Fully Human

By Amy Peeler

When and where I was growing up, humanism was a bad thing. It was the secular worldview elevating humans and denigrating God. Imagine my surprise then when I landed my first teaching job at a Christian college and was instructed that the aim of our curriculum was to increase our student’s humanism.

Wait, what? It took some time and some patience on behalf of my colleagues and deans before I came to embrace that word in the way they intended it. To learn about God and God’s world, to prepare to serve, was to become more fully human, to become what God designed us to be, to become like Jesus, a humanist who urged other humans to be rightly and abundantly ordered toward God.

This story from Exodus is a very humanist story, in that second sense. God is exalted, not instead of humans, but through human realities because this text, like so very many in Scripture, focuses on real bodies in time and on the culture of human life.

I’d like to tell two versions of this story. The first is the big one, the national one, the more complicated one, where there exists both blessing and hardship.

The second is the small one, the intimate one, the one about a mother and a baby. I might have to say the one that most captures my heart in all the Old Testament. But it too is bittersweet.

My aim is this: both to hear these stories and then to ask how they relate to each other. How does the small affect the big? Where is God in the little things and in the big things? Most importantly, where is God when we are in need of divine care? Because I think that in this epic and definitive story of Israel, we have something to learn about the abundant patient human life God wants us to live. We have nothing less to learn than how to be fully human, which is to live with the confident knowledge of our place in God’s presence.

The First Story: Exodus 1:8-22

There’s a new king in town, and not just the next one in line, but a new dynasty, a regime change. Historians wonder if this is Ramses II. However it is, he had no knowledge, no relationship with Joseph and his family.

He is a divisive king. In his first speech in this narrative he separates his people based on race, those who had been living and working together, as the end of Genesis attests. There the people of Israel work in harmony with the Egyptians for the benefit of the land. Here, the Pharoah starts to address his people, the Egyptians, and inculcates fear in them of this other group — they might grow and fight with our enemies against us. But he has no basis for this fear in any actions of the Israelites thus far.

The Israelites were already working for Pharaoh and the land where they had been dwelling (Gen 47:5-6, 24).

Nonetheless, he puts taskmasters over them and the Egyptians became less human by afflicting the Israelites. This is said twice: They became ruthless.

And in so doing they created what they feared. Pharaoh had feared that they would multiply and then they multiplied. This tactic of giving them hard labor isn’t working, and so he goes to midwives.

Based on their names, they are Hebrews, and so according to his own perception of reality, Pharaoh is lowering himself in order to give them instructions.

While they are assisting at births, If the child is a boy, they are to kill them.

Instead of obeying the ruler, the midwives fear God instead. This really is a key. They disobey the king in order to obey God.

And so Pharaoh has to talk to them again.

They report to him, again confirming his fear, that the Israelite women are lively. They are having lots of babies.

The result of the midwives’ faithfulness is that the people increase, and they themselves benefit: they receive houses and families of their own.

With several options exhausted, Pharoah turns to all of his people with this instruction: If you find the Israelites, kill them.

So this account has preservation and increase of life, but also the threat of death and hard horrible work. So where is midst of all this is God?

He’s with the little baby. That statement requires that I tell the second story (Ex. 2:1-10).

In chapter 2, a Levite marries a Levite. We learn from Exodus 6 that their names are Amram and Jochebed. We know the Levites as the priestly family, but at this point they are not yet priests because they have not yet been given the law or the tabernacle.

At this point in Israel’s story, all the reader knows is that this Levite couple has a beautiful baby. Aren’t they all? Certainly, but several commentators make special note of Moses’ loveliness.

He, unfortunately, is born in the midst of this threat from Pharaoh. So, his parents had to hide him. As we learn later, they also have a toddler, a 3-year-old, and an older child. Imagine the situation in that home. They could not celebrate the joy of a baby, as they are living in fear.

After three months, when it becomes unmanageable to maintain the quiet anymore, the mother builds a basket. Interesting, it is the same Hebrew word used for Noah’s ark. It is a place of protection from death.

She covers it with tar and pitch, taking great care in its preparation. Then she sets it on the bank of the Nile, faltering on the edge between solid ground and an unknown, watery future.

The older sister Miriam goes with her mother to place the basket, and when the mother can’t bear to stay, the older sister does. What a brave and caring young woman.

