Sermon, August 23

Read this Sunday’s lessons from Exodus and Romans here. 

This text from the beginning of the book of Exodus is full of women quietly working to resist and subvert a cruel and abusive status quo. Let’s see – can we list them all? …. 

– The midwives (more about them in a moment)

– Miriam, Moses’ big sister. Text suggests that her keeping an eye on Moses in the basket – & then approaching the Egyptian princess – is her own initiative. (And we see her boldness later in the story when she’s a grown woman.) 

– Moses’ mother, named Jochebed by tradition – hiding her baby & then finding a way to give him a chance at life while also being able to say truthfully, “Yes, yes, we put him in the Nile”

– Pharaoh’s daughter – her motivations are a little inscrutable. But she certainly knows of her father’s decree of death for the Hebrew babies, and she chooses to ignore it. I wonder if she guessed the baby’s Hebrew nurse was actually his mother. 

I’m not here to idealize women as somehow universally more moral or more righteous – or more sneaky. But there is something we recognize here: something about an overwhelmingly male-dominated system, in which some women find quiet ways to resist, and do what needs doing. 

Now let’s hone in on the midwives – Sifra and Puah. The text calls Shifrah and Puah, the “Hebrew midwives.” That is the simplest translation, but it loses the ambiguity of the Hebrew. It might be better to say “the midwives of the Hebrews,” because it’s not fully clear whether these women were Hebrew or Egyptian. 

They might easily have been Egyptian midwives whose job it was to attend to births among the Hebrew population. Nothing strange about that; we have plenty of white ladies in various helper roles with communities of color in America today. 

There’s been lots of wondering about the midwives over the centuries. I learned, in preparing this sermon, that Jewish commentators have held both views for at least two thousand years. 

I’ve believed for a long time that the midwives are Egyptian. I just think that’s what makes narrative sense. Let me explain why, briefly. 

First, Pharaoh asks them to kill the Hebrew babies. Would Pharaoh be so clueless as to ask that if they were themselves Hebrew? A 16th century rabbi, Don Isaac Abarbanel, wrote, “How could Pharaoh’s mind be confident that Hebrew women would murder their own people’s babies?” It makes much more sense if the midwives were Egyptian, and Pharaoh assumed they would share his point of view – that the Hebrews were threatening outsiders whose lives don’t really matter. 

Second – when Pharaoh calls in the midwives to ask why they’re letting the babies live, both Pharaoh and the midwives speak about the Hebrews – the Israelites – as others, as a “them.” “They give birth before the midwife even arrives!”  And notice how the midwives deflect suspicion by playing into demeaning stereotypes, saying “the Hebrew women are hardy.” “Hardy” doesn’t sound so bad until you think about the contrast with the delicate, refined Egyptian women. And the Hebrew word translated as “hardy,” when used as a noun, means “animals.” Those people – their women are like beasts, they just push out a baby before we can even get there…! What can we do? 

Finally, I think the very fact that this story is HERE indicates that the midwives were Egyptian. “Dog bites man” doesn’t make a headline. Hebrew women helping other Hebrew women, likewise. But “Man bites dog” – Egyptian women helping Hebrew women defy the Egyptian king – THAT’s a story. And it’s a kind of story the Hebrew Bible likes to tell – stories of people outside the covenant, people outside of God’s chosen lineage, who nonetheless honor Israel’s God and act righteously. In one 1000-year-old text, Shifra and Puah are named as Righteous Gentiles. 

(That brings them alongside people like Ida Cook, who worked tirelessly to help Jewish children escape Europe just before the Second World War; I shared her story back in February. Another tale of secret plots to preserve life that rest on the tendency of men in power to underestimate and ignore women.) 

I believe Shifra and Puah were Egyptians, who didn’t go along with their leader and their culture, but saw and did what was right. They weren’t conformed to the world but they were transformed by the renewing of their minds, discerning the will of God. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In our somewhat abbreviated Sunday gatherings, we’ve skipped a lot of the texts from Romans this summer summer. Paul’s letter to the Romans is frankly ill-suited to the Sunday lectionary. He’s building long, complex arcs of argumentation that don’t break into pieces well. But from chapter 12 onward, Paul is offering advice about living as people of faith in community, and it gets a little easier to receive and understand a piece at a time. 

