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Reflection: Six Shrewd Women Give Rise to the Deliverer Moses

Posted by: Gordon on 6/9/2015


A reflection from our Race and Power Summit Monday, June 8 by
Rev. Susan L. Engh - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Sue Engh
Tonight we've been introduced to the concept of Pharaoh's Empire. Dave Mann said to us, as he introduced that concept, something like, we're all familiar with Pharaoh, right? Well for a few minutes now, I want to take us back to the particular era in biblical history from which we're drawing this concept. Recall that, after a period of peaceful co-existence of the people of Israel living in Egypt - a time characterized by the Israelite Joseph's privileged position in Pharaoh's government - things began to change for the worse for God's chosen people. Somewhere between the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus, things took a fateful turn.

So, in Exodus, Chapter 1, we learn that "...a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." And over time, as the people of Israel multiplied in numbers, this king - this Pharaoh - grew ever more suspicious and afraid of them, until he ordered that they be forced into cruel slavery. Yet even though they were under harsh taskmasters, the king, along with the Egyptian people, continued to fear, and even came to loathe, the people of Israel.

So the king of Egypt hatched an evil plan. He appointed two Hebrew midwives - one named Shiphrah and the other Puah. He charged them to kill each male Israelite baby at the time of birth, presuming, I suppose, that it was the men - potential soldiers -who were the most to be feared. But we read that "the midwives feared God [and] they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them." When he summoned them to call them to account for their disobedience, Shiphrah and Puah said to Pharaoh, "Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." Apparently believing them, the king spared the Hebrew midwives, and God blessed them greatly.

Here we have what may be the first account of civil disobedience in the biblical story, a bold and courageous act Shiphrah and Puah joined together to perform, out of loyalty to their values and faithfulness to God. Rather than operate according to the narrative of Pharaoh's Empire, these two women lived out an alternative narrative, one that was true to the Commonwealth of God.

I'm not a midwife by trade, so it doesn't do much good to argue that I would never kill a baby either. What I do have to wonder and wrestle with is this: what parts of my job or my role in society do I perform out of sheer acquiescence to the dominant narrative of my institution or my culture? I wonder, would I dare to question certain expectations laid upon me. Would  I risk joining, perhaps shrewdly, with others, who may just be waiting for a co-conspirator to share the dangerous act of obeying God rather than Empire? Ask yourself, would you?

Well, having had his first plot foiled by Shiphrah and Puah, the king resorted to an equally violent plan, ordering all of his Egyptian subjects to throw into the Nile "every boy born to the Hebrews." And, apparently, the people obeyed. For remember, the Egyptians shared Pharaoh's fear and loathing of the people of Israel.

While this monstrous decree was in practice, we learn that "a Levite woman, conceived and bore a son." And, like any mother would, "she saw that he was a fine baby. [So] she hid him [for] three months,... [until] she could hide him no longer. [Then] she put the child in [a papyrus basket] and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister [who I am going to assume was Miriam] stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him."

And who should come along but the daughter of Pharaoh, bathing at the river, with her attendants at hand? Seeing the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to bring it to her. Seeing the child in the basket, she realized at once that he must be a Hebrew child, and she took pity on him. Then Miriam rushed forward and immediately offered to bring a Hebrew wet nurse - the child's mother, of course - and the Pharaoh's daughter agreed. Moses' own mother raised him until he was weaned, at which point she "brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, [who] took him as her own son." And we can also note that the maid, who brought the child, chose not to report the matter to the authorities, nor did any of the other female attendants at the riverbank that day.

Several more women, including the mother and sister of Moses, along with the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaid, took courageous action outside of the dominant narrative of Pharaoh's Empire, in order to follow their hearts and their values, thus saving the life of the future deliverer of Israel.

And in this last story, about Moses among the reeds, we see an unlikely alliance, between women who live under the oppression of Pharaoh's Empire and women who live as privileged elites, who, to some degree anyway, benefit from the ways of Empire. In this story, like the one about the midwives, there is a tacit agreement among the women to hide the truth. But more, in this story there is the seemingly unquestioned decision to align themselves across social, even racial boundaries, and against unjust decrees that put the most vulnerable at risk.

Now, since I'm not likely to find a baby floating among the reeds of the river out there, it doesn't do much good to suggest that I would have joined these women in the conspiracy to conceal Moses' identity. What I do have to wonder and wrestle with is this: whether I might have the wisdom, the humility or the courage to see my well-being tied up with those who seem too different from me to join in solidarity with for the sake of that God's Commonwealth. Will I - will you - learn from these women who surrounded baby Moses, to recognize allies when we see them, unlikely as they may seem; to risk joining together to make a better way forward?

There's a lot that we're up against, folks! That became imminently evident again here today. There are the powers and the principalities, the Pharaohs of our day with their Empire narratives. And there are our own tendencies to be naive, even complicit, in following those narratives ourselves. We will need to dig deep and we will need to sweep wide in order to deal with these realities. And we will have to do it together, growing the scope of what we mean by "we" more and more. Thankfully, we have a shrewd and powerful God who calls, leads and equips us to do all of those things.

Let us pray:

Gracious and loving God, we give you thanks this evening for the biblical witness of these women, named and un-named, but all known and cherished by you; for Shiphrah and Puah, for Moses' mother and his sister Miriam, for Pharaoh's daughter and her hand-maid and attendants. We praise you for the wonders you chose to perform through them, which laid the foundation for the deliverance of your people Israel. Fill us with the same spirit of courage, wisdom and power that drew them to take action together, despite  oppressive systems and across prevailing boundaries. Agitate us into action that changes for the better the realities that oppress your people today. We pray in your Holy Name. Amen.

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