(Lectionary for August 27,2017)
The text the lectionary collectors have for us today has far too much material to include in any one sermon. There are two large scenes, intimately connected with one another, but each one of which is fully worthy of a sermonic event. For this occasion, I plan to focus only on scene 1 that catalogues the attempted wiles of the most powerful monarch on earth, the pharaoh of Egypt. This unnamed leader of the land (no use hunting for his name in history; what we have here is a classic illustration of literary history) is the very model of a tyrant who attempts to control his population, first through cleverness but finally by means of brute force. His like has been repeated again and again throughout human history, and it always pays us dividends to look once again at his ilk. Unfortunately, pharaoh-like monarchs, Prime Ministers, and presidents have, like fleas on mangy dogs, reared their cankered heads over and over. As we look at this particular tyrant, we need always to compare his tactics with those of leaders of our own time and imagine just how we must combat the cruelties that are part of any tyrant’s design.
“Now a new king rose up over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex.1:8). This sentence has become a cliché in our language whenever a regime changes and the new leader has no care for or knowledge of previous leadership. Whether this new pharaoh (the word means “great house” in the Egyptian language—no one would ever call him a “king,” save an Israelite who had little acquaintance with things Egyptian) simply is unaware of the great Joseph, who did nothing less than save the country in the midst of a savage famine and thereby made the pharaoh fabulously wealthy to boot, or does not care to consider the great work of the fabled Israelite leader, he chooses to strike out in his own directions when it comes to dealing with the Israelite slave forces that are helping him to pursue vast building projects. No Israelite, surely, could be worth anything more than one more pair of hands to work on my behalf, he thinks, and he proceeds to cast a wary eye on this particular group of people.
The fact that he is uniquely concerned with just these slave people, out of all of his many slaves, makes me wonder if he does know something of the amazing Joseph but chooses to deny any value he may have had for his country. The fact that Donald Trump and many members of his Republican party continue to denigrate any of the achievements of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and most especially his singular work in passing the Affordable Care Act, and continue to attempt to overturn that law, suggests that these new leaders cannot allow any works of the previous administration to be lauded lest their own attempts at governance be seen as less than valuable in the eyes of the public. Hence, “to not know Joseph” is a strategy to make oneself look better.
But no tyrant can stop there. The next stage of denigration involves paranoia. Not only must previous achievements not be allowed to stand, any potential future achievements must be thwarted as well. So, the new pharaoh announces what can only be said to be an absurd claim about these particular slaves. “Look! Those people, the children of Israel, are vastly more powerful than we are” (Ex.1:9). The usual reading of this sentence is: “The Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we” (NRSV). But if Hebrew rav is paired with ‘ezum in a hendiadys structure where two nouns are joined to make one a modifier of the other, then
“vastly more powerful” is what the pharaoh claims. This announcement is of course ridiculous. How can a passel of Hebrew slaves be “vastly more powerful” than the most powerful country on earth? Only a tyrant bent on obliteration of any foes, no matter how weak and harmless they may be, could possibly make such a statement. Why does our 45th president continue his unabated tweet storm against those he perceives to be his foes? He does so because any threat to his personal power must be met by claims of dangers these foes may represent, no matter how ridiculous the danger claims may be.
And so the pharaoh proceeds with increasingly absurd and murderous plans to secure his power at the expense of the Israelite slaves. His plans to curb the growth of the rabbit-like Israelites are four in number. First, he demands that their number of work hours be vastly increased in order that when they return home the last thing on their minds will be multiplication, and I do not mean the doing of arithmetic! The plan fails. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread so that the Egyptians were in dread of them” (Ex.1:12). Second, if 18 hours in the brick kiln were not enough to exhaust them, what about 20 or 21? This too is a failure. Third, he demands that the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who attend all Israelite births, destroy all male babies. But they refuse to do so, and mouth an astonishing lie to explain why they do not: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, because they are full of life. Before we come to them they have already given birth” (Ex.1:19). Not only is this a slam against pharaoh’s own women, it also claims that Hebrew women are independent and powerful, and have no need of the services of a midwife.
But not only does pharaoh swallow this apparent falsehood along with the denigration of his own women, he, fourthly, turns to genocide to solve what he sees as the mortal problem of the Israelites. “Throw every boy into the Nile,” he screams, “but let every girl live,” and though the Greek translation of the Hebrew text adds the phrase “ born to the Hebrews,” the now mad tyrant’s demand that all boys, including Egyptian ones, be murdered in the Nile is fully consistent with the insane actions of any despot. The fact that a Hebrew boy is thrown into the Nile, but not to die, but to live and become the undoing of pharaoh and his country, adds to the irony of this model tale of tyrants and their downfall.
It may seem excessive to label Donald Trump a tyrant in our own time, but his actions and words closely mirror the actions and words of this pharaoh of long ago. There is little doubt that we are to laugh at this hapless monarch of the past, since the text is written by a later Israelite who was intent on mocking any tyrant who would attempt to thwart the way of God and God’s chosen. It may well be that mockery of the absurdities of any tyrant of any age is the best way to call attention to the foolish and idiotic behavior that characterizes all despots. Tyrants are of course dangerous and deadly at times, but nonetheless they are little more than clowns, pale reflections of genuine leaders who express power through service of others, care for the poor and helpless, and deep concern for the pain and struggles of all peoples. The image of the 92-year-old former president Carter wielding his hammer for one more Habitat house should be juxtaposed with the image of the 71-year old current president playing still one more round of golf and retiring to the luxury of his gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Mockery comes easily when one is presented with such a scene.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)