Unanxious Heroes for Uncertain Times: Miriam and the Oppression of the Egyptians
Being a PK, a preacher’s kid, means you have a whole lot of mothers.
Growing up, I had a ton of mothers. Of course, my brother and I had our own mother, who was a wonderful mother—Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, if you are watching! But she was only the beginning.
Virginia and Marilyn were my mothers, even though I couldn’t tell you their last names. They were a couple of my Sunday school teachers, and of course, they were surrogate mothers every Sunday morning for an hour, and whenever they saw me at church. They would shepherd us in their class and teach us about the love of Christ every week. I cannot tell you a single specific thing that they taught me. But I remember them, and their love for us, and I remember the stories they taught us about the Bible, even if I don’t remember how they did it.
My mom sang in the choir, and my dad was up there preaching, so we had other mothers to keep an eye on us while neither parent was in the pew with us. In fact, all the other mothers were our other mothers. They would make sure that we didn’t make too much noise, or if we did, they would give us the “mother eye.” Often, my brother and I would get birthday cards, or even birthday gifts, from some of these families. Some would even ask which Star Wars action figures I had, to make sure they got me a new one. They were surrogate mothers, sharing the load together.
Later, when we moved to a bigger church, there were more staff members, which gave us more mothers: the church secretary, the youth minister, the wife of the choir director. All of them made sure that the preacher’s boys were not misbehaving too much, as we roamed the halls of the church at all hours of the day. Of course, they were not just the heavys, but in several ways, taught us about community, about Church, and about the incarnate love of Christ.
Being a preacher’s kid means that you have a “Great Cloud of Mothers” that surrounds you whenever you are in church. And even beyond.
Desmond Tolbert was another preacher’s kid who could relate.
Claire Galofaro tells the story of Desmond and his mother Pollye Ann Tolbert, a minister, wife, and mother in rural Georgia. Pollye Ann and her husband Benjamin had been married 30 years. He was quiet and unassuming, but she was a ball of fire. She would joke, play the organ, sing gospel music, and dance the ecstatic dance of the Spirit. He would hide in the shadows, but she would pull him out and make him dance with her.
They lived in a part of rural Georgia that was dreadfully underserved when it came to medical care. Receiving medical care often means having to drive to another county, miles away. In the last ten years, seven rural hospitals have closed their doors. Nine counties in rural Georgia don’t have a single doctor. Sixty don’t have a pediatrician. Somewhere along the way, someone forgot that caring for children is a basic law of humanity. And they forgot that we are all children of God. Especially in these rural, impoverished, largely African-American communities, political expediency and profit became the edict of the land.
Last month, Benjamin Tolbert got sick. The closest hospital was full, so their son Desmond had to take him to a hospital an hour north. The next day, Pollye Ann got sick, too. The only room for her was in a hospital an hour south. Both had contracted COVID-19. Of course, Desmond wasn’t allowed to see either one of them, and had to call between doctors and nurses and hospitals, had to pray that they would pull through. He was on the phone with a nurse when Pollye Ann took her last breath. Two days later, Benjamin died as well. Neither one had a chance to say goodbye to each other, even see each other as they neared their final moments.
The pastor at her church said that when Pollye Ann preached, she was like a freight train. She would start off real slow. And then get faster. And faster. And faster, until it looked like she was about to tip off the tracks. She would give her testimony to a packed house, every time. But because of the danger of being together during the virus, there were just a few mourners at the graveside.
This Mother’s Day, Desmond grieves the loss of his mother and his father.
We live in uncertain days.
We live in anxious times.
We live in a painful and difficult season in the history of our world.
Today, we continue our series titled “Unanxious Heroes in Uncertain Times.” We understand uncertain times, do we not? But, as I made the point last week, so do most of the figures of the Bible. In most cases, the stories of Scripture take place in difficult times and uncertain days. Of course, the story of Exodus tells one such story, recounting the journey of God’s people in some of the most uncertain times. The violence and death and fear and anxiety in which they live probably feels pretty similar to what a lot of people in our country and around the world are experiencing right now.
Remember the setting. The Israelites had gradually become slaves to the Egyptians since the days of Joseph, and their suffering was great. They were forced to serve, to build the cities for, and to fully obey their Egyptian masters. When the numbers of the slaves started to swell, the Egyptians feared an uprising and tried to practice forced population control, killing the children of the Israelites. Imagine the pain of a mother carrying a child to full term, only to lose the child to the violence and oppression of the Pharaoh and the people of Egypt.
Just like last week, and for most of the story of Scripture, the people of God lived in these uncertain and terrifying times. They served at the whim of this violent people, and whenever they complained or attempted to make life better for themselves, the Egyptians were there to step on their throats and make life all the harder. “You don’t have enough straw to make bricks? Try making them with NO straw.” Oppression. Slavery. Genocide.
Born into this terror is an unnamed child. A child who possesses his own “Great Cloud of Mothers.”
