The end of Genesis focused on the patriarchs – Jacob & his sons. The Book of Exodus begins with five courageous women: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, & Pharaoh’s daughter. It is a lesser known part of the story that sometimes is omitted in the retelling. But we need to know the story for it highlights brave, compassionate women and how their liberating actions of civil disobedience influence the rest of the biblical story.
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Exodus doesn’t offer the dignity of naming the king. Is it King Tut or Ramses II? Perhaps, Exodus tells us, that he doesn’t need to be remembered. In that same sentence of 12 words, the author tells us that he knew not Joseph. He doesn’t know his history. Past pharaohs revered Joseph, knowing their history. John Holbert: Leaders should know their history if they hope to be successful. He should have known the story of Joseph, who saved the nation of Egypt from economic collapse, and was invited to bring his family as permanent citizens, honored guests, under the protection of Egypt. The only reason there was an Egypt for Pharaoh to rule was because of a Hebrew named Joseph.
Pharaoh has a problem. The Hebrews were human engines who drove Egypt’s economy, but there were too many of them. He considers them a threat to him. He fears an uprising and begins to govern out of a place of fear. We know the outrageous behavior that can occur when someone in power feels threatened. An insecure ruler, wanting to solidify his political base, identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society, in this case, the Hebrew people, who had been considered allies and honored guests. Substitute refugees or undocumented immigrants, gays, the “undeserving” poor, Muslims, or BIPOC. Defining oneself as superior, denies others their essential humanity, and status as beloved children of God.
Katheryn Matthews Huey: Pharaoh turns on the Hebrew people when he sees their vitality as a problem rather than a gift.”
UCC Rev. David Clark: Pharoah worries that there are too many immigrants And will be more of “them” than “us”. They will maybe even join with an adversary to overtake them entirely. There is no indication that the Hebrews were anything but loyal citizens. But instead of working with them, building good relationships, he shows his colors as a cruel racist tyrant. He commits the first anti-semitic atrocities. He imposed a system designed to hurt people based on nothing other than the fact that their race was different from his. The trouble starts from a hardened heart.
To protect their current way of life, Pharoah oppressed them with forced labor. Put every obstacle in their way to make their lives miserable. The Egyptians bought in, didn’t stand their ground against atrocities committed, obeying Pharoah, and acting with hatred based on race. The plan doesn’t work. The more oppressed they were, the population grew. This enraged Pharaoh. He turns to even darker means. He does the math. Too few Hebrews = not enough labor to do back-breaking, menial jobs; too many Hebrews = potential enemies if an armed conflict breaks out. The solution, in Pharaoh’s mind, was to kill the male children. How many times have threatened rulers resorted to genocide.
Pharaoh devised a wicked plan to deal with too many immigrants. He summons midwives Shiphrah & Puah to his court and demands that they toss any baby boys born into the Nile. They commit the first blatant act of civil disobedience recorded in Scripture. The midwives, revered God more than Pharaoh and refuse to follow his murderous edict. They knew they could not openly disobey, so they were clever and come up with an excuse, telling him that Hebrew women give birth too quickly, before they arrive. Because of the bravery of these women, Moses, who would later lead them into freedom, was born. All we know about these midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, is contained in 7 verses; yet what is revealed is significant. They choose life over death, defying & disobeying the state for the sake of the oppressed. A death-dealing king meets a divine power of God in these women.
Perhaps because of the liberating actions performed by the midwives, one Hebrew woman was inspired, even in the face of fear, to perform her own act of liberation by placing her newborn son, in the safety of an ark, a basket, that could float on the water, looked after by a diligent sister, Miriam. The daughter of the same Pharaoh who demanded the murder of Hebrew boy babies, in her own act of civil disobedience, has compassion for the child, and raises Moses as her own.
Ironically, it is the women Pharoah should fear, as first these two women, and then three more — Moses’ Hebrew mother and sister and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter — who are Pharoah’s undoing. I doubt that they thought they were changing the world. But they were, by being faithful, by following hearts of compassion, by heeding the call of conscience.
Rev. Bret S. Myers: “History is full with examples of resistance to injustice, and many are born out of compassion, which may be among the most political of virtues when it requires us to be brave in opposing the powers that be.”
Unjust laws must be opposed and thwarted. There is a higher law; a moral consideration. These women risked their lives to oppose an unjust law. As civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis said: “Get into trouble. The good kind of trouble. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Puah and Shiphrah save life through non-violent, peaceful actions. Their acts of civil disobedience against systemic racism provide inspiration for us to put ourselves on the line to make a difference.
God intervened through the actions of bold midwives refusing to be party to genocide, through the actions of a desperate mother and vigilant sister, through the compassion of a stranger.