There aren’t a lot of verses in the Bible that stand well on their own. Generally you need context to know what’s being said. But if you want to memorize this single verse and carry it around inside of you… you could do a lot worse. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

It’s a good verse for the Egyptian midwives. Other Egyptians, and their King, were saying: Look, these Hebrew workers – there are too many of them, and they’re having too many babies. We need their labor, but they’re a threat to our culture and way of life. Let’s make life harder and harder for them; let’s make them struggle, let’s make them afraid, to make sure they don’t overrun us. 

Shifra and Puah didn’t conform to that point of view. They exercised their own judgment, followed their own values.  

One thing I respect about Shifra and Puah is that they knew the difference between what’s legal and what’s right. If you, like me, have been raised in a society where the laws and the rules mostly protect and privilege people like me, it’s easy to be fuzzy on the difference – but it’s pretty important to be prepared to ask ourselves, Is what’s legal, right? And is what’s right, legal? 

Slavery was legal; so was Jim Crow segregation. The Holocaust was legal. Jesus’ execution was legal. Separating infants and toddlers from their parents, indefinitely, at the U.S. border has been legal in the very recent past. Meanwhile, in parts of our nation, people have been prosecuted for feeding the homeless; and for leaving water caches in the desert to help desperate migrants survive.

Legal is not always the same as moral. Legal is not always the same as right. Laws are made by human governments, and human governments get things wrong. 

The text says that Shifrah and Puah went rogue because they feared God. That makes sense for the Biblical text, which is very interested in non-Israelites honoring Israel’s God. But I’m not sure I believe it. 

Egyptians had their own gods, including gods associated with pregnancy and birth. Shifrah and Puah were probably devotees of Taweret, the pregnant hippopotamus-goddess who watched over births, or Meshkenet, who gave strength to women in labor. 

Deaths of mother, baby, or both in childbirth would have been common, as they have been throughout most of human history. To wrest a living baby from the womb was to win a wrestling match with death. 

Midwives are people who deeply respect the birth process and, based on the ones I’ve met, really love babies. To be a midwife is to be on the side of life, in a fundamental way. To be willing to get soaked with blood and amniotic fluid and less mentionable substances, for the sake of bringing forth and preserving life. 

I don’t think Shifrah and Puah broke Pharaoh’s command because they thought the Hebrews had a better God. I think they went rogue for the sake of life. 

And that just happened to align them with God’s purposes – because our God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a god of life. 

Where would you be prepared to go rogue for the sake of life? 

The ways our governments, economies and societies deal death are, mostly, more subtle and indirect these days. In Lebanon: Government officials ignored warnings about a stockpile of explosive material in a warehouse for … six years. In our nation: A sluggish and incoherent response to a global pandemic has undoubtedly led to many more deaths than might otherwise have been. In Wisconsin, just this summer, a government committee rejected changes to state rules that would have prohibited the use of conversion therapy by licensed therapists and others.  “Conversion therapy” involves trying to change somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and it’s associated with psychological harm, substance abuse, and worse. 

You probably have your own item you’d put on the list of ways our status quo compromises and damages life – and not only human life, but also creatures and ecosystems. And that brings me to another thing I respect about the midwives: their crystal-clear focus. 

Shifra and Puah had their work, their mission, their cause: Save babies. And when the interests and fears of those in power put pressure on their work, they found ways to keep saving babies.

It’s pretty normal to be overwhelmed, right now. For many of us, even an egregious news story gets kind of a “Huh” reaction at this point. There’s just too much. 

I wonder if there’s something, some hope, some value, some cause, some work, that is as bedrock-solid for you as saving babies was for Shifrah and Puah. I wonder whether God has given you a heart for that hope or value or cause or work … for a reason. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Where are you prepared to go rogue for the sake of life? 



A really detailed, interesting investigation of Jewish commentary and translation issues related to the identity of the midwives: