I’m going to start this series with a few posts on the theologically most important book of the Old Testament, Exodus. Not only is Exodus fun to read and explore, but it brilliantly ties together two big ideas: freedom from slavery, and obedience to God’s law. Exodus teaches us that we become free from slavery by one means only: God does a miracle. The Israelites do nothing to save themselves; God does everything! Yet after the Israelites are free, they risk slipping back into slavery. The solution? If the Israelites will only obey God’s law, they will remain free.
These ideas from Exodus are at the center of our faith. Each of us starts out as a slave to sin. We cannot free ourselves; God does all the work. Yet once free, many, many Christians slip back into slavery. Tempted by things like money, power, sex, substances, internet, and so on, too many Christians find themselves stuck in sin, sometimes even addicted, once again. So to help us stay free, God gives us “law” – that is, guidelines for good behavior. (Col 3:5–17 is a personal favorite.) With these guidelines Christians can build lifestyles which keep us safe from the temptations which will put us back in slavery.
This is the broad message the entire book of Exodus. But this week I’m going to write about the beginning, Exod 1:1–21.
First, consider a popular theory about our responsibility as Christians to obey the laws of the country in which we live. Many Christians believe God wants us to obey all laws of our government, except for laws which clearly contradict a biblical instruction. For example, while we may think that the US tax system is unfair or unjust, we Christians must fill out our tax forms honestly, correctly reporting all income and deductions.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously argued against this theory in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King believed that even though the Bible doesn’t say much directly about racial segregation, God wanted Christian to disobey local leaders by gathering and protesting social injustice without permission. King argued that God teaches us a “higher” law (King called it “natural law”) which sometimes requires Christians to disobey the government. This “higher” law has been revealed to everyone, even to people who have never read the Bible (Rom 1:18–20). Human awareness of “higher” law is what we call “conscience” – that inner voice which tells us the difference between right and wrong.
Today of course we honor King’s leadership during the Civil Rights era. But it is still popular to say that Christians should obey all laws, except for those which clearly contradict the Bible. Since much of Exodus is about law, we should look at Exodus carefully to see if it has something to say about this idea.
I began by talking about the entire book of Exodus because we need to read individual chapters of a book as part of the whole. Each book of the Bible is carefully put together, so that we must consider the message of every chapter within the context of the whole book. So when we interpret Exodus 1, we need to think about how it fits in with the rest of Exodus before we draw conclusions.
Within Exodus as a whole, Exodus 1 is extraordinary for a couple of reasons. First, while God regularly makes his presence known throughout Exodus, either appearing to Moses or doing fantastic miracles, God doesn’t show up in Exodus 1 until the very end, after the main drama is over. God appears only in verses 20–21 to reward the midwives for lying to Pharaoh.
(Yes, Shiphrah and Puah are lying in Exod 1:19. Pharaoh falls for it is because he’s naive. This fits a pattern: the Old Testament usually describes foreign rulers as having below average intelligence.)
The second extraordinary feature of Exodus 1 is related to the first. For some unstated reason the midwives “fear God” (verse 17) and decide to disobey Pharaoh. Since the Pharaoh’s word was law, what the midwives did was, by definition, illegal.
Of course we know today that infanticide is wrong. But how did the midwives know? God had not yet given the Ten Commandments, and the book of Genesis doesn’t say anything like, “you shall not murder.” In fact, in the ancient world “infanticide” was much like abortion today: families all over the world who felt that they could not support more children would leave infants to die.
The midwives in fact violated the popular principle that I named at the start. Even though the law of Pharaoh did not contradict any biblical law (as the laws about murder had not been given), they “fear God” and decide to disobey.
One fascinating piece of this passage is that Exodus never gets around to telling us something we would really like to know: it does not reveal the nationality of Shiphrah and Puah. They are in charge of the Hebrew women, but we do not know whether they themselves are Hebrew or Egyptian. This clever writing technique shows up a lot in the Old Testament; the author arranges things to put some simple, logical question in our minds (“were the midwives Egyptian, or Hebrew?”), then does not give us an answer! The author does this here to concentrate our attention on the motivation of the women: we do not know their nationality, but there is no doubt about their gender! This points to see another “big idea” of Exodus 1 and 2: God uses women to preserve life. (Count the number of unnamed women who help to save Moses’s life in Exod 2:1–9!)
So if Shiphrah and Puah did not have the Bible, and if they did not hear directly from God (unlike Moses later on, who hears from God all the time), then what could have made them think that God wanted them to break the law and lie to Pharaoh?
The best answer: conscience; that is, their awareness of “higher” law. They sensed that God did not want them to kill babies just for being male Hebrews. They knew the law of Egypt, but they disobeyed because their consciences told them that saving these infants was the right thing to do – even if it meant lying! And, of course, God agreed with them, and rewarded them.
This passage teaches us that the conscience of someone who genuinely “fears God” overrides the laws of the place in which we live. This message is especially important in Exodus, because Exodus goes on to explain that the key to success is in obeying law (beginning with the Ten Commandments). Yet while Exodus is devoted to explaining the importance of law, the author begins by laying out the principle that to truly “fear God” may require us to violate “law” (but not God’s law!)
I use the word “conscience” because Exodus 1 does not say exactly what motivated Shiphrah and Puah to disobey Pharaoh. But most of us recognize today that the Holy Spirit is the one who affects the consciences of Christians. This is the idea behind the words of Jesus in John 16:13, “but when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
We cannot and should not blindly obey the laws of the United States, of Virginia, and/or of Hampton Roads. God wants us to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us as we think through law. Sometimes God may even want his people to disobey the law! We Christians must nurture our relationship with God so that we can be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. As we develop this relationship, we can be prompted to know when we as Christians must oppose, and possibly even violate, unjust laws.