Midwives of Liberation


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To give a little background to today’s passage from Exodus: At the end of the book of Genesis, the family of Jacob, who was also named Israel, flees famine in Canaan to Egypt, where Jacob’s son Joseph is Pharaoh’s right-hand man. (This is not the first time the chosen family become refugees, and it will not be the last.)

The family of Israel is honored in Egypt like princes, since Joseph is such a valuable dream-interpreter and administrator. But eventually, of course, Jacob and Joseph and the Pharaoh who honored Joseph die, generations pass, and a new Pharaoh arises, one who “does not know who Joseph was.” He does not feel the gratitude or respect towards this family that his forebears did. And by this time, the sheer number of the Hebrews is enough to worry him; what if their culture and language change Egyptian traditions, we can almost hear him wondering. These strangers are a threat that will undermine Egyptian interests! Why do they have to be so different?

The answer? Go after the children.

Enter the first two nonviolent resisters ever to appear in world literature: two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah.

Shiphrah and Puah, Leigh Russell Memorial Panel,
All Hallows’ Church, Leeds

One of the things I love about these women is that they don’t practice useless nonviolent resistance. They do not court martyrdom by announcing their plans; they want results, not a symbolic victory. They do not throw away their shot. The midwives act like tricksters, Br’er Rabbit-types, pulling the wool over Pharaoh’s eyes. The Bible loves tricksters, though modern Christians often have trouble with them, perhaps because the trickster’s main goal is simple survival rather than moral consistency. Tricksters often use strategies we’re tempted to call “immoral” in order to save their own or others’ lives. The patriarch Jacob is a trickster who bamboozles both his brother and his father into getting the inheritance meant for his brother Esau, and later cons his father-in-law out of a large portion of his flock. Rahab, the Canaanite sex worker who betrays her own people so the Israelites spare her when they take over the city is another trickster, and she becomes an ancestor of King David, and thus of Jesus. You could argue that Ruth, another foreign woman in David’s and Jesus’ family tree, is also a trickster, but that’s a story for another day.

Shiphrah and Puah are tricksters because they lie, and they lie convincingly, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are so vigorous, they give birth before the midwives even show up! I’d like to say that the midwives’ characterization of the Hebrew women as “stronger” than Egyptian women is a careful compliment, but the truth is probably more sinister. The word they use is chayot, which is an adjectival form of the word chayah, or “wild animal.” Pharaoh has already gone through stages of dehumanizing the Hebrews, first in his heart, through his fear of them, then by making them slaves, and finally by ordering a genocide of sorts: the killing of all the males, which, in a patriarchal culture, he assumed was as good as killing the whole group. And countries that enslave and dehumanize ethnic groups always stereotype them, as well. In this country, white slaveholders spoke of Black women as stronger and “more vigorous” than white women. Even today, studies have found that doctors and nurses tend to believe Black patients feel less pain than white ones, and are thus less responsive to their distress. It’s quite possible, then, that Shiphrah and Puah are playing up this exact stereotype: that the enslaved, “foreign” women are less refined than Egyptian women, more primitive and animal-like in their vigor. Maybe that’s the thinking that allows Pharaoh to think the Hebrew women will comply with his order to murder their sons; certainly he had the same callousness toward their feelings as American slaveholders had toward the women they claimed to own.

This whole story demonstrates the arrogance of tyranny. Even Pharaoh’s belief that girl children are “safe” is proved ludicrous. Who tricks him? Midwives! Who saves her child by complying with the letter of the law—to throw sons into the Nile—by putting him in a basket on the river? A slave woman. Who adopts and raises Moses, the boy who will become the prophet of God and enemy of Pharaoh? Pharaoh’s own daughter. Who makes sure Moses’ mother is hired as his wet nurse? His sister, Miriam! Later in the story, Moses’ wife even saves his life. Time after time, it is all the women that Pharaoh discounts who enable Moses to grow up to fulfill his calling.

At the end of their story, the narrator tells us that the actions of Shiphrah and Puah please God and gains them “houses” or “a household.” The midwives are the only named women referred to in the Bible as having “houses”; the house or dynasty or household was, in ancient Israel, a patriarchal thing. The Bible frequently speaks of “the house of the father” to refer to a man’s multigenerational household, and the “house of David,” of course, refers to David’s dynasty. But there are only four references to the house of a mother, two of which occur in the Song of Songs, a notably woman-centered book. None of those four references gives a name to the “mother” whose house it is; which makes this reference to the households of Shiphrah and Puah a unique honor. Suffice it to say that being made into houses, being the progenitor of a lineage, was a really big deal for a man, but doubly so for a woman.

