Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
It all started when Joseph got sold down the river (or down the desert, I suppose would be more accurate) by his brothers who were envious of the way their father Jacob favored Joseph over all of them. Joseph ended up in Egypt, landed in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and, through a curious set of circumstances involving dreams of cannibalistic cows and other wild goings-on, he got himself appointed to Pharaoh’s cabinet as his minister of agriculture or some such position. He was, in fact, if the book of Genesis is to be believed, Pharaoh’s right-hand man—the second-most powerful person in all of Egypt. Not bad for the eleventh son of a nomadic sheep herder, a former slave and jailbird. Not bad at all.
The last few chapters of Genesis relate how Joseph was reunited with his father and reconciled with his brothers and how Pharaoh invited the whole clan to move to Egypt and settle as his honored guests in the best part of the country. Here the book of Exodus picks up the story:
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation.But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them (Exod 1:1–7).
Verse seven reiterates a theme that runs throughout the book of Genesis, and one which is important to the passage we are considering this morning. On the sixth day of creation God blesses the newly minted human beings and tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). Again, following the flood, God tells Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). Still later, God makes this universal command a bit more specific and turns it into a promise when God calls Abraham and tells him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2).
In fact, there are two parts of God’s promise to Abraham that are relevant for today’s reading. First is the promise that Abraham’s descendants will be like “the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen 22:17)—meaning, I assume, that there will be a lot of them, not that they will be small and grainy. The second part of the promise is that Abraham’s descendants will eventually possess the land of Canaan, where Abraham himself had lived only as an immigrant. The book of Genesis is in large part the story of how God repeatedly overcomes threats to the first of these promises. Infertility, disobedience, famine, and the like threaten to prevent Abraham and his descendants from being fruitful and multiplying. By the end of Genesis, the descendants of Abraham, known variously as the Israelites or Hebrews, number seventy persons in all. Not a great nation by any means, but a lot better than how the story began, with just Abraham and Sarah, a childless pair of senior citizens, with a handful of servants and a few goats and cattle, who believed a nearly unbelievable promise from a previously unknown god that uprooted them from their homeland in their golden years and brought them to the land of Canaan.
Then, as we make the transition from Genesis to Exodus, as this couple’s seventy descendants pull up their tent stakes and move from Canaan to settle in Egypt, we perceive a possible threat to the second part of the promise—that the Israelites would possess the land of Canaan. They leave the land of the promise to become aliens in yet another country and, as we shall see, this gets them in a heap of trouble. In a sense, the book of Exodus is about how God overcomes this threat as well.
As Exodus opens, we find that the threats to the promise of many descendants are no longer an issue. Verse 7 tells us that “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific”—the Hebrew verb is elsewhere used to describe the swarming multiplication of fish or frogs—“they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
Ironically, it is this very fulfillment of the first part of God’s promise to Abraham that threatens the fulfillment of the second part. The Israelites’ rapid population growth—going from seventy to “swarming” in the space of two verses—begins to make the powers that be nervous. Pharaoh takes stock of the situation and says, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (vv. 9–10). So he orders their enslavement and uses their forced labor to build a pair of supply cities called Pithom and Rameses. Now, with the covenant people enslaved in a foreign land, the second part of God’s promise to Abraham, that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan, is put in jeopardy.
One wonders why Pharaoh thinks enslaving the Israelites will solve the problem of their population explosion—his complaint sounds more like a cover story to let him carry out a predetermined policy. Regardless of his motives, however, Pharaoh soon discovers that his ploy has not stopped the growth of the Israelites. Verse 12 says that “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” Their dread is so great, in fact, that Pharaoh quickly turns to drastic measures.
That’s where our story begins. Pharaoh summons the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and commands them to kill all male babies born to the Hebrews. You have to understand that the Egyptian people worship Pharaoh as a god. Whether this worship springs from true devotion or fear is immaterial; the point is that Pharaoh wields the power of a god on earth, and to disobey him in any particular is bad form—unwise and quite often fatal. So Pharaoh means for the midwives to take his instructions to kill the Hebrew boys not as a suggestion but as a divine command, with all attendant penalties for disobedience thereto appertaining. In other words, if Shiphrah and Puah do not carry out the order, their lives will be in serious jeopardy.
But as we read on we learn that “they [do] not do as the king of Egypt command[s] them, but they let the boys live” (v. 17, emphasis added). What could possess these lowly immigrant women—on the bottom of the totem pole even among their fellow slaves—to engage in the first recorded act of civil disobedience against this seemingly all-powerful ruler? It has to be something more than mere sympathy for the babies they deliver, for one’s supply of sympathy runs short when faced with a choice between another’s death and one’s own. As Satan remarks (quite accurately, I think) to God in the book of Job, “All that people have they will give to save their lives” (Job 2:4). No, there has to be something more at stake before these women would dare to defy the almighty Pharaoh.
That “something more” can be found in the first part of verse 17. It’s a simple line, but it carries a world of significance, not only for Shiphrah and Puah, but also for us: “The midwives feared God.” Just as in the case of Job, in which Satan’s prediction is proved wrong only because Job is more firmly committed to his faith in God than to his own prosperity, his health, or even his very life, the only adequate motivation for Shiphrah and Puah to disobey Pharaoh’s command is that they hold the commands and wishes of God more dear than those of Pharaoh—more dear than even their own lives.
In one sense, what we have in the book of Exodus is a contest between rival gods. Pharaoh, the god of Egypt, is pitted against Yahweh, the God of Israel. The first fourteen chapters of Exodus show Egypt’s god doing everything he can to thwart the plans of Israel’s God. As we have already noted, the enslavement of the Hebrews and Pharaoh’s repeated attempts to control the population through infanticide pose threats to Yahweh’s purposes of multiplying the Israelites and giving them the land of Canaan as their own possession.
