Description / Transcription
This sermon originally delivered by Kevin DeYoung at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan
Hopefully you’ll open your Bible to Exodus 2. I invite you to do that. There are pew Bibles in front of you if you don’t have one with you. Even if you’re not accustomed to reading the Bible for yourself, it would still be good for you to turn there, because we want everything that’s said, sung, preached, and prayed here to be from God’s Word. The only authority that I have to preach is insofar as I speak from this Word. You should always test all things and see if they are coming from this book.
What you’ll find here at this church is that the sermon is the central part of the service. In that sermon, we typically work verse by verse, chapter by chapter, through different books of the Bible. We started a series on the book of Exodus a couple of weeks ago, and may be in there for a while. But whether you’re familiar with many stories in this book or whether the whole Bible is new to you, hopefully you’ll be able to learn something, apply it to your life, and come face to face with Jesus Christ.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Exodus 2:1-10
The biggest events in history sometimes turn on the smallest hinges. Kaiser Wilhelm II was the king of Prussia and the last German emperor. He ruled from June 1888 to November 1918. He was ambitious and volatile, and his aggressive policies (many historians say) were at least partly to blame for World War I, which most historians think was an entirely avoidable war.
Back in 1889, when he had only been on the throne for a year, there was a special event taking place in Berlin: “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”, which was touring through Europe. We in America like to send our very finest products all over the world, and Wilhelm was a big fan. At one point in the show, as was the custom, Annie Oakley would do all sorts of tricks with her Colt .45.
At one point in the show, she’d ask for a volunteer to hold a cigar—or, perhaps, put it in someone’s mouth—and she would pace off her steps and she shoot off the ashes of the cigar! This was a joke line, and people didn’t volunteer. So people would laugh, and then her hapless husband would always come out and hold the cigar.
But on this particular day, after making the humorous announcement, an important man from the royal box walked into the arena and volunteered to hold the cigar. It was Kaiser Wilhelm! He was a fan, and maybe he wanted to show what a brave man he was. German policemen tried to stop him, but he waved them off. He wanted to hold the cigar. At this point, Annie Oakley felt like, “I can’t back out of this now. I’d lose face.” So she paced off her usual distance and prepared to shoot.
Here’s what one historian says: “Sweating profusely under her buckskin, and regretting that she had consumed more than her usual amount of whiskey the night before, Annie raised her Colt, took aim, and blew away the ashes from Wilhelm’s cigar.” The historian goes on to wonder how the world might have been different if she had missed the cigar and creased his head instead—not that he wanted an innocent person to be shot, of course, but wondering (as historians do) if we might have avoided World War I if she had been a worse shot on that day—just a little more whiskey, perhaps. Years later, after World War I had begun, Annie wrote to Wilhelm asking if she could take a second shot! God bless America.
The biggest events sometimes turn on the smallest hinges. In the 1930s, a portly English man walking late at night in New York City was hit by a cab driver. What if Winston Churchill had died instead of just sustaining injuries? How might World War II have been different? Sometimes the biggest events in history turn on the smallest hinges: just a few more degrees here, or a little different shot there.
We see that here in Exodus. Why is this story here? Most likely, the original audience for this book are the second generation of Israelites, who wandered in the wilderness because the first generation grumbled and complained. The first generation would die off before the Israelites went into the Promised Land. So Moses is compiling these books to retell their story. Surely they knew of Moses. Surely his story was widely known. This tells them where this special boy came from. He was a special baby with a special birth.
But there’s a larger point to the amazing story of Moses’ birth. It’s what the Israelites needed to know in the wilderness, and it’s what you and I need to be reminded of today as we wander in the world: God always has a plan, and he can use anybody to carry it out. I want to spend most of our time looking at the second half of that sentence, and we’ll come back to the first half at the end.
God can Use Anybody to Carry Out His Plan
Usually my titles aren’t very good, but I was kind of proud of the title today: “Three Women and No Funeral”. There’s a movie I haven’t seen called “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. In fact, after I wrote the title, I googled it and saw that it was rated R, so I know I probably shouldn’t see it. But I thought, “What’s this story about? This story is about three women and no funeral—three women who do their part, not even knowing what their part is, and (because of that) no funeral for little baby Moses. Three women of different ages, nationalities, and social standing all did their part to fulfill God’s great plan of redemption, though none of them knew the part they were playing. One of these women did not even belong to God’s people, and yet she played a part.
