David A. Davis
June 14, 2020
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Shiphrah and Puah. You ought to remember their names. If you have a list of people you would like to meet one day when we all gather on the Great Getting Up Morning, when the trumpet blasts, when the Roll is called up yonder, if you have a list of folks you would love to meet in the communion of saints, you ought to add Shiphrah and Puah. Two women who defied the king. Two women who didn’t speak truth to power, they lived it. Two women whose presence on the scared page reflects how the lineage of the people of God began with civil disobedience. Two women who found themselves in the thick of it, sought after by the powers of darkness, destruction, even evil, Recruited by the rulers of this world, by the principalities and the powers. Two women who feared and worshiped and lived for God more than they feared or followed or obeyed the king. Shiphrah and Puah, they “let the boys live”!
Midwives. Hebrew midwives. Or, as it could be translated: “midwives of the Hebrews.” It’s not really clear whether Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew or Egyptian. The names themselves could be either. Scholars suggest that it may be something of an intentional ambiguity, a blurring of ethnic boundaries and of race in the identity and portrayal of the two women. I once asked Rabbi Feldman about Shiphrah and Puah; whether he thought they were Hebrew or Egyptian. Without any hesitation or pause for thought, he said “yes”. Their identity in the narrative, how they are introduced, that they are actually referred to by name, Shiphrah and Puah, all of it breaks down barriers, crosses dividing lines. They shatter boundaries even before they let the boys live. Apparently, it was part of who they were. Say their names, Shiphrah and Puah.
Alison Gise Johnson and Vanessa Monroe published a volume last year titled, “Exodus Women Volume One: Securing the Sacred: Usable Truths, Secret Pledges, and Clarion Calls in the Story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Midwives” Two women of color. One a professor of historical and theological studies. One a pastor. In the book published by the Center for Womanist Studies in Richmond,VA, the authors imagine the covenant Shiphrah and Puah must have made with another. They also write about a rationale; what might have been the motivation for the two midwives. They suggest this thought in the voice of Shiphrah, “You know” Shiphrah reasoned, “This did not just start yesterday. Pharaohs before this new king, directed staff to invent systems that solely valued people as potential profit whose labor and image could be leveraged for more power. And to create a culture of obedience, pharaohs enlisted religious leaders to meticulously construct practices that perverted relationships between Egyptians and Hebrews, and made it seem as if the Divine celebrated and signed off on their demonarchy.” Shiphrah and Puah and a timeless critique of the use and abuse of institutions, religion, and power that has been and is so ever present in the history of humankind.
According to the first two chapters of Exodus, Pharaoh found out he couldn’t just work the Israelites to death. His own census numbers showed they were increasing in number. Those Israelite people. Those foreigners. As it says in Exodus, chapter one: “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread so that Pharaoh and the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites”. (1:9) It was a changing neighborhood, Pharaoh’s kingdom was and he was determined to put a stop to it in any way he could. Forced labor didn’t work so the kind decided to get rid of all the boys right when they were born. That’s when he called Shiphrah and Puah; midwives to the Hebrews, Hebrew midwives.
The king figured out his efforts still were not working. The two women were summoned again. “Summoned” is probably an understatement for two midwives being hauled before a frightened, self-preserving leader who was convinced the Hebrews were taking over the world; his world. So with a lie to cover up their civil disobedience and their strength, perseverance, and determination to “protect our children at any cost”, Shiphrah and Puah avoid the wrath and vengeance of Pharaoh. They said to the king, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Or course right before that the reader of Exodus is told “because the midwives feared God ; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” And yes, their description of the Hebrew women they invoked would have only stoked one of Pharaoh’s worst fears: strong Hebrew women.
Pharaoh just kept trying to legislate and ensure his own power and demise of the Israelites. This time it came by commanding his own people to toss the boys into the river. The next woman to disobey and push back on Pharaoh doesn’t get a name. A nameless Hebrew woman who conceived and delivered a baby. A baby boy. A “fine” baby boy according to the text. She actually did what the king commanded. She put the child in the reeds on the river’s edge. The child’s mother made a basket and laid him down in the river as his sister watched him float there.. The basket, it was made from the very same material the Hebrews used to make bricks. It was a basket made from the very material Pharaoh used to try to stamp out the Hebrews. But with this basket, she let the boy live. The basket was an ark of safety. A cradle of life. A manger.
