Many of you
perhaps were shaped the way I was in terms of where I really learned my first
Bible pictures of the Exodus story. I didn't get mine in Sunday school, because
I didn't go to Sunday school growing up. I got my total mental furniture from
Cecil B. DeMille movies. It's impossible that Moses looks like anything except
Charlton Heston. Once I saw Charlton Heston in a grocery store and thought, What's
Moses doing in this grocery store?
think popularly about where the Exodus experience begins, most of us tend to
believe it begins with the story of Moses. I want to suggest this morning that
it didn't begin with the story of Moses; it began in a different place, in a
surprising place, in a place, I think, that has lessons for all of us.
Pharaoh instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill
all the male Hebrew babies.
Exodus 1, beginning with verse 11: The Egyptians "put slave masters over
them [the Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom
and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the
more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites
and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in
brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard
labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly."
Why are we
surprised when people use other people? It's right there at the beginning of
the biblical account. "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives,
whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 'When you help the Hebrew women in
childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him;
but if it is a girl, let her live.' The midwives, however, feared God and did
not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then
the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, 'Why have you done
this? Why have you let the boys live?'
midwives answered Pharaoh, 'Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are
vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.'
"So God was kind to the midwives, and the people increased
and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave
them families of their own. Then
Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: 'Every boy that is born you must
throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.' " (NIV)
of cruel oppression is heightened as the oppressor fears the very one who is
being oppressed. This is a pattern built into the human experience. You could
go all around the world today, and I could exegete this passagethe story of
oppression. In South Africa or Sudan or any place that you want to name, the
oppressor comes to fear the one who is being oppressed. Then the screws are
tightened and the stakes are raised, and the oppressor moves from ruthless
injusticehard laborto attempted genocide. And, as is common with patterns of
oppression, the genocide then is to be carried out by persons from within the
oppressed community. In this case the genocide is to be carried out by two
tell us that midwives in Israel were barren women. In a culture within which
having children and a family was the ordinary way to build a life, to obtain
respect, to know the blessing of God, these barren, somewhat marginal women
found their place as those who helped other women bring forth that new life.
Part of their daily work, their daily routine, what they got up in the morning
to do, was to helpto bring forth life.
came the order. Notice that it came from one who had the official authority to
give it. He was the legal power in that place, and these midwives were slaves,
fully under the authority of this king.
was in Egypt and I saw again the impressive trappings of that culture and that
societythe statuary and temples, all meant to say something about the divine
kingship of the Pharaoh and to point to the overwhelming power and might.
The armies of
Egypt were powerful at this period in history. The culture of Egypt was the dominant culture in this period, and the
order comes down: Kill the boys. The girls could be kept as house servants,
slaves, but: Kill the boys, and do it in such a way that it doesn't look like
we did it. Then two ordinary women, who probably were illiterate, said no.
courage. Where did it come from? It says, "Because they feared God."
They had a fundamental conviction that while there was a Pharaoh, there was a
God over Pharaoh, and while they must give account to the human authorities and
powers, they must give account to one over all human authorities and powers.
They feared God and they said no.
summoned them. Can you feel what it must have been like to have the soldiers
march to your little hovel in the slave quarters and push their way into the
place, and say, "You! Come!" And then to stand before the Pharaoh and
have him say, "Why did you do that?"
interesting: the scholars through the centuries, from the early church fathers
down through the Reformers to contemporary days, have spent most of their
commentary space wrestling over the issue of whether or not the midwives lied,
missing the whole point of the narrative, which is that the midwives
I was in
Somalia with refugees when I heard something very much like something these
midwives could have said. There is no question but what they have carefully
framed their answer, and I think the writer intends for us to enjoy a joke at
But there is
a truth here: The Egyptian women, because of the slave culture, were pampered
city women. The Hebrew women were hardworking slaves, strong and vigorous, and
probably didn't have as much trouble. But if they always had their babies
before the midwives arrived, why were there midwives? What was God's response? "So God was kind to the midwives
and the people increased... . And because the midwives feared God, he gave them
families of their own."
We need to
take the fear of God seriously.
I want to
say just a small thing, but I think it's very deep. In our increasingly secular
culture and in our increasingly secular selvesbecause we are part of this
culture, it is in us even as we seek to be open to the transforming power of
Godwe are tempted to believe or act as if there were no God to be feared.
And here, I
want to say something about the common statement in sermons that talk about the
fear of God, which is, "Friends, you really don't have to be afraid of
God. God is our friend. He's loving. He's nice."
do have to be afraid of God. God is the Holy One. God is the Just One. God is
the Judge. We also know him as our lover, but he is no less judge for being
these midwives were not the spiritual professionals. They did not engage in
full-time Christian service. They had jobs right in the middle of the society,
and in their job they were governed by the fear of God.
if there is no fear of God? If there is no fear of God, our horizon shrinks and
our measurement of right and wrong becomes utilitarian: What's in it for me?
What will I gain? Can I get ahead? Will this make a difference? We may even
ask: "What can I get away with?" or, "Who will know?"
more I find those kinds of equations shaping our behavior as a society and even
as a church. We become vulnerable and susceptible to pressures to conform to
the wrong values, to give in to power even when that power is used for
destructive or evil purposes, to live a lie, and to deny our calling. When
we're called to be helpers, we turn into hurters because power told us to.
I thought of
the managers at Morton Thiokol, the construction worker who cuts a comer in
building a building because "Who will know?" the boss of the
construction worker who arranged to water the cement so that the profit margin
on the contract would be larger, the pastor watching the pornographic movie in
the hotel a long way from home because "Who will know?" the skipper
of the Exxon Valdez. But not just the skipper of the Valdez. What I thought
about was, How many people on the Valdez knew that the man had a drinking
problem and said nothing? When the
fear of God is gone, the decisions of daily life are threatened.
of the midwives came from two sources.
these women have? They had courage. Where did that courage come from? It came
from a conviction that there was a God to whom we give an account, a God that
honors us when we obey him, a God who means good for people and will have his
way in the world. And so they acted rightly.
I have one
other suspicion. It's not in the text. There were two midwives, and I think
it's possible that part of their courage came from the fact that when they
sought to do their daily work, there was another one who stood alongside.
Shiphrah had Puah. Puah had Shiphrah. And when they were threatened, they could
say, "Well, at least when we go before Pharaoh, we'll go
that has long thought of itself as gathered and scattered needs to understand
that in the scatteredness of our daily work, we
need companionscompanions of conviction and faith and courage, who can help us
do what God calls us to do.
them. In fact the names of these two ordinary women, Shiphrah and Puah, have
been preserved for over 3,000 years. God uses ordinary people to say no when no
needs to be said.