Monday, August 25, 2014

God's Midwives

Shiphrah and Puah

Their names were Shiphrah and Puah.  Not many people remember their names.  Everybody remembers Moses, and that is okay, because Moses is worth remembering.  We mustn’t forget, however, that without Shiphrah and Puah, not to mention Moses’ birth mother and his sister, Miriam, and even his adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, there would be no Moses.  Moses changed the world, but so did Shiphrah and Puah.  They were God’s midwives. 

We remember Shiphrah and Puah because “the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”[1] Shiprah and Puah were not simply good Samaritans.  They were not just responding to an isolated incident of violence, to a rogue Egyptian taskmaster giving Israelite boys a hard time.  They were refusing to be complicit with a state-sanctioned structure of oppression.  They were subverting a corrupt system.  Their civil disobedience required great courage.

Egypt was a “house of bondage” and Pharaoh was an absolute monarch with all the coercive power of the state behind him.  During the time of Joseph, an Israelite slave who had become viceroy for an earlier Pharaoh, the Israelites came to Egypt to escape famine.  They were refugees, guests of Pharaoh, who offered them land and protection.  This Pharaoh had cornered the market on grain and burdened his own people with crushing debt so that they could buy food – giving all their money, livestock, and finally land to Pharaoh in order to eat.  The Egyptian masses sold themselves into debt bondage, becoming slaves.[2]

Then Joseph died and a Pharaoh arose who no longer remembered Joseph.  This new Pharaoh was a cruel but canny fellow, and he knew that he needed a scapegoat to deflect blame from himself for the condition of his people.   He sounds very much like a modern bigot when he says to them, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”[3] 

The Israelites aren’t real Egyptians, no matter how many generations they’ve been in the land!  They are to blame for all our woes!  Hitler took a page from Pharaoh when he accused Jews of being a fifth column in Germany, as do those who accuse President Obama of being a Muslim rather than a “real American” – as if one can’t be black or Muslim and American at the same time.   Ironically, there is a similar movement today in Israel declaring that one can’t be Palestinian and an Israeli citizen at the same time.[4]   “Egypt” isn’t just in Egypt.

As one ancient legend told in the Midrash explains, the Israelites were initially paid wages for their work, then the wages were withheld, and then they were simply forced to work.[5]  The guests became guest workers, and then just slaves.  The Israelites became “Hebrews,” originally a term of approbation connoting a group of people with no social standing – outsiders, less than human.[6]  The indignity of Israelite oppression in Egypt was compounded by the fact that they had not been captured in war, nor had they sold themselves into bondage to pay their debts, as had their fellow Egyptians.  Pharaoh simply turned on them because it was politically convenient to do so.  It was an outrage even by the standards of the practice of slavery in antiquity. 

Egyptian slavery was exhausting, cruel, and degrading.  It was enforced by a system of brutal taskmasters and the might of the Egyptian army – horse and chariot being the ancient version of an armored SUV.  But that was not enough for Pharaoh, who implemented a genocidal policy of male infanticide – or tried to.  If a policy of correctional control and forced labor isn’t enough – well then, we will just have to kill them.

Now we begin to see how much courage it took for Shiphrah and Puah to fear God more than they feared Pharaoh.  Note, however, that “fear” in Hebrew used in relationship to God connotes a sense of awe, a healthy respect for power and authority.  It also has the sense of “to honor.”  Shiphrah and Puah honored God more than they honored Pharaoh.  Their ultimate allegiance was to God, not to the state.  They pledged their loyalty to nothing less than God.

This requires some courage in any age, but there is an ambiguity in the text regarding the identity of Shiphrah and Puah that perhaps underscores their courage.  Are they “Hebrew midwives” or are they the “Hebrew’s midwives?”  In other words, are they themselves Israelites or are they Egyptians who happen to be midwives for the Israelites?  Here, it is probably best to adopt a common rule of Jewish interpretation:  “[God] intends all the meanings that He has made us capable of discovering.”[7]  What is important is that there are Egyptians, too, who refuse Pharaoh’s politics of racial injustice. 

