The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40

Some regard the story as unreliable, but I argued in an article in 2008 that we have good reason to believe that the account is in fact reliable. I also worked some with cultural background about this passage.

The article is available for download or reading here (Andrews University Press):

http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol46/iss1/1/

YOU’re a minister (77 seconds)

Ephesians 4:11-13

77-second video (or if you’d rather read, the text follows):

In Ephesians 4:11-13, the job of ministers of the Word is to equip the rest of Christ’s body for the work of the ministry. We believers are all Christ’s body, all called to ministry. We each have special gifts and special doors for ministry. It is you whom God positioned strategically to reach your neighborhood, your school, your place of employment, perhaps for local prisons, nursing homes or other venues. You are responsible for those God placed in your path. 95 percent of the work of Christ’s body will never get done if we are depending on just 5 percent of the members to do it. We can’t neglect work or family, but if we have to neglect some pastimes for ministry, we will be trading merely momentary pleasures for making an eternal difference. If you are Jesus’s follower, you are a member of Christ’s body. Ask God where you can make a greater difference around you. God can and will use you.

Beating a tyrant at his own game—Exodus 1:15-22

The unscrupulous Pharaoh, determining to act shrewdly (NRSV, ESV) with God’s people, planned to kill their infants through the Hebrews’ own midwives. The chief midwives, however, prove shrewder than he, delaying Pharaoh’s extermination policy and so in the meantime saving the lives of many babies.

That Exodus names the midwives but leaves the Pharaoh anonymous (much to the chagrin of modern critics wanting to date the exodus) may say something about God’s priorities. Indeed, women, who usually lacked political power (though there were exceptions in Egypt), subvert Pharaoh’s purposes at every turn. As the Jewish Exodus commentator Nahum Sarna observes, God works through the female characters in the narrative, most of them seemingly in the background of the main action, to preserve the future deliverer: the midwives; Moses’s mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter; and finally the Midianite priest’s daughters who provide Moses’s connection with a place of refuge.

Because of the posture in which women gave birth on the “stones” that functioned as birth stools, the midwives could have killed some of the babies and pretended that they were simply stillborn. Midwives were positioned beneath the birthing mother to catch the baby when it emerged; they would immediately see the gender and could twist the neck without the mother seeing the action (although this would be impossible when other women were present, and a pattern of male “stillbirths” would quickly arouse suspicion).

Because Hebrew men could practice polygamy, killing male babies was not so much a long-term population deterrent as it was meant to prevent the Israelites from being strong enough to strike the Egyptians in battle in the rising generation (Exod 1:10). Pharaoh may have been concerned with a particular external threat on the horizon at that time. Using Hebrews to kill Hebrews (1:15-16) also minimizes potential repercussions for Pharaoh at this point (just like the later Roman and British empires often ruled through local elites).

Given Pharaoh’s power and his obvious willingness to exercise deadly force, the midwives were courageous to disobey Pharaoh’s decree. They disobeyed because they feared God (1:17)—a valuable deterrent against wrongdoing, and sometimes the only deterrent against wrongdoing in which one cannot get humanly caught.

Yet they were also not suicidal; they were cunning enough to offer Pharaoh a plausible explanation as to why they failed to execute his orders. Physically strong women could sometimes give birth quickly. For example, although it was surely very difficult on them physically, we read of some African-American slave women who gave birth in the field where they were working and then went back to work. Given the large number of Israelites (however we interpret the exact numbers), it is not hard to imagine that the midwives would have trouble reaching many women giving birth in Goshen if they gave birth quickly.

How could Pharaoh respond to them? He had already claimed that the Israelites were stronger than the Egyptians (1:9, though he meant this more numerically). If Hebrew women were especially strong, it was probably because Pharaoh himself was working the Israelites so hard (either all of them, or the men who therefore left more work at home for the women). Pharaoh may have suspected that they were lying, but if he chose to execute and replace the midwives, this would openly reveal his complicity in any subsequent infant deaths at the hands of new midwives. This means that if he wants to do away with Hebrew babies, he is going to have to do the dirty work himself and not expect Hebrews to do it for him (1:22). Ironically, the midwives’ claim that the Hebrew women differed from Egyptian women may portend the coming difference that God will make between Israel and the Egyptians (9:4; 11:7).

Yet the midwives are plainly lying. Exodus declares that they did not obey Pharaoh (1:17). God blessed the midwives not for lying but for refusing to kill the children; yet they would not have been alive to bless had they defied Pharaoh more openly instead of lying. God did not punish them for lying under these circumstances. Because the midwives acted from the fear of God rather than Pharaoh, God blessed them with families (1:21); they refused to harm others’ children, so God gave them their own.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Be fruitful, multiply—and expect opposition—Exodus 1:8-14

Although being fruitful and multiplying (Exod 1:7) is a good thing, it can also provoke opposition from those who wrongly feel us threatening. Instead of treating Joseph’s benevolent legacy as a blessing for Egypt, a new Pharaoh was about to persecute Joseph’s people. Joseph had great favor with the Pharaoh of his day, but eventually a new Pharaoh, and probably a new dynasty of Pharaohs, arose who did not know Joseph or care about his legacy. Joseph had amassed grain in cities to provide for Egypt in the time of need (Gen 41:35, 49), but this new Pharaoh, forgetting Joseph’s benevolence, forces the Israelites to build “storage cities” (Exod 1:11; what the Hebrew designation seems to mean elsewhere).

If Joseph entered Egypt in the time of, or was otherwise somehow associated with. the Asian Hyksos dynasty, the later Egyptian reaction against the Hyksos would have carried over into a reaction against the Israelites. The fear that the Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies in a war would make some sense after the Hyskos were driven out, since they, like the Israelites, were from Asia.

Verse 7 says that the Israelites became very, very strong; in verse 9 the new Pharaoh warns that the Israelite people had become stronger than his own people. (God had promised to make Israel a mighty nation, Gen 18:18; later another enemy fears that Israel is too mighty, Num 22:6; and God promises to drive out mightier nations before Israel, Deut 4:38; 7:1; 9:1; 11:23.) Pharaoh thus wants to repress them, lest they multiply, fight the Egyptians, and go up from the land (Exod 1:10). The divine irony is that Israelites were already multiplying, the repression multiplied them still more (1:12), and that God would fight the repressers and take Israel up from the land.

The term for Israel “joining” Egypt’s enemies in 1:10 is the same root [ysf] for “Joseph” and might constitute a play on words. The term for the masters “oppressing” the Israelites in 1:11-12 (what God had predicted for Israel in Gen 15:13) does not appear again in Exodus until Exod 10:3—where the Lord demands that Pharaoh “humble” himself before the Lord. Israel suffered because Pharaoh imposed “servitude” on them (Exod 1:14; cf. the same term in 2:23; 5:9; 6:6, 9); but God exchanged that servitude for a better one, the service or worship of God (using the same term, 12:25-26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1-5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42). That is, the Lord made them his own servants instead of Pharaoh’s. But in contrast to Pharaoh, the Lord did not approve of treating servants ruthlessly (the term for ruthless rule in 1:13-14 appears elsewhere in Scripture only in Lev 25:43, 46, 53; Ezek 34:4).

God was even now preparing a deliverer through whom he would liberate his people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We cannot always see God’s activity in the short term. But while God sometimes works in hidden ways at first, the ultimate future belongs to him.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)