Thank God for women. Pharaoh had it all wrong. If he really wanted to thwart the Hebrew’s expanding population he should have killed the baby girls. And not because women have babies, but rather because the women of Exodus 1-2 show up big time with the courage and brains necessary to frustrate Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide.
The biblical story goes like this: The Hebrews had moved to Egypt during a time of famine and settled in the land of Goshen in order to avoid death by starvation. Joseph, the son of Jacob, sold into slavery in Egypt as the result of his jealous brother’s actions, had orchestrated this migration. Joseph’s time in Egypt was blessed by God. And in time Joseph worked his way to the top. He had high standing in Egypt, and during his life the Hebrews fared well. But nobody lives forever. That is where our story has its beginning.
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” To know Joseph was to know Joseph’s people, and to be at least partially acquainted with the Hebrew’s God. To not know Joseph was to look out at the Hebrews (the ‘other’) with nervous suspicion. Racism is the result of ignorance and internalized superiority. With Joseph gone there were no longer Hebrews in important positions. The aristocracy, the priests, the land owners, the merchants, the government structure, the civil holidays, the architecture, the cultural history were all Egyptian. The Hebrews were nothing but a nomadic people that the Egyptians had helped out during a time of great need. They were a charity case. Without the Egyptians the Hebrews would have been nothing but lifeless skeletons covered in time by the desert sands. But look at them now! Under the care and protection of the Egyptian empire they had flourished! Of course they had. This was Egypt after all. Everyone made it there.
And since Egypt had done so much for this crude pack of nomads, it was only natural to expect a few things in return–like the building of two cities, Rameses and Pithom. They should give back for all that was given to them. They should fix roofs, and repair plumbing, and frame walls, and trim the hedges.
Pharaoh couldn’t help but notice how numerous they were getting. The original family of seventy who moved along with the patriarch Jacob had grown exponentially. The Hebrews were everywhere! The Egyptians were beginning to think their visitors had over stayed their welcome. Next thing you know they will want to use our restrooms, and sit in our movie theatres, and take up all the good seats in the mass transit system. I can hear the complaints all the way from Egypt, can’t you: “Last week one moved into my neighborhood! I can’t even send my kids out to play anymore.”
So Pharaoh stood in front of his people and he used the politics of fear and other tools of demagoguery to convince the people of the danger the Hebrews imposed. “What if” said Pharaoh, “we were attacked by our enemies, and they joined forces with out attackers!” The sly polemical move convinced the will of the people and they bowed to Pharaoh’s new domestic policy. “Let us deal shrewdly with them” he said. And so “they set task masters over them to oppress them with hard labor….the Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” Ruthless—having or showing no pity or compassion for others.
Despite the harsh treatment the Hebrews grew in number. They just kept having babies, and that made Pharaoh more than a little antsy. So he called into his presence two obscure, albeit important, biblical characters—Shiphrah and Puah. Never heard of them? You are probably not alone. Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew midwives—baby doctors. It is hard to know what we are to believe; certainly the two mentioned could not be in charge of all the fertile Hebrew women, which would have been too great a task. Perhaps they commanded a larger fleet, or perhaps their names survive out of all the midwives because they founded the resistance. Whatever the case these two humble Hebrew women stood in the great, majestic, and powerful court of Pharaoh and received these diabolical orders, “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.”
There are all kinds of ugly biases at work here. Females make poor warriors thought Pharaoh, they pose no threat, it is just the males I fear. Females are controllable, just like I am controlling these two—Shiphrah and Puah. They will do my bidding, because I am Pharaoh of Egypt, and they are Hebrew trash.
Shiphrah and Puah were not at all impressed with Pharaoh, and come to find out they had a mind and will of their own that was powerfully defiant. The defiance came in their ‘fear of God’—their ability to stand up to corrupt power and ruthless oppression was grounded in the LORD God Almighty. They did not obey the pompous leader of Egypt and they did not commit this act of genocide. Instead they used Pharaoh’s own prejudices against him, and came up with a whale of a lie. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” If you want to believe we are different Pharaoh, if you want to believe we are not like you, not civilized, not cultured, not worthy, not as human as you, then believe it. The word ‘vigorous’ was often used of livestock, to describe an animal’s strength and vitality. We are like animals Pharaoh, and so the babies are born too quickly for us to kill them. It is a ridiculous thing to say. Who would believe it? Only one who wanted to believe it. Pharaoh believed it, he knew it all along—they are animals, livestock, we were right to put the yoke on them and to deal with them the way we have. I am Pharaoh. I am power. I am always right.
