Scripture Exodus 1:8-22
Exodus 1:8-22 (NRSV)
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians subjected the Israelites to hard servitude 14 and made their lives bitter with hard servitude in mortar and bricks and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The 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 son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - For One Great Peace (FWS 2185)
This thread I weave,
this step I dance,
this stone I carve,
this ball I bounce,
this nail I drive,
this pearl I string,
this flag I wave,
this note I sing.
This pot I shape,
this fire I light,
this fence I leap,
this bone I knit,
this seed I nurse,
this rift I mend,
this child I raise,
this earth I tend.
This check I write,
this march I join,
this faith I state,
this truth I sign,
this is small part,
in one small place,
of one heart's beat
for one great Peace.
[put artwork up]
In preparing for this week’s sermon, I came across this story - I saw it shared by the Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church. I offer it today as we begin our exploration of the text:
Jacqueline Murekatete grew up on a farm in Rwanda. She was the second oldest of seven children. She and her family were members of the Tutsi tribe. In April 1994, Jacqueline, who was 9 years old at the time, was visiting with her grandmother as Hutu men armed with guns, machetes, and clubs descended on the village. Jacqueline and her grandmother moved from place to place, always in hiding. They eventually found a Hutu family who were hiding Tutsis. A week later they were discovered but by some miracle the men who found them gave a warning and left saying that they would be back. Eventually, her grandmother would take her to an orphanage run by Italian priests who decided to stay to protect the children at the risk of their own lives. While she was there, she was reunited with cousins who told her how her village and family was destroyed. Most of her family had been killed, including her grandmother. Eventually, in October of 1995, her uncle living in New York City was able to adopt her and fly her in as an asylum seeker.
What a beautiful and heartbreaking story of deliverance and survival as she escaped the horrors of genocide….of courage and bravery on the part of the Hutu family who resisted and chose to shelter fleeing Tutsis. Throughout history, we see examples of people who chose to protect and liberate at the risk of great personal danger - whether that be the Underground Railroad guiding formerly enslaved folks to freedom or Germans and others who housed Jews and other targeted people, or in this case, the Rwandan genocide.
In our story this morning, a new pharaoh rose to power in Egypt - one who didn’t have the same kind of relationship with Joseph - and by extension, Joseph’s family. Joseph, though he was sold into enslavement by his brothers, eventually found a position of power and security in Pharaoh’s household, and when there was a famine in the land - a famine so severe it impacted the land of Canaan and Joseph's family - all of his brothers and his father and servants and their families and children and livestock came to live in Egypt, where Joseph, out of his power and wealth, helped secure their livelihoods.
Once a new power was on the throne, however, all bets were off. The prosperity and proliferation of the Hebrew people became seen as a threat to Egyptian power. Fear and feelings of superiority led the pharaoh to enslave them, forcing them to build supply cities and dealing with them harshly in their labor. He pit the Egyptian people against the Hebrew people by setting task masters over them.
When this only served to make the Hebrews more numerous, he called in Shiphrah and Puah, and gave the command for genocide - kill the baby boys and let the baby girls live.
There’s a fascinating bit to this story - it’s unclear if Shiphrah and Puah are Egyptians or Hebrew women. The text can be translated either as Hebrew midwives or as Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews. Some scholarship argues that these two women were Egyptian - because it would have been natural for Hebrew women to disregard and disobey Pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah - most likely “head midwives”, are addressed directly by the pharaoh with this command. But because of these two women and their fear of God, they did not do as they were told.
I have to wonder if part of this is also because these two women saw the humanity of the Hebrew people. The pharaoh, through his enslavement campaign, through fear and manipulation, had tried to dehumanize this whole group of people in the eyes of the Egyptians - trying to make them see that Hebrews are no better than laborers, beasts of burden, animals of the field. After all, that’s the lie that Shiphrah and Puah construct to cover their disobedience and throw back in Pharaoh’s face - that the Hebrew women are so strong in the field that they give birth before any one is there to help them, just like animals do.
In reality, Shiphrah and Puah come face to face with the humanity of the Hebrew people each time they assist at a birth. If you’ve ever been in the room with a pregnant person giving birth, you’d be hard pressed not to see the humanity in the midst of the labor struggle. Shiphrah and Puah would be in the thick of things, giving words of encouragement, breathing alongside the mother, giving physical support. They would be in the homes of the Hebrew families, watching the love and tenderness of welcoming new life into the world, watching the grief and pain with miscarriages or ended pregnancies.