The Exodus is preeminently a story of liberation, of how Hebrews come to see themselves again as Israelites: as a people, as fully human; but there is a secondary thread in which Egyptians – perhaps Shiphrah and Puah – certainly Pharaoh’s daughter –see the Israelites as fully human too.   This is part of the hope that the story carries for us:  the hope of reconciliation, the hope that we can recognize our common humanity and together build a just community based on that recognition; even when the realization of that hope requires civil disobedience. 

So we remember Shiphrah and Puah and all of the nameless midwives they represent.  They did not act alone.  They were part of a subversive community that defied Pharaoh and preserved life in the midst of death.  According to the Book of Numbers, when Moses eventually led the Israelites out of Egypt, there were 603,550 Israelite men over the age of 20 who left with him.[8]  This means that the midwives were able to save a whole lot of male infants.

Remember too, that when Pharaoh discovered the midwives’ campaign of civil disobedience, he upped the ante and enjoined all Egyptians to kill any male Hebrew they encountered.  We should not be surprised when the state responds to civil disobedience with an even greater level of violence.  Even so, given the number of adult male Israelites who participated in the Exodus, one can only conclude that the Egyptians organized a massive campaign of non-cooperation with Pharaoh’s genocidal policy.   They continued, however, to cling to the sense of privilege that allowed them to benefit from Hebrew slavery.  That is where Moses enters the story.

It is important to note, however, that the opening chapter of Exodus makes it clear that changing the world is not just the work of great leaders like Moses.  The liberation of the Israelites from slavery was the work of countless, nameless people, Israelites and Egyptians, who engaged in courageous acts of civil disobedience.  They were ordinary people who did something extraordinary:  they honored God more than the state.  They risked short-term disorder for the sake of long-term justice, unmasking an unjust system and exposing its violence, and refusing to give it divine justification.   They were ordinary people who found their voice and their power in collective action.

Unfortunately, Egypt is not just a place back then and there.  “Egypt” names every time and place where God’s desire for a just and sustainable world is undermined by systems of violent oppression.  “The return to Egypt” is an ever-present temptation even in the “Promised Land,” as Deuteronomy and the prophets, the first interpreters of the Exodus narrative, make clear.  “Remember that you were an alien in Egypt” is a constant admonition of Torah.  But then we forget, and the politics of scapegoating, racial injustice, and economic exploitation returns. 

Yet God is never without Her midwives, a subversive community who honor God more than the state.  They honor the state, too, but not more than God.  That is why their resistance to injustice is nonviolent in nature, because they seek to convert and heal rather than destroy and replace.  God’s midwives are not simply turning the world upside-down, replacing those on top with those on the bottom; but rather turning the world inside-out, so that God’s desire for the well-being of the whole creation can be realized. 

God’s midwives are not only the Martin Luther Kings and the Rosa Parks.  They are the countless people who boycotted the buses in Montgomery, braved the Freedom Rides, and built a movement of civil disobedience and noncooperation with injustice.  They are people of all races, religious and humanist.  They recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and repent of privilege enjoyed at the expense of others.  God’s midwives are not perfect.  They are not famous.  They are often invisible.  They are quietly bringing forth life in quite ordinary and beautiful ways.  They refuse the narrative of the dominant culture, following a different script whose Author they honor with their lives, a living sacrifice that constitutes true worship.[9] 

In the face of the “return to Egypt” we are experiencing in the racial injustice of our own day, God’s midwives are the bearers of hope who refuse cynical indifference and the hypnotic trance of consumer culture on one hand (the fleshpots of Egypt), and, on the other hand, also refuse nihilistic violence and the hypnotic trance of apocalyptic destruction (the horses and chariots of Pharaoh’s army).  Instead, they choose creative action that preserves life, unmasks injustice, and builds alliances across differences so that we can traverse the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land together.

