Imagine you are a Hebrew midwife in Exodus 1. The king of Egypt tells you that every time you deliver a baby boy, you are to kill him. You know this is because he is fearful that these boys will grow to be Israelite men who will overthrow the harsh slavery he has inflicted on their people. But you fear God, not the king of Egypt. You know that all life comes from Him and is His alone to give and take away, and so you disobey the king of Egypt, and you make excuses to him when he calls you to account. But you are up against the king of Egypt, the ruler of the world’s great superpower. And he makes a decree, not just to you this time, but to all his people, that at birth every Hebrew boy is to be thrown in the river.
On hearing this news, your shoulders must sag, your eyes cast down, even as your stomach knots itself in anger. You fear God, you have resisted evil, you have assisted the vulnerable, and yet the king of Egypt tightens his grip. For all the good you have done, it now it looks like it is coming to nothing. You have been faithful to God; where is his faithfulness to you? God is kind enough to give you a family of your own, but what if you were to give birth to a son?
Though the king of Egypt remains unnamed, God honours the midwives by recording their names – Shiphrah and Puah – and yet, the world remains unsafe for them and their people. This is where chapter 1 of Exodus ends, but as the second chapter opens we are introduced to three other women, and with them, hope emerges.
First, we meet a Levite woman who gives birth to a son. She hides her son while she can, and when things get desperate, she places him in the Nile, but in a waterproofed basket. We don’t know what she expects to happen to the basket, but her actions echo those Noah, for her little boat is referred to as an ‘ark’ in the Hebrew, and will also save its inhabitant from the chaos of the water.
Second, we meet the king of Egypt’s daughter, who finds the crying baby and is filled with compassion. She sees he is a Hebrew baby, but she defies her father’s order, taking responsibility for the child’s welfare and bringing him under her protection as her son.
Third, we meet another daughter, the woman’s daughter, who has been watching over her baby brother. She offers to supply the king’s daughter with a Hebrew woman to breastfeed the baby. She makes it seem like she’s doing the king’s daughter a favour, rather than being an accomplice to a crime, or serving her own family’s interests. And so she brings her mother to look after him. Though the mother will hand her boy back to the king’s daughter when he comes of age, she is given a brief respite, some extra time to love and nourish him in person.
The child lives, and becomes Moses, whom God will use to bring the entire nation out of slavery, and so the great story of God’s liberation of his people begins here: with the resourcefulness of a mother, with the compassion of a king’s daughter, with the quick thinking of a young girl, and with the midwives’ fear of God.
As these women acted, they did not know who the child would become. He was just a baby, full of potential, sure, but no angel appeared at his birth announcing who he would be. They are not privy to God’s plan for this child; they save him just because he was there. They are not enacting a coordinated strategy to raise up a deliverer; they are assisting in the birth of a child, building a little boat, lifting a baby, making a helpful suggestion. In another context, these actions would not raise an eyebrow. But in a world that insists women cooperate with oppression, these actions are defiant. The women’s faithfulness aligns them with the God who, in the words of the mother of the ultimate Deliverer, brings down rulers from their thrones but lifts up the humble.
But imagine you are Shiphrah or Puah at the end of chapter 1, your shoulders slumping, your stomach churning, because you do not know the end of the story, and you feel defeated. I suspect this feeling is familiar to many of us. We are confronted with stories from our world of people being hurt, abused and enslaved. Perhaps this is even our own experience. Before the current crisis can even subside, another rises in addition to it, and even more ferocious. Hot on the heels of the horrific suffering brought to light by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we hear of the appalling handling of domestic violence in the church, and we see some dismiss, diminish or detract from the reports. Our newsfeeds grieve us with stories of the millions of women and children around the world trafficked and enslaved, and we learn that the clothes we buy may well be made by some of them. We see loved ones trapped by addiction, poverty, and mental illness, and hear of men, women and children imprisoned by our government for fleeing for their lives. And we feel hopeless or inadequate or powerless. How can we possibly make a difference against the tides of evil?
Exodus 2 helps those of us who feel as though we are standing at the end of Exodus 1. Phyllis Trible (i) observes of this passage that if the king of Egypt had anticipated the effectiveness of women in thwarting his decree, he would have commanded that all female infants be killed. Sadly there are many examples in history where other rulers have had just this kind of cunning, but her point is that though these women are not the powerful people of their world, they do something magnificent. Shiphrah and Puah are not alone, because they serve a God who calls and empowers his people, and so the decree of a king is no match for the wise and resourceful women who come after the midwives. Their commitment to God leads them to defy oppression, to give life, to shoulder responsibility, to use insight and practicality.
The people of God still have a long way to go in their liberation at the end of Exodus 2, but the story of that liberation begins with these women and their God. And to return to Mary’s words, His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation. Even to our generation. He has not finished yet.
"From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation." Luke 1.48b-50
(i) "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation," JAAR 41 (1973) 34.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). Read more from Tamie on her blog