Exodus: Walking in the Wilderness



Sermon preached on August 27 at Christ Church, Dayton

For some months now our Bishop, Thomas Breidenthal, has been encouraging all of us in the Diocese of Southern Ohio to join together in what he is calling “A Big Read.” By reading and studying the same material over the next seven months, people from across the diocese will be engaging in a kind of communal activity. In addition to reading, there will be two one-day convocations (in September and April) as well as our Diocesan Convention where we’ll be discussing The Book of Exodus.

There is also a suggested schedule of readings for each week of The Big Read, material for Adult Forums, blogs, and commentaries. All of these are featured on the website for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. For anyone who does not have access to the web—or is technically challenged—we can print out some of the resources. Please just ask.

The kickoff for The Big Read is today, because we begin a nine-week series of lectionary selections from The Book of Exodus.

Exodus is about the birth of the nation of Israel. Gilgamesh in Babylon, and Romulus and Remus in Rome are examples of the foundation stories in other societies. In Genesis we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and a host of others who represented the matriarchs and patriarchs, the ancestral tribes. In Exodus we witness the formation of a national identity as the tribes escape from Egypt, wander in the Wilderness, begin to formulate laws and worship practices that will define them as a people. In fact, the rest of the Torah and the books that follow in the history section of the Old Testament are a continuation of these same themes that arise in Exodus.

The great prophets of Israel continually refer back to the Exodus period as the time when the essentials of Israel’s identity emerged—not unlike the ways that some people in our land refer back to the founders to find clarity about American identity and mission.

The Book of Genesis ended with Jacob’s son Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, administrator of Egypt’s vast food stores that had been put aside against a coming famine. The famine began and Joseph brought his extended family from Palestine to Egypt where they would be shielded from starvation.

Exodus begins when, we’re told, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Actually, it was at least several hundred years later, and a new and different dynasty of Pharaohs had arisen. Over those centuries the Hebrews had flourished and multiplied. According to one account, those who escaped Egypt through the Red Sea numbered 600,000 men, plus women and children. So we are talking about well over a million people altogether.

The new king was afraid of this vast number of foreigners in his land. So he “set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor to build supply cities for Pharaoh. But they continued to flourish and multiply, “so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” They became ruthless, imposing more and more harsh labor and tasks.

Finally “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 the midwives refused and they lied to Pharaoh with a tale about how the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before the midwives could arrive.

Then came the directive to the Egyptians that they throw all the male Hebrew children into the Nile to be drowned. Of course, this sets us up for the story of the birth of Moses and how he survived with the connivance of his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter.

These stories were so formative and powerful for the Jewish people that when more than a millennium later a young woman gave birth in the little town of Bethlehem, some early Jewish Christians told the story against the backdrop of Exodus: a child was born to be God’s anointed. When the evil king Herod heard the news, he tried to kill him by ordering the deaths of all the young male children. The baby Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, fled into Egypt, only to return some years later after Herod’s death. So the new Moses also came up out of Egypt. Moses the lawgiver on the mountain of Sinai; Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, reinterpreted the law. Exodus becomes a template which we can lay alongside subsequent experience in order to discover its meaning.

In our Exodus passage this morning, please note that the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are named. Pharaoh, the powerful king of all Egypt, is not named.

John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, wrote the following in his commentary on this passage:

“Telling us the midwives’ names makes them real people; not just anonymous functionaries. They are people who revere God. Exodus knows them by name; we know them by name; God knows them by name. We’ll later discover the names of Moses’ parents and his sister. They are real people. It is less important for the representatives of the Egyptian court to be so. Not naming them suggests that they are subordinate to the story. . . . The Old Testament has a different scale of values; it is not Pharaoh and his daughter who count. Pharaoh is someone the newspapers think is important and powerful, yet he can be defeated by three or four women.”[1]

Our Bishop acknowledges the same phenomena we have all observed in recent decades, that the role and place of mainline religion and institutions have diminished in our society. New kings, new values have emerged, that don’t know the old ways.  There are a plethora of new spiritual associations. The rise of social media have provided millions with virtual friendships and community that were once experienced in neighborhood faith communities. For some, the reaction has been a tighter grasp on what they call the fundamentals. Fundamentalisms have emerged in almost all of the world religions.

Others have simply left their faith traditions and communities. Some have called them the “nones”—n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s—the box they check when surveyed about their religious preferences; or what Bishop Spong has called “the Church alumni association.”

Still others, like you and me, are wrestling with questions about how to go forward when the landscape has changed. What do we do in this new environment? We’ve left the settled ways—as difficult as they might have been in Egypt. Now we wander in an unknown wilderness without familiar landmarks or maps. Is there a Promised Land in our future? What is it and what will it look like? How do we live in the meantime? These are the questions of Exodus.

So I invite you to walk this Exodus journey with our ancestors in faith, seeking their wisdom, their insight, and the light of God. I invite you to walk this Exodus journey with your fellow Episcopalians in Southern Ohio, seeking their wisdom, their insight, and the light of God. And walk this Exodus journey sharing your wisdom, your insight, and the light of God. May we continue to walk this way together.

In the name of God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Amen.


[1] Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, John Goldingay, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2010, p. 10