Sunday 27 August 2017
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21A
Back when I was in college, there was a popular t-shirt slogan. I still see it around from time to time. “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” We know, of course, that women of all persuasions have been tremendously important to history. However, overwhelmingly, the histories that survive have been written by men, men who either did not know the stories of women or who actively suppressed them. And for that reason, we are left with a terribly slanted, incomplete accounting of things. Women and their important acts have been, for the most part, left out. Or, when they have been included, they have been so marginalized as to make them utterly forgettable. The Bible is no exception to this systematic suppression of women’s voices, and it is a shame that so much of the story of our faith has been lost to history.
From time to time, the stories of faithful women beat the odds and make it onto the pages of the Bible, though probably still in a muted form. We are lucky to have one of those instances today. This lesson from the Book of Exodus tells the story of not just one faithful woman, but five of them, who together participated in a criminal conspiracy to save the life of a baby who would later become the liberator of the people of Israel. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no Exodus. Without them, there is no nation of Israel.
It happened in Egypt. After Joseph had forgiven his brothers for selling him into slavery, and after he had saved them from the great famine, his father, Israel, and all of their family settled in Egypt under Pharaoh’s protection. But after a time, they were no longer invited guests, but servants. And after even more time, they were slaves. And, as Exodus tells us, after about 400 years, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” And as he saw it, the people of Israel living in Egypt had become a threat to the security of his nation. He declares them to be dangerous illegal immigrants, and he decides to beat them down by working them to death. He sets them to hard labor, and they build for him the spectacular treasure cities of Pithom and Rameses. But Pharaoh’s plan doesn’t work. The more Pharaoh oppresses the Hebrew people, the more they multiply and become strong. He keeps working them harder and harder, but they only become stronger and more numerous.
So, eventually Pharaoh comes up with a new plan. He calls the first two faithful women of our story to come before him. He calls Shiphrah and Puah, whom are told are the midwives of the Hebrews. They are rather interesting characters in this story. One interesting detail is that we have their names. You may have noticed that apart from Moses, none of the other characters in the story are given names in today’s passage, and that includes Pharaoh and his daughter. But these two Hebrew midwives are given names. Shiphrah is a Hebrew name that means beautiful. Puah, is a Canaanite name that means little girl. It is unreasonable to think that two women could have done all of the midwifing for the Hebrew people, but they can stand as representative of the others who must have shared the role.
In any case, Pharaoh gives Shiphrah and Puah strict orders that when they attend the Hebrew women giving birth, if a girl is born, they should let her live, but if a boy is born, they should kill him. Pharaoh is asking them to commit genocide so that the Hebrew people can be weakened. Presumably, he assumes that Hebrew girls could eventually be married to Egyptian men, at which point, they would cease being a threat to him.
Shiphrah and Puah, though, revere God. And so, they disobey Pharaoh’s orders. When Hebrew boys are born, they don’t kill them. Instead they let them live. This may actually be the first recorded instance of civil disobedience. These women refuse to obey a law which they believe is unjust. It is that same kind of refusal to affirm unjust laws that has been at the center of many successful civil rights and liberation movements.
This, of course, does not sit well with Pharaoh. He is not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. He is, as Pharaoh, not only a sovereign king whose orders are to be obey unquestioningly, he is considered to be a living god. The Egyptians worshipped their Pharaoh. They believed that after death, Pharaohs travelled to return to their place among the other gods. The idea that two Hebrew women would disobey him was unthinkable.
And so he summons Puah and Shiphrah before him, and he asks them why they had disobeyed his orders. And these faithful women act faithfully again. They lie to Pharaoh. They tell him a tale about Hebrew women being more vigorous than Egyptian women, that before the midwives can even make it to the birthing stool, that the Hebrew women have already given birth. It was complete fabrication. Not only was it a lie, it doesn’t actually explain why they didn’t kill the newborn boys once they got there, even if the boys had already been born.
