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.

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