God’s midwives know that giving birth is painful, but suffering is transient, held within a larger, joyful affirmation of life and love that endures.  We can change the world.  Our choices and actions make a difference.  The return to Egypt is temporary, but the Promised Land is God’s irrevocable gift.[10]  “The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Exodus 1:17.
[2] Genesis 47:13-21.
[3] Exodus 1:9-10. 
[4] Max Blumenthal documents the hyper-nationalism and xenophobia of right-wing Israeli politics in Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Basic Books, 2013).
[5] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York:  Basic Books Inc., 1985), p. 27.
[6] Michael Jennings, “Shiphrah and Puah,” August 25, 2011 on the web.
[7] Walzer, p. 8.
[8] Numbers 1:46.
[9] Romans 12:1-2.
[10] Romans 11:29.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Wonder What Your Verse Will Be?

Joseph and his Brothers - Dore

I was all set to offer an extended commentary on the Joseph narrative in Genesis today, but my preparations were interrupted by the news of the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Robin Williams.   Both of these deaths have affected me deeply, as they have so many of you.  Both of these deaths underscore the fragility of life, its giftedness, beauty and promise; and the violence and despair eating at the heart of our culture.   And both of these deaths challenge us to mine the resources of our faith tradition to find the strength and wisdom to respond in ways that promote healing.

Robin Williams felt like a neighbor, and he was to those of us who live in San Francisco and Marin.  We saw him around town, as well as in the movies.  We celebrate him as probably the world’s most famous Episcopalian.  He was raised in our tradition and proudly, and humorously, claimed it as his own.  He was one of us by virtue of geography, of faith, and, most importantly, by virtue of our shared humanity.

Robin Williams was human.  His humanity was revealed in his artistic brilliance, his deep commitment to justice, and the way he offered himself so generously.  Life is a gift and he made of his life a gift to others.  His humanity was also revealed in his sensitivity to the shadow side of life, and his struggle to enfold the darkness into that light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Like so many creative souls, Robin Williams lived with depression and alcoholism.  This, too, makes him very human and very accessible to us.  At least a third of us live with mental illness or addiction or both.  We know what that is like.  We were rooting for you Robin.  You reflected so many of our own struggles, so many of our own hopes and dreams.  That is why it is so hard to lose you. Not because you were so talented – although you were – but because you were so much like us.

In one of Williams many outstanding film roles, as English teacher John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, he quotes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

And then Keating asks his students, “I wonder what your verse will be?”

In the midst of so much suffering and injustice, so much that seems futile and worthless, there is life.  We are here; and we can contribute.  Our grief over Robin Williams is that he, like all too many people, did not live to enjoy more fully the unique and irreplaceable beauty of the verse he contributed.   The play goes on without him, but, oh, what a part he played!

It isn’t that he didn’t know the worth of his life.  The fact that he gave so much to the world, worked so hard, persevered so long in the face of profound inner pain testifies eloquently to the value he placed on life – all of life – including his own.  Most days he more than managed in spite of it all.  Just because he eventually succumbed to his disease, does not mean that his last day should become the lens through which we judge all the rest.

Beloved sisters and brothers: know your worth, contribute the verse that only you can contribute.  We need you, like we needed Robin, to make us more fully human, more fully whole.  If you are living with addiction or mental illness, you are not alone.  Get the help you need and understand that you are not your disease; you have a disease.  You are a beloved child of God.  Don’t despair.  God is not done with you yet – and neither are we. 