Of course, Pharaoh is a man. He doesn’t know any better.He doesn’t know anything about women’s matters. So, he seems to take their word for it. Shiphrah and Puah are faithful to God by lying to Pharaoh, and because they lie to Pharaoh, the sons of the Hebrews escape death, at least for the time being.
Pharaoh, though, is not done. He has tried to keep the Hebrew people down by working them to death. He has tried to keep them down by killing all their sons on the birthing stool. But neither of those plans has worked. It is time to move to Plan C. Pharaoh makes a general decree that every every Hebrew boy should be thrown into the Nile River, but that the girls should be allowed to live. It is an order given to every Egyptian. If they see a newborn Hebrew boy, they should summarily drown him in the river. The Nile, whose seasonal floods were the source of life for all Egypt, is now to become the source of death for all Israel.
At this point in the story, we are introduced to our third faithful woman. She is not named in the verses we read today, but elsewhere we find that her name is Jochebed, which means “Yahweh is glory.” She is from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, and so is her husband, elsewhere named as Amram. Levites would later be set apart as priests in Israel, and so saying that both the father and the mother are Levites is a way of beefing up Moses’s priestly credetials.
Exodus tells us that they had a son, unnamed at this point. Jochebed keeps him hidden for three months, but by then it is impossible to keep him hidden any longer. She takes a basket made out of papyrus reeds, and she uses pitch to make it watertight, the same way that the ancients sealed their boats. She puts her three-month-old boy in the basket, and she puts the basket in the river with faith that God will take care of him.
Of course, she also provides God with a bit of a helping hand. The boy’s older sister, who elsewhere is named as Miriam, is sent out to look after the boy and to make sure that everything goes according to her mother’s plan. And Miriam, is the fourth faithful woman of our story, though she is more of girl at this point. She watches her infant brother as he sits among the reeds of the River Nile, until our fifth and final faithful woman comes on the scene.
Pharaoh has a daughter, whose name we do not know, and as was her custom, she comes down to that particular spot in the river to bathe. While she is in the water, she sees the basket, floating there among the reeds. And she sends one of her maids out into the water to fetch it for her. When the basket is opened, inside there is a baby crying.
Now, Pharaoh’s daughter knows right away what this baby must be. She knows that he must be a child of the Hebrews. And she knows that her father, the Pharaoh, has ordered that every Hebrew boy be thrown into the river and drowned. She knows all of this, and yet, we are told, she takes pity on him.
Right on cue, the boy’s big sister, Miriam, reveals herself. And she tells Pharaoh’s daughter, “If you’re going to adopt this baby, you’re going to need a wet nurse. Do you want me to find one for you?”
It must have been quite obvious to the princess when this Hebrew girl shows up to offer to find a Hebrew wet nurse for this Hebrew infant. But the she decides to play along. “Yes,” she says, “Find me a wet nurse.” Miriam goes home, and she gets her mother, and she brings her to see Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess gives the baby back to his own birth mother, and she promises to pay her to take care of the young boy for her. The princess names the boy Mosheh, which is actually an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one. But but Exodus gives a Hebrew gloss for it anyway, from the word mashah, which means “to draw,” because she had drawn him up out of the water, drawn him up, in fact, out of death, and made him her son, Moses.
These five women broke the law. They lied to the authorities. They conspired together to subvert the government. Five very different women. Two slaves, two medical professionals, and a princess. They all collude to defy the orders of their rightful leader, Pharaoh.
Well-behaved women rarely make history, but sometimes faithful women do. It is their faith that leads them to break the law. It is their faith that causes them to protest the unjust action of the government. It is their great faith that brings them to conspire together in an act of civil disobedience. They do so quietly, without fanfare. They acts behind the scenes. But in this case, the consequences of their actions are so momentous that they can not be ignored, not even by the men who write history. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no exodus. Without them, there is no promised land, no Torah, no prophets. Without them, there is no Jerusalem, no temple, no Israel. Without them, the story of God’s chosen people stops dead in its tracks, before it has even begun. Well-behaved women rarely make history, you see. But these faithful women do.