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"Defiant: Shiphrah and Puah"

Updated: Jun 24

Old and wise, our defiant pair told him what he was already prepared to believe: “The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them!”


"These Midwives Have A Secret" by Amy Parker
"These Midwives Have A Secret" by Amy Parker

Exodus 1:8-22

June 16, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


So today is the start of a six-week sermon series based on Kelley Nikondeha’s book, Defiant, which tells the story of the women of Exodus. Without them, the whole story of how God freed the Hebrew people and formed them into a nation and brought them to the Promised Land, would have faltered.


The story begins with two defiant women, the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah.


They did not set out to be defiant, but they were in the business of bringing life into the world, not death, so when Pharoah ordered them to kill, they disobeyed.    


 

But there’s some necessary context. (There always is!) Nikondeha reminds us that, “The Nile River teemed with life. Fish shimmied through the waters… along the shores a lounging crocodile could be seen, and turtles, frogs, lizards, and even bulbous hippos gliding downstream. And birds – everywhere birds! You could see them in the air, flying toward the sun or scavenging closer to the water’s surface. The delta was a fertile place – even for the Hebrews!”[1]


You hear that truth in the verse preceding our passage: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”


“Packed into this single verse are seven words describing the dramatic and enduring increase of [Jacob’s descendants]” writes Nikondeha. “No one listening to the story could mistake the clear signal – we’re meant to be momentarily transported back to that lush garden where original shalom was established and all was right. This is where the story begins – not in a brickyard but in a garden. Not backbreaking work, relentless quotas, and [the] crack of the whip,” but in life fertile and flourishing![2]


 

But it is exactly that fertile flourishing that makes Pharoah nervous. He fears that the Hebrews will revolt or join Egypt’s enemies. He can only see them as a threat. So when he uses the word “teeming” it is not with the positive connotation of the Genesis story, but of those political leaders who dehumanize groups of people by describing them as insects that are infesting the nation.


So Pharoah comes up with a plan. When hard labor constructing his cities does not slow the Hebrews’ fertility, he decides to order the midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys.


It is a hateful and savage, desperate and brutally efficient plan – kill them all!


And we have heard it repeated many times since by murderous, ruthless, fearful leaders.


They speak with all authority, expect loyalty, and enlist others to collude with them.  


 

But Pharoah has miscalculated.


Shiphrah and Puah are midwives.


One scholar explains why that is significant:

“They were in the business of delivering life, and when labor began in earnest, when it was time for professional help – someone with steady hands and a strong stomach who had been down this road a few times and knew what to do – they were the women to call. Puah and Shiphrah knew how blood-and-guts hard it was to bring new life into this world, [even among the fertile]. They were prepared to wait with you, over that slow horizon of labor, and … through a long night with lots of unknowns. Women who do this kind of work, day in and day out, don’t scare easily.”[3]


They had a plan of their own.


Nikondeha imagines Shiphrah explaining to others what the Pharoah had demanded and then announcing, “We will do as our mothers and their mothers have done – deliver babies.”


And Puah adding, in case people hadn’t made the connection, “We are the strong arms and

soft hands of God, and we cannot do otherwise.”[4]


It was an act of civil disobedience! And like all such acts, I’m sure their voices shook a little, even if their hearts did not waiver.[5]


 

When Pharoah perused the latest demographic data and did not see a dramatic drop in male births among the Hebrews, he summoned Shiphrah and Puah back to the palace and demanded to know why they had failed him.


Old and wise, our defiant pair told him what he was already prepared to believe: “The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them!”


Don’t you know that the storyteller milked that line for all it was worth, laughing that prejudice contains the seeds of its own downfall?


 

But do not let the laughter undercut the seriousness of what is going on here: Death is a threat to the fertility and flourishing that God has willed. A death-dealing leader demands a response from people dedicated to bringing life into this world.


Shiphrah and Puah respond with defiance.


But defiance is not without risks. Pharoah could have removed our heroic pair and replaced them with two others who would do what he demanded.


What could move them to take such a risk, to defy the ruler, to disobey?


Exodus is remarkably blunt: “The midwives feared God.” Not Pharoah; God.


You can almost hear the obvious reference: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!”[6]


 

So what would it mean for us to follow in their footsteps? To fear God more than any

earthly ruler, even the most powerful man in the world? To work for life as an act of faith, rather than deal death out of fear? To be a midwife?


In her book, A is for Alabaster, Anna Carter Florence asserts it means being…


“[a] person who is prepared to walk with others who are laboring.

A person with steady hands and a strong stomach.

A person who can see past the frenzy of the moment to what is waiting beyond the long horizon of pain.

A person that knows how blood-and-guts hard it is to bring new life into this world.

A person who believes what seems physically impossible – there is no way new life is going to come out of a space that small – is, in fact, possible, because [they’ve] seen it; this is not their first delivery.

A person who believes that even we in this moment are capable of delivering new life too.”[7]


Can you imagine being such a person? Can you imagine operating in a world where God’s will to bring life into being is stronger than all the forces that grimly and gleefully use death as the primary tool for getting what they want? Can you imagine holding steady twelve hours in, when the person is no longer at their best; when they hate everyone in the room, including you, for making them do this; when the snarling turns to screaming, and you have to watch them hurt?


Can you imagine midwifing something new into the world? In this time and place? When so much about West Virginia does not shout fertile and flourishing? When so much about the Church – whether it be the mainline church, or our denomination, or local churches – seems to be withering away? When so much in our society is under threat? Can you imagine being a midwife?


As you wrestle with that question, reflect on the story of Shiphrah and Puah. The exodus out of Egypt, one of the mighty acts of God, began with them. Amen


[1] From Defiant, page 9
[2] Ibid, page 10
[3] From Anna Carter Florence’s book A is for Alabaster, pages 64-65
[4] From Defiant, page 29
[5] Yes, that’s an allusion of Maggie Kuhn’s quote, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”
[6] See Psalm 111:10 or Proverbs 9:10
[7] Here and following from A is for Alabaster, page 65

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