Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1–6:1
Most of the Christian world is celebrating the birth of the Messiah this week, and in the synagogue we are reading the early chapters of Exodus, which recount the birth of another deliverer, Moses. Scholars have long noted similarities between the two birth accounts, especially in the version of Messiah’s birth preserved by Matthew.
Both narratives open in a dark time, a time of oppression for the Jewish people. Moses’ story begins as the Israelites, who have dwelt in Egypt for generations, face increasing oppression by Pharaoh because he feels threatened by their rising birthrate and strength. Finally, he decrees, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile” (Exod 1:22). Yeshua’s story opens in the land of Israel under Herod, a client-king of the Roman Empire, who feels threatened by a rival king born in Beit-Lechem. Failing to locate the infant king he issues an order “to kill all the boys in and around Beit-Lechem who are two years old or less” (Matt 2:16). Both Pharaoh and Herod seek to counteract birth itself, to destroy new life in order to preserve the old regime.
Warned of Herod’s murderous plot Messiah’s family flees for safety—to Egypt! Egypt is Mordor, the evil empire, the very locus of bondage and oppression. Yosef and Miriam seek shelter for their infant Yeshua in the belly of the beast. It’s a great irony, but we shouldn’t overlook how closely this move reflects the strategy of Moses’ parents. They prepare an ark for him, a teva such as Noah built to preserve life through the Flood, and set it adrift on the Nile, the river that symbolizes Egypt itself.
Moses survives Pharaoh’s deadly scheme, flees from Egypt when he is a grown man, and finally returns at the age of 80 to bring deliverance to his people, the Hebrews. Through Moses, God sends ten plagues upon Egypt, to demonstrate his sovereignty over the gods that empower Egypt and to rescue the Hebrews. The first of all these plagues comes upon the Nile. The waters of the Nile look benign, but they are the life-source of Pharaoh’s fearsome regime. And now they’re turned into blood, a symbol of death. This plague makes it clear that it wasn’t the Nile that had saved the infant Moses but the God of Israel, who harnesses even the mighty river for his own purposes.
Back when the infant Moses was adrift on the Nile, a daughter of Pharaoh had rescued him and unknowingly sent him to his mother to be nursed. After the baby had grown a bit, Pharaoh’s daughter took him into her own household and gave him a name. “She called him Moshe, explaining, ‘Because I pulled him out of the water’” (Exod 2:10). Scholars tell us that Moshe was actually an Egyptian name meaning, “born” or “gave birth,” as in the names of gods like Thut-mose and Rameses, the latter also the name of a Pharaoh, meaning “born of Ra [an Egyptian god]”. But Pharaoh’s daughter is apparently thinking of a Hebrew word, mashah, meaning “drawn forth.” Does she realize what she is saying? The one who is drawn forth out of the deepest holds of Egypt will draw forth his people out of Egypt itself.
In the parallel story in Matthew, the infant who is rescued from the Empire is given the name Yeshua, after an angel tells Yosef that Miriam, “will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Yeshua, [which means ‘Adonai saves,’] because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
Some of you might enjoy a friendly argument about the date of Messiah’s birth, but I’ll bow out. I’m not trying to contribute to that discussion one way or the other. But it does seem fitting to celebrate the birth of Messiah—“a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32)—during the darkest season of the year. And it’s also a fitting time to recount the birth of Moses, one of the great light-bearers of history.
A passage in the Talmud explores the response of Moses’ mother to his birth: “And when she saw him that he was good . . .” (Exod 2:2).Various rabbis disagree on the implications of “good” in this verse, but a majority view emerges.
The Sages declare, At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light—it is written here, And when she saw him that he was good, and elsewhere it is written [Gen 1:4]: And God saw the light that it was good. (Sotah 12a, emphasis added)
The birth of both deliverers, Moshe and Yeshua, brings light when all is in darkness.
In the world of Scripture, deliverance isn’t a self-help project. It doesn’t come through the gradual accumulation of good deeds or positive vibes. Rather it breaks in as light amidst the darkness. Deliverance can shine into even the biggest mess and the deepest pit. Accordingly, Matthew summarizes his account of Messiah’s birth and deliverance: “This happened in order to fulfill what Adonai had said through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matt 2:15). “Out of the jaws of bondage I called forth the one who belongs to me.” Within the mounting oppression that opens both Parashat Shemot and Matthew God is preparing a new thing that will break into the darkness and dispel it with the light of deliverance.
So there’s a lesson for us in December, 2018—a time that seems to be growing darker. Ominous clouds are gathering over Israel and the entire Middle East. The global order is shaky. America seems unsure of its place within it and internally polarized. Ethnic, religious, and political tensions are deepening. Mass shootings continue, including the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history in Pittsburgh two months ago. All the while the rampant secularization of our culture and values goes on unabated. But in the midst of all this, it might be that God is preparing a new thing, as he has always done. May we have the eyes to see his light wherever it is beginning to arise, and find ways to spread that light ourselves!