Giving Birth in Desperate Times
by Jack Wald | December 9th, 2007

Exodus 2

This morning is the second Sunday in Advent, the four week period before Christmas in which we focus on waiting for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and for the promised return of Jesus.

Currently, my oldest daughter is waiting in Boston for a much anticipated birth at the end of January and anyone who has given birth knows that waiting and birth are very much connected. So we are looking at birth stories in the Bible for these four Sundays of Advent. Last week we looked at Sarah and Abraham and the promise they would conceive a son in their old age and this week we will focus on the birth of Moses.

To understand the story of Moses, we have to go back to the events at the end of Genesis when Jacob moved to Egypt with all of his family.

You remember that Jacob’s sons were jealous of and probably justifiably irritated at their brother Joseph – so they sold him to some Midianite merchants who took him and sold him as a slave in Egypt. The story of Joseph is a magnificent one we do not have time to tell this morning except as how it relates to Israel came to live in Egypt.

When a famine struck Canaan, the family came to Egypt to get grain and discovered that their brother they had sold was now an important and powerful man in Egypt. Joseph invited his brothers to bring their father and all the household to Egypt where he would make sure they had plenty of food and Joseph was reunited with his father and the rest of the family. This is how Israel came to live in Egypt.

Time passed. My best guess is that there were 140 years between the arrival of Jacob and his family and the birth of Moses. In those 140 years, Jacob died. Joseph died. All of Joseph’s brothers died. A second and a third generation grew up and the seventy members of Jacob’s clan who came to Egypt now numbered between two and three thousand.

Amram married Jochebed who became the parents of Moses. What is strange about this marriage is that Jochebed was the sister of Amram’s father. This means Amram married his aunt and Jochebed married her nephew.

I remember in high school that I had two classmates, one being the uncle of the other. That seemed pretty strange to me. But let’s say that I get married at the age of 21 and my father is 42. I have a son but my father then has another daughter when he is 50. This means I have a new sister who is eight years younger than my son. My son will be eight years older than his aunt.

It was something like this that happened with Amram and his aunt, Jochebed.

Jochebed and Amram had a daughter they named Miriam. Then perhaps five or six years later they had a son they named Aaron and three years later they had a son we know as Moses.

Israel grew in number over the 140 years they lived in Egypt but the conditions in Egypt changed. When Jacob arrived with his family, they were greeted enthusiastically by Joseph and also by the Pharaoh who loved Joseph. Pharaoh promised them:
I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you can enjoy the fat of the land.
the best of all Egypt will be yours.
And everyone lived happily ever after.

That is how it happens in fairy tales, but not in real life. As we turn the page from Genesis to Exodus, in just the eighth verse of Exodus we read:
Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.

Joseph had increased the wealth and power of the Pharaoh with his skills as an administrator and the Pharaoh was very grateful. But there were a succession of new Pharaohs over the years and when this new Pharaoh came into power, it was probably 100 years or so ago that Joseph had been a favorite of the king – and who among us today feels obligated because of what someone in our past did in 1907? Joseph and his administrative skills were ancient history to the new Pharaoh.

In addition to being ignorant or indifferent to what Joseph had done for Egypt, this new king did not like the Israelites for a number of reasons. The Egyptians viewed the Israelites as inferior to them but were annoyed at the way they kept growing in numbers. They bred like animals – like rabbits. The superiority of the Egyptians was threatened by this biological superiority of the Israelites.

The Egyptians viewed herding sheep as a disgusting occupation and this whole tribe of people were at their core, sheep herders.

So the Israelites were low class, unsophisticated, rural, uncultured and yet they kept increasing in numbers. Despite who they were and what they did, they were thriving.

The new Pharaoh did not like the Israelites but he found them necessary. Pharaoh was involved in some intense building programs and to build cities and monuments, slave labor was needed.

“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.

The rate at which the Israelites were growing was a threat to Egypt and Pharaoh embarked on a campaign of oppression as a way of controlling them. Apparently the thinking was that a people oppressed with brutally hard work don’t have time or energy to rebel – or breed.

But this did not work. There were perhaps thirty years of oppression before the birth of Moses and in these years, the people kept growing in number. No matter how hard they were worked, they kept “breeding like rabbits.”

So Pharaoh took further measures to control this growing population.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

These two midwives, in a heroic act of disobedience, did not do what Pharaoh had ordered them to do and used the cultural prejudice against the Israelites to defend the lives of the baby boys. The Egyptians viewed the Israelites as being more animal-like and so the midwives said the Israelite women were more vigorous than the Egyptian women and gave birth quicker, before they could get there to strangle the baby boys at birth.

This did not work so Pharaoh took more drastic action.
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

It is in this desperate situation that Jochebed discovered she was pregnant.

Good news? or bad news?

Will it be a boy or a girl?

