Several years ago I was asked to teach a class on women of the Bible through a program at the local university. After coming up with my list the various figures whose stories I wanted to share, I came up with a title for the course: “Matriarchs, Harlots and Queens.” And, truly, many of the notable women in scripture fall into one or more of these categories. But there are others, many others, some of them nameless, who left their imprint on the biblical testimony about God’s relationship with humanity. Today we will look at just three. These particular women are not royalty, they are not notorious, and they are not known as mothers. Two of them are working women, helping new life into the world as midwives. One of them is a little girl. Between them they embody a radical ethic of justice and love that goes to the heart of what it means to be a faithful human being in this world, faithful even in dark and difficult times.
We are back in that same lush river valley where we were last week, the one that ran through a desert. Indeed, we’re back in that same splendid palace. Only, now a cold wind of hostility is blowing through the land, and Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel, the Hebrews, are on the receiving end of it. Joseph is dead, and another Pharaoh, one who doesn’t know any “Joseph,” is in power. He goes to his people and gives them his thoughts. The English translation doesn’t quite catch the flavor of the words he uses, but he speaks of the people of Israel with words used to describe vermin, infestations, swarms.
One writer summarizes the Pharaoh’s talking points this way:
A tempting political strategy for new leaders, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Nazi Hitler, involves trying to solidify power by singling out a relatively weak minority or outsider group and calling them an enemy. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity. In Exodus 1, Pharaoh singles out the rapidly expanding Hebrew minority as an emerging threat. What Genesis describes as God's faithfulness in blessing the Israelites through many descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 28:1-4; Exodus 1:7), Pharaoh describes as a terroristic threat that may endanger Egypt's security and way of life. There is no hint in the biblical narrative that the Israelites are anything but good, faithful citizens of the empire. Yet the delusional Pharaoh imagines that the growing but still small Israelite minority in Egypt is more numerous and more powerful than we. He warns the Egyptians that in the event of war the Israelites might join our enemies and fight against us.[i]
The Pharaoh has a simple approach to his dilemma. First, he enslaves the people—places them into forced labor, building cities, perhaps even the pyramids. But the Israelites are a hardy bunch—they thrive, they grow stronger, and they grow even more numerous. The Pharaoh’s plan moves on to its next phase: ethnic cleansing, beginning with those who are literally the weakest and most vulnerable: newborn babies, specifically, baby boys. They’re the ones who might grow up to be fighters, after all. He summons those two women, the midwives, and we are given their names. This is somewhat astonishing. Women only have about a one in six chance of being mentioned specifically in the biblical narrative, and even when mentioned, they are frequently not named—think of Noah’s wife, the Samaritan woman at the well. But these two women, toiling in what is probably the real “oldest profession,” are named. They are Shiphrah and Puah, semitic names meaning “fair one” and “splendid one.”
I love the image conjured up by the Pharoah calling the midwives to give them their instructions. Again, the man with all the power, supposedly, in the lavish palace, is confronted by the humblest members of the society, those with no power, supposedly. Here are the Pharaoh’s exact instructions to the midwives: “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” [Exodus 1:16]. These women whose lives revolve around bringing forth life are expected to be agents of death.
They leave his presence and go about their business. But we are given crucial information about them: they fear God. And that, as scripture tells us again and again, is the beginning of real wisdom—not “fear” as in cowering in terror, something the Pharaoh would clearly like to inspire in his subjects. “Fear” as in awe-inspired respect and worship. And this tells us what the true balance of power is here. It’s early in Exodus. But the writer has tipped his hand to us, revealed what will be the theme of each and every one of its 40 chapters: the power of the God of Israel, again and again.
The women do not kill the Hebrew boys. And when the Pharaoh calls them on the carpet to inquire why this is so, they blink and demur and cock their heads and say, “Why, sir Pharaoh, the Hebrew women are just so darned hardy and strong. By the time we get there the babies are born and the women are back in the fields and the quarries doing the work you have given them to do.”
There is a term for these women, there is a category in literature and folk tale for the role that they have assumed. They are “tricksters.” Tricksters are known for upsetting power dynamics, for tweaking and thwarting the wills of the mighty, for being mischievous, for telling the truth. Emily Dickinson’s little gem of a poem captures something of the trickster’s way. She writes,
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Shiphrah and Puah knows that “success in circuit lies…,” that their best chance of saving the Hebrew boys is not to confront Pharaoh directly, but to appear to cooperate while doing what they know is right, allowing the truth to dawn on the ruler in a roundabout way. This is the trickster way. And clearly, in Exodus, for these women, in this moment, it is God’s way.
Can you imagine circumstances in which you would adopt the strategy of the trickster? Is there more than one way to “speak truth to power”? What does it mean to persevere in the face of suffering and struggle?
The midwives’ act of resistance has enormous consequences. One of the children saved by their intervention is a boy named Moses. Like many families who were terrified of their children being slaughtered, Moses’ mother hid him for a time, and when hiding him became impossible, she did something it is hard for most of us to imagine: she procured a little basket for him, made it watertight, and placed it in the high reeds by the river. Was it purely by chance that she placed it in the path of the daughter of the Pharaoh? Or did she know, with a protective mother’s intuition, that there would be no safer place for her son than right under Pharaoh’s nose?
But it is not the mother of Moses I want to talk about, though her motivations and actions are fascinating. It is his sister. This quiet child, whose name we do not yet know, stood at a distance, “to see what would happen to him.” She is just a little girl, standing vigil near the brother whose life she knows is in danger. And when the daughter of the Pharaoh comes to bathe in the Nile, trailing her gold and silks, with her retinue in attendance, the little girl waits, and watches, and when she knows the woman’s heart has been moved to save this otherwise doomed baby boy, she makes her move. And a little of the trickster lives in this child, who manages to bring her brother back into the family home, complete with a stipend for her mother to act as nurse to her own son. And in doing this, she too steps into the stream of God’s radical, power-disrupting plan for the descendants of Jacob.
Exodus is about the power of God. But it is also about the unexpected power that can be found in those who appear to be powerless. The power of refusing to take part in evil plans. The power of standing with the oppressed rather than becoming an oppressor. The power, even, of quietly going about your own work, the work you have been given to do, with determination and perseverance. The unexpected power that is found in the quiet act of simply standing vigil. Standing by. Watching to see what might happen, waiting until we are needed. And we can do these things even when we are powerless, faced with overwhelming odds and obstacles.
We don’t need to be Pharaohs to do these things. We don’t need to be presidents or city councilmen or clerks of session. We don’t need to be the one in charge. These simple actions, these small acts of courage and watchfulness yield enormous consequences, not despite the fact that we are not powerful. Because we are not powerful. Because we do them in faith, with reliance on God’s power. We do small things with great love,[ii] and they open a path for God’s powerful justice. We do small things with great love, and they allow us to participate in God’s powerful saving love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Dennis Olson, Exodus 1:8-2:10, “Commentary on Alternate First Reading,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=8/24/2008&tab=2.
[ii] Mother Teresa of Calcutta.