The First Woman: Jochebed, Moses’ Mother
We see in verse 1 that Moses is from the Levites, the right tribe if he’s going to be a mediator and intercessor for God’s people—a sort of priest before there were priests. Of course, the line of priests will come from Aaron, his older brother, but he’s from the right tribe.
More importantly at the moment, he has the right mother. We learn later in the book of Exodus that his mom’s name is Jochebed, and she’s married to his dad, Amram.
The decree that we see at the end of chapter 1—to cast all the baby boys into the Nile—must have been issued pretty close before Moses’ birth, because Aaron is three years older and seems to be able to live in freedom. So this decree must have come into place pretty shortly before Moses’ birth, because now he is in danger.
Pharaoh has tried everything to stop these people from multiplying, and being fruitful. He tried to make them slaves, so hard labor would kill them off. Then he tried to get the midwives involved and said, “When they have a boy, kill him.” But that didn’t work. They just kept growing. Finally, at the end of chapter 1, he says, “Okay. Whenever any of you see a baby boy, just chuck him into the Nile.”
Then Moses was born. Whether or not the Egyptians were looking over their shoulder at all moments, or whether they would sweep through and say, “Here’s an occasion when we’re looking for any babies”—whatever the case, Moses’ mother knew she had to hide this child.
He could sleep well enough, perhaps, for three months. At least theoretically, babies can sleep. I found it’s sometimes more theoretical. Actually my wife found that out, not me. Let’s be honest! My wife will tell you I have an amazing gift to fall asleep instantly and not wake up at the sound of children! It really has been honed very well. My mother would say I got it from my father. It’s probably a long dominant trait in the DeYoung household.
But for three months, you can imagine that you could maybe keep the baby hidden. If he starts to cry, Mom can come in, nurse him, and put him under someplace in secretive cover. So Moses stays hidden. And then, when he gets older—you know that little baby cry? The little cute one that you want to go and check out? It turns into a sort of screeching cat cry. It’s harder to keep that hidden. So what is she going to do? She takes a basket—it’s more like a chest, probably. It’s something sturdy and solid. She waterproofs it—that’s what the bitumen and the pitch is for. They’re kind of tar. Then she puts it into the Nile. If you have a picture in your mind, it’s probably of a flimsy-looking wicker basket that’s wobbling, but this was probably something relatively sturdy that had a top on it, and it was waterproofed. It’s the best that she could do. So she sends him off, probably praying like crazy.
If you take a religion class at some point, you may have your professor tell you that this story was stolen from a fable made about a king of the Akkadians 1,000 years earlier. There was a king named Sargon—the great king of the Akkadians. There’s a story about his mother, who didn’t want anyone in the city to know of his birth. So she put him in a basket, put it in the river, and the royal gardener found him. People say, “Aha! See, this is just borrowing a fable from some other land.”
Of course, there’s no way of knowing that 1,000 years later, at a different time, in a different place, among a different people, they would’ve been familiar with this other story at all. And if Moses’ mom was, perhaps it gave her the great idea! “Well, I heard a story about this one time. Maybe I’ll put this baby here in the basket.” Most likely, the reason there are multiple stories like this is because it was a not-unheard of occurrence. One scholar researched and found dozens of stories in the ancient world involving children being abandoned, sent down rivers, and rescued. There were all manner of reasons why the life of a child would be threatened: animals, enemies, armies, warring tribes, or rival family members. The reason there were so many stories like this is not because everyone was making up the same thing, but because these sorts of things happened.
When you picture Moses’ mother, I hope you do not picture her as a weak character—as a ball of nerves, crying profusely, “I don’t know what to do!”, sending her baby off, and hoping for the best. No, the picture we have here is of a woman of remarkable courage. One commentator said, “Jochebed’s actions are an ironic reversal of Abraham’s in Genesis 22. Abraham obeys God’s order to kill Isaac, yet Isaac is spared. Jochebed disobeys Pharaoh’s order to kill Moses, yet Moses is spared. In one incident, God honors obedience; in the other, he honors defiance.” Isn’t that true? Obedience to God’s Word matters, and if that means that you have to be in defiance of the law of the land, then so be it.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. Hebrews 11:23
Don’t you love that? They did it by faith in God’s promises; by faith that God was a more important sovereign than this Pharaoh; by faith that God was worthy to be obeyed, not this man-made king (when his rules were in disobedience to God’s).
Don’t you love when it says “…they were not afraid of the king’s edict”? Remember last week, if you were here: The fear of God is what drove Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives. When they were given the command to kill the babies, they did not because they “feared God”.