If Robin Williams’ suicide broke my heart, Michael Brown’s death makes me angry.  There is nothing that this 18 year-old did, or could have done under the circumstances, that justified his being killed by a police officer in the middle of a sunny, Saturday afternoon in a St. Louis suburb.  As Amy Davidson noted, writing in The New Yorker,

"It cannot, or must not, be easier for the police to shoot at an eighteen-year-old who is running—away from the officer, not toward him—with his empty hands showing, than to chase him, drive after him, do anything other than kill him. Teen-agers may not always be prudent; there is no death penalty for that, or shouldn’t be. Michael Brown was black and tall; was it his body that the police officer thought was dangerous enough? Perhaps it was enough for the officer that he lived on a certain block in a certain neighborhood; shooting down the street, after all, exhibits a certain lack of concern about anyone else who might be walking by. That sort of calculus raises questions about an entire community’s rights."[1]

It also raises questions about just how much we value the lives of black men. As Greg Howard points out, a group of white gun rights activists who walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles are considered at worst, heroes, and at best, a little loony, while unarmed black men are shot and killed for reaching for their wallet or their cell phone.   How is that a black teenager like Michael Brown is killed by police, while a white man like James Eagen Holmes can walk into a movie theater, kill 12 people and injure more than 70, yet the police manage to capture him alive? 

Exacerbating this contempt and fear of black men is the way in which the putative “War on Drugs” has militarized local law enforcement all over the country.  Part of the reason we're seeing so many black men killed is that police officers are now best understood less as members of communities, dedicated to keeping peace within them, than as domestic soldiers. The drug war has long functioned as a full-employment act for arms dealers looking to sell every town and village in the country on the need for military-grade hardware . . . Officers have tanks now. They have drones. They have automatic rifles, and planes, and helicopters, and they go through military-style boot camp training . . . Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he'll reasonably think that his job isn't simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.
If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they're working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.”[2]

We seem to have a long way to go still before the lives of African-Americans are valued as fully human.  Michael Brown also had a verse to contribute, a uniquely beautiful life.  His struggles, his hopes and dreams, are ours too – or they should be.  We all are diminished by the structural racism embedded in the institutions of our economy and civil society – most blatantly in our criminal justice and penal systems.  But we are not all diminished in the same way or to the same degree.  We have been deprived of Michael’s verse.  Michael has been deprived of his life. 

So, how do we respond? At the end of the story of Joseph, he is reunited with his brothers, the very brothers who, out of bitter hatred and rivalry, had sold him into slavery.  Despite his dysfunctional family, the enormous injustice he suffered, and the challenges of surviving in a foreign land, Joseph rose to a position of power in Egypt.  Then, during a time of famine, his brothers come to Egypt as supplicants to buy grain, and discover that the one they left for dead is very much alive. 

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’  And they came closer.  He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”[3]  This is one of the most profound statements of faith in all of scripture.  Joseph makes use of his power, not for revenge, but to preserve life.  He recognizes the common humanity he shares with his brothers – “Come closer . . . I am your brother” –  and forgives them so that together they might create a new future.   Joseph trusts that God is working through suffering and injustice to preserve life and to pronounce a blessing, and he accepts his responsibility to exercise his freedom in cooperation with God’s life-giving purpose.   Like Joseph, we can use our power to preserve life, to add a beautiful verse to the powerful play that God is continually rewriting when we get our part wrong.  

The Syro-Phoenician woman in today’s Gospel reading knew her worth, and the worth of her daughter.  She felt no compunction about approaching the Son of God in her need.  She will not be treated as less than a “dog” – “dog” being a euphemism for “prostitute.”  She was able to integrate her worth and her need, the light and shadow, and demand the wholeness that any mother knows is her daughter’s birthright.[4]

Like this unnamed mother – like Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden – we need to insist on the value of all human life.  We need to demand from our laws and leaders and ourselves a healing and reconciliation that knows no limits.  We need to tell the truth – “I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” – even when it is painful or risky.  And we need to be willing to use our energies for God’s healing purposes, building schools and mental health clinics instead of prisons; focusing on drug rehab rather than the militarization of police; finding a way through our long and continuing history of racial injustice toward racial reconciliation.

“God sent me before you to preserve life.”  That is the verse I want to contribute. 

I wonder what will your verse be?

[1] Amy Davidson, “Why Did Michael Brown Die in Ferguson,” The New Yorker at
[2] Greg Howard, “America Is Not For Black People,” The Concourse at
[3] Genesis 45:1-5, 8a.
[4] Matthew 15:21-28.