If it is a boy he will be thrown into the Nile and drowned and eaten by crocodiles. If it is a girl she will be brought up in cruel, oppressive slavery.

Good news? I don’t think so. Just two kinds of bad news.

When we received news that my daughters were pregnant, we celebrated. We started looking at baby clothes and toys the babies and parents might enjoy when the baby was born. The birth of a baby is an exciting prospect and much anticipated. Our daughter, Elizabeth, is due in a couple months and the baby is moving a lot. Her husband, Matthew, commented that he thinks the reason the baby is moving so much is that the baby is fluffing the pillow to get more comfortable.

But getting pregnant in a difficult environment is not a time for celebration. What will happen to the baby when it is born? What life will the baby have? How will I be able to take care of a baby? What questions did Jochebed ask about her baby over the nine months?

The attachment a mother develops with her baby is much greater than for the father. The father goes about his daily routine without much being different. But the mother begins to feel sick in the mornings, hopefully just for a couple months but sometimes longer. The mother begins to feel a stirring in her womb. As the baby grows, she can feel the baby move and can identify a hand or foot or head.

The father sees all this and hears about it but does not experience it. When the mother goes into labor and struggles and strains to give birth and then, finally, the baby is put to her breast, as excited as the father can be, this child is new to him but an old friend to the mother.

Even women who are indifferent to their pregnancy and are reluctant or fearful to be a mother, when they give birth, an enormously powerful protective instinct kicks in. Don’t come between a mother and her child. This is a good rule in the wild with animals. It is also a good rule for interaction with humans. A mother’s instinct and nature is to protect her child.

What is it like for a mother to go through all these intense emotions and then to find out that it is, in fact, a boy that has been born and that he will have to be thrown into the Nile River to die?

What an enormously complex range of emotions to have! What incredible sorrow and despair Moses’ parents must have felt.

For three months Jochebed and Amram kept the birth of their son a secret. It must have been that Egyptian overseers patrolled this area and when they heard a baby cry, they entered the home and checked to see what sex the baby was. If it was a boy, they took the baby and threw him into the river.

For three months they kept it a secret that they had a baby but babies are increasingly noisy and at three months they knew they had to do something.

So they built a basket in the same style that boats were made for the Nile. They took reeds and made a basket and coated it with tar so it would float and not sink. Were there tears in the eyes of Amram and Jochebed as they made this basket boat?

Jochebed nursed her son one last time and then put him into the basket and set him out in the reeds along the shore of the Nile River. She left her daughter Miriam to keep watch and left. Was it too difficult for her to watch and so she had to leave? Perhaps.

Pharaoh had ordered that all baby Hebrew boys were to be thrown into the river and Jochebed was obedient to the letter, if not the spirit, of his command.

A three month old baby cannot survive on its own. The Nile River was not a safe environment with crocodiles seeking food for themselves. Even if a crocodile did not investigate the basket and even if the basket did not begin to sink, the sun beating down on the basket would be brutal and without his mother’s milk, Moses would die in just a short time.

Jochebed abandoned her baby, was forced to abandon her baby. Against every instinct she had, she abandoned her baby.

What a desperate situation!

But she did not kill her child.

It is difficult to read this story and not think about abortion or infanticide, the killing of infants.

In the couple decades before the birth of Jesus, Octavian led the Roman invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain. Mothers killed their children before committing suicide rather than allow their children to fall into the hands of the Romans.

A mother of two discovers she is pregnant. This is not good news. Her husband is busy and not very supportive of her. She is already tired and overwhelmed taking care of her two young children and cannot face the prospect of continuing to care for her children while being pregnant and then having three children to care for. So she gets an abortion.

A single mother with a two year old is barely able to make ends meet. She has a job that does not pay very well. At the end of the month there is not enough money to pay for food and rent and the utilities. She has a friend who watches her two year old while she works, but the friend is already complaining that this is too much with her own children to watch as well. And then the single mother discovers she is pregnant.

How will she manage to pay her bills and be pregnant and give birth. When she takes off work to have the baby she will lose her job. She will be left with two children, no job and in her desperation she goes to have an abortion.

A woman is raped and when she is in the midst of counseling to deal with the trauma of this brutal attack, she discovers she is pregnant. The thought of having her rapist’s baby in her womb makes her sick and the thought of actually bearing this child is too much for her and so she has an abortion.

Why would it not have been a good idea for the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the babies to spare them from an unpleasant future? And, in fact, why kill just the male babies? Is it really fair to give life to a baby girl who will grow up being mistreated as a slave? Wouldn’t it have been more compassionate to spare the babies a miserable life and a miserable future and kill both the baby boys and girls?

There are couples who decide not to have children because they think it unfair to bring a child into a world that is so dangerous and whose future is so uncertain.

There are many people who find themselves in difficult or desperate situations and chose to have an abortion or in some other way deny the life of a child.

