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God and the Hebrew Midwives

The power to be courageous comes from fear of God.

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?

When you 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.

Look at 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?'

"The 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)

The reality 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 ordinary women.

Scholars 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.

And then 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.

Recently I 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.

That took 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.

Then Pharaoh 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?"

It's 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 disobeyed.

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 Pharaoh's expense.

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."

Friends, we 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 lover.

Notice that 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.

What happens 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 and 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.

The courage of the midwives came from two sources.

What did 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 together."

The church 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.

God honored 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.

(c) 1989 Roberta Hestenes

Preaching Today Issue #76


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Sermon Outline:


I. Pharaoh instructs the midwives to kill all the male Hebrew babies

II. We need to take the fear of God seriously

III. The courage of the midwives came from two sources