Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Telling Stories: Five Women of Exodus

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Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Telling Stories: Five Women of Exodus

By Rev. Amy Butler

Even if our Hebrew passage today were not in an entirely different book in our bibles, we’d know a new chapter in the story was beginning by the writer’s choice of words: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph….”Abraham’s descendents, remember, had settled in the land of Egypt during a terrible famine. If you know the first part of the story you’ll remember that Joseph was sold into slavery when the family lived in Canaan, and through a series of events worked his way into the highest office in the land. After he created a system for stockpiling and distributing food during the famine, word spread through all the land that there was food to be had in Egypt.

Joseph’s family hadn’t seen him for years—they thought he was dead—so imagine their surprise when the famine forced them to go to Egypt looking for food… and they ran into Joseph. Between then and now in our story, Joseph—at the urging of the Pharaoh—moved his entire reunited family to Egypt, where he was a highly respected government official.

And life was sweet.

The family flourished; everything Abraham had been promised the night he stood out in the desert and thought about leaving home, when God promised him his descendents would be as numerous as the stars that were strung across the night sky had finally come to be.

But a new day was dawning, and the words seem appropriately ominous at the start of our story today: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph….” Four hundred years had passed; generations had come and gone; Joseph had been a prominent figure in Egyptian leadership, but that was then and this was now, and now Joseph’s family has grown large and numerous while still retaining it’s identity as a separate people. By this time the Hebrews had been relegated to a different strata of society—they were slaves forced into working to support Pharaoh’s building plans. But they were also steadily growing and amassing more of a presence in the land… and Pharaoh was starting to become alarmed. If the community of the Hebrews kept growing, he knew, pretty soon they’d be amassing power and property; they’d gone from honored guests in the land to what Pharaoh perceived as a threat.

As you know, every good story has a crisis around which it unfolds, and this was it. Pharaoh was worried about the growing influence of the Hebrews, so he inaugurated a plan of genocide. No more Hebrew boys, he declared. They would die at birth until the Egyptians could get this threat under control and keep the Hebrews contained. It was a horrible plan and a horrible turn of events for the Hebrew people. And it was against the backdrop of this horror that we meet the five women of Exodus.

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Almost 30 years ago, a young Harvard history scholar took a trip to the archives at the State Library in Augusta, Maine. Laurel Ulrich was researching a court case that had some relevance to her studies of early American women and their history, and thought she’d check out a book she’d seen listed in the archives as long as she was there. It was that day that Ulrich stumbled upon two linen-bound volumes of faded ink, the handmade diaries of a woman named Martha Ballard.

Never heard of her? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Martha Ballard was a midwife who lived in the wilds of Maine right after the Revolutionary War and kept a diary from 1785 until 1812. In her diary she recorded a whole lifetime of risky behavior that saved life after life after life and welcomed over 1000 babies into the world. She did crazy things like crossing the Kennebec River at the crest of the spring flooding, wading through waist-deep snow and climbing mountains of ice to reach her patients, and at the age of seventy-seven bent her swollen knees onto the bare back of a horse to reach a woman in labor.

After eight years tediously studying the life of Martha Ballard, Ulrich published a book called A Midwife’s Tale. And about her she wrote: “Women who behave rarely make history.”

Ulrich was writing about Martha Ballard, of course, but she could just as easily have been writing about the lives of the five women about whom we read today. They are: two Hebrew midwives; Moses mother Jocheved; Moses’ older sister, Miriam; and a princess of Egypt, Pharaoh’s daughter.

Five women, by virtue of their gender automatically marginalized, not critical for the history of a people; not significant in the least. It’s a curious way to begin the great epic story of exodus. It’s so strange, in fact, that we usually tell it from the perspective of Moses, innocent little baby floating down the Nile grows up to lead his people to freedom.

But before Moses was ever born or ever emerged from that basket of bull rushes, there were five women who chose to misbehave in quiet yet subversive ways that set into motion the very possibility for exodus; for salvation; for life. They were not great historic figures with prominent positions and lots of power. They were simply women who saw injustice and oppression and said in whatever way they could: no.

