Drawn from the Water
In the beginning, before the world was made, darkness shrouded everything, and all was submerged in the waters of nothingness. And then God spoke and began to give light, form, and intention to things, and God drew everything that exists out from the waters of chaos. God blessed creation and called it good because it existed in its right relationship with God and with itself (Gen 1:1-2:3). When the man and woman God had created disobeyed, the world came to be marked by the fracture of these right relationships between God and creation and between people. God’s immediate response was to set to work on a long-term reclamation project through the covenant people of Israel culminating in the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ. Often enough this reclamation happened through a drawing out of the water, with events and images that recall that initial creative work of God. This is the case with this week’s text from Exodus. Moses, the great liberator of God’s people, is drawn from the water in a text that tells us that God is up to the work of new creation. This is a point I will return to at the end of this reflection.
The beginning of this text is defined by the fracture that marks the post-fall world. The story begins with fear and prejudice, exploitation and brutality, and systemic oppression. It is a story that is, unfortunately, all too timely in recent days in the United States and other places. A new Pharaoh comes to power who does not know how much Joseph and Joseph’s people have blessed the Egyptians (Exod 1:8; see Gen 41:33-57; 47:13-26). Pharaoh can only see a people that do not look or think exactly like him and he feels afraid. Fear is the foundation of all the fracturing of the relationships God intended in creation (Gen 3:10). And at the beginning of Exodus, the fracture becomes a devastating wound. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and oppresses them with hard labor, building extreme wealth for the Egyptian people on the backs of slaves (Exod 1:11).
This social stratification did not allay the fears of the Egyptians; instead it only aggravated it. The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites, and in the process organized their society around the ideology of Egyptian supremacy: that one people and ethnicity was inherently superior to the other. This intensified the brutality they inflicted upon the Israelites, and “They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them” (1:14 NRSV). However, even this was not enough to alleviate the Egyptian fear of the Israelite others. The culture of Egyptian supremacy resorted to terror and infanticide (1:16). Pharaoh declared open season on the bodies of Israelite male children; they could now be brutalized and killed with impunity (1:22).
Out of this terrorizing culture of death emerge five courageous women who live out of the conviction that Israelite lives matter. It is fair to say that without the holy disobedience to the culture of Egyptian supremacy on the part of these five women, there would be no Moses, no liberator of God’s people. The resistance begins when two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refuse the directive to kill male Israelite babies. The text tells us that they feared God (and consequently did not fear Pharaoh). When Pharaoh asks why they have let the boys live, the women defiantly suggest that the Israelite women are stronger than the Egyptian women, giving birth to their babies before a midwife is even required to be present (1:19).
It is this holy courage of the midwives that makes space for Moses’s mother to give birth to him and hide him for three months. When hiding him is no longer tenable, his mother places him in a basket and stows it in the reeds on the bank of the river. Moses’s sister keeps watch over her brother as the unexpected happens: Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river to bathe, discovering the baby in a basket in the process. Pharaoh’s daughter simultaneously recognizes the baby as an Israelite and takes pity on him. Though she doesn’t know it now, this bold, yet quintessentially human act—to recognize and care for another—will be the undoing of the system of Egyptian oppression that her family has built and benefitted from. In this moment, she’s living from and for a different kingdom.
The baby’s sister’s quick thinking and creativity enables him to reunite with his birth family, where he will be raised with a consciousness for God’s liberating justice (see Exod 2:11-22). Eventually, the child is taken into the court of Pharaoh and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. She names him “Moses,” which resembles the word for “drawn out of the water” (2:10).
One fruitful way of preaching this text might be to highlight the courageousness of the five women in saying “no” to a culture of death, and how in doing so they embraced their freedom to participate in God’s redemption of the world. Without the costly courage of these women, God’s great emancipator may have been killed by the Egyptian system of oppression. Certainly this message could be proclaimed in powerful ways in a culture that is grappling with the newfound spotlight on the evil of White Supremacy and the persistent question of justice regarding whether black lives really do matter in our society.
A preacher might also use the occasion of this text to reflect on Christian baptism. As I mentioned in the beginning of this reflection, God’s long project of reclamation is often accomplished by drawing fractured creation out of the waters of chaos. Moses’s name means “drawn out of the water” and his story is an image of God’s new creational work, and also a “type” of baptism. After the fall, God’s reclamation project of all of creation often happens by drawing out of water. Mount Ararat emerges out of the waters of the great flood, replaying the dry land emerging out of the waters at creation, signifying a new beginning (Gen 8:1-5). Moses himself will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery through the middle of the Red Sea on dry ground (Exod 14). A short time after, Joshua will lead the people on dry ground through the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Josh 3:14-17). At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus rises like a mountain out of the waters of creation at his baptism with the Spirit hovering over him (Mark 1:9-11). This is a sign that he is about to begin the work of making all things new. And, finally, at the end of all things, we are told that there will be no more sea (Rev 21:1). To those with ears to hear, this image suggests that all of creation will finally be drawn from the water and its bondage to death and decay. On that day, we are also told there will be no more tears or death or pain or oppression (21:4).
This is the ultimate reality toward which our baptism, and the water imagery in Scripture, points: the healing of the fractured relationship between God and humans, and the relationships between humans. This text might be an occasion to ask about what our baptism says about who we are and who we are becoming. In our own baptism, we are identified with Jesus Christ the crucified one. We are plunged into the watery depths of the grave with Jesus, and then drawn from the water into new creational life. All of this is for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth of the way things are in God’s coming kingdom. We live from and for this kingdom as an alternative to the destructive powers of fear and oppression that brutalize the lives of the vulnerable among us. We live with the courageous conviction to say “no” to those powers and to order our lives otherwise, seeking to liberate those whose lives have been damaged by the fractures in creational relationships. I conclude with this insightful reflection on Christian baptismal identity from Rowan Williams:
[Y]ou might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy . . . If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.
 I am using “type” in the technical sense of typology. A type is something that receives its significance from a master symbol or event, this “antitype” defines every similar thing that comes before or after it. Here, baptism is the antitype, and water imagery often enough in Scripture is a type that receives its significance from the sacrament.
 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014), 4-5.