As Hurricane Harvey batters Texas, we’ll begin to hear of hurricane heroes: unnamed men and women who do remarkable things for other people, for strangers, for the desolate and destitute. I imagine those hurricane heroes—some in rowboats, others in helicopters, still more in shelters—will represent a range of backgrounds: volunteer firefighters, nurses, undocumented workers, refugees, Wal-Mart clerks, and MacDonald’s cooks.
On Sunday, many preachers will speak about another catastrophe, as well, which occurred over 3,000 years ago, this one by human design. This is the story in the lectionary—prescribed readings from the Bible—which many churches worldwide follow.
There is irony in the timing of this week’s lectionary reading. The Egyptian Pharaoh ordered baby boys—potential rivals—to be thrown into the Nile River, which was famous for floods that fueled the fertility of the famed Nile River Valley.
Like modern-day catastrophes, that catastrophe occasioned the rise of heroes. In pulpits across the globe this Sunday, these are the heroes we should hear about.
Hero #1: Moses’ mother
The first is the mother of Moses, who led the escape from Egypt that is celebrated at Passover. Charged to kill her child by throwing him into the Nile River, she does precisely that—almost. She does put her baby into the Nile River but only after she has built him a miniature Noah’s ark, sealed with pitch, a small basket-boat that will save his young life and change the world as we know it.
Moses’ mother simultaneously obeyed and resisted. She embodied what Martin Luther King Jr. called creative maladjustment. Pinned in by a politics of oppression, Moses’ mother resisted while complying. This is the option available to the oppressed in the midst of a harsh, unyielding powerful nation.
We should not despise these heroes for their creative maladjustment. We should applaud them.
Hero #2: Moses’ sister
Like mother, like daughter. Moses’ sister followed her baby brother along the Nile until she saw he was well cared for. Such daring. Such mettle. No badge of courage for Miriam. Just the sort of temerity that would lead her, one day, to dance and sing on the opposite side of the Sea, with the Egyptian army thrown into disarray.
Hero #3: Pharaoh’s daughter
A woman of privilege, if not freedom, Pharaoh’s daughter lifts the baby from his basket and takes him home, where she raises him under the nose of Pharaoh. Courage can find a home among the elite, this story tells us.
Why did she do it? The bathing princess took pity on the baby when she heard him cry. This Hebrew word is used of sparing someone in battle. Pharaoh’s daughter spared Moses. Why? Because he cried—and she responded.
In short order, just a chapter or two later in the book of Exodus, we will learn that God responded to Israel because Israel cried. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,” God tells Moses. “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:7-8).
Interesting, isn’t it, to notice the parallel between the word of God and the work of this woman? Who presages the power of God? An Egyptian princess. The daughter of a vicious ruler defies her own father and mirrors the work of God.
Heroes #4 &5: midwives
Pharaoh commands midwives to kill all Israelite baby boys.
They don’t. They won’t.
Instead they offer the sort of resistance to power that most of us can only imagine. They lie to Pharaoh’s face. In fact, by lying, they put the lie to Pharaoh’s pretense to power.
They tell Pharaoh that Israelite women aren’t dainty, like Egyptian ones. They pop those buggers out before the midwives can get there and throw them in the river.
With this wonderful lie, the midwives reveal the ignorance of those in power. Pharaoh, the son of God, the ruler of a massive and magnificent empire, hasn’t got a clue how babies get born. Otherwise, he would have thrown a fit—or the book at them. He doesn’t need to know; he’s busy making the world run. The world’s most powerful man may know how to run an empire, but has he ever had a slave-baby drop into his palms?
Who are the heroes of the exodus story?
Women. All of them.
Most of them slaves, one a princess.
All of them courageous. Heroes, each of them.
As we watch the Weather Channel or CNN or Fox News this weekend, we’ll probably see hurricane heroes where Mexico and Texas meet. I can only imagine that those hurricane heroes will include some undocumented workers, women with no political power but with a dollop of audacity, and refugees—brown, white, and black people with few resources beyond bravery.