Pharaoh was afraid, too. He was afraid of the Israelites—that there were going to be to many of them, and they would rebel and conquer his kingdom. Everyone’s afraid of something. Everyone is going to be motivated by fear. You fear your parents, a bad grade, an injury, or being unwanted, unliked, unpopular, an outcast, marginalized, or looked at funny. You fear something. The Bible knows that, and the it says that the smartest and best way to go through life is to fear God.
We see again that Moses’ parents were not afraid of Pharaoh’s order. “What can Pharaoh do to me?” Well, he could kill them and their child, but ultimately, they knew he could not do anything to them that God had not willed, and he could not do anything to touch their souls. They were not afraid of a Pharaoh, so they hid their child.
This courageous woman was creative, too! You have to wonder: was there a plan afoot? “Float the child down to the Egyptians. Wait until we see Pharaoh’s daughter out for her daily ritual, and then send little Miriam out to walk along the river and spy things out. Give her this brilliant plan to (if they find her) say, ‘Oh, oh, oh! Excuse me, ma’am. I have an idea: maybe you could find someone to nurse that baby.’ ‘Really? Do you know of anyone?’ ‘Yes. I do. I know someone right now who’s ready to nurse a baby.’”
I don’t know. Did it all just happen, with Miriam having the idea off the top of her head? Or were they huddling as a family, saying, “This is our best shot—our only chance. The Lord will do what is best. Send him down.” At the very least, the basket was better than nothing. It was harder, too. What can be harder than to give your baby away? Yet what is more courageous than giving up a child when you know that the only chance for that child’s life is to be with someone else?
You could preach a whole sermon about the beauty of adoption: Jochebed’s courage to give up the child; later, Pharaoh’s daughter’s sweetness in bringing the child in. I mean, imagine the rejoicing in the short term. Miriam comes zipping back home, shouting, “Mom! Mom! It worked!” Or maybe it was all Miriam’s idea. “Mom! Mom! I can’t wait until my birthday present, because you’re going to double my allowance. Let me tell you what I did! They’re going to give you the baby back! You get to take care of Moses, and she’s going to pay you to do it!” There must have been such rejoicing in the household! “Our baby is alive!”
Then, almost immediately, would come the thought, “It’s only for a time. How many more days left, Amram?” In that time, you might have nursed a child for 3 or 4 years. Then imagine, after 3-4 years, that rejoicing turning to great sorrow when she would have to go and bring the child back to Pharaoh’s daughter, pretending that she wasn’t really the mother.
You could do a whole sermon series on mothers in the Bible letting their children go. Hannah, who so desperately wanted a child, has Samuel and then gives him to the Lord to be raised in the Tabernacle.
Think of the two women fighting in front of Solomon over which one has the dead child and which one has the living child. When he says, “Well, just cut the baby in half, and you can each split it”, one woman says, “That’s fine”, and the other woman, whose baby it really was, says, “No, no, no. Give it to that woman. I’d rather she have a live baby, than my own baby be dead.”
Most poignantly of all, think of Mary at the foot of the cross, seeing her grownup little boy, Jesus, hanging there. Sometimes the bravest thing a mom can ever do is to let go of the child that belongs to God even more than it ever belonged to her.
Maybe that’s an important word for some moms here who are ending their little boy or girl off to kindergarten or 1st grade this week—or maybe off to college. When they’re 14 or 15, you say, “Maybe you want to look for something out of state. Maybe study abroad. That’s a long ways away!” And then it comes time to go, and you say, “Why not community college? Please!” Students, you don’t even know. You’ll probably be parents someday, and then you’ll know. But students, you don’t even know what Mom and Dad went through to load up the car and send you off, and how they played like this was really great, and they were so happy for you, and then probably walked back in the house and cried. Sometimes the bravest thing a mom can do is to let go of the child that belongs to God even more than it belongs to her.
The Second Woman: Miriam, Moses’ Sister
Aaron, Moses’ older brother, was three years old at the time. Miriam was probably older than that. She’s old enough that she can have an intelligent conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter, but she’s not so old that the Egyptians would wonder, “Why isn’t this slave working in the field or taking care of the home?” Scholars figure she must have been somewhere between 6 and 12 years old.
We assume it’s Miriam. It may have been another sister, but Miriam is first named in Exodus 15 as the leader of the Israelite women singing the victory song after the Exodus. In Micah 6:4, the Lord says, “…I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Moses gets all the press time—and Aaron gets some—but Miriam is also part of this special family, helping to lead God’s people.
