We remember Joseph, don’t we? Not the Joseph who is husband to Mary, but the Old Testament Joseph, the one with the coat of many colors who was thrown in a pit by his brothers and then sold to a caravan of merchants on the way to Egypt? The slave who was framed by Potiphar’s wife, thrown into jail, but who used his wits, dream-interpretation, and resources to help Pharaoh and his people?
Joseph—the one who rose to power by protecting a nation from famine; Joseph—who received both Pharaoh’s signet ring and his trust;
Joseph– who kept believing and kept rising as he came from the lowliness of a pit along the highway to power among Pharoah’s elites…
And do you remember how Joseph wept—a powerful man showing compassion and love– when he realized that his brothers did not recognize him so many years later, when they crossed borders in order to buy food because of a terrible famine and natural disaster in their own land?
Do you remember how Joseph forgave his brothers and how he found peace and prosperity in his personal and public life?
You may either remember or not, but someone in our biblical text today definitely does not know Joseph and the text goes on to say that a whole host of trouble comes in the wake of not knowing or caring to know.
“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph…” That is our first line today and such a line should give us pause, a kind of heads-up for what is to come. This new king…well, it has been debated in scholarly circles as to whether it was a completely NEW king, or an old king with completely new policies towards the Israelites who were residing in Egypt.
We are told that this new king becomes deeply concerned that the Israelites have grown far too numerous and far too strong for his comfort. Which is to say that the majority population in Egypt has become very threatened by the presence of the minority, the immigrant Hebrew children. Now how did that happen?
And this new king is fearful: fearful that the Israelites who have made Egypt their home will continue to prosper and multiply, outnumbering the Egyptians. This new king (or an old king with new policies) is fearful that the minority will lead to an uprising, and fearful that the resident immigrants will actually join with their enemies. This is not altogether different from what slaveholders thought about the slaves, or what white supremacists presently declare those who are of a different race. A popular white supremacist slogan is, “Diversity is a code word for white genocide.”
So this new king, or an old king with new policies, forcefully and legally conscripts the Israelites to do the work of slaves: “forced work gangs” are utilized to build all the new storage cities named for Pharaoh, as well as to build irrigation canals, and to do all the heavy labor under Egyptian overseers. By legal decree, the Israelite minority is enslaved, tasked with crazy long work days, back-breaking labor, little time off, no benefits, and no pay. The biblical text says, “They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.” (Exodus 1:14). Or more precisely, the “Egyptians made the Israelites work to the point of collapse,” a practice which was forbidden in Leviticus (see Lev. 25:43).
“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph…” That opening line tells us so much! What did the new king not know, or choose not to know? Joseph and his descendants had truly helped to make Egypt the power that it was. In my study bible, a footnote suggests that the king may actually resent Egypt’s debt to Joseph.
Is there anyone that you resent, subtly or not-so-subtly, for becoming more that you thought he or she should or could?
How was it that a new king came to power that did not know all of Joseph’s contributions to Egyptian society? How was it that a new king came to enshrine the slavery of Joseph’s descendants out of fear? How was it that the new king came to power?
And, we might rightfully ask, “How it is that any new king (or old king) could be so ignorant?” How is it that a people (the majority) could willingly or conveniently ignore the contributions and gifts of the minority that it harasses? How is it that this story sounds so familiar as it rings down through the ages? What is God saying about our human propensity to treat others far, far worse than how we treat ourselves? What is God saying about how easily we may choose to forget the contributions of others? What stories are allowed to be told in the public forum and what stories are diminished by majority culture?
“Now a new king comes came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph…” and because he and his people feel threatened, this king, by legal sanction, decrees that the Hebrew baby boys be killed before they even taste life. Israelite girls are spared, but not out of mercy. That the baby girls are spared only shows how less-than Israelite females were to the majority Egyptian culture. They weren’t seen as a threat to power. Pharaoh doesn’t fear the girls, but he should. For it is two Egyptian mid-wives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are cunning enough and brave enough to defy the Pharaoh’s order. Two women who are desperate enough and daring enough to spare the Hebrew baby boys.
These women tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women, using Pharaoh’s stereotyping, are indeed stronger than the Egyptian women in childbirth and so declare that the weaker midwives can’t get there to do their royal business before the birth occurs.
Praise God for women who defy unjust laws! For our text says, “And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.” This biblical story and others like it declares that there is a time when human ingenuity must defy unjust decrees from unjust powers.
“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph…” Who is the new king that doesn’t know YOU and what YOU are capable of? Who is the Pharaoh-like power in your life who would unjustly cut off your every new opportunity, every open door, and your every dream of flourishing or of being birthed into your Divinely-loved self? Let me suggest that your “new” king may not be new and may not be someone outside of you. Let me suggest that many a “new king and queen” come to power when we work ourselves to near-collapse by getting caught up in consumerism, or workaholism, or abject meaninglessness. Your new king may have risen to power in your soul because you have conscripted your inner Joseph, your inner Christ, your inner light, to hard labor, relentless turmoil, and a humorless existence. Like the Egyptians, you may have forgotten the stories of hope, the promises of God, and the gifts of your other, more holy and helpful self. You may have willingly traded God’s commands for Pharaoh’s decrees with nary a fight. Your fears may be killing the birth of your better self. What fears do you engage every day to pretend control? Counting our fears can be a form of mind control. If fear has our minds, control has our hearts. What fears are choking of gifts of this good land? What peace do we forfeit when we allow new kings to rise who care nothing for Joseph?
Pharaoh feared the Israelites and sought greater control over them. But his fear possessed him and controlled his ability to navigate the challenges and decisions of his day. Who or what does your fear try to control?
The Israelites could not fire Pharaoh, but they could outwit him, and out-story him, as shown in the bravery of the midwives. They could know their history and know their gifts and refuse to let one story, one narrative be the only narrative allowed. In the beginning of Exodus, we hear: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Isschar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.” Who are the sons and daughters who came before YOU? What is their history? Why is it important to remember who Joseph was and is?
As people of faith, we pass these ancient stories down thru the generations because they have something to say to any and all “new kings” or “old kings with new policies.” We are shaped by these stories: our perspective, our hope, our vision, our sense of God’s justice, our understanding that God holds the poor and outcast especially close and the people accountable. These stories, the stories of faith, help to free us from any bondage that might oppress us from within or without. These stories declare that no human power or privilege is greater than God and that, even when all hope seems lost, there is always a midwife or two who will be more beholden to God than to an unjust decree.
These stories, my friends, are one of our greatest treasures and one of our greatest teachers.
We would do well to allow them to instruct us, teach and remember them.
As another has written, we remember the story in three ways:
We remember the story by recalling it.
We remember the story by making the story our own.
We remember the story by doing the story.
And, sisters and brothers, how we remember shapes how we hope.
There arose a new king to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph
…who did not know how women working together could make a difference
Or how a story of a liberating God can move an entire people to action and remembrance,
Or how baby born in a stable can be Sovereign over Kings,
Or how a Moses will always arise despite Pharaoh’s deadly decrees.
There arose a new king to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph and who did not care–
Friends, will you care?
 Sanchez, Ray. “Who are white nationalists and what do they want?” CNN, Sun August 13, 2017
 Rev Melvin R. Ralph; http://www.newlabconf.com/voicespast/mrralph.htm