As the story moves on from here, God and Pharaoh become engaged in a power struggle. God says through Moses, “Let my people go,” and Pharaoh refuses. Moses turns water to blood and a stick into a snake, and Pharaoh’s magicians do the same. God brings plagues on the land of Egypt that devastate the Egyptians but leave the Israelites unscathed. These plagues culminate in the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn son, while the Israelites, God’s “firstborn son,” as they are described elsewhere in the Old Testament, are spared. And God achieves a final victory by allowing the Israelites to cross through the sea while Pharaoh and his army are drowned.
That same contest appears in this passage, only here it is less explicit and more subtle. The contest here is between the midwives’ loyalties. Whom will they choose to obey, Pharaoh, the god of Egypt, or Yahweh, the covenantal God of Abraham and Israel? Here again, God wins out.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming the outcome is a foregone conclusion, however. For Shiphrah and Puah, it is anything but. For them the decision they have to make is a matter of life and death. They have no way of knowing for certain that their decision to be faithful to God will work out in their favor. Rather, their response is similar to that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel. Threatened with death in a fiery furnace if they refuse to worship an image set up by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, they say, “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Dan 3:17-18). Like them, Shiphrah and Puah make their choice regardless of the consequences.
That’s why I consider these Hebrew midwives, who appear in only seven verses in the whole Bible, two of the most heroic figures in all of Scripture. They set an example for all who have to make the difficult choice between obeying those who wield temporal power and obeying God. They set an example for the apostles, who in Acts 5:29 justify their refusal to stop preaching about Jesus by saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Though their words are not recorded, this seems to be the exact reasoning the midwives follow.
Shiphrah and Puah also set an example for us. We live in a complex world, with many voices competing for our attention and many powers competing for our allegiance. Sometimes it’s hard to discern which of these is the voice or will of God. Sometimes the choices are clear-cut, as in the case of the midwives, but the decision is still difficult because the consequences may be harsh. Do we speak the truth, though it may cost us our job or our reputation or a close friendship, or do we keep our mouths shut and go on living comfortably in line with our culture, making no waves and rocking no boats? Do we oppose white supremacy or homophobia or violence even though it may land us in jail or make us the victims of violence ourselves, or do we remain silent and “live and let die?” Do we stand up and speak out against policies that are evil or unjust, or do we value the higher law of God too little to make the effort to get involved? As the old hymn puts it, “To us all, to every nation comes the moment to decide, / in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side” (Lowell 1845).
But what about when the choices aren’t quite so clear? What about capital punishment, or gun control, or abortion? What about the conflict between legitimate business interests and the need to halt global climate change? What about immigration and mass incarceration? What about the delicate balance between protecting religious liberty and guarding against discrimination? What about the hard choice between military service and conscientious objection? How do we know where to stand? How do we choose between the competing claims and arguments?
I’m not about to stand here and give you an easy solution to these problems, or dial my secret decoder ring to help you figure out how to respond. Not only am I not naïve enough to think I could get away with something like that, but also I know that it would be counterproductive for me to do so. That’s because the whole idea of spiritual maturity is to be able to make decisions for ourselves, guided by the Holy Spirit. We have got in a whole lot of trouble in the history of the church by letting other people tell us what to do and failing to seek God’s counsel to figure out if those people are full of truth or full of beans.
The results can be catastrophic. People went along with the Inquisition’s torture and killing of heretics, with the Puritans’ vendettas against supposed witches, with centuries of anti-Semitism and slavery and the subjugation of women simply because those in power said it was God’s will and they either didn’t bother to seek the truth for themselves or they didn’t dare speak up for fear of reprisals. Think of all the rank-and-file German soldiers who, after World War II, excused their participation in the so-called Final Solution by saying they were only following orders. I’m sorry, but that excuse is unacceptable. Shiphrah and Puah didn’t use it, and neither should we.
What we should do, and must do if we are to be responsible followers of Jesus Christ, is to develop and discipline our consciences under God’s direction. That means we study the Bible, engage with other people of faith, pray, and listen for the Spirit’s guidance as we wrestle with the difficult issues and decisions we face each day. There are no easy answers. Fear those who tell you there are. The answers you come up with may differ from mine, and we may both be living as faithful disciples and acting in good conscience. That is part of the challenge of living in the postmodern world: learning how to decide what is right, and how to coexist peacefully with those who come to different conclusions.
The most important thing for us to do is to learn the lesson Shiphrah and Puah are trying to teach us.. If we fear God we need not fear any other power, whether, as Paul says, “in heaven [or] on earth [or] under the earth” (Phil 2:10). The powers want to control us, to keep us in subjection, and they, like Pharaoh, are arrogant enough to presume they can bend us to their wills, even to the point of ordering us to do something as ghastly as killing infants. (Or go to war, or participate in genocidal slaughter, or go along with the oppression and brutalizing of a group of people because of their religion or sexuality or skin color.) But the people of God need not submit to them any longer. Again, in the words of Paul, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
The question we each must answer, then, is this: “Am I one of the people of God?” If our answer is yes, then the question of allegiance is settled. We are on the side of God, not the pharaohs and dictators and emperors of the world. All that’s left now is to live out that allegiance—to live out our freedom and refuse to submit to a yoke of slavery—every day of our lives. Starting today.
Lowell, James Russell. 1845. “To Us All, to Every Nation,” alt. (Originally “Once to Every Man and Nation.”) Adapt. W. Garrett Horder. Chalice Hymnal, 1995. St. Louis: Chalice Press.