But hear this truth: Giving birth in difficult times is an act of faith. We declare our faith with the words of the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. This is also a declaration of faith.

Jochebed could have given into her despair and thrown Moses into the river and comforted herself that he was better off this way. But she did not. She acted in faith.

She did not know what would happen but to act in faith is to act without knowing what will happen.

Despair says that the situation we face is so difficult nothing can be done about it and so desperate women make desperate choices. It is not my intention to judge this morning those who have made this choice. What I want to say is that because of who God is our desperate situations are never hopeless. Despite what we see around us and despite what we feel, there is always hope.

God can change husbands who are not supportive and make them husbands who take more responsibility for caring for their children. God can help single mothers find jobs or some other way of being supported. God can even heal the deep wounds of rape and create deep love and attachment to this baby who is innocent of any offense.

Giving birth in desperate times is a statement of faith. It says that the God we believe in loves us and works all things together for good. It says that God is far more creative and powerful than any of the desperate situations in which we find ourselves. Giving birth in desperate times makes the statement that no matter how bleak our circumstance, God can deliver us from our troubles. And God may even use the child we protect to be our deliverance, as in the case of Moses.

Jochebed was in a desperate situation but if she had taken desperate measures and thrown her baby boy into the river, Israel would have lost the man God chose to lead them out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan.

Giving birth in desperate times is an act of faith.

We can expand this principle beyond birthing children to birthing anything that is new. The tendency when we are in desperate or difficult situations is to draw in and close down. All we can think to do is to try to protect ourselves as best we can. But faith-filled people respond positively in desperate times.

Errol and Michelle Muller were living in Ain Leuh and trying to start the Village of Hope, a home for abandoned children. They had no money and yet felt called by God to begin building to create homes for the children they believed God would bring to them. So one morning after praying, they went out and began to dig a foundation for the first building and later that day a check arrived that covered the cost of the cement blocks for the foundation. It is on this positive faith that the Village of Hope has been built.

Over the years the Village of Hope has had several crises, financial and otherwise. But the leadership of the Village of Hope has never given up. Time and time again they have believed that because God led them to this work God will protect it and bless it. And that is, in fact, what has happened.

The association to which we as a church belong has been under attack from time to time from those who do not wish it to exist. It has been said that we do not have the legal right to exist. But we believe that God gave us this association and we have continually worked to find ways to fulfill the plans we believe God has for us with this association.

We meet to pray each Friday morning and this year God put it on my heart to pray that we will be able to build a building in which RIC can meet for our Sunday worship service and Sunday School and other church functions. I have not had enough faith to pray for this in the past and even though we do not have the money or the promise of money to do this, we increasingly believe this is what we should do.

If we are being told by some that we do not exist, should we pursue such a course? And the answer to this question is that we absolutely should pursue what we believe God is leading us to. The best thing for us to do is to step out in faith and believe that because of the God we serve, he will lead us and provide for us. If the gift of faith this year to believe we can raise the funds to build our own building has come from God, then we do well to step out in faith putting our trust in God who can provide even when it seems impossible to us.

It may be this morning that someone is pregnant and wishes that was not the case. I urge you to talk with friends, spend time with God, read and reflect. Express all the things you are feeling. Let everything out, no matter how ugly it sounds. God will minister to you and you will find from God the encouragement to have your baby. The future is not hopeless because God is not limited and he loves you and he loves your baby.

If you are beginning a new project and are discouraged by the opposition you face, the difficulties that seem overwhelming, remember who it is you serve and who it is who has called you to work for and with him. The project may end up looking differently than you had imagined, but God who is all powerful and all loving will bring his purpose in you to fulfillment.

Paul faced desperate situations. He had begun a church in Corinth and then as he traveled starting other churches, he received a number of letters and reports that the church was being threatened by bad theology and selfish leaders. How did Paul find strength in this desperate situation? Despite all his hardships and all the opposition he faced he moved forward with hope.
II Corinthians 4
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul was not blind to the problems and difficulties in his life but his focus was on his eternal hope which allowed him to continue despite the difficulties.

In what area of your life are you finding discouragement? Are you in any way feeling desperate this morning? Is there an area of your life in which you are losing heart?

Remember who it is who loves you and has drawn you to himself. The all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing creator of the world is present with you and wants you to work with him. Jesus is the proof of God’s love for us and because of his work, you are never alone. You are never without hope. You are never without a way out of your problems.

You may have to wait a bit to see how the way out of your problems will be provided. Moses was born and then Israel waited another eighty years for their deliverance. We don’t know why it is we have to wait, but God has purposes for us we do not understand and we submit to him. Because we do not instantly see the answer to our struggles does not mean God does not know what to do to help us.

Whatever it is that is making you feel a bit desperate,
do not lose heart. Though outwardly you are wasting away, yet inwardly you are being renewed day by day. 17 For your light and momentary troubles are achieving for you an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So fix your eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.