He was born to an Israelite woman, by the name of Jochebed. She was a woman of great courage and strength and ingenuity. But she was only one of many mothers in this story in Exodus. Somewhere along the way, a lot of churches began celebrating biological motherhood as the only way to be a mother. But that is not a Biblical model, by any stretch of the imagination. Throughout the Bible, including here in Exodus, motherhood was a much more fluid and spiritual experience.
First, this child was born and raised due to the bravery of two Israelite midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. These midwives knew that the Egyptians wanted the Israelite babies killed, and commanded that they report the children to the authorities when women became pregnant. But in the tradition of spiritual mothers throughout history, they knew that caring for children was a more basic law than any edict of any Pharaoh. So they lied. They told the authorities that the Hebrew women were giving birth before they got there, and then hiding them. But in fact, Shiphrah and Puah helped to hide these children. Just like German mothers hid Jewish families during the Holocaust. Just like American mothers at the border hide undocumented families today. Caring for children is a more basic law than any edict of the land.
Strengthened by Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed believed that she could save her unnamed child. So, she sent him along with his next spiritual mother, Miriam, who was actually his sister. It is interesting in this story that Miriam is not named either, but many of us who had our own Sunday School teachers like Virginia or Marilyn know the story well. Miriam and Jochebed made a little basket. A boat, really, that was big enough to hold a baby. Then, we get to see the strength of this young woman, this girl really. Miriam knew that to be caught with a Hebrew baby could easily mean her death. So, directed by her mother, she went to what was perhaps the most dangerous place in all of Egypt: the residence of the Pharaoh. But she didn’t go to the Pharaoh, but instead to his daughter.
Here is yet another mother in the story. Jochebed and Miriam had a hunch that the Pharaoh’s daughter would know that caring for children was a more basic law than any edict of the land. And they were right. Miriam deftly guided the basket into the place where the Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants would find the baby, and when she drew the basket from the water, Miriam quickly stepped into view and offered to find a woman to nurse the child. The Pharaoh’s daughter had to know it was all a set-up. The attendants had to know that it was all a set-up. But caring for children is a more basic law than any edict of the land. And when she pulled him from the water, she named him “Moses,” which means “to draw” in Hebrew and “born” in Egyptian for she drew him out of the water and into her life. She raised the boy as her son and as a prince, caring for him as her own child.
Of course, there is one more Mother in the story. We cannot ignore the mothering spirit of God throughout the narrative. God is the Mother who cares for Moses, provides these spiritual mothers to care for him, stand up against the violence of the world around them, and eventually enable and empower Moses to lead his people out of that violence and into freedom. Throughout, God is the power and presence behind the Exodus, and the power that always brings life and not death. The power that knows that caring for children is a more basic law than any edict of the land.
But on this day, let us look to our own Great Cloud of Mothers. Like Moses, how many of us can look back over the women and men who have nurtured us, cared for us, loved us, protected us, fought for us, empowered us? There are many reasons to be afraid and be angry and be sad in these days. But there are also reasons to look to God with gratitude and thanksgiving, including that Great Cloud of Mothers we celebrate this day.
How many of us can name the Shiphrah’s and Puah’s, those willing to take a stand on our behalf, to show their strength against whatever foe they face?
How many of us can name the Jochebed’s, those whose quick thinking and sharp minds made us who we are today?
How many of us can name the daughters of the Pharaoh, who have nurtured us, cared for us, drew us close, and ignored the silly edicts of silly men in order to care for us as children or adults?
How many of us can name the mothering Spirit of God in our lives, empowering us, undergirding us, nurturing us to our true callings?
How many of us can name the Miriams in our life? Those who have stood beside us and guided us through hard days?
Now, Miriam wasn’t perfect in the story of the Exodus. Like a lot of older sisters, she had a hard time not mothering Moses even later in life. Even after he grew up and led the people out of Egypt, she couldn’t help but wonder if little brother was the right man for the job. It’s hard to let go of the image that we have for one another. Jesus’ family told him to settle down and come home. His townspeople laughed when he came preaching, asking, “is this not the child of Mary?” Miriam, too, had a hard time letting go of her image of little brother, and even as adults wanted to knock him down a peg or two.
But perhaps the image that stands out most to me in the story of Miriam is the day that the people of God escaped the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Moses stood with his hands raised, staff holding back the waters. And Miriam led the dance. Playing her drum and leading the musicians, Miriam led the people of God, singing, playing, dancing their way to safety. To freedom. To new life.
Just like Pollye Ann Tolbert, she showed the people of God what it meant to live the life that God intended. A life of freedom and hope. Today, Pollye Ann leads the dance of heaven alongside of Miriam and all of the Great Cloud of Mothers in our lives.
Living and gone, let us give thanks to those who have given us life, given us identity, protected us, and give us hope. In these uncertain days, let us look to the Great Cloud of Mothers who guide and protect us. Who remind us that we are surrounded by love.