1 These are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt with Jacob along with their households: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 The total number in Jacob’s family was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Eventually, Joseph, his brothers, and everyone in his generation died. 7 But the Israelites were fertile and became populous. They multiplied and grew dramatically, filling the whole land.
8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah:16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
The Israelites were immigrants to Egypt. They came looking for food and work. As they lived in Egypt, they multiplied. Until there were so many of them that those in power got scared. Those in power oppressed them, made laws against them, pushed them into hard and unsafe labor. But, the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians viewed them with disgust and dread.
Does that sound familiar? It doesn’t take much to see a connection between this and our current situation with immigration. This week and last have been filled with particularly horrendous images. But we need to acknowledge that this is not new. This violence, these policies did not begin this week, or last week, or even in 2016. This has been how we have treated immigrants for a long time. Just like with the Egyptians and the Israelites there has been a long history of escalation that has brought us to where we are now, where we see parents separated from children, and asylum seekers detained indefinitely, and members of our society rounded up and deported. We should see ourselves in this text.
But our current situation isn’t the only real world parallel to this story. This pattern repeats itself time and again around the world, throughout history. It is happening now with the Rohingya, and with the migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the middle east and famine in Africa. This is the dynamic that shaped the Rawandan genocide, and the Armenian genocide, and the Holocaust. We could go on. This pattern is apparently as old as time itself.
Which means that it is not only about particular regimes, particular leaders, particular people. This is fundamental. This is something that happens in our hearts. We are scared of what is different. We are afraid of being overrun and losing something. I think of this as our Pharaoh instinct. It’s the instinct of fear, to constrict, clamp down, to oppress and repress what we’re scared of. We all have it—this Pharaoh instinct.
Pharaoh was filled with disgust and dread, and so he gives the order: the midwives are to kill every baby boy.
This is when we meet Shiphrah and Puah. Two midwives. We know basically nothing about them. They were midwives, which meant they were women of great wisdom, the healers of their people. I like to imagine they were old, that they had been at this a while. But maybe they were young and full of energy and new ideas. We don’t know. They cared for the Hebrew women, which suggests that they were Hebrews. But the text leaves room for the possibility that they were Egyptians. The Hebrew just says they were midwives to the Hebrews. So they may have been Egyptian—which is a fascinating thought. Who knows.
The only other thing we know is their names: Shiphrah and Puah. I learned this week that Shiphrah means brightness and beauty as if to adorn the night sky with stars and constellations. And Puah means glitter and brilliance. The story doesn’t bother to remember Pharaoh’s name, just these two women—Shiphrah and Puah: brightness and beauty, glitter and brilliance. Their work was to accompany, to come alongside women as the woman brought life into the world.
I believe that as much as we all have Pharaoh within us, the instinct to constrict, clamp down, oppress and repress, we also all have Shiphrah and Puah within us. Brightness and beauty, glitter and brilliance. We have the ability and the instinct to be midwives, to come alongside, to accompany each other, to see and bring out the beauty and the life that is just waiting to be born in someone. The midwife instinct is our best instinct of love, to see beauty and seek flourishing, to encourage opening, to trust life to arrive.
Pharaoh orders the midwives to do his dirty work. The policy is violence, and the law is that the midwives will participate. But they do not. They fear God, and they refuse to enact Pharaoh’s evil.
This is civil disobedience. The government made a law. The midwives, on grounds of conscience, disobey.
This is what Oscar Schindler did in Nazi Germany. This is what each participant in the Underground Railroad did. This is what the Freedom Riders did. There was a law, and people chose, on conscience, to disobey.
This kind of resistance isn’t just historical. We live in a time of tremendous civil disobedience, around immigration, racial justice, native sovereignty, environmental rights and land rights, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With all of it, there are some who say, follow the law. Respect the authority. And others who say, here I stand; I can do no other.
Our session, our governing council, last year decided to give official support to any member of this congregation who engages in civil disobedience in response to our country’s immigration policy. And that’s been controversial. Most folks have been really proud to be part of a congregation whose leadership took this position. But others have felt like, we ought to follow the law. And others have been conflicted.