Then here comes Pharoah’s daughter, one from the household, the very family, of the leader who has sent out the edit of death. When she notices the basket, she exclaims, “This is a Hebrew child!” Did Miriam hear her? Did she know what she was thinking? Did the expression point toward compassion or disdain? Was this the prelude to murder?

Without waiting to see which way it might go, Miriam speaks up right away, assuming the best, namely that the woman wants to keep the child. Maybe she heard it in her tone of voice, or saw it in her actions, or maybe she forced it with her words: someone is going to need to feed that baby.

This is the point of the story that my heart starts racing. Having lived the privilege and weight that it was to nurse my children, I know that problem needs to be addressed right away.

The princess’ agrees: Go get someone to nurse him.

Can you imagine Moses’ mother when Miriam came running in the door? He’s alive, and even better, you get him back! Come now and see what has happened.

Moses’ mother meets the woman who has saved his life, and she says to her: Take this child and I will pay you.

You have your son, no longer in secret, and you will be paid to do what you want to do with all your heart. You get back his life, and even more, safety and security.

I’m confidence that as she nursed her son that day, she wept.

But this is not the end of the story. I said it was one I loved but it is not without complication. She didn’t get to keep him. When the nursing was over (around age 3) she brought him back to Pharoah’s daughter, and he became her son. Loss was on the horizon even when she got him back.


One prominent way in which these stories are united is around the theme of life. The Israelites multiply, the midwives let the boys live because their moms are lively, a baby is born in the tribe of Levi and he lives, for three months, and then into adulthood. That being true, it must also be acknowledged that this is a difficult life, hard labor, slavery, hiddenness, forced adoption. We might wonder if these are the kind of lives that are worth living.

I speak here with trepidation because I know there are situations that are very complicated. Many of you may have had babies in NICU or lost children or wanted them but never had them. Many of you may have had friends or family or even your own self struggle with infirmity or aging or depression, and you wondered if that kind of life was worth living. And so our lives and this text push the question even more insistently: Where is God in death? Where is God in a very hard life?

God is there. We cannot say from the Book of Exodus that God makes everything perfect, but we can say that God is not absent. He multiplies the Egyptians; emboldens and blesses the midwives, preserves the life of Moses, and in just the next chapter when Moses has grown up, the text asserts that God heard, saw, remembered, and took notice of his people. God is present, God is at work, but God does not immediately alleviate all suffering.

We want to know why, but I don’t think we have the capacity (as finite beings) or the data (the text and life don’t always explicitly say) to know with certainty. The fallenness of the world is part of the answer. Sin has corrupted all things. The enemy of God is real, but so is God’s glory, and at times hardship reveals that with more clarity. So too is God’s assured and coming victory, even if we cannot fully experience it right now.

I don’t know where you are entering in today, but here are the messages this text may leave reverberating in our ears:

  1. Abundance. God is a God of abundance. He did not just allow the Israelites to continue, but multiplied them greatly. He did not just allow Moses to live, but allowed his mother to nurse him and get paid for it! The God we serve has so much in store for us, now and in the future. For if God himself, if God the Father would send his own Son, what would he keep from us?
  2. Sustenance. Yet somehow, Scripture doggedly holds the idea of abundance along with the reality of suffering. God knew the plight of his people; he was about the work of redeeming them, but it took time. That is what we don’t know: namely why God doesn’t redeem right away. Why God allows grave difficulties to befall. In the depths of those situations, we can trust that God has a good plan in motion, and know that God is present with his people who are suffering.
  3. Redemption. We can also know that God’s presence in the midst of suffering is moving in a particular direction: redemption. It is interesting that in chapter 3 and following, God says, I have always been your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, but I have only now revealed my name, the Lord, I Am. God shows who he is, literally gives his holy name, when in the midst of a mass redemption from slavery. I think that reveals something deep about the character of God. I don’t know when or how, but God will bring about reconciliation and justice.
  4. Presence. All of these have one thing in common: the assertion of God’s presence. He is with the nation, he is with the baby, the one who will deliver the nation.

In the power of his Spirit because of the coming of his Son, God can be and is with us too, with us communally and with us individually, because we know that not only was he with the baby, the one who would deliver us, he was the baby who became the man Jesus. We trust that God is ever working toward his victory, even as God is with us in whatever situation we find ourselves. Abundance or suffering or both, as we experience the real, full human condition, we can know that God is with us.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois.


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