Pharaoh’s attempt to dehumanize the Hebrew people failed with Shiphrah and Puah because of the ways they were willing to encounter the other and because of their sense of who God is - and this gave them the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and to live in a way that resisted his attempts to oppress the Hebrew people into submission and subservience.
One of the things I find fascinating about these two women - and indeed, the many unnamed women in this story who continued to choose birth and life even in the face of oppression - is that their resistance to systems of power isn’t necessarily direct confrontation. That comes later in Exodus, with Moses leading the people out. Their resistance is a quiet defiance, a cunning working within the system, a simple living an alternative witness to the accepted cultural narrative of power and dominance of the superiority of the Egyptian people.
“They Said No” by Lisle Gwynn Garity writes this about her artwork:
These midwives, these lowest-of-the-low-status-women who likely had no husbands, who were simply glorified servants, who, themselves, may have been deemed infertile and therefore useless to a family system, risk everything to say no.
Through this simple but mighty act, they change the course of history so that, many, many years later, another baby boy born into a dark world of genocide might also survive and flourish and grow up to redeem the world.
In this painting, these hands represent the women’s resistance. They are the hands that said no to a power-hungry ruler but yes to a God of justice—to a God who transforms a story of massacre into one of liberation. The impact of their actions, like the waters of the Nile, ripples out far beyond them.
I think about this as well from our opening story this morning - the family of Hutus who chose to harbor Jacqueline so that she might get to safety, who chose to say no and see the humanity of many Tutsi people so they might be saved. This family remains unnamed in what we heard, but because of their action, Jacqueline survived - and is a human rights activist and founder of the Genocide Surviors Foundation. Her work revolves around preventing genocide worldwide while also assisting other survivors in the areas of education, economic empowerment, health, and legal aid. One quiet act of resistance resulted in hope for others impacted by genocide - and puts forth a vision for a world where these kinds of atrocities driven by hate and bigotry do not exist.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider what’s happening in our world - in our country - today as an attempt by systems of power and dominance to continue to demonize “the other” - anyone who is different, anyone who doesn’t fit into the image of “normal” in some way shape or form. We see it in the laws that get passed, the rights that get taken away, the acts of violence that keep cropping up everywhere we look. We see this in subtle - and in not so subtle - ways, and in particular, we see the rise of extremism and while many people when directly confronted would not say that there is a group of people they hate, how this gets played out in our society right now is framing Black folks and other people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and their families, disabled people, and children as less deserving of humanity than others.
Our faith calls all people God’s beloved children. People we don’t agree with, people who rub us the wrong way, people who look and act differently than us, people who the world tries to tell us we’re better than, people we may want to call unworthy. That’s the beauty of our faith that is threatening to people who want to hoard power and domination - because to dominate means that you are putting yourself or your group over that of another. There isn’t room for that in God’s kingdom. There isn’t room for that in the church. There isn’t room for that among people who seek to follow Jesus. That’s the vision of justice that Shiphrah and Puah in their act of resistance were birthing - saying no to co-operating worldly power and claiming better-than status…and saying yes to God…and in doing so, changing the course of history.
Shiphrah and Puah remind us to live lives of resistance to systems of power and domination and to live as people who answer to God. That may look like having curious conversations with people who have harmful ideologies. That may look like intentionally building a Spirit-filled community of radical love and care - like Mary Jane shared in her sermon a couple of weeks ago - going out of our way to welcome children or refugees, to do menial tasks for those who are feeling overwhelmed, to see beyond the surface needs of others around us and tend to the things that nourish one another. We are midwives of justice - our hands are Christ’s hands - as we partner with God to be examples of what God’s love on earth looks like in action.
May we choose to live as witnesses, to say yes to God’s path, to be ripples of justice echoing out into the world, to stand against the dehumanizing powers of this world - because we serve a God who gave up power and status and every privilege to live among us in the flesh, who resisted systems of power and domination in the way he taught and healed and ate with others, who loved us even unto death to demonstrate the depth of love, and who rose again in defiance of death itself. May we seek to always live the path of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.