When I was pregnant with my son Isaac, I spent a great deal of time worrying about the labor and delivery process. I’d never birthed a baby before so I was scared about all the potential complications and the interventions that might be imposed on me by a medical team that didn’t really know me. There was some comfort in knowing Adam would be there, but he hadn’t birthed a baby before either! I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d lost by not having midwives and doulas present during this most sacred occasion – women you knew, women who had seen many births before, women who had birthed babies themselves, women who would gather around you and encourage you and see you through the other side of this holy moment. Though she has many wonderful qualities, my mother was no help in this department. At the slightest suggestion of her own daughter being in pain, she would turn and run! We eventually hired a doula named Karissa to accompany us during our hospital birth. While I had not known Karissa long, she took the time to get to know Adam and me –who we were, what we cared about, what was important to us in the birthing process. I learned to trust her, and her presence with us during my labor and delivery made a huge difference in my confidence and my ability to persevere in one of my most painful and joyful moments. She had a powerful role in helping us bring life into the world. Midwives and doulas have historically been the ones who have stood in the sacred space of bringing babies into the world. In our text for today, Shiphrah and Puah are two Hebrew midwives who helped bring Hebrew babies into the world. Because of them, the children of Israel lived through a perilous time, and one of the Hebrew babies they helped bring into the world would eventually help the people of Israel escape the Egyptian Empire.
Shiphrah and Puah were in the business of bringing babies into the world during a particularly difficult time in the history of the people of Israel. A new king had risen to power, a pharaoh who knew not Joseph. Joseph had once had the favor of the ruling class in Egypt. He secured a place of prominence when he interpreted a dream that Pharaoh had about seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and then he subsequently came up with a plan to not only survive the years of famine but to make the rest of the world depend on them for survival as well. When Joseph was established, Israel had no reason to fear, for Joseph ensured they would thrive as a people. But after the death of Joseph, the state commitments to the people of Israel were abandoned. The new king of Egypt knows not Joseph, and therefore does not care for the people of Israel or their God.
This new king not only does not care for the people of Israel, he is afraid of them. He believes they are more powerful and numerous than the Egyptians. He was afraid they would fight against them on the side of their enemies in the event of war; he was terribly afraid they would escape leaving him without cheap labor to run his empire; he was afraid he would lose control over their bodies, bodies that were being abused for his benefit. His fear leads him to implement a forced labor policy. He put ruthless, task masters in charge of them. He had them build supply cities to store up food, food that they did not have access to. And yet, the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they multiplied. God was continuing to keep God’s promise of making the descendants of Abraham as numerous as the stars.
Since Plan A wasn’t working, Pharaoh decided to move on to Plan B. Plan B was to command the Hebrew midwives to turn against their own people and to do the very opposite of what they had been trained and felt called to do. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys when they caught them on the birthing stool. Perhaps, Pharaoh thought that doing it this way would make it look like all the boys were stillborn. As Zora Neale Hurston says, “The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh…Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law.”[i] The midwives had a tent meeting and talked about what Pharaoh might do to them if they didn’t obey his orders. They couldn’t imagine the horror of murdering the very children they were tasked to help bring into this life. They also couldn’t imagine the horror of being held accountable to God for their actions. The midwives ultimately decided that they feared God more than they feared any pharaoh, even this particularly brutal Pharaoh who was currently sitting on Egypt’s throne, so they let the boys live. Dana Smith, in her poem, imagines how the midwives felt and how they had the clarity to carry on; she writes:
We walked. Our birthing
with the fire of far
horizons. Our stools
battered. We’d long since
learned to squat for hours.
To bleed attention into the quick
breath of a slim-hipped
girl. We let time slip
under our skirts until
we billowed. Our minds
steeped in women’s cries.
Worn by pure exhaustion…
we were raw
with tending life.
How could Pharaoh’s
death-threats touch us
when we touched the dark
strong thighs of the lion
of Judah’s women?
Had he come near
our womb’s waters
we would have snapped
his spine, a wishbone
for our fingers. Which words
of his could make
a desert flower?