If Moses’ mom was courageous and creative, his sister was resolute and resourceful. I think that Miriam was part of the plan all along. Maybe it was her mom’s plan, or maybe she came up with the plan herself, but, surely there was something in the works. She’s not just going to make a neutral observation. Verse 4 says that she “…stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.” She’s looking very intently, wondering, “What’s going to happen to my little brother?” It’s the same Hebrew idiom used in Esther 2:11, where it says, “And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her.” Mordecai is saying, “Where’s Esther? What’s going on?” That’s what little Miriam is doing.
Now, we have some kids here—some little kids, some teenagers, and some high schoolers. I’m glad there are kids in this service. I have six of them. Do you see what remarkable things a kid can do? It’s tempting, whether you’re 5 or 15 this morning, to think, “Well, I’ll do something for God later. Right now I’m just trying to find out how to stay alive in Minecraft, and how to get my clan built up on Clash of Clans.” My kids are doing this. Maybe I’m a bad parent.
But kids, do you see what Miriam does? She’s old enough to carry out her plan. I wonder, kids: would you look after your little sibling? I know that’s not the whole point of the story. But it’s a fair point, isn’t it? I think there’s some kids that would say, “Excuse me, ma’am, this baby cries all the time. You’re going to want to just…um…yeah…good luck! I’m so glad you found him! I don’t know who he is, but there’s a reason he’s in the river, ma’am.” Would you do that? Would you send your siblings floating down the river all by themselves?
Would you be able to speak to an adult like this? I’m always so impressed with kids that will shake my hand, say, “Hi, Pastor Kevin,” or look me in the eye and ask me questions. Could you speak to an adult like this—respectfully, intelligently, and articulately? In another language? She’s speaking Egyptian, and she’s a Hebrew. We’ll just save that for another day. Could you even do it in your own language?
Most importantly, would you do what God wanted you to do even if all sorts of other people around you didn’t want you to do it? I mean, the law of the land was that this baby should be dead! That’s what the people in power and the majority of the people said. All the Egyptians said that’s what was supposed to happen. But Miriam knew that wasn’t right. She was willing to be a part of the plan. “Excuse me, ma’am. Should I go get somebody who could maybe help nurse this little child?” That’s a kid who’s playing a part in God’s plan—a much bigger one than she even knew.
The Third Woman: Pharaoh’s Daughter
We don’t really know what sort of risks Moses’ adoptive mother was taking. Did Pharaoh mind that she was bringing in this Hebrew child? Maybe it happened on other occasions. Maybe others in Pharaoh’s court had a soft spot for Hebrew babies. Maybe Pharaoh thought, “The point is really just that they decrease and we increase. If you want to take one, it’s one less Hebrew. We’ll raise it as an Egyptian.”
Whatever the risks might have or have not been, it was a sweet, kind, maternal, and honorable thing that this princess did. If Moses’ mother was courageous and creative, and his sister was resolute and resourceful, then his adoptive mother was powerful and full of pity. She was in high places, but she knew compassion.
We can think of her as easily duped. “Oh! There’s a baby! Oh! There’s a girl! Yeah, go get her mother! Okay, I’ll pay the woman, even though I don’t know who she is.” Perhaps she’s just along for the ride. Maybe that’s what happened.
Maybe she knew all along what was going on. Maybe she could put two and two together and say, “Here’s a baby. And then, out of nowhere, here’s a little girl. The little girl probably knows that baby. And then, out of nowhere, here’s a nursing mother. There’s probably a connection here. I’ll pay her.” We don’t know all of the details. What we do know is that this is a beautiful picture of common grace. She cared for a crying baby. She had mercy on a helpless child.
That’s a sweet thing. Don’t discount it. How many dozens of times I’ve seen it, even from strangers, when they see one of my kids, say, getting on a plane. You just hope you sit next to women, not men. The men can be nice, too. But invariably, when they get on, some women will crouch down and say, “Oh, look at you. How old are you? Is it your first time flying? How is it going? Where are you going? Are you going to see…?” They’re so kind—at first, at least. See how the end of the flight goes.
I’ve seen it in my wife’s eyes. I mean, I like children. I even like your children! A lot of times, I even like my children! But my wife can meet somebody else’s child, or see one of your new babies, and just light up! It happens to Christians and non-Christians. This woman’s not a part of God’s household. She’s worshiping a different god! Yet, as an example of common grace, she has the decency and the kindness to see a helpless baby and want to help.
You’ve heard of the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Well, this is the Parable of the Good Egyptian. Thank God that people aren’t as bad as they could possibly be. Pharaoh may be, but not his daughter. Thank God that people who don’t even know him can still be—in a proximate way, if not an ultimate way—decent, honorable human beings.