Shiphrah, Puah, and Moses’ mother. The real and effective threat to Pharaoh’s evil plan came from women who stood up for and lived for and worked for what was right. Women who served those who were most vulnerable, most at risk. Women who let them live. Before God delivered God’s people from the hand of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, these women were delivering God’s children. Delivering with all the meaning that word can muster.
And one more woman of righteous deliverance. Pharaoh’s own daughter finds herself on the list of women in scripture who exhibited courageous defiance in the face of powerful men. She saw the bucket there along the river’s edge. She saw the child in the basket. Here I turn to the work of Dr. Jacq Lapsley, Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary. As Dr. Lapsley, an elder of Nassau Church points out, Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t notice the child’s beauty there in the basket. She wasn’t struck by how cute he was or even by “the fine baby” his own mother saw. No. No, she heard his cry. She heard and saw and knew that the baby was crying. She sees the baby. She knows he is a Hebrew child and she has pity on him. Her reaction, her empathy, her act of defiance comes as she knows he is…crying. As Dean Lapsley affirms, “Pharaoh’s daughter has compassion on the baby because he was crying. She responds to his helplessness and vulnerability.” She is the only woman of power and privilege to appear in the first two chapters of Exodus and she has compassion and empathy and she listened. She let the baby live.
Way before that child saw the burning bush, or told old Pharaoh to “let my people go”, before the plagues and Passover and the Red Sea, before water from a rock and manna from heaven, before the grown man came down the mountain with the two tablets, before his face shown because he had been with God, before he found himself on the mountain top of Transfiguration with Elijah and Jesus, before all that, Moses was delivered by Shiphrah, Puah, his mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. All of them let the boys live.
Our text ends with this: “She named him Moses, ‘because I drew him out of the water.’ ” That river for Moses was a river of life. A stream of saving grace. Waters of righteousness and a flowing stream of justice. Not because of the water but because of the watchful eye of God who called him to lead God’s people out from Pharaoh’s oppression. Not because of the water but because of the watchful eye of God and the women along the riverbank who let the boys live. Not the water, the water is sign. You and I stand along that riverbank every time we gather at the fount for baptism and draw from the water of God’s grace. A river of life and salvation in Jesus Christ who is the living water. That water is a sign of the kingdom where the waters of righteousness and justice flow like an abundant, never ceasing, life sustaining stream. That water is where young and old alike come to splash in the promise of abundant life, to wash in the forgiveness of the Savior, and to be marked forever and sent into the world with the sign of God’s unending and conditional love. That water is how we remind ourselves again and again of the ark of God’s faithfulness and the basket of God’s providence. Along the riverbank we belong to Christ and to him alone. Children of God, just like those Exodus boys.
But when you stand along the rivers of God’s grace, when you draw from the Living Water of our salvation in Christ, you have to be able hear their cry. I’m not talking about a baby at the fount who is not all that happy to be there in a stranger’s arms. I’m talking about God’s children of all ages in the world who are at risk, oppressed, helpless, vulnerable, and afraid. Because you can’t dip your hand into the waters of righteousness and turn your back on those who suffer in the world. You can’t celebrate the mark and memory of your baptism without yearning for kingdom of God to come and therefore committing yourself to be a servant of that kingdom. Because when you wade into the promise of abundant life, when you walk in up to your waist, when you find yourself bathing afresh in the matchless grace of Jesus,, then you have to know that Jesus is sending you out there to let them live.
I keep reading the statement I shared with the congregation from my friend Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond Va. I began my sermon with voices of color and I conclude with Brian’s voice. He begins with why he writes, what compels him to write. He is afraid. An African American, Presbyterian minister, doctor of the church, New Testament scholar, seminary president in the year 2020. He is afraid. His statement is a call, a plea for the witness of white Christians. Especially white Christians because Dr Blunt writes “Whether it’s individual acts of brutality or systemic oppression, it is hard to maneuver successfully for change when your hands are shackled, your legs are taken out from beneath you, and someone is kneeling on your neck. You need the people who wield economic, political, police, and military power to reign in the agents they have authorized to act on their behalf, to rain down change upon the systems their forebears have spent centuries erecting. To privilege themselves.”
A call to witness.
Yes, it is more than hearing a people’s cry.
It is working to let them live.