In “preaching study” posts, I share study & reflection as I prepare the Sunday message . I welcome interaction in this process, so feel free to share your thoughts. All Scripture quotes are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
The NRSV text of Exodus 1:6-22 is here. Part one of my study is here.
More on the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. When we look at what’s going on in the literary structure of Exodus 1:15-22, two contrasts stand out.
1. The midwives’ fear of God instead of or more than Pharaoh (1:17) – This is the reason given to justify their direct disobedience of Pharaoh’s command in v16 to kill the boys while allowing the girls to live.
2. The relative strength of the Hebrew women versus the Egyptian women (1:19) – This is a delicious backhanded slap at the Egyptians by the midwives. When confronted by Pharaoh, they simply reply that they can’t get to there fast enough to kill the boys because the Hebrew women are too strong and deliver their babies too quickly for this strategy to work.
Given that sermon titles are sometimes needed before the sermon itself is ready to be preached, I gave this one the title, “Where All the Women are Strong.” It is, of course, a reference to Garrison Keillor’s signature sign-off from his “News from Lake Wobegone” segment on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion: “That’s the news from Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
With that title, I’m thinking initially of the midwives’ answer to Pharaoh about the Hebrew women being stronger than the Egyptian women. But I think the text inivites us to see another show of strength in addition to the physical strength of the Hebrew women in the labor and delivery of their babies. Shiphrah and Puah themselves stand out because of their own strength of wisdom and character, displayed in verse 17.
First, their wisdom: “But the midwives feared God” – They knew a truth that Jesus would tell about taking care not to misplace one’s fear. They recognize well that God is to be shown far more deference than any other when determining who we will obey and what we will do. In this vein, a healthy fear of God such as the midwives displayed, is perhaps one of the most practical things we can learn and practice.
Second, their character: “they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” – Shiphrah and Puah display great strength of character in disobeying the Egyptian king. I imagine that the decision concerning whether or not disobeying Pharaoh was right or wrong was a relatively simple one given these women’s clarity of thought in their wisdom noted above. But deciding what is right and good and acting on that decision, on living that decision out, are two different matters. They showed great courage given the considerable power difference between the ruler of Egypt, considered to share in divinity because his position, and themselves. They were (1) women in a man’s society, and (2) foreign women belonging to an enslaved people, and therefore outsiders inhabiting at least a couple of societal margins available at the time (The text seems ambiguous about their cultural identity, calling them midwives to the Hebrews, but their names are Semitic and not Egyptian, so we are on reasonably solid ground in inferring that they were, in fact, Hebrews themselves*). But, as midwives, they did have a unique position of influence. A position of influence that Pharaoh hoped to take advantage of…if not for their courageous character and God-fearing wisdom. Instead, Pharaoh will have to widen his appeal for co-conspirators from two Hebrew midwives to “all his people” (v22) in order to diminish the number of Hebrew boys.
*P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. in the Exodus commentary in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary (single volume, 2000 revised edition), James L. Mays, ed.