You may be familiar with this story. If you’ve always thought of this story as a wonderful tale about Moses’ birth, it is, but it’s also the story of three remarkable women. Now, if you say, “I don’t know about the Bible. There’s so many more stories about boys in there than girls”—well, that’s true. But a lot of the stories about men are about really bad men. There are a few bad women—like Jezebel and Delilah—but most of the women who show up in the Bible do remarkable things: Sarah, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Abigail, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Mary the mother of Jesus, the women who supported Jesus out of their own means, the women who repented of their sins before Jesus, the women healed by Jesus, and the women at the tomb of Jesus. That’s pretty amazing!
A lot of you women are in a very busy season of life with your kids. It can seem like making a difference for God is something you used to do, and maybe something you’ll try to do 20 years from now, but right now, your goal is to survive: “There are more of them than there are of me. I just want to get four hours of sleep.”
I don’t know what God is up to in, through, or because of your life, but here’s what I do know from the one-and-a-half chapters of Exodus. Up to this point in Exodus, the great unfolding story of God’s redemption—the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament, and the act of redemption that will be the example par excellence of God’s deliverance in all of Scripture, culminating in the cross of Christ—is being moved forward by women. Specifically, it’s moved by women doing one thing: taking care of children.
There are women here who are going to do 1,000 other things with their lives besides taking care of children. Some of you don’t have children, and some have children that are gone. Some of you aren’t married, and some are married without children. There are all sorts of other things women can do in service to God.
But aren’t the one-and-a-half chapters of Exodus striking? The whole story moves forward on women simply trying to care for children: Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter were all looking after children, and God uses all of them in mighty ways—ways they could not fully understand at the time. All of that came by simply loving children and protecting their little lives.
Moms, your labors are not in vain. You do not see the end from the beginning. You do not know all that God is doing. You do not know if you’re Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter, or someone else. But here we see God’s plan to save an entire nation turning on the hinge of a few women who love the children God puts in their midst. God always has a plan, and he can use anyone to carry it out. God’s plan looked unknown, small, and insignificant. But he was up to something big and massive that would be known in all the world! Consider: what might God be doing right now—whether a far out sign or something close by—for the good of his people, the growth of his church, and the glory of his name?
Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? Scientists debate over whether it’s accurate or not, but it was a paper a couple of generations ago. A scientist was trying to predict weather patterns, and he put in a figure that was rounded to the nearest thousandth, instead of giving the figure to the nearest hundred-thousandth. Just rounding to that degree threw off the entire model. So he postulated that even the flapping of a butterfly’s wings somewhere far off in the Amazon could affect the wind patterns and atmospheric pressure, eventually sending a hurricane to a different location somewhere in the United States. That’s the Butterfly Effect.
Well, you can think of this as the “Bulrushes Effect”. A little boat from a little family is on part of the river. It’s just another day for everyone else in the world. It’s just another day for almost all of the other Israelites, but not for Moses and his family. We see the “Bulrushes Effect” in action as one little baby—because his parents believed and his sister was brave—was placed into a box and sent down the river. Pharaoh’s daughter had a heart of compassion and took the child. That was the beginning, as the butterfly flapped its little wings, of the redemption of 2 million people from Egypt.
You never know what God is up to. The word for “basket” is the Hebrew word “tabot”. It’s only used in one other place in the Old Testament: Genesis 6-8, where it’s translated, over and over again, as “ark”. Surely, Moses is making a deliberate connection: just like God built a great big ark so eight people and a whole bunch of animals could survive the flood, saving his people, now he’s going to build a little ark for one baby, saving his people. That’s how God works.
That’s how he worked in Jesus. Jesus faced the same thing: a tyrannical king who ordered that all the baby boys would be killed. But his parents believed, so they fled to Egypt. Just as God saved Moses to save his people, so God saved baby Jesus to save his people. When the human rescue looked impossible, the world’s power seemed impressive, and God’s people seemed so vulnerable, God had a plan that could not be thwarted. He delivered Moses so that he could deliver the Israelites. 1,400 years later, he would deliver Jesus so that he could deliver us. God always has a plan, and he can use anyone to carry it out.
That’s the good news. It’s surprising news! The even better and more surprising news is that God used the death of the Messiah, his own Son, to save us from our sins. It’s a small hinge, but it changed history. If you believe, it can change your life too.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, give us faith to believe and trust. Give us faith to act and obey. Whatever small or big things you call us to do, may we know that you have a plan, and that you can even use us! In Jesus’ name, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription