In this week’s passage, we leave the story of the patriarchs of the Jewish nation behind and fast forward nearly four hundred years. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. In a story of “climbing to the top,” Joseph is freed from prison and becomes the pharaoh’s chief advisor and administrator of the land’s resources. When the land falls into severe famine and Joseph is in control of the critical rations the people of the land are dependent on, his brothers show up and beg for Joseph’s mercy. Joseph extends mercy and invites his brothers and their families to come live with him in the land of Goshen where they can tend their flocks and feed their families.
And while these events are in the distant past in today’s story, they stand in the background of what is about to happen. Our story begins with the announcement that a new pharaoh who doesn’t know anything about Joseph has risen to the throne of Egypt. When he looks around, he sees a multitude of Hebrews and panics. The proliferation of the Jewish nation is underway. The Hebrews are told right from the get-go to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), and are promised that they will be a great nation (Genesis17:4-8; 35:11-12). And though that growth takes a while to get going, now that it is going, they are multiplying like rabbits. The proliferation is underway, and the pharaoh is worried.
In his attempt to quell the Hebrew population, pharaoh orders them to be placed under the burden of slavery. But this only seems to intensify the increase of the population. Every time he increases their workload, the Hebrew population increases as well. Finally, in a move of desperation, the pharaoh orders all the Hebrew boys that are born to be killed. That’s where we want to pick up the story.
There are three stages in pharaoh’s attempt to control the population of the Hebrews: 1) the initial imposition of slavery; 2) the amping up of oppression; and 3) the infanticide of Hebrew boys.
But this is a story of no names. We are told that in the midst of these dire straits, a man with no name from the tribe of Levi marries a woman with no name from the tribe of Levi. When the nameless couple has a nameless baby boy, they fear for his life and hide him until they can no longer keep him safely in their home. They set the baby afloat in a basket on the Nile River and ask their nameless daughter to keep an eye on the baby. When the king’s nameless daughter comes to the river to bathe, she sees the basket and recognizes that it is a baby Hebrew boy. The boy’s nameless sister hurriedly offers to find someone to care for the boy and the nameless princess hires the baby boy’s mother to care for him until the boy is old enough to come live in the palace. Eventually, in the story we are told that the baby boy’s name is Moses, who will later lead the Hebrews out of slavery and Egypt. And we learn that Moses’s sister’s name is Miriam, at least if it’s the same sister that works alongside Moses the leader. But in this story, they have no names.
The only people in this story with names are the midwives who assist the Hebrew women in the birth of their children. One midwife is named Shiprah, which means “beauty;” the other midwife is named Puah, which means “girl.” Beauty and Girl are the names of the midwives. To me, those sound like nicknames, names they might have been given by the Hebrew women. But we’ll come back to this in a bit.
Why would it be important that these two women are given names? And who are they? It seems that the author of this story felt that these women should be remembered for generations to come because of their heroic deeds.
In fact, this is a story of women. Only two men are mentioned: the king of Egypt, who appears in the story as halfwitted; and the baby boy’s father, who disappears after he performs his fatherly duties. The rest of the characters are women. The baby boy’s mother who hides him on the river, right in front of the king’s palace, apparently; the baby boy’s sister who quick-wittingly suggests that her mother cares for and nurses the boy until he is weaned; the princess who boldly defies her father’s order to kill all the baby Hebrew boys and brings him right into the palace to be raised as a prince; and of course, Beauty and Girl, the two midwives who make a joke out of the king’s orders. All of them conspire to spare the life of the baby boy, who we know from later on in Exodus will become the deliverer of the Hebrew people. Were it not for the women in this story, Moses would not have survived to become the deliverer.
Because we live in a patriarchal society, we tend to read these passages through a patriarchal lens. However, much of what we know of the human past has been dominated by matriarchal societies.
The earliest figurines we have record of depict women, which implies the importance of women in society. For example, this figure of a woman known as the Venus of Willendorf (see Figure 1), is approximately 24,000 years old. It is the oldest statue known today. Yes, it is an image that reminds us of fertility, but that is precisely why women were held to be sacred and powerful. Life flowed from them as it flowed from the earth. Power, lineage, and life came through women. Even today, many Indigenous societies remain matriarchal. It was not until men had the luxury and leisure that came with agriculture to sit around and conspire that they found ways to wrest power from women and then impose male dominancy upon those societies that did not fit their ideals.
Yes, in this story, women are still wrapped up in a story of fertility: the woman conceives and gives birth, the midwives help bring forth life into the world; the mother nurses the baby; and the princess raises the young boy. But there is another more important part to this story.
This is a story of resistance. Once the pharaoh sees that his strategy of burdening the people with labor only increases the population, he orders the midwives to kill all the baby Hebrew boys when they help the Hebrew women give birth, but he orders them, “If it is a girl, she shall live” (Exodus 1:16). Had pharaoh been smarter, and had he truly been serious about stymying the Hebrew population, he would have reversed his orders and had all the girls killed and let the boys live. That’s a more effective way to go about genocide. But as we will see, this pharaoh was easily duped.
Earlier, I mentioned that Shiprah and Puah might actually be nicknames. Here’s why I say that. Shiprah and Puah are Hebrew names. Yet it appears from the story that these midwives were Egyptian women who were assigned the task of assisting the Hebrew women in the birth of their children. Pharaoh tells them, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrews…,” implying that they also act as midwives to Egyptian women. Later on, the midwives tell the pharaoh that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women…,” implying that they have first-hand experience assisting Egyptian women. The conversation between the pharaoh and the midwives seems to have a confidential tone to it, as though they are speaking from within Egyptian establishment. It’s not hard for me to imagine that if the Egyptian midwives are showing favor to the Hebrew women, the Hebrew women may have given them pet names to express their fondness for the Egyptian midwives, and these would have been Hebrew names: “Beauty” and “Girl.”
This is important, because if the midwives were Egyptian women, then here we have examples of “righteous Gentiles.” This is not a passage about nation building, but a story about the power of faith that transcends the boundaries of culture and race. And here is where resistance comes in.
We are told that Shiprah and Puah, the midwives, “feared God; they did not do as the king commanded and let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). When the pharaoh discovered that his plans are being thwarted, he asks the midwives why they let the boys live. Their response was somewhat deceitful and misleading. They say, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19). Pharaoh falls for their explanation, the women are rewarded, and the Hebrew population continues to grow.
But the pharaoh will not be deterred. Once again he issues a decree. This time, however, the boys are not to be killed, they are to be thrown into the Nile, but still, “you shall let every girl live” (Exodus 1:22). Is the baby boy’s mother defying the pharaoh while at the same time obeying his orders by placing her baby boy in the Nile? Is the princess knowingly defying her father by rescuing the baby Hebrew boy? All these women are acting in defiance to the king who is the god of Egypt, because they fear the God of the Hebrew people. In her article on this passage, J. Cheryl Exum writes that the midwive’s “Noncompliance takes the form of defiance.” The fear of God is not about avoiding punishment; it is about being guided by the mystery of the universe which guides our conduct and ethical principles. In this case, preserving the life of young boys, even those of another people, transcended obedience to the king, even if the king was your father.
It should not be missed that this week we celebrated one hundred years of women’s suffrage, the right for women to vote. We should also not miss that President Trump offered to pardon Susan B. Anthony (see Figure 2), a leader for women’s suffrage. Anthony defied the rulers of her day by casting her vote in an election while it was still illegal for women to vote. She was arrested and convicted of the crime but never paid her fine. It has been noted that Anthony would not have wanted to be pardoned as she refused to accept it until all women were treated equal.
Anthony would have made a good Egyptian midwife. Perhaps the Hebrew women would have named her “Sassy Among other things, she supposedly said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Never has it been more important for us to be guided by principles that transcend national allegiance and ethnic boundaries. Caring for the most vulnerable during a pandemic, allying ourselves with those in the struggle for equality, and standing against those that would abuse their power to crush the oppressed calls for us to fear God and not earthly tyrants.
There is a line from the song “God of the Bible” that has become somewhat of a theme song for Florence. It goes like this:
Those without status,
those who are nothing,
you have made royal,
gifted with rights,
chosen as partners,
midwives of justice,
birthing new systems,
lighting new lights.
I hope this line can become the theme for Florence.