Let me introduce you to the five women of Exodus.

Shiphrah and Puah were midwives. Ever heard of them before? They are usually not included on any top ten lists of biblical characters; most people have never heard their names before. We don’t know whether they were Hebrews or Egyptians, but we do know that their jobs were to tend the Hebrew women whenever they went into labor.

In every society there are women who take this role… accompanying a woman through the intense labor of delivering a baby, work that was for most of human history a remote mystery to men. These women specialized in the reproductive issues of the Hebrew women; they advised on pregnancy problems; they mopped sweaty brows; they caught babies and cut cords and stopped bleeding. They were there at the very beginning of many little lives.

Pharaoh knew this, of course, and thought it would be most expeditious to stop the proliferation of the Hebrews right where it started, so he ordered the two midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill any male babies born to Hebrew women. When the baby is delivered, in other words, get rid of it if it’s a boy. It was a simple plan of genocide that, in Pharaoh’s mind, would not be too complicated to enact. And so he gave the order to the midwives, dusted off his hands, and went back to dreaming big plans for the building of Egypt.

The third woman of Exodus is not named here, but we know her name from a later passage… it was Jocheved. Jocheved was a Hebrew woman who was mother to at least one daughter and one son—Miriam and Aaron. It was in this climate of genocide that she found herself pregnant and delivering a baby. Who knows what she was thinking going through being pregnant in Egypt at that time? Maybe she didn’t have a choice; maybe she couldn’t bear the thought of making any other decision. Whatever the case she found herself delivered of a baby—a boy—and she knew exactly what that meant. Death.

The fourth woman of our Exodus passage today wasn’t a woman at all—she was just a little girl. And her childhood was colored by the danger and violence of the Pharaoh’s policy; the slavery of her people; the wrenching grief of her mother. She wasn’t that old, but she was old enough to know what was happening in her family, and old enough to be a player in her mother’s desperate attempts to save her baby brother.

And finally, the fifth woman in our passage was a woman of the most elite class in the land. She was the very daughter of the Pharaoh, great monarch of Egypt. She had every luxury at her disposal, endless servants to meet her every need. She was not occupied with thoughts of slavery or genocide or oppression or racism. She was bathing in a shallow pool by the Nile, tending to the rigors of monarchy.

They were all different, these five women of Exodus. And they were all the same, because they each in their own quiet way put up a hand in the face of all the violence and death and injustice going on around them… and said no.

Remember? Shiphrah and Puah concocted the most ridiculous story for the Pharaoh… “You know those Hebrew women! They are so hardy that, no matter how fast we hurry, we can never get to them before their babies are born!” Pharaoh, who had had a plan to trick the Hebrew women into thinking their babies were born dead, was stumped. What did he know about giving birth?

It seems a little humorous to us now, but just think about what it would have felt like for Shiphrah and Puah. Trembling and fearful they must have been, going before supreme Pharaoh with a fabricated excuse for not following his orders? Surely they knew that with the flick of his wrist he could send them to their deaths. But they chose to say no to his plan of death and destruction and yes instead to the task they had been given: ushering new little lives into the world.

And what about Jocheved? She was already a mother, and maybe it was that experience that made her feel determined she would carry another baby to term. Or, maybe she didn’t have the option to end her pregnancy. It must have taken some significant courage, though, to nurture the child growing beneath her heart; to make sure he had the nourishment he needed; to take a pregnancy to full term feeling the eyes of everyone in the community on her wondering: what will she do if it’s a boy? And then imagine the courage it must have taken to labor through his birth and receive the crushing news that her littlest one was, in fact, a boy. And he would die. And I wonder what fear she wrestled to the floor when she defied the Pharaoh and hid her tiny infant, doing whatever it would take to keep him safe and not imagining what long-term solution she could ever manufacture that would save his life… then going about the business of everyday, caring for her family, doing what needed to be done?

