“Well behaved women rarely make history.” Have you ever heard that? Well, today in our first reading we have a story of women who are not at all well behaved and boy, do they ever make history!
About 3000 years ago, the Egyptian Pharaoh was feeling very threatened by the Hebrews living in his land. He is afraid that there are too many of them and they are becoming too powerful. So, he decides to make life impossible for them by forcing them into lives of miserable slavery with cruel taskmasters.
Oppressed or not, the Hebrew people flourish and continue to multiply in number. The Pharaoh acts as if his kingdom is being overrun by pests. He’s ready for some genocide, some racial cleansing. We’ve seen this in our own time: In the 1930’s, in Germany, it was the Jews. More recently it's been the immigrants, the “welfare moms”, the gays, the "undeserving" poor, and the Muslims, all blamed for ‘taking over our country’. The Pharaoh treated the Hebrews as animals. When people are labeled like this, when people are denied their essential humanity it is a great sin indeed, a great sin, to forget that each and every one of us is a beloved child of God.
But the Pharaoh has forgotten this and he calls two midwives to come to his massive throne room. Shiphrah and Puah kneel before him, and gazing up at the powerful figure, sitting high above them on his throne, they hear his terrible command. "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl she will live". I wonder why, if he wanted to stop the birth of Hebrews, why wouldn’t he want to get rid of the girls who would eventually give birth?!
Subversively, quietly, Shiphrah and Puah said: “Uh uh, we don’t think so!” They simply refused to do what they were commanded to do. They loved God more than they feared the Pharaoh. Incidentally, their names, Shiphrah and Puah mean “beautiful” and “splendid”.
Oh, and listen to their clever little lie: when the Pharaoh tries to blame them for the continuing strength of the Hebrew population, they play to his prejudice and tell him that these simple Hebrew women are strong, like animals and they have their babies quickly. He likes the idea that Hebrew women aren’t delicate and refined like Egyptian women. God loves this ruse of the midwives and rewards them with families of their own.
The frustrated Pharaoh ups the ante and orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile. What a terrible time for little baby Moses to be born. His mama, another very clever woman, hides him for three months. Just as the Pharaoh had ordered that the babies be thrown into the Nile: this sad mom carefully, tearfully sets her baby boy afloat in the Nile, in a watertight basket, praying for a miraculous escape.
Now Moses has a clever sister named Miriam. She watches this sad drama with her baby brother. She creeps amongst the reeds along the river, praying for her brother’s safety. Miriam is going to do whatever she can to keep him alive.
Enter one more clever, disobedient woman: The Pharaoh’s daughter. She knows well her father’s anger at the Hebrews. She has heard him ranting about it every night at dinner. When she hears the baby’s cry on the river, she picks him up. Even though she knows right away that he is a Hebrew baby she seems to fall in love with him at first sight.
Here’s my favorite part: Clever Miriam steps right up, saying; “I know a woman who could nurse this baby!” Now baby Moses and his own mama are reunited AND the Pharaoh’s daughter is paying the mom to nurse her own forbidden child. Moses is raised by his own birth mother and eventually adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
All five of these women are disobedient and if they are caught, any of them might be killed for what they are doing. How brave they are! I think this is one of the best stories in the bible and I adore each of these women for their sly acts of civil disobedience. I have never done anything half as brave as these women but oh, what role models they are!
In a time when women had no power, no voice, no social standing, no public lives, the acts of these five women are mind boggling. Sociologist Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ writes, “that if it wasn’t for these women” there would be no exodus, no Moses, no liberation of the Children of Israel.” Each of these small, brave acts of defiance results in the saving of the Hebrew people.
I just find it delightful that there is such duplicitous behavior by these women: Shiphrah and Puah boldly lie and disobey the ruler of the land. Miriam and her mother lie to the Pharaoh’s daughter and pretend to not know baby Moses. The Pharaoh’s daughter blatantly disobeys her father, bringing one of the hated Hebrew boys to be raised right in his household!
Have you heard of the butterfly effect? In chaos theory, an act as tiny as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can result in a huge change in the world. The things these women did were all small, but they resulted in the birth and life of Moses who leads a nation of people to freedom.
These women change their world. The things we do in our small lives in our small town may feel unimportant, but we have no idea what future leaders we are enabling by our actions. Each of us can change the world. Every day we have the chance to make that one phone call, that one kind comment, that one small gesture that may someday change everything. We all have a lot more power than we think.