Those women commanded us
with an arched back, a raised
The best part of this story is their cunning response to Pharaoh. When he realizes they have disobeyed his orders, he summons them, and they tell him that they simply cannot follow through with his command because the Hebrew women are more vigorous than Egyptian women and have the babies before the midwives arrive! In a brave and defiant move, they answer him dishonestly in order to subvert the empire. They resist the master in order to honor God.
You’d think that Pharaoh would run out of tactics, but rest assure there is no end to the brutal policies of the world’s empires. Now Pharaoh is getting more anxious; he feels more out of control of his subjects so he decides to move to his last resort, Plan C. Now his appeal will be to all people, not just the Hebrew midwives. All Hebrew baby boys are to be thrown into the Nile. The creative resistance of the Hebrew women continues. One day a baby is born, and his mom hides him for three months. It becomes harder and harder to hide him so she puts him in the Nile as the king commanded, but in a cunning tactic, she puts him in a basket that she has water-proofed and puts him in the water near the bank of the river, the bank where Pharaoh’s daughter will be bathing. Did the mother plan it this way? The mother sends her daughter along to watch to see what happens to her son. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby in the basket, and she is moved to compassion. But she does more than feel compassion towards him, she too engages in acts of resistance toward her own father’s empire. The baby’s sister is cunning, too. When she sees that the princess has discovered her brother, she asks the princess if she wants her to go get someone from among the Hebrew women to nurse him. So she goes and gets the baby’s very own mother, and the princess pays her to take care of her own child! Talk about ingenuity. Talk about wisdom. Talk about cunning tactics to subvert the empire. These women are masterful at resisting the master. The irony is that Pharaoh didn’t think the women were dangerous enough to be killed, and yet it is because of them that the people of Israel survive! The baby is raised by his mother, funded by Pharaoh’s bank account, taught the values of the people of Israel, and when he grows up, he gets placed in a prominent place of power in the Egyptian court. He is given the name, Moses, a royal Egyptian name. Moses will eventually help the entire people of Israel escape the Nile as he did when he was a baby…all because the Hebrew midwives and the other Hebrew women were brave enough to resist the master.
All throughout this text the people of Israel are forced to answer the question: Who will you serve? Their whole lives were bound by the Egyptian empire. They were commanded to serve master Pharaoh and to help him ensure his death-dealing ways. But the Hebrew midwives and the Hebrew women chose to serve God, rather than Pharaoh, even when it meant putting their own lives at risk. They were faithful to God. They creatively made a way when it looked like there was no way forward. They used their imagination to resist the master and to let the children of God live.
The time of the American Civil War sounds eerily similar to the time of the new Pharaoh who rose to power who knew not Joseph. During the American Civil War and the years leading up to the war, there was a great fear of the other, of the enslaved. There was a great fear of the slaves escaping and what their escape might mean for the economy, what would happen when plantation owners no longer benefited from cheap labor. In response to the brutality of slaveholders, the Underground Railroad emerged as one of the most creative acts of civil disobedience in our nation’s history. The fear and anger that arose because of this act of civil disobedience was a direct, contributing cause of the Civil War. As the war raged on and laws became even more oppressive, many women chose to creatively resist in spite of what it might cost them.
Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. After escaping to freedom herself, she put herself in danger over and over again in order to lead hundreds of slaves from the plantation system to freedom on this elaborate network of secret and safe houses. In 1850, as the fear of those in power escalated, they passed yet another oppressive law, the Fugitive Slave Law, that stated that even if slaves made it to the North, they should be captured and returned to slavery. In another creative act of resistance, Tubman rerouted the Underground Railroad to Canada in order to keep slaves from being recaptured. Because of the enormous amount of slaves she was able to help lead to freedom, Tubman earned the nickname, “Moses,” though she could have also been called Shiphrah or Puah. Harriet Tubman resisted the master and let the children of God live.
