(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)
A new king arose who didn’t remember Joseph, and along with short historical memory this king has a taste for power and may be a little prone to anxiety. When he looks at census numbers and discovers that ethnic Hebrews outnumber ethnic Egyptians, he sees a recipe for trouble. He imagines the scenario where this all goes horribly wrong and manufactures a political crisis—so easy to do, after all—which he uses to spread his own fear through the whole nation: what if? What if? Soon the Egyptians hate, dread, fear their neighbors, so being ruthless is easy. Plus with enough effort, maybe they’ll begin to think of themselves the way we think of them—less than human.
But no. The spark of hope seems to grow stronger rather than weaker, the Hebrews continue to multiply and to grow. Desperate measures must be taken—Pharaoh orders the first biblically recorded ethnic cleansing campaign. And, of course, he calls on the women, the keepers of life.
These are no ordinary women—these are midwives. These women are charged with bringing life into the world and they aren’t about to follow an order to turn life into death, especially since they serve the God of Life, even Abundant Life. So they continue doing their jobs, just as before, bringing life and love into the world even if it is a world of ruthless oppression. They continue to fan the flame of hope, a small light in an increasingly dark time. They refuse to be intimidated by manufactured crisis, and they blatantly disobey Pharaoh—the earthly authority, who considers himself powerful even over life and death. Soon they end up in the throne room, answering questions.
My favorite part of this story is the midwives’ answer to Pharaoh’s question. “Why have you done this when I told you to kill them??” he asks. Shiphrah and Puah, faced with earthly power, don’t apologize, plead for their lives, nor appeal to religion or politics. They look Pharaoh in the eye and do the last thing we expect of nice, proper ladies—lie! They tell their made-up story convincingly enough that they leave the palace free women, able to continue their lives and their important work.
Soon their work leads infant Moses’ mother and sister straight into Pharaoh’s own household, through the compassionate princess. The hands of women are resourceful and strong, their wills are defiant and ingenious. Well-behaved women rarely make history, while these women allowed God’s history to continue to be made.
Five women who defy expectations, politics, and fear, who choose to live with a little spark of hope rather than giving in to the darkness. Five women upon whose disobedience the entire future of God’s people depends. Some with names long forgotten, some whose names live on in our collective memory. Five women who redeem an entire people with their courage in the face of power—because they live in the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of fear, as an example for us all.