded that any Egyptian who finds a Hebrew baby boy is to drown the child in the Nile—and surely, if anyone can be expected to obey Pharaoh’s edicts, it is his own daughter! But instead, even though she knows that this child “must be one of the Hebrews,” she decides to keep him and raise him as her own—in defiance of her father. Miriam is then able to step up with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby: Moses’ own mother. As a result, Moses grows up aware of his heritage.

Sometimes, the worst thing that could happen, happens. But the promise of the whole of Scripture is that God is with us and at work even then. This is why Paul is able to say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)—not, please note, that all things are good, or that only good things happen to believers, but that whatever happens, God is at work in and with us to bring about God’s good will.

Prayer: Transforming God, when we are brought down to despair by the power of evil in our world, or by our own weakness and failings, or by the enormity of the task before us, remind us that we do not labor alone. You are at work, in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people, to bring in your kingdom. Help us to hope and trust in you, we pray, in the name of Jesus Christ your obedient son, who trusted you all the way to the cross and beyond, Amen


Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Moses’ Ark

Wednesday, March 22

“Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.  When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.  His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him” (Exodus 2:1-4).

When I was a boy in Sunday School, a great joke was to ask someone, “How many animals did Moses take on the ark?” The answer, of course, is “None—that was Noah and the ark.” Yet, curiously, Moses did have an ark, and in the Hebrew a clear connection is made between Noah’s and Moses’ deliverance.

Moses was the child of a man and women of the priestly tribe of Levi (neither named here). His birth was a great risk, since, as we saw yesterday, Pharaoh had sentenced all Hebrew baby boys to death by drowning in the Nile. His parents hide him as long as they can, but when he is three months old, they surrender to the inevitable, and Moses’ mother and sister take him to the river themselves. But instead of drowning the baby, they place him in a tebat (rendered in the NRSV as “basket”) and set him afloat—hoping against hope, perhaps, that someone will find him and raise him in safety.

The word tebat is a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.”  It appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: twice in Exodus 2 to describe the reed basket in which baby Moses was placed, and 26 times in Genesis 6—8 to describe the boxy structure Noah built.  Both Moses’ little tebat and Noah’s enormous tebat are coated inside and out with pitch (Genesis 6:14; Exodus 2:3) in order to make them water-tight.  When they read of Moses’ ark, then, careful readers of Scripture recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures in their ark, and know that as grim as Moses’ future seems at that moment to be, this baby, like Noah, will be saved through water. 1 Peter 3:19-22 also alludes to Noah’s flood, with reference to the waters of baptism—we too have been saved through water!  Our God, these texts all declare, is a God who saves.


“When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the world is tossing me

Like a ship upon the sea,

Thou who rulest wind and water,

Stand by me.”

Through Christ Jesus our Lord, who calmed the waves, Amen.

(Hymn by African American Gospel composer Charles Tindley).

AFTERWORD: Methodist preacher and hymn composer Charles Tindley wrote dozens of beloved Gospel hymns, including “Nothing Between,” “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and “Stand By Me.”


Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Midwives to the Rescue!

Tuesday, March 21

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,  ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’  The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’  So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.  And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exodus 1:15-21).

When harsh servitude does not succeed in reducing the Hebrew population, Pharaoh decides upon a slow genocide. He enlists Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, in his obscene plot, ordering them to kill every Hebrew boy at birth. The midwives at first agree—but then, they disobey Pharaoh’s command because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17; the first mention of God in this book). Pharaoh of course realizes this—there are still lots of Hebrew boys toddling about, after all—and calls the midwives in to explain themselves.

What follows is a masterpiece of subversion. Playing on Pharaoh’s racist beliefs and fears, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie he will be likely to believe: the Hebrew women, they say, aren’t delicate and civilized like Egyptian women; they are strong and vigorous, like animals, and give birth before we can arrive! Their plan works. Pharaoh does not give up on his genocidal designs; ultimately, he will enlist his entire population, ordering all Egyptians to drown Hebrew baby boys (Exodus 1:22). But for a while at least, the courage and ingenuity of Shiphrah and Puah have saved their people. Israel continues to prosper, even in bondage, and as for Shiphrah and Puah, the NRSV reads, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exod 1:21). This, however, is far too weak a translation: the Hebrew says, literally, that God “made for them houses”—that is, he established them as clans. This passage claims that there were families in ancient Israel that traced their descent, not from a man, but from a woman: from Shiphrah or Puah.