And watching her closely was the fourth woman of the first part of Exodus, Moses’ sister Miriam. Who knows what she thought as she watched her mother weave the pliant bull rushes together and carefully cover them with tar to seal out the water? Did she notice her mother’s tears? Likely. And maybe they were what gave her courage when her mother told her to place the basket in the Nile, courage to run along the riverbank, keeping the bobbing basket in her sight, ready to jump in at even a hint of tipping. Can you imagine the trembling fear that might have overtaken her when she stumbled upon the Pharaoh’s daughter, bathing in a small tidal pool on the riverbank? And the fear she felt when she saw the inevitability of her little brother floating into the princess’ line of sight? And what courage it must have taken for a little Hebrew slave girl to speak up and suggest her mother, of all people, as a nursemaid for the found baby?

And the fifth woman… the princess of Egypt. Well aware, she must have been, of her father’s mandate. She knew of the genocide, of the Pharaoh’s new law. She also knew immediately when she saw the baby in the basket that he was a Hebrew child. A woman of privilege, she was under no obligation to even notice the basket that floated toward her. She certainly could have passed it along to one of her maids—she wouldn’t have even had to participate in her father’s horrid policy, if she found it distasteful at all. Yet she saw the basket and had her maid fetch it. She opened it to find a crying child, and she gathered him up in her arms knowing everything that she knew about him and his sure fate and the mercy of her father’s policies. And she saved him. She used her power and her position to save him.

Yes, today we begin a new chapter in the story, perhaps the most compelling and riveting part of our story, the story of exodus. God, stepping into history and delivering God’s people from oppression and death.

But the story curiously begins, not with a big thunderclap or a booming voice from heaven. Nope, it starts with five women, low on the social ladder to be sure… some of them even slave women. For the most part they did not have power; each one of them was a slave to greater powers than their own. And all five of them were confronted with the very crisis that builds to exodus: oppression, enslavement, death.

Why, we ask today, would the sweeping epic of the most notable theme in all of scripture: exodus, swing into gear with the mention—not of great war lords and powerful armies—but five, little, insignificant women?

The story of Exodus starts this way, with the stories of five unlikely women, because… because, you see, the work of God is always underway, and it happens most often through the faithful, subversive acts of insignificant people… people like the five women of Exodus, and people like you and me.

Look around you. Do you see what I see? Oppression and fear; death and violence; injustice and inequity. I see them all the time… and so do you. You and I may not have the power of a Pharaoh or the resources of a president, even. But we do have the power to raise our little hands in the service of God to say no. No to oppression and death and injustice and exclusion. And yes, yes to a God who offers love and salvation, justice and peace… for everyone.

Laurel Ulrich said, “Women who behave rarely make history,” but she wouldn’t have been the first one to express the sentiment that ushering in the kingdom of God is likely going to happen through quiet, subversive acts of faith by little people like you and me.

In fact, I think that was probably what Jesus was expressing in our Gospel passage today when he asked Simon Peter who he was. Doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to you and me for Peter to stand up and say “you are the Christ, the son of the living God,” does it?

But for Peter it was huge. It meant speaking his truth to the powers that surrounded him; it meant putting his faith in a man who everyone else thought was a crazy homeless guy talking nonsense.

And when Peter declared his courage-filled affirmation of faith, think of the crazy response of Jesus. Jesus said: “I tell you, you are Peter, the rock… and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

A courageous declaration of faith was followed by Jesus with a wild promise: you summoned just enough courage to speak what you believe, Peter, and you have no idea how your act of courage will change the whole world.

And it did.

Women and men who behave rarely make history. I wonder if, 2000 years from now, someone will read a grand story of God’s faithfulness that begins with a little, tiny subversively faithful act undertaken… by you or me.

For this we pray: the strength to summon just enough courage to live the subversive faith to which we are called.

If we can find it… who knows how the story will end?


Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2008, Amy Butler. Used by permission.