So, hearing the testimony of the Hebrew midwives, Pharaoh adopted a different strategy. He outlawed the existence of Hebrew male children, and commanded all his own people to throw Hebrew’s male babies into the Nile River. Drown them, like you would a deformed calf, or a sick foal. Don’t worry about it, ignore the prick in your conscience, they are just animals. And a season of terror descended on Hebrew homes—Egyptians watched over their pregnant shoulders, ready to take away and murder their children. The command seems to us unrealistic—what person would obey it? We forget that the exposure of children was not uncommon in the ancient world. And these were hardly people, just livestock really. Of course it was usually the female child that received the rejection of exposure. But females were left to live this time, what could they do, they were just females.
Just females, like the one who had a male child and for three months hid that child against the evil of corrupt power, and money, and aristocratic ego. For three months she held that baby, and felt his soft skin, and nursed him with life giving milk, and washed him clean, and rocked him to sleep, and quieted his cries lest he be discovered and taken away. It was a sad day when she decided she could no longer hide him. And so this helpless female fashioned together a basket-boat out of papyrus and bitumen and pitch, and she did just what Pharaoh ordered. She placed her male child into the Nile.
The ironies of this story seem endless. Pharaoh’s own daughter, another female, draws the baby from the Nile, meanwhile the baby’s sister, again a harmless young woman, watches from a distance. Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes the child as a Hebrew. Her whole life she had been trained to think of them as she did the horses in her stable, or the bulls in her father’s pastures. But on this occasion, as the child cried, the only feeling that welled up in her was pity. It was enough to defy her father’s wishes. The baby’s sister arrived at that moment and offered to find a suitable wet nurse for the child. The princess, the daughter of power, the heir of oppression, agreed unwittingly to pay the baby’s real mother to provide life giving nourishment. That is something the baby’s mother had done for three months for free. Now, the baby’s mother is not only able to raise her child for a time, but she is put on Pharaoh’s payroll to do it! So, in the end, Pharaoh ends up protecting, raising, and educating the very Hebrew boy-child who is going to make him sorry that he ever heard of the Hebrews-all because he ordered the male Hebrew babies to be thrown in the Nile like deformed livestock. And all because he didn’t perceive the threat a few resourceful, rugged, defiant, compassionate, God fearing women could pose to his oppressive and murderous plans.
Thank God for women. They saved the one that would lead the people out of bondage and start the Hebrews on a march to the Promised Land. Thank God for women. But while we sing their praises, let’s also acknowledge their suffering. Too often, in the history of our world, the women have suffered in order that we all might live. Plenty of babies have been ripped from their mother’s screaming arms. And not every baby had a boat made of Papyrus. And even the one that did—what sacrifices were made for him!—was stripped from his poor rightful mother, and become the son of another in a house a power and might. We know him as Moses, the great deliverer. And I wish we didn’t. I would rather know him by his real name. But that is lost to us. Moses is an Egyptian name. It was the name he was given by the oppressors, not by the mother who bore him, or hid his cries when the Egyptians walked by, or fashioned a boat for him, or dared approach the princess and offer her services as a wet nurse. His real name—his REAL name—we will never know. His sister knew it. His mother knew it—perhaps she whispered it in his ear when he fell asleep on her chest. But we will never know it. That is what it means to be on the wrong end of power. And so often in the history of this world women have been on the wrong end of power.
I believe a day is coming when that will no longer be the case. I have hope for it. It is called the kingdom of God. We are the church—the people who have confessed that Jesus is the anointed of God—and we are a sign of that kingdom. And in this place, in this company, we don’t think our women harmless and helpless. And we don’t overlook them. We thank God for them—and we acknowledge their victories, and we remember their sufferings. And we look into the eyes of the mighty, powerful, oppressive Pharaoh and we have hope, because the women are with us, and one thing we know is that Pharaoh can breathe threats of murder and establish policies of terror, but in the end he’s no match for a few resourceful, rugged, defiant, God fearing women.