“The Midwives Feared God”
Exodus 1:8-2:10, Matthew 16.13-30, Romans 12.1-8
by Nathan Rauh-Bieri
August 24, 2014
In the story that Matt just read for us, we find the descendants of Abraham, the people God foretold would be a blessing to all, growing where they’ve been planted – in the land of Egypt. And then, just like that, there is a regime change, and things start looking bleak. A new king arises, who has the amnesia of power: in his obsession with control, he forgets the past. He doesn’t consult the history ledger and see, “oh, if it hadn’t been for that Joseph fellow predicting those famines, we would really have been up the Nile without a paddle.” Instead, he says, “look,” and all of Egypt looks. And he says, “the Israelites are getting too powerful; let’s control them, or they may conspire against us.”
It is clear that this king has survival in mind – the survival of his own people, for his own people to not be wiped off the earth – and this is an understandable desire. But in his fear, he can only see the Israelites as a threat. In his mindset, these people are not a sign of blessing, of God’s favor; rather, too many of these people pose a threat, these people may turn violent, these people are problem to be curbed. The new king says, “this is an us-versus-them game; our future is at stake,” and this becomes official policy in Egypt, influencing how its citizens see their Hebrew neighbors. Power fears the people and the strength of the people; here, this fear is both the engine and the rudder of Pharaoh’s ship. Israel is a threat to suppress and an opportunity to plunder. So the king makes the Israelites’ lives bitter by enslaving them.
Enslaving the Israelites for labor doesn’t keep fear from eating away at the king, however; slavery doesn’t remove fear like that. So the king takes it to another level, shoulder-tapping, of all people, two Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work from the inside, commanding them to kill all male babies. He knows what he is doing: midwives are the people in the community who are there in the times and places when new life enters the world; these are exactly the people Pharaoh wants to co-opt. This Pharaoh wants to make birth, the very site of life, into a site of death. He wants to squash any newness or change or perceived threat as soon as it arrives on the scene.
Things are looking bad at this point, but the text doesn’t even pause for breath before going on to say: But [– and isn’t ‘but’ such a good word sometimes? – but the midwives fear God; they do not do as the king of Egypt commands them.” They continue to do what they always do and bring forth life. When the king of Egypt interrogates them about this, they give him a clever, maybe even backhanded reply: “we Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, we are just too vigorous – we simply do not comply. We really can’t do anything about it.”
Their brave, creative disobedience works – for a time at least. But soon the new king’s intentions are made plain for all to see: now anyone has license to kill Hebrew boys. In the midst of this government-sanctioned terror, however, the Hebrews keep having babies and midwives keep birthing them. So we get Moses, whose life is preserved in an unlikely tag-team effort between the midwife who birthed him; his mother and sister; and an Egyptian princess, a person well aware of what is supposed to happen to Hebrew babies, who pledges to raise the baby and hires Moses’ mother to do the very thing she most wanted to do and keep giving life to her son. The irony is heavy: fearing the threat of Hebrew males, Pharaoh is out-crafted by women; Pharaoh’s capital-p Plan is thwarted by five females, one of whom is not a Hebrew and is, in fact, his own daughter. The passage then ends on an up-beat, with tingling anticipation as Moses is given his name and those of us who know the end of the story get ready for the deliverance ahead.
What, and who, is this story about? First, who it is not about: Pharaoh. The author of this story is not all that interested in him. True, he brings about is a very particular situation of oppression, and yet it seems to me to be like sin generally: it is really rather boring; there is nothing really new under the sun. This new king is not given a name, and although his ability to inflict terror is real, he is not the main actor here.
The midwives, on the other hand – the fearers of God – they are not midwives in the abstract; no, the text gives us their names: Shiphrah and Puah. In today’s passage, they, along with Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharoah’s daughter – they are five women are at the center of the continuing story of how God will keep God’s promises to keep Israel alive. Their courage “is the beginning of liberation” (Exum, 82). Like Mary, these five women would not seem particularly destined for greatness or special purpose, but God catches them up in the project of bringing forth and birthing a new future.