Prayer: Thank you, Mother of us all, for strong and faithful women who have preserved your people through the ages: for Ruth and Esther, for Mary Magdalene and Priscilla, for Jarena Lee and Phoebe Palmer, for Marjorie Matthews and Leontine Kelly. Thank you for those we name in our hearts today, and for the many who go unnamed. Show us how we can stand alongside the women you are calling into ministry right now, holy God. Through Jesus the Christ, whose resurrection was witnessed by faithful women, Amen.

AFTERWORD: Pictured above are the four African-American women named as bishops in the United Methodist Church this year: Rev. Sharma Lewis (bishop in the Virginia Conference), Rev. Tracy Smith Malone (bishop of the East Ohio Conference), Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi (MY bishop, in the Western Pennsylvania Conference), and Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling (bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference).  Pray for these women called by God.


Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Pharaoh and Ethnic Cleansing


Monday, March 20

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, 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.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and 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” (Exodus 1:8-14).

It is important for us to call this what it is. Pharaoh’s fears, and the Egyptians’ dread, were not in any way realistic. There was no indication that the Israelites had any intention to side with Egypt’s enemies in a conflict. The Israelites posed no threat: indeed, Joseph—an Israelite!—had recently been Egypt’s savior (see Genesis 41). But this Pharaoh has no memory: he “did not know Joseph.” His cruelty and oppression toward an ethnic minority in his kingdom responds to an imaginary crisis: this is racism, pure and simple.

As I write this devotional, Dylann Roof has just been found guilty of murder in the shooting deaths of nine people [pictured above] attending a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In his statement taken following this horrific crime, Mr. Roof said that he had to do this, in retaliation for black-on-white crime: another imaginary crisis, based on fake news from the internet rather than actual crime statistics.  Sadly, the escalation of hate crimes following our recent election—the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation between November 9 and December 12, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period”—demonstrates that many others who “feel threatened” by African-Americans, by Latinos and Latinas, by Arabs and Muslims, now feel empowered to express these feelings openly by their words and actions. We must have the courage to call this too what it is: racism pure and simple. We must oppose it wherever we encounter it, and let ethnic and religious minorities know that the church is with them.

Prayer: O God, forgive us for the times when, for the sake of our own security or convenience, we let lies about our sisters and brothers stand without refutation. Give us the courage to bear witness to the truth—to your truth—in whatever place we find ourselves. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who told us that the truth would make us free (John 8:32), Amen.



Third Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 19

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (John 2:13-22).


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Learning the Wrong Lesson—Diversity, not Apartheid

Saturday, March 18

“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).

Jacqueline Lapsley recalls being with Theodore Hiebert at a conference of Reformed theologians and Bible scholars in South Africa. There, he advanced the reading of the tower of Babel story we have advocated in this week’s devotional readings: that this story demonstrates God’s love of cultural diversity. But when they heard this, South African scholars present were horrified! It seems that this very text, and a reading very like Hiebert’s, had been “one of the central biblical foundations for apartheid. On the pro-apartheid reading, Gen 11 teaches that God does not want different cultural and linguistic groups to live together” (Jacqueline Lapsley, “‘Am I Able to Say Just Anything?’: Learning Faithful Exegesis from Balaam,” Interpretation 60 [2006]: 23).

Does this invalidate Hiebert’s reading of this passage? I don’t believe it does—although it certainly points up a problem with how we do biblical interpretation (also called “exegesis,” from Greek words meaning “draw out”)! Lapsley warns against readings of Scripture that “serve our own selfish interests,” or that fail to consider “God’s larger story.” In the end, she proposes, “Exegesis requires certain learned skills—how to attend to the historical, social, and literary facets of the text—but it also requires a disciplined imagination and something even more important—faith that God’s word has power to speak to and for us, and especially faith that it speaks to and for those who are far removed from the prosperity we enjoy” (Lapsley, “Learning Faithful Exegesis,” 30). Reading Scripture prayerfully, guided by God’s Spirit, with disciplined imaginations, we can make wise choices about how to apply the Bible to our own contexts. When we do this, we can readily see that affirming the God-given goodness of our differences leads, not to apartheid, but to learning to live together in love.

Prayer: God, when our reading of the Bible prompts us to turn inward rather than outward; to close doors rather than to open them; to shut ourselves off from others rather than opening ourselves up to them; give us the courage to say “no” to that reading, and the wisdom to look again, carefully and prayerfully. Through Christ Jesus—“the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), Amen.