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Monday, January 18, 2016

Under the Shadow

People do things. Things good or bad, generous or selfish, trustworthy or manipulative, wise or horrendously ill-considered.

Paul tells the Corinthian church that the people of Israel were examples. The things that they did in the desert on the way to Canaan and the things that happened to them as a consequence of their behaviour were written down to instruct us, “on whom the end of the ages has come”.

It seems reasonable to assume this is true of most of Bible history: it happened, not randomly but with divine purpose. And we can benefit from observing the mistakes and successes of those who lived thousands of years before us, avoiding the former and pursuing the latter.

Dare to be a Daniel

That is how Bible history is most frequently employed as a teaching aid, especially in Sunday School. “Dare to be a Daniel,” we used to sing (or perhaps, in a more modern vein, “We’ve got some news, good King Darius: we fear your position is precarious”).

Still, I’m always a bit cautious about drawing too many explicit moral conclusions from historical accounts in the absence of specific editorial direction from the Spirit of God.

The early chapters of Exodus show us God’s people living under the shadow of an oppressive regime. That’s something we could all use a good look at, since we’re almost guaranteed to see more of it in days to come. If we don’t, our children will.

Without exploring too far the defects in the Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty and its perceived limitations on human freedom, I note that there are a number of obvious choices made by Israelites in these chapters. Some respond to the pressure of an oppressive government better than others, but none gets to opt out of playing his or her part (big or small) in the accomplishment of God’s purposes.

Meet the Subversives

First we encounter the subversives. Two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are told by Pharaoh to kill all the newly born Hebrew boys they happen to come across in the course of doing their job. Naturally they cannot bring themselves to do such a thing. We are told they feared God and let the male children live.

That’s all well and good, but in the course of time the midwives were required to give an account to Pharaoh. And to be completely candid with him about their failure to obey his commands (as those who fear God might normally be expected to be) would surely have endangered their lives.

So they fed Pharaoh a barely-passable baloney sandwich. “The Hebrew women,” they told the King of Egypt, “are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them”. They flat-out lied, Pharaoh inexplicably bought their story ... and God “dealt well” with the midwives.

Conflict of Interest

You see my problem, right? Scripture doesn’t condone dishonesty, nor does it condone disobedience to authority. And yet God blessed the midwives who lied and disobeyed.

Now we can certainly find scriptural sanction for their disobedience in the answer of Peter and the other apostles to other, equally over-reaching authorities: “We must obey God rather than men”.

The lying? Not so much.

This is a major difficulty with any black-and-white application of historical passages to Christian conduct: there seems to be the occasional exception to well-known rules. Bearing false witness is a bad thing that in this instance produced excellent results for a time, and benefited those who engaged in it.

But it does seem exceptional. I can’t find a single example of the Lord Jesus or the apostles lying even to save their own skins. They told the truth and accepted whatever consequences came from it. Other Old Testament saints like Daniel seem to have done the same. All prospered in the long run, though not necessarily in the short term.

Exploring the Options

Now to be fair, nowhere does God actually condone the Hebrew midwives lying. We are told that God gave the midwives families because they feared God, not because they lied. It is only incidental that their respect for God manifested itself in a bit of convenient fabrication. Perhaps it might have evidenced itself other ways had the midwives been a little more courageous.

For instance, we can’t know what might have happened if Shiphrah and Puah had taken a stand and simply told Pharaoh, “We’re very sorry, but we can’t do this”. I suspect it would have resulted in execution or a quick trip to prison, followed by the abrupt appointment of other women who would cooperate with the King of Egypt’s wicked agenda, but we cannot do more than speculate.

Some believers might have grabbed that rather intimidating option and run with it. The apostle Paul, who basically walked intentionally into Jewish hands in Jerusalem and later appealed to Caesar in defiance of all sensible, self-protective impulses, would probably have been one of them.

I wonder if the Lord allows some latitude about our responses to physical danger, given who we are. There is the perfect, selfless rejoinder to the threat of death and personal loss, which most closely models itself on the Lord’s own. That’s pretty rare. Then there are the lesser responses, such as we read here, that still manage to demonstrate an admixture of faith and canny self-preservation. Those are far more common.

I believe the Lord sees more value in such acts than in outright capitulation to evil, even if they may be flawed and a little more self-interested than we might like.

Love in Conflict

Then there is Moses’ mother. That’s another story, and perhaps another level of faith. “When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months.” Hebrews picks up on this statement and calls it an act of faith to be emulated. In Exodus it is only Moses’ mother who is credited with such spiritual foresight, but Hebrews brings Dad in too. I mean, Mom could hardly have gotten away with hiding a noisy baby boy for ninety days in the absence of her husband’s cooperation.

Again we have defiance of the rightful authorities, but only in pursuit of a higher obedience and a greater law.

Faith and Capitulation

After this we observe a perplexing combination of faith and capitulation to the misused power of the Egyptian state. The edict of Pharaoh is that all Hebrew boys go in the Nile. Finally, all out of options, Moses’ mother reluctantly complies. But rather than acknowledge the spirit of Pharaoh’s law, she obeys only its letter: in goes Moses, but lovingly and oh-so-carefully, in a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch, hoping against hope for her child’s survival. One can almost picture the blanket lovingly tucked around him and the kiss on the forehead in parting.

There’s a wonderful picture here that you and I may be able to relate to, isn’t there? Have you ever come to a point in your life when you’ve done the right thing as far as it is possible for you to take it, and then come to the place where you are beyond your capabilities, out of your depth and unable to go any further, having exhausted every possible rational option? In that state, we have to cast ourselves on the Lord in faith, and trust that he will take over where we are unable to continue.

Which is exactly what Moses’ mother did. She made the most godly choice open to her at the time. And now we see the sovereignty of God in action.

Calculate the Odds

Come on, folks. What are the odds that Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing in the same few feet of river? What are the odds that Moses’ sister is present to suggest that his own mother might make a convenient nurse for the boy? What are the odds that the daughter of the greatest man in Egypt would choose to undermine the edict of her father and turn on her own people?

The cynic looks at such a confluence of events and labels it way too convenient. Implausible. A Hollywood ending. But it’s only convenient if it was a coincidence, a stab in the dark or a lottery pick. And it really wasn’t. The preservation of Moses was stage-managed by God every step of the way, and the commitment to God of her son by a mother acting in faith demanded and received the very response God provided.

God delivered because that’s who he is.

The Reward of Faith

What will happen in the days to come? What choices will we be confronted with, and in what ways might the Lord expect us to identify ourselves with him, even at great cost? Who can say?

Can we make rules for Christian behavior in such situations out of the historical accounts? I think it would be unwise.

But looking at the Exodus account of Moses, I think we can fairly say this: there is room for great faith, and room for a little less faith. Each has its appropriate reward: the midwives don’t get a New Testament commendation, and they didn’t raise sons that led Israel out of Egypt and all the way to the border of Canaan.

You and I get to decide exactly how much faith we are prepared to exercise.

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