What do they do to earn this honor? They disobey. They start a chain of disobedience that leads from them to the mother of Moses, Yocheved, to Moses himself. They midwife not only the children of the Hebrews, but the exodus itself. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word that comes from a root meaning “narrow place,” or “place of constriction.” It’s a word the Bible uses often in descriptions of childbirth. The exodus is itself a birth narrative: Think of all the water imagery. The infant Moses, delivered from death on the waters of the Nile; the same river, which is Egypt’s umbilicus, later being turned to blood at God’s command; the Hebrews’ deliverance from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea.

This journey of deliverance and delivery begins with two women: Shiphrah and Puah, rare named women of the Bible, even more rarely granted households of their own. Two women who risk their livelihoods and even their lives to protect children, to serve life and hope rather than death and fear.

*     *     *

The attorney general of this country says that effecting the separation of children from their parents is biblical, and unfortunately he is absolutely right. Pharaoh did it. Herod did it. Over and over, the Bible condemns the city-state of Tyre for taking Israelite children and selling them into slavery. Whether because of greed or fear of a different ethnicity or fear of losing face or losing power, there are quite a few instances in the Bible of separating children from parents.

I realize that Sessions was arguing that following the law is what was biblical, but that is where he’s wrong. Sessions quoted Paul in Romans 13, a passage that’s been taken out of context and misused primarily to argue for the legality of slaveholding, apartheid, and even compliance with the Nazis. It’s a topic for a whole other sermon, but suffice to say that Paul is not really arguing here for a blind adherence to the laws of the land. In fact, Paul himself practiced strategic civil disobedience.

And outside those few verses, it’s pretty hard to locate any biblical suggestion that authority is good in itself. As Jeff Sharlet, the Dartmouth professor who studies the political uses of evangelical theology, has written, many evangelical Christian politicians use this passage from Romans 13 to try to enshrine obedience as the highest virtue. Authority is ordained by God, and therefore, they say, the Bible calls people of faith to submit to that authority. Submission to rulers is, in effect, submission to God.

But in fact, the people the Bible consistently valorizes are those who break unjust laws because they hold to a higher law. Shiphrah and Puah, we learn, disobey their ruler because they fear God, which is how Exodus talks about choosing life instead of death. Moses, and the entire people of Israel, will break the law by looting the Egyptians and running away from their slavemasters. The whole first half of Exodus is about resistance to evil laws; the second half of Exodus is about the creation of a better law, a just law, a law that tries to ensure the flourishing of every human being.

I am in no way saying the Bible should direct our laws, but many of us—probably all of us—claim a spiritual genealogy from the people who wrote or gained insight and wisdom from Scripture. We should be knowledgeable about what the Bible says and how it is used or, more often, misused in our political life. Why is it “biblical” to obey our president or attorney general when they give us an unjust directive that is not even a law, but also “biblical” to flout laws such as the ones that say you can’t deny services to LGBT people?

What it comes down to is this: despite all the very real problems with the Bible, including its patriarchy and violence, the overall arc of the Bible is one of liberation and inclusion. It is part of an ongoing conversation of people of faith about how best to love God and one’s neighbor. Sometimes that conversation takes a bad turn. Sometimes the people having this conversation chose power and control over life and liberation, and we should be critical of the Bible when it does that. Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we are brought up short against the fact that these are Iron Age texts, a point we all too often fail to keep in mind. But the Bible is still the beginning of a conversation that has led Jews and Christians alike to work to abolish slavery, empower women, end child labor, and try to make peace among all the nations of the world. Laws which dehumanize others, which are inhumane and cruel, which are racist or sexist or privilege one religion over others: these are not consonant with the God of liberation. In times when unjust laws proliferate, God calls us to choose life, and to practice holy disobedience.

I sometimes envy friends who can speak about their ancestors as a supportive presence in their lives, because frankly, my grandparents believed Martin Luther King was a traitor and a communist, that Catholics worshiped the devil, and that the only role for me in the church was as a pastor’s wife. Maybe your ancestors had some unsavory attitudes as well. But you should know that you have other ancestors, people like Puah and Shiphrah, like Miriam and Moses. Ancestors who stood fast, who risked everything for others, who believed that the arc of history bends toward justice, no matter how long that arc might be. You have ancestors who did not lose the faith, and by that I mean faith that life is worth fighting for. That every human being is an image of God. That none of us are free unless all of us are free.

Keep that faith, friends.