“Who? The female slave behind the handmill? Who the hell is that? And how could her life or the life of her firstborn be of any concern to me?”
Pharaoh is yelling at Moses, who is insisting—one last time—that his people the Israelites be allowed to leave their slavery in Egypt and become a free people. Before this, the Book of Exodus tells us that God had struck Egypt with a number of plagues to demonstrate God’s power and to convince the Pharaoh that he must allow the Israelite slaves to go free. But Pharaoh had remained adamant.
Now, in Exodus 11, Moses warns that the final plague will be the most disastrous. I have to confess here that I’m always a bit ill-at-ease when reading about the plagues God sent on the Egyptians. Aware as I am that the story of the plagues was recorded centuries later, and that the story is highly dramatized and the events interpreted to underscore the marvel of God’s deliverance of the Israelites, I still find the stories disturbing and difficult. Recently, however, as I was reading of the last plague, I was struck (no pun intended!) by something I really had never seen before.
There is Moses, standing before Pharaoh to announce God’s final judgment, should Pharaoh not relent. “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die,” he says. A pause. And then Moses very dramatically goes on to describe the judgment in graphic detail, naming specifically those who will die. First, “the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne.” Pharaoh’s face turns ashen white. His hope for the future of his dynasty? This cannot happen. This must not happen! But Pharaoh has no chance to sputter his anger, for Moses is still talking. Also “the female slave who is behind the handmill.” And Pharaoh’s face goes completely blank. “Who? The female slave behind the handmill? Who the hell is that? And how could her life or the life of her firstborn be of any concern to me?”
The Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He and his family are important. His powerful buddies are important. But the female slave behind the handmill? Why should he concern himself with her or with how his decisions will affect her life? But God mentions the Pharaoh and the “female slave who is behind the handmill” in the very same breath. To God, both are people of equal import and value. Both are to be considered when Pharaoh makes his decision about the Israelites leaving or not leaving Egypt.
The incident speaks across the centuries to us today as we approach yet another Thanksgiving. We do not have the power of the Pharaoh, to be sure, but nevertheless, in our global society, so many of our decisions do affect, not just us and those closest to us, but also the many handmill people of our day. Our decisions about how we vote, for example. Which politicians will care about the handmill people of the world? And which will be more like the Pharaoh and simply brush aside their lives and their concerns? Our decisions, too, about what we purchase and where we purchase it, about how we spend our time, about how we pray—all of these affect the women who labor in unsafe garment factories in developing countries. The men who pick our tea leaves and our coffee beans on often treacherous terrain. The children who scrounge garbage heaps near their favelas in South America or in the slums of India.
God’s word to Pharaoh reminds us that we stand on level ground in God’s eyes with all the people who churn the handmills of our world. Reminds us that in each decision in our lives, God would have us keep them in mind and ever be concerned about how our choices might affect their lives.
So as we gather around our Thanksgiving tables this year, perhaps we might invite the female slave behind the handmill to sit with us. Let ourselves become more deeply aware of God’s deep concern for her. Determine anew to share with her more of the bounty for which we will be giving thanks.