Where Is God?

In the first chapter of Exodus, God is not mentioned at all until the seventeenth verse–nearly the end of the chapter.   Through the account of Israel’s explosive growth in Egypt, God does not appear.

Through the changing of power in Egypt, as a new Pharaoh comes to the throne “who didn’t know Joseph” (1:8), God is apparently absent.

Even as this new Pharaoh, in hatred and fear, subjects Israel to unjust enslavement, even as the escalating scale of abuse leads to the first stage of genocide, God does not appear.

To carry out Pharaoh’s racist campaign, born of hatred and fear, to eliminate Israel, he enlists the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as his agents:

When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live (Exod 1:16).


But the midwives disobey, and in their disobedience, we encounter God for the first time in this book.  This first mention of God is indirect: God is experienced through the faith of the midwives, who would not do as Pharaoh commanded because they “respected [the Hebrew might be better translated “feared”] God” (Exod 1:17).  Given God’s absence in the narrative to this point, we might think that they should better fear Pharaoh–but no!  Shiphrah and Puah revere God, despite God’s apparent absence.

Of course, even as dim a bulb as Pharaoh appears to be in this story is bound to notice that more and more Hebrew boys keep turning up!  He summons the midwives to explain themselves:

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them” (Exod 1:19).

Cleverly playing off of Pharaoh’s prejudices, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie they know he will be likely to accept: those Hebrews breed like animals; their brutish women don’t even need midwives.  Foolish Pharaoh believes them, and Israel’s baby boys are saved.

Now, for the first time in Exodus, God is said to do something!  God performs a double act of blessing.  First, this initial attempt of Pharaoh to eliminate Israel is not only routed, but reversed: “So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong” (Exod 1:20). Pharaoh will find another solution, and God will provide a more lasting counter–one that liberates his people completely from Egyptian oppression. But for now, because of the midwives’ courage and cleverness, people Israel continue to flourish.

Second, as for Shiphrah and Puah, “because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21).  The Hebrew is waya’as lahem batim: literally, “he made for them houses.”  The implication is not simply that, as the NRSV reads, God “gave them families.” Rather, God has made these two Hebrew women the heads of clans!  There were families in Israel, this story claims, who traced themselves back, not to a man, but to a woman: to Shiphrah, and to Puah.

Why retell this ancient story today?  In part, because today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a day of savagery that left 800,000 people slaughtered–many hacked to death with machetes.  Today, Rwandans gathered to remember, to mourn, and to declare that the world must never let this happen again.

Events like the slaughter in Rwanda, like the ongoing slaughter today in Syria, force any believer in a loving God to ask where God is to be found in such horrors.  Yet the first chapter of Exodus reveals that this is not by any means a new question.  Surely it is no accident that, through the story of the beginning of Israel’s oppression, enslavement, and attempted genocide at Pharaoh’s hand, God is nowhere to be found.  Nowhere, that is, except in the faith of the midwives, who choose to live as though God, not Pharaoh, is in command.  Somehow, for Shiphrah and Puah, God’s presence is experienced precisely at the point of God’s absence.

Another reason to tell this story today is that we are approaching the end of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week–the remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering and death that culminates, for believers, in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Easter morning.  In the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ identity is acclaimed in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son”  But the reader waits in vain for someone within the story to catch on, and echo this confession.

Even when Peter confesses, at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), the following verses make plain how little he understands his own confession:

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:31-33).

Only at the end of Mark, when Jesus is hanging dead from the cross, does anyone at last understand who he is: “When the centurion [the Roman officer who oversaw Jesus’ execution], who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘This man was certainly God’s Son’” (Mark 15:39).  In Mark, the seal of God’s presence in Christ is not Jesus’ miracles, or his authoritative teaching, but his cross–where God seems most absent, where the dying Jesus himself cries, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his haunting memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, remembers his youth in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his mother, father and sister died.  Wiesel tells of the execution of a young boy, beloved by everyone in the camp.  The boy was hanged, and as he struggled and died the inmates were forced to file by and watch.  Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask again and again, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:   ‘Where is He?  Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (Night [Avon, 1960], p. 76).

Christian writer François Mauriac writes, in his forward to this memoir, of meeting Wiesel:

 And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day on the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the  Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?  Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? . . . All is grace.  If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to him.  This is what I should have told this Jewish child.  But I could only embrace him, weeping (Night, pp. 10-11).

In his anguish, Wiesel was more right than he knew.  God was there, on the gallows.  The good news of Scripture is that God is most present where God seems most absent: in the slave pens of Egypt, on the gallows at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Rwanda—or on the cross of Calvary.