For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 4/Mothers’ Day – Ex 2:1-10
As I haven’t yet met a church which does Lent 4 as opposed to Mothers’ Day I have chosen for our consideration this week one of the two OT passages from the lectionary, the birth of Moses in Exodus 2. Like the alternative, 1 Samuel 1 (the birth of Samuel) it is meant to be an example of good motherhood, and as such ignores the more negative aspects of the celebration of this particular festival, like those who cannot become mothers, those who have lost mothers, or whose relationships with their mothers were abusive or toxic. It is a minefield for churches to negotiate, but this passage takes a different and more positive tack.
In context, this passage comes hot on the heels of the arrival of a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing. The memory of his saving of the nation during a time of famine had faded, and now the welcome guests of Israel had become troublesome immigrants, coming over here and talking our jobs etc etc. So they are put to work as slaves, and, as a final solution, all baby boys are to be killed at birth. So what is a good mother to do? Or rather, what is God to do?
Against this harsh narrative in Ex 1 comes a beautiful much softer story of a mother’s ingenuity in saving her son, who will one day save the people. But reading it in the English translation, we miss two important words, which give us a hint to a much deeper interpretation of the text. The author wants us to read the beginning of Exodus against the background of the beginning of Genesis. What this chapter gives us is not so much a salvation story as a brand new start.
The first word, in v.2 is (in the NIV and NRSV) ‘fine’. Moses’ mother sees that he is a fine baby, which doesn’t mean that he is a good baby, that is one who doesn’t cry too much, but rather that he is whole, appropriate and pleasing. The Hebrew word is the one used of God looking at what he has created each day and declaring it ‘good’. No doubt the author meant the readers to glance back to the creation story in Gen 1, as he signals that God is about to recreate his people. But this nuance is heightened as the author uses another word loaded with meaning. The word used for the basket in which Moses is set afloat is the same word used of Noah’s Ark. The Flood narrative is another story of a new start, as God tries to deal with the evil which his good creation has become by saving one righteous family to reboot the human race. There are times when the only solution is to unplug it from the wall and plug it in again, and God is about to do that through this tiny baby.
So what about Mum? There are two main motifs here, I think. One is obviously about nurture, care, protection, ingenuity and all the other traditional attributes of a good mother. One can only imagine the anxiety with which she lived during those three months of trying to hide a crying baby from the earshot of the prowling soldiers. Even a little gurgle during his sleep must have had her on tenterhooks.
But the second attribute of good motherhood which is held up for us here is the ability to let go and trust God. We see that twice in these verses: once when she sets him off in his basket on the Nile, and again when he grew up and could be safely returned to Pharaoh’s daughter. Both of those events must have been heartbreaking for her, but in each case she knew when the time was right, and trusted that God would work out his purposes through her beloved son.
Having glanced back to see this text as a new creation story, we can’t help but glance forward to see echoes into the future as well as from the past. Mary must have felt that sword entering her soul as she had to let go of her baby and allow him to grow and fulfil his God-given calling, including his torture and death. But in Jesus too we have a new start story, a recreation through which the human race can be saved. Those who are mothers might well think about how they have had to let go and let God when it comes to their babies, and might well pray that their offspring will be used mightily by God.