The American empire has continued to rear its oppressive head over the years. During the Civil Rights Movement, many women found ways to creatively resist. One of those women was Rosa Parks. Often when we tell the story of Rosa Parks, we tell the story as if she were just sick and tired of being told she had to give up her seat for white people and just got angry one day and refused to get up. But Rosa’s refusal to get up was an action she took because she was well trained in civil disobedience. Her act of civil disobedience lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that lasted 381 days and was a major event in the movement. Parks was a faithful Christian who went to church her whole life and her act of civil disobedience was grounded in the stories of her faith, the stories of our scripture. She once said: “From my upbringing and the Bible I learned people should stand up for rights, just as the children of Israel stood up to the Pharaoh.”[iii] Rosa Parks resisted the master and let the children of God live.
We too live in an empire that has been built on the backs of slaves, slaves that worked with brick and mortar, just like Pharaoh’s slaves did. It’s harder to see who’s on what side in our empire though because many of our leaders pretend to know Joseph, pretend to know the God of Israel. The fear of the other is high, particularly the other who has been marginalized. We are faced with the same question the Hebrew midwives were faced with: Who will we serve? Will we obey Pharaoh’s commands or God’s commands? Will we submit to Pharaoh’s death-dealing ways by going along with the status quo? Or will we, like the Hebrew midwives, resist the master and let the children live? In our current tension filled environment, those of us who are privileged are tempted to allow our vision to be distorted, to think we are subject to the commands of our leaders more than we are subject to the commands of God. But when the commands of our world are contrary to the commands of God, we must be as creative and as cunning as the Hebrew midwives – Shiphrah and Puah, in developing civil disobedience tactics.
It’s easier to have clarity about what’s right and wrong when we look back on history. We know now that Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are heroes, that their acts of resistance were faithful. But when we are dealing with oppression in the present day, those of us who are privileged, those of us who aren’t directly harmed, have a hard time naming the evil in our midst. Draw the parallels; they are becoming more and more obvious. The American Empire is once again rearing its ugly, oppressive head. The fear of the other, the stranger, the marginalized is high. Americans are chanting right along with Pharaoh, “Look, they are becoming more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them. They will not replace us.” Will we resist the master and let the children of God live? Will we outsmart the master and let the children of God thrive? Will we be cunning and smart and let the children of God experience goodness and wholeness?
Shiphrah and Puah’s decision to disobey the king lead to the freedom of the entire people of Israel. When they decided to disobey the king in order to obey God, they didn’t know the ending to the story. When Moses’ mother and sister and the princess worked out a plan to let Moses live, they didn’t know the ending to the story. When Harriet Tubman decided to disobey the law in order to obey God, she didn’t know the ending to the story. When Rosa Parks decided to disobey the law and the bus driver, she didn’t know the ending to the story. But one thing was clear to all of these women: they would serve God even when it meant refusing to go along with the laws, rulers, and powers of this world.
All of God’s people are called to find ways to be faithful by creatively resisting the powers of this world, when those powers go against what God desires for God’s children and God’s creation. We are to serve God, and when the leaders and laws of our world go against God’s commands, we are to disobey them. We must refuse to participate in the systems of oppression. We must resist the master, and let the children of God live. When whiteness, like Pharaoh, trembles with fear, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When laws, court systems, and judges favor those in power, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When people of color continue to get pigeon-holed into work all too similar to forced labor and fast-tracked to prison, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When hate speech is condoned by the king of our land, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When a blind eye is turned to violence because there was a permit, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When LGBTQ persons continue to face blatant hate and systemic discrimination, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When healthcare plans become political strategies instead of programs designed to make people well, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When we continue to spend our energy and resources trying wall ourselves off from the other, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When our system continues to perpetuate the poor staying poor and the rich getting richer, resist the master, and let the children of God live. When we get asked by the powers of this world – “Why have you done this, and allowed the children to live?” – may our answers be as wise and as cunning as Shiphrah’s and Puah’s answer. May our answer be that we fear God and not the empire. May our answer be that we are laboring with God to bring the kingdom into this world.
[i] As quoted by Walter Brueggemann in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, 698.
[ii] Dana Littlepage Smith, Women Clothed with the Sun: Poems.