Our faith story tells us that, even when all seems lost, God is still at work in the world, bringing about new life, that God is still at work in the world bringing about healing and wholeness, and that systems based on fear, oppression, and death will not have the last word.
June 20, 2021
Shiphrah and Puah
Pastor Heather McColl
Exodus 1 (Common English Version)
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews[a] you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
I know it seems odd to be talking about midwives on Father’s Day but I figured they are connected to and instrumental to the story of Moses, one of the fathers of Judaism. I also figured it would be alright to tell their story because without Shiphrah and Puah’s brave actions, Moses might not have been around to lead the Israelites through the wilderness and we would not have an appreciation for Moses’ leadership in shaping the identity of the people of God. This is another story that we are featuring in our “Faces of Our Faith: Bold and Untold Stories” worship series.
Shiphrah and Puah Exodus 1, their names mean “beautiful” and “splendid, something we miss because most of us within the Christian tradition don’t read Hebrew. But I think the better reason we miss their names is because we skip over these first few verses of Exodus, anxious to start Moses’ story, forgetting that again, it is all connected. We cannot have one without the other.
So I invite us to spend a little with the first few verses of our text because it describes a pivotal moment in Israelite history.
In the very first line of our narrative, the author clues us in that God is indeed fulfilling the promise given to Abraham. After years of famine, family fighting, and moving from one place to another, it looks like things are finally falling into place for the people of Israel. But before we can even take a deep sigh of relief, the author tells us that “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Given the years between Joseph’s time of service and the point in which our story starts, this is no surprise. A whole generation has passed. But that is not the point of this statement. The author wants us to know that the collective memory is gone, the narrative of how Joseph saved the Egyptians is forgotten, the life giving connection between the Egyptians and Hebrews is no more. It is not just that the Pharaoh does not know Joseph. He was either never told, something which seems unlikely given how significant oral tradition is to people at this time. Or he is intentionally ignoring the connection, intentionally ignoring how the Egyptian and Hebrew stories of life are intertwined. He is intentionally using fear of the supposed “other” to strengthen his rule.
We learn in our text that Pharaoh tells his people that he fears the Israelites because they are more numerous and more powerful than we are.
Now stop for a minute and think about that statement. The Pharaoh is the most powerful person at that time and yet the Israelites scare him. Again this is another clue. These are hypothetical reasons for his fear, that they may increase and in case of war, go against the Egyptians. What the Pharaoh is really doing when he makes this statement is using fear to stir up trouble. The Pharaoh uses fear of the unknown to put actions into place which will guarantee his survival, which will give him more power and might. The Pharaoh is using fear of the other to solidify his rule while giving him permission to ignore the call to care for the least of these. What we see in our text is the Pharaoh using the narrative of fear of the other to begin building systems, systems which will oppress people based on their ethnicity and color of skin. And the kicker of it is–no one is challenging these decisions. No one is asking why the Pharaoh is doing what he is doing. They are simply going along with it because the Pharaoh’s actions do not affect them. Everyone goes along with the Pharaoh’s illogical, crazy, unfounded actions because it is easier to maintain the status quo than to speak out against the injustices they see in their midst.
The author wants us to realize that by intentionally ignoring the life giving connection between the Egyptians and the Israelites, Pharaoh is enacting an age-old story of how power and might continues to take and take. By ramping up the people’s fear of the supposed other, the Pharaoh is creating chaos in the world.
The author sets up this contrast between the actions of the Pharaoh and the actions of God because he wants us to see, to experience, to know that the fear of the “other” goes against the very heart of the Kingdom of God.
Of course this could be the end of our story. We have seen it before. The rich getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. The insatiable hunger for power driving the ways of culture and society. That is until someone, until people speak up and name the hurt, the brokenness, the injustices which are destroying all that God called good.
Which is exactly what happens in our story. Our story pivots. It transforms. In our story, even when all seems lost, the author wants us to know that God is still at work in the world, bringing about new life, that God is still at work in the world bringing about healing and wholeness, that God is still at work in the world and that systems based on fear, oppression, and death will not have the last word.
We are told of two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. They only are mentioned for a few verses but these two midwives become “agents of God’s promise. They stretch [us as readers] toward a proper response to oppression. They stretch us as readers towards the need for courage to do justice, to bring about transformation regardless of position.
These often overlooked midwives show us that our courage to do the difficult work of justice-making relies heavily on us being open to where God’s Spirit is moving in and among us.
“These midwives, these lowest of the low status women who likely had no husbands, who were simply glorified servants, who themselves may have been deemed infertile and therefore considered useless to the system, risk everything to say no. Through this simple but mighty act, they change the course of history so that many, many years later, another baby boy born into a dark world of genocide might also survive and flourish and grow up to redeem the world.”
Or let me say it this way… as people of faith, we could easily say this is a nice story but it would never happen today. Pharaohs are things of the past. Yet, sadly, when we take a look around at our communities, our nation, our world, we realize that the age old story of power and might destroying the world still exists today. Leaders in all nations play on the same fear of others. They cultivate the same system of oppression, Leaders in all nations put policies in place which enact the same devaluation of people which the Israelites experienced in our text all those years ago.
Stories of border walls being built to keep out “others.” Restricted voting laws are being used to make it harder for minorities to vote. Narratives of welfare queens and lazy people are being used to prop up stereotypes and labels. Racism, sexism, genderism, homophobia—all these things are part of the narrative which fears the “other.”
This way of greed, this way of power, this way of using and abusing is not what God intended when God created the world and called it good. It is not what God intended when God called us into community. It is not what God intended with God created us and claimed us as Beloved Children of God. It is not what God intended when God entered into a covenantal relationship with us.
As people of faith, like Shiphrah and Puah Exodus 1, we are called to change the story, to reframe the narrative, to tell a different story. We are called to do away with the story of death and destruction. We are called to tell the powerful story of God’s love. We are called to pay attention, to speak up for those who are not allowed to speak. We are called to change the course of history so that all may know the grace and love of God. We are called to be open to where the Spirit of God is moving in and among us so that we can truly become a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. May it be so.