This can be tricky. In any given historical moment, Christians tend to disagree about these things. When is it right? When is it right to obstruct traffic? To occupy someone else’s property? To break the law, to disobey a direct order? When is it right?
What do we do when our authorities are Christian and claim the bible as the reason for their actions? What do we do if our leaders claim that their authority is God-given. In European history this was called the divine right of kings. The king was to be obeyed because God is the one who made the king the king. In Africa the Pharaohs governed with a similar idea. This idea that the people who govern and the laws they make are to be obeyed as if they came from God didn’t die out with the Pharaohs and kings. Just a week ago a member of our own government claimed God-given authority to separate parents and children.
So, what do we do? How do we decide if authority really is good and worthy of our obedience? How do we decide when it’s right to disobey, to break the law, on grounds of conscience?
For Shiphrah and Puah it was when the law threatened the life of even one person. Pharaoh’s law demanded one thing. But their calling as midwives, and their relationship to God led them to believe that if the law threatened the life of even one person, they could not follow it.
That continues to be an ethic Christians embrace. When a greater power threatens the life of even one other human. No matter if the human is foreign, or different, or breaking the law, no matter what, when a law threatens the life of even one other human, it is not to be followed.
Pharaoh claimed to be God. But Shiphrah and Puah knew better. They knew Pharaoh wasn’t God. God was God. The laws of our government are often good, they shape our society in good and life giving ways. But they are not divine. They are not the highest call to our allegiance. When Pharaoh, in any form, demands violence, oppression, and repression, the only holy thing to do is to disobey.
But how? What exactly do we do? We can’t all be Harriet Tubman, Oscar Schindler, Rosa Parks. What do wedo? That’s why I love this story. I think we can be Shiphrah and Puah. Shiphrah and Puah resisted Pharaoh’s order in the ways that were available to them. They were crafty and creative. They flew beneath the radar. They didn’t march up Pharaoh’s steps and declare to him the error of his ways, although I’d sure support them if they did. But they didn’t. They birthed those baby boys and looked the other way when it came to noticing gender. They birthed those baby boys and when they got caught they, well, if they were politicians we’d call it misstating the facts, “Oh! No! We’re not letting them live… it’s just those Hebrew women are so vigorous.” By hook or by crook, they birthed those baby boys. They honored the life that was coming into the world.
This kind of crafty, creative, life-giving resistance can happen all the time. When a city inspector inspects a struggling non-profit’s building and sees violations that will be costly but that will not endanger the occupants and he looks the other way so that the good work can begin, well, this is the midwife spirit. When a medical provider honors the choice of a woman and provides birth control under the radar, well, this is the midwife spirit. When a teacher knows they are supposed to teach to the test, but that what their students really need is something else, and they close their door and teach what’s needed, well, this is the midwife spirit.
I heard recently a story of guards in a prison conspiring to allow an inmate who was locked up in solitary an unpermitted phone call with his daughter on the day of her wedding. They timed it just right so that the inmate and the daughter would talk just before she walked down the aisle. Well, this is the midwife spirit.
I have to believe there are guards in the detention centers, and agents in ICE who are resisting like this. Here and there Shiphrah and Puah must be doing their work. I know there are employers and government employees and others with power who look the other way—just like the midwives with those baby boys, who do not ask for papers, who care more about the life in front of them than about legal status. This is the midwife spirit.
We all have opportunities to live this way. Perhaps we are called to protest formally, or even to be arrested. But maybe we’re called to offer medical care, or legal services, or pay special attention to immigrants who are in our classes, or go down to Tacoma Community House and participate in their TalkTime program to help immigrants with their English so that they’ll have as much power in our system as they possibly came. Maybe we simply practice being more patient and charitable when we are on the phone with someone with an accent. The midwife spirit is the spirit that looks for life and honors it above all else.
Shiphah and Puah are our archetypes, our great-great-great-great grandmothers in this. Like stars in the night sky, they point the way. They show us that our true calling, our God-given nature, is to look for life, to accompany each other, to honor what is waiting to be born, to call us away from fear and toward life.
There’s risk involved. And sometimes disobedience. It’s radical to live this way. And it’s life. It’s brightness and beauty, the kind that lights up the night sky. It’s glitter and brilliance. This is the legacy of Shiphrah and Puah.