“Midwives of Hope”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, 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.”
11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”
17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”
19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.
7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?
”8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.”
So the girl went and called the child’s mother.
9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.”
So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (NRSV)
There’s a new Pharaoh in town, and he has amnesia. Or maybe he’s been poorly schooled in history. Or maybe he was cast upon the throne at an age too young for the responsibility. Or maybe he’s just willfully ignorant. Whatever the case, the new Pharaoh neither remembers nor appreciates Joseph, the Hebrew servant and former prisoner whose spiritual insight and practical wisdom delivered Egypt during economic catastrophe. To such a forgetful leader as Pharaoh, the future is a realm to be feared, conquered, and controlled—by any means—because it’s all about himself.
I understand that fear. I also understand that it almost always breeds devastation. When caught up in selfishness and anxiety, individuals, groups and nations project their personal fears onto groups and cultures that represent the weaknesses or the failures we most despise in ourselves. So rich and poor, black and white, male and female, this religion and that religion, old generations and young ones all battle and blame each other. And when we do, we lose the obvious gifts, the gifts of the other and the wholeness they represent.
Pharaoh chooses the Hebrews as the source of everything personally abhorrent and politically threatening. Having focused his fear on the Hebrews, he tries to solve his problem by forcing them into slavery.
There are two very different kinds of fear in this story, and they continue to work side-by-side in our memory. They inform our present and shape our future.
The first fear is Pharaoh’s fear. He’s afraid that the future really isn’t about him. In trying to maintain a future he’s terrified to lose—that is, a status quo beneficial to himself—the king tries to end something God started. When the Hebrews only grow stronger under duress, Pharaoh increases their workload and the brutality with which he drives them. Given permission to dehumanize the slaves, the Egyptians beat them like beasts, and kill them with labor and the whip.
It’s crucial to note that when one group gives another group a story like that to remember, a story of oppression and deliverance from which to draw identity and purpose, the oppressed group will have an eternal well from which to draw strength. And they will, in time, overcome and thrive. The memory of being owned, enslaved, exploited, abused, and liberated lays the theological and existential groundwork for Hebrew poetry, prophecy, and hope. The memory of those shared experiences gives durable authority to the psalms, the lamentations, and the words of people like Samuel, David, and Isaiah.
When facing the failure of his efforts to own that which belongs to God—namely, the Hebrews and the future—Pharaoh does what madmen and despots do: He tries to create even more fear and an even deeper and more violent disconnect between those with power and those without. To control the Hebrew population, Pharaoh calls for the mass murder of their newborn boys. And to add insult to injury, he calls on Hebrew midwives to serve as his angels of death.
“But,” says the storyteller, “the midwives feared God.”
Here is second kind of fear. Maybe we can call it liberating fear. In refusing to obey Pharaoh, the midwives defy the tangible and brutal Powers That Be. They choose instead to trust the inscrutable power that continues to create, that continues to bring forth the new life that they help to deliver into the world every day. Their bold stance of faith declares that God’s power to create and renew always outmaneuvers and outlasts Pharaoh’s power to assault and destroy.
The fear of the midwives isn’t the anxiety and dread we typically associate with the word fear. Precisely the opposite, the fear of the midwives proclaims their complete faith in the presence and purposes of God. Remembering the past, rich with promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these intrepid midwives risk their own lives to proclaim Israel’s hope. Think about it, they cannot hide their disobedience. Because of their subversive faith, Hebrew boys survive. And Pharaoh’s own daughter, who becomes an accidental midwife, will name one of them Moses.
The world is rife with Pharaohs and Egypts. From east to west and north to south, anxiety and dread define much of humanity’s daily experience. And that’s especially true for those whose day-to-day experience includes poverty, abuse, and the constant threat of apathy, prejudice, and violence.
The Pharaoh’s fear within us enslaves us to his anxiety and dread so that we become his unwitting but willing servants. Imagining that we’re being consistent with history, loyal to nations, and faithful to God, human beings build Pharaoh’s “supply cities.” We yield to and participate in all the brutal systems and means required to sustain them.
Albert Einstein famously said that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” To me, that sounds like a first cousin to Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
It’s all-too-easy to make faith about conspicuous morality, about regurgitating “right” theology. As people of biblical faith, though, we are called to the new-minded, liberating fear of the midwives. To follow their example is just another way to follow Jesus in lives of bold, death-defying trust that God is not only real, but faithful, loving, and just to all people.
In our lifetimes, we may not witness the final revealing of God’s fullness, but through our deliberate and daring faith, God equips us to help deliver into the world one new promise after another, even as Pharaoh demands that we kill them—for his benefit.
Our personal interpretations of what’s going on around us today may differ. But I hear our text calling us always to ask if our responses to circumstances convey the self-serving fear that leads to suspicion, division, and, ultimately, to violence against others. Or do our lives proclaim the great nevertheless of faith, what the ancient prophets and poets called the “fear of God”?
Do our words and actions declare our trust that God is the source of all that is good, loving, and hopeful in the world?
Do we actively love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Do we seek to love all of our neighbors as if we were seeking truly to love ourselves?
None of us can answer those questions affirmatively all the time, but when we can, we are midwives of hope in the world. We’re delivering that which every Pharaoh fears and would have us destroy. And we’re declaring our allegiance to God, who may always be trusted, and to whom the past, present, and future of all Creation always belongs.