This seems to be God’s kind of mischief, doesn’t it, that a nameless Pharaoh is out-crafted by ordinary women who are remembered? Doesn’t it seem to fit with a God “[who chooses] what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…[who chooses] what is weak in the world to shame the strong…[who chooses] what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are” (I Cor.1.25-28). And it would seem that this God takes sides and moves on actual peoples’ behalf; that this God is involved in the tangible, physical ways salvation happens in peoples’ lives.
And so it seems to be very much like God to freely choose to call forth human helpers, co-creators, in that work; to call out and equip people who fear God to stand in the gap and who choose life amidst the policies of death. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus – this same God made flesh – asks his disciples who the people say he is, and who they say he is. Peter confesses that he is the Christ, the MESSIAH, the final, once-and-for-all bringer of God’s kingdom on earth, the embodiment of spiritual and social change. Jesus seems to then entrust his community and its mission to Peter, promising him the keys of the kingdom of heaven: the passageway of the new society God is bringing about, which overflows beyond the church and covers the earth with God’s justice and peace. Like a midwife at a birth, this disciple will stand at the passageway of God’s new life being brought into the world. And despite what the present Rulers intend, the power of death will not overcome this new life God wants to birth.
If God is like Jesus all the way down, and this is how Jesus chooses to do his work – with human companions – God seems to be the kind of God who is free but nonetheless chooses to rely on human partnership; for this God, people are not around for ego-needs or exploitation, but are actual players in the story of salvation, co-creators with God in the future.
And so back to the midwives. The midwives do not fear Pharaoh, who could claim their lives in the snap of his fingers. Instead, the midwives fear God. And what is does this mean, to fear God? Fearing God, the midwives remember the stories of how God has been there and acted in the past; they believe that God’s intentions will go forward; and they believe that they are, in fact, part of the story. Their fear is a fierce loyalty to God’s purposes; a trust in God’s ability to bring forth newness; an active belief in God’s desire to put the world to rights; a being caught up in God’s project to bring forth life through human companions. This is the call of all who God would have follow in their footsteps as midwives.
Today, God continues to choose human creatures to be part of making things right, despite the messiness involved. When we look around us, it is not always easy to believe this is a good idea. Let me just go ahead and name it: it’s felt like a long summer to be alive in this world. (God only knows its been a long one for God, too.) Too many days these past months, we have seen creatures wound and destroy each other in many ways and for many reasons. I don’t know about you, but at times I have wanted to say: God, please step in and do something, because we are making a mess of things. Some days, I have found myself agreeing with writer Anne Lamott, as she put it recently: “I would much prefer that God have a magic wand, and not […] a raggedy love army of helpers.” Seeing what we see in the world these days sometimes takes more fear of God than is easy to muster.
And yet we are called to be and to join those who are midwives in the world; and yet God won’t leave the world without midwives; and God won’t leave them without the Spirit to guide them, to allow them to live in fervent anticipation of and say yes to the newness that God has promised and we believe will give. And so, friends, I wonder: what does God want to birth in our midst? What births is God leading us to be present for and enable, in our own lives, and in our life together? Where and how God is calling us to creatively help life to come forth in our midst?
We might not be able to foresee the results of our response. Think about how the Exodus story might have looked from the vantage point of the midwives when faced with the choice of whether to obey Pharaoh or not – could they have foreseen it playing out like it did? And yet they step forward in faith. And so too, we cannot always see how our steps of faith will turn out. As a friend put it recently, “providence is best seen in the rearview mirror.” In the moment, we can only trust the results of our midwifery to God. And we certainly won’t always get it right – after all, Peter only makes it TWO verses after being appointed as the holder of the keys of the kingdom before he turns around thinks he knows better than Jesus what Jesus should do. No, we cannot always see the way forward clearly, but we can pray that we will be ready when God wants to do a new thing in our midst, that we will be the kind of midwives who fear God, who are “not conformed to the dominant vision, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can discern what is the will of God (Rom. 12.2).” And may this be our work of discernment together: saying no to the things that make for death; saying yes to God’s work of life around us; and all the while, praying for God’s help to know the difference.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
Exum, J.C. “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live: A Study of Ex. 1:8-2:10.” Semeia 28:63-82 (1983).
Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus. Interpretation. Louisville: WJK, 1991.
Lamott, Anne. Anne Lamott facebook page. 12 August 2014.