Kathryn Matthews Huey: Once we “know more,” we must “do more”–we must take action–to advocate for justice, for safety, and wisdom and compassion to guide our public policy rather than expediency and greed.”
The midwives and the other women remind us that there is no obstacle, no pandemic, no racist, too big and powerful for God. We are called to pay attention to a world where Pharaoh still expects us to do reprehensible, unconscionable things. The targeting, disempowering, and limiting of some, diminishes the humanity of all. We are being continuously engaged by a God who believes in our power to change and be changed: trusted to find our integrity, to take a stand, make a difference, prove that the way things are is not the way things need to be.
Where do you notice acts of civil disobedience? Either you or other people? Respond in chat. How often have our own lives had interventions that turned things around? How often have our actions of kindness or advocacy expressed God’s great intention for life, and made a noticeable difference in the life of another? How often, is God’s commitment for life and light and love working behind the scenes?
People’s reflections in Chat on Zoom about civil disobedience:
* Those who assisted with the underground railroad
* The Citizens United Court decision put power in the hands of the rich because it equated money with free speech.
* Those who hid Jews from the Germans
* Protests against the trains carrying nuclear weapons through our region
* Those who leave water in the desert for those crossing the border
* The Voting Right Act that gave power to the disenfranchised people.
* Sanctuary churches
* Rosa Parks and other black women who would not go to the back of the bus
* For outlawed redlining. We still need to put power behind that law. And protections for sanctuary cities and states.
- Those of us who helped many cross into Canada, both during the Viet Nam War and later when the US started to crack down on undocumented persons
- Black Lives Matter
- Maria Montessori refused Mussolini’s demands to change her schools, so he closed her schools in Italy, and she was exiled to India, where she spent the duration of the war under house arrest as an Italian national.
- When I was a reporter I was forbidden to participate in political events publicly but I snuck in and participated in the demonstrations anyway. Could have cost me my job but it felt like the right thing to do as we invaded the Middle East.
- Organizations helping those at Northwest Detention Center
- Remembering Ed Roberts, who led the way for people with disabilities — from his iron lung and mobile bed at Berkeley campus
- Brave lawyers in the court to speak the truth against the law.
- The therapist team at WSH that advocated four our African-American patients to stay at WSH rather than be moved to Spokane where they are unlikely to have AA peers or therapists.
- Quiet gestures of caring, such as paying the bills of a friend and co-worker who was suddenly hospitalized and had left her purse at work.
- The Mennonites who bare arms as medical personnel in wars rather than pick up a weapon (during draft years) — bearing of arms.
- sports fans-seeing teams and management taking a stand against racism. “BLM.” The team jerseys have a messages, like “say their names”, “justice”, “equality”, “I can’t breathe”. Teams are speaking up in the ways they can, with the hope, that transformation will come, one step at a time.
- Medical community – courageously, compassionately, midwifing us, laboring to bring new life and to sustain life among us.
Looking at the meaning of names: Puah’s name means “Beauty” and Shiphrah means “Splendor.” Beauty and Splendor saved a generation. How can our beautiful acts of resistance to evil can help save people and bring splendor to the world?
Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” Beautiful acts of standing up to evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves are the splendor of God at work in this world. Beauty is an act of taking the higher ground, being generous and creative, elevating others, doing your best. Through beautiful acts of faith, God can work through us to save the world.
Celebrating Women, Ann Lewin writes a poem, Merry Christmas. At the heart of Christmas there was pain, bleeding, and crying; Love was with difficulty brought to birth.The poet ends with these lines:Could we be midwives for the love of God, Cradling that strength born in fragility, Delivering healing to a crying world?
We are called to be midwives – to care for, coach, and encourage others in their spiritual birthing process; we are to enable others to fulfill their calling by utilizing all of their resources and gifts at hand; we are to be tuned into the rhythm of life that in the fullness of time, new life can come forth. We are to be tuned into God, discerning God’s will. We are called to be midwives for the love of God, cradling that strength of spiritual life born in the fragility of the human body; and delivering healing to a world crying out for it. We are called to be midwives delivering justice where injustice rules, delivering hope to the tyrannized and downtrodden.
The things we do this week — our actions, decision, choices – will ripple out with consequences, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the world. That question isn’t whether, but what…what will we do this week to make a difference in the world. Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives.
Apparently 2020 has been designated ‘Year of the Nurse and the Midwife’ and Pope Francis said that “midwives carry out perhaps the noblest of the professions”. Let us remember them today and pray for them in their work.
Just as God used 5 women in the book of Exodus to save the life of baby Moses, God can use our lives and our voices where we are right now. Let us join in singing with Stuart, “I’m gonna live so God can use me”.