“Who am I?”
There has been much media coverage of this 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. At home we have watched quite a number of TV programmes and there was one in particular that caught me – Kate Adie looking at the role of women during that war and afterwards. The story was told of Lady Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland. At the very start of the war, when the Germans had invaded Belgium, Lady Millicent, a 46 year old mother of three, left her home and went to Belgium to set up a hospital so that the wounded would have more prompt attention. She moved to France eventually and stayed there until the end of the war, continuing with her nursing duties. I wonder how many people have heard of her and yet she contributed significantly to many, many lives.
There’s a parallel here between Lady Millicent and the five women we have just read about in Exodus. They are: two Hebrew midwives; Moses mother; Moses’ older sister; and a princess of Egypt, Pharaoh’s daughter.
Five women, who at that time were automatically marginalised because of their gender, not seen critical for the history of a people; not seen as significant in the least. It’s a curious way to begin the great epic story of the Exodus. In fact, we usually tell the story from the perspective of Moses – the innocent little baby floating down the Nile who grows up to lead his people to freedom.
Let’s take a closer look at these five women of Exodus.
Shiphrah and Puah were midwives. Have you ever heard of them before? They are 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 job was to tend the Hebrew women when they went into labour.
Pharaoh knew this, of course, and thought it would be an excellent way to stop the ever increasing numbers 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. In other words “when the baby is delivered 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 Jochebed. Jochebed 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 girl. And her childhood was coloured 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 rigours 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.
Shiphrah and Puah concocted the most ridiculous story for the Pharaoh… “You know those Hebrew women! They are so hardy that, no matter how we hurry, we can never get to them before their babies are born!” Pharaoh, whose plan was to trick the Hebrew women into thinking their babies had been born dead, was stumped. What did he know about giving birth?
It may seem 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. 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: that of ushering new lives into the world.
And what about Jochebed? 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 labour through his birth and receive the crushing news that her littlest one was, in fact, a boy. And he would die. What fear she must have 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 and 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? Perhaps she noticed her mother’s tears 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 fear that must 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 decree. 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 because of her father’s policies. And she used her power and her position to save him.
The Exodus is a truly compelling and riveting story: God stepping into history and delivering His people from oppression and death.
But the story curiously begins, not with a big thunderclap or a booming voice from heaven. It starts with five women, low on the social ladder… 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 the Exodus: oppression, enslavement, death.
I am reminded of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. He and his people were doing a great job taking care of needy people and spreading the gospel, but some people criticized Booth for allowing women to hold responsible positions. Booth replied:
“All my best men are women.”
Sometimes it is like that, isn’t it! When it comes to people who are actually willing to do something—to get their hands dirty—some of our best men are women.
So 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 warlords and powerful armies—but of five insignificant women?
The story of Exodus starts this way, with the stories of these five unlikely women, because the work of God is always underway, and it happens most often through the faithful, rebellious acts of insignificant people… people like the five women of Exodus, and people like you and me.
We live in a world where we see constant demonstrations of oppression and fear; death and violence; injustice and inequity. You and I may not have the power of a Pharaoh or the resources of a politician but we do have the power to raise our hands in the service of God to say” no” to oppression and death, injustice and exclusion. And “yes” to a God who offers love and salvation, justice and peace for everyone.
A journalist once said, “Women who behave rarely make history,” nor is she the first person to express the sentiment that ushering in the kingdom of God is likely to happen through quiet but rebellious 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 do you say I am?” It may not seem like too much of a leap to you and me for Peter to stand up and say “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God”.
But for Peter it was huge. It meant speaking out his truth in front of the powers that surrounded him; it meant putting his faith in a man who some others thought was just a crazy homeless man talking nonsense.
And when Peter declared his courage-filled affirmation of faith, what was Jesus’ response. He said: “And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
A courageous declaration of faith was followed with a promise from Jesus: Peter, you summoned just enough courage to speak what you believe and you have no idea how your act of courage will change the whole world.
And so 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 tiny but rebellious act of faith undertaken… by you or me.
Let us pray.
We pray for the strength to summon just enough courage to live the rebellious faith to which we are called. Amen.