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Faces of Our Faith: Shiphrah & Puah

The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 26, 2018)
Exodus 1:8-22 (CEB)

Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”

As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.

The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.

So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.

If this story doesn’t give you goosebumps, I don’t know what will. It’s enough to make your skin crawl thinking about Pharaoh’s scheme to weaken or even exterminate the Hebrews. So many aspects of it are just plain terrible. Like the fact that a few Pharaohs had come and gone and the current occupant of the office had forgotten Joseph—Joseph, the Hebrew, whose wise governance had bailed Egypt out, saving them from starvation during a famine.

Then pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews, who were once welcomed as neighbors, and forced them to work under brutal conditions. That’s awful enough—I’ve never been to Egypt, but when I think about what it must feel like to mold bricks for pyramids under the desert sun, it makes me sick!

But then, as tyrants so often do, Pharoah starts to fear the power of the people who are living under his thumb: “What if war breaks out? What if we get attacked? Surely these dogs will turn on their masters.” So he starts to devise a “solution.” It’s clear that he’ll stop at nothing to give into his fear, to maintain control, to cut off the threat at the root.

There’s probably nothing more volatile than a despot who’s afraid. I read an Atlantic article not too long ago that detailed what power does to the brain. In years of lab experiments researchers discovered that “subjects under the influence of power… acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

Other researchers coined the term “Hubris syndrome,” which “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader. Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.” Most importantly when neuroscientists put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, [they] found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’ that may be a cornerstone of empathy.”

There’s that old saying, “absolute power corrupts… (how does it go?) absolutely.” Absolute power can dull or void our compassion.

Now, before we get too sanctimonious, or before you think I’m beating up on Pharaohs ancient or contemporary, one of these researchers found that “Insofar as it affects the way we think, power… is not a post or a position but a mental state.

Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.” Then at the other end of the spectrum, how many times have we felt power over someone smaller, weaker, or less capable, someone below us on the organizational chart, or someone needing what we have, and then taken advantage of that feeling?

Fortunately Pharaoh wasn’t the only actor in this drama. Enter Shiphrah and Puah.

Don’t you just love these women? Courageous. Risky. Subversive. Not only are they bold in trying to save the lives of these baby boys, but they’re pretty crafty in how they do it.

Old Pharaoh thinks he’s so smart. “I know what I’ll do. Call the midwives in here and give them their orders.” But then when word of their failed mission reaches the throne room, they play right into Pharaoh’s own prejudices! “You know those Hebrew women, your majesty, the beasts. They’re like animals, your majesty. They just give birth so vigorously that we just can’t get there in time your majesty!” And because, as we’ve established, Pharaoh’s brain is hooked on power (or maybe because he’d never seen a birth before), he buys it. Hook line and sinker.

But who are these women?
What can we know about them?

The text tells us they did not have children of their own… before this act of valor. We know they have guts. Who else could defy Pharaoh’s orders or try to deceive him?

But I found out something even more interesting. There’s a debate among Torah scholars about whether or not these women were Hebrew or Egyptian. In the tradition of interpretation it’s been assumed that they were Hebrews because, after all, their names are thoroughly Semitic.

But because of some possible translation differences, mainly to do with the lack of vowel Mark’s in Hebrew, the phrase could be translated “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives of the Hebrews.” There’s a difference there.

And if you think about it, why would Egyptian women defy their Pharaoh?

Or, alternatively, why would Pharaoh trust Hebrew to carry out his genocidal plan?

Either way you shake it, Shiphrah and Puah stick their necks out for these little ones.
The whole Exodus narrative—which is central to Hebrew identity, the Bible, and the Judeo-Christian faiths—hinges on their act of courage, their faithfulness to God and their resistance to Pharaoh.

As a colleague of mine pointed out, “Thinking about saying ‘no’ as an act of faithfulness. When can you think of that saying ‘no’ allowed you to say ‘yes’ to God?” These two women said “yes” to God by saying “no” to what Pharaoh demanded of them.

I’m noticing language of resistance is in the air, especially on what some are calling “the Religious Left.”

There’s the book we read last year in the Adult Ed Forum by Rick Ufford-Chase and others Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire. You know some of the authors. Then there’s Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump. You know some of the contributors to that collection as well. I came across a book called Preaching as Resistance the other day. There’s even a service you can sign up via text messages called ‘Resit Bot’ that sends text alerts about issues that are important to you and a way to contact your legislator.

Cries of “resist” make me think of Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, who came to Tucson to do a show at Centennial Hall back in the spring. He said something along the lines of “people are shouting ‘Resist!’ a lot these days, and I ask them, ‘What are you resisting?’ and they’d say, ‘EVERYTHING!’” Resistance might seem exhausting because it does in fact feel like we’re in a different political moment in which we are having to resist. Everything. Constantly. From all angles.

Part of that feeling of being overwhelmed, for those of us who are white and middle/upper class, might come from the fact that we’re newer to the resistance mindset. But people of color, people in other historically oppressed communities, have been in the struggle long before 2016.

Hear me out: I am not minimizing the problems we are facing as a nation, because there are very dangerous things happening. What I’m saying is, in our well-intentioned efforts toward resistance, we always need to take our cues from and follow the lead of those who are most impacted by injustice, who have always been. We need to learn from them—how they’ve been waging the battles, how they’ve been drawing their strength.

“Pharaoh” isn’t so much a person as a system that rears its ugly head time and time again.

There are times that we find ourselves in Shiphrah and Puah’s shoes, whether they were Hebrews safeguarding their own people or Egyptians putting their lives on the line for strangers.

Sometimes we find ourselves in those moments, moments wherein we’re confronted with a choice: acquiesce to the brain rot of power or take the risk of standing with the less powerful.

We may be the people with power, privilege, means, and we have to push past the temptations of complacency to do what is right. At other times we may be the ones who are less powerful (as the mystic and theologian Howard Thurman put it the “disinherited” with “our backs against the wall”) yet the Spirit of life still gives us the gumption to follow our conscience.

Shiphrah and Puah still had to kneel in front of Pharaoh, but they didn’t have to bend their wills to his.

In their own way, in their own situation, with what they had in front of them, they found a way to resist. They found a way of saying “yes” to the Lord and Giver of Life and “no” to the purveyor of death, the Pharaoh of the moment.

May it be so with us.

Featured image: Rev. Sarah Are, A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.