Exodus 1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews[a] you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Over the next few weeks, the lectionary takes us through the book of Exodus. Exodus tells the story of how it is that God makes a people into God’s own people, not just a loose collection of families, but a worshipping people with a call. As we spend time with this story, we’ll find that God does not look for qualities in a people that make them worthy to be God’s own. God does not choose the beautiful or the mighty or the great Empires of the age, otherwise we’d be reading the story of the Egyptians instead of the Hebrews. God chooses Abraham and Abraham’s children who are honestly kind of a mess. They do not own land where they can worship God. They do not have great armies by which they can conquer the world. They are not possessed of levers or technologies that move history and that God could take over and use for God’s own purposes.
Instead, in Exodus, we remember that God chooses the people who have always been manipulated by others’ levers. God chooses a people not in power but in bondage to be the chosen people. God wants to work through this people to save the world from its bondage to violence and unrequited love and ultimately death itself, but in order for them to become who they are they must themselves be saved. This people becomes God’s own people because God liberates them from their captors. It is God who does the saving, God who makes them who they are.
Today, at the very beginning of this story, we find out that when God wants to save the people who will save the world, God calls upon midwives. It is the midwives who stand between Pharaoh and the children of Israel when they are at their most vulnerable. Long before God delivers the Israelites through the Sea, the midwives deliver them into a world that is already against them.
Pharaoh saw the Hebrew people as a threat. He saw how strong the children of Israel were, how they were fruitful and multiplied and spread through the land. But Pharaoh also knew that he needed them for their labor. So for Pharaoh, the children of Israel were a problem: how do I get the energy from their bodies without them turning that energy against me? And so he gave them bosses who worked them longer hours with less resources and called them lazy when they couldn’t produce the same work. But still they grew. The more Pharaoh pressed on them, the more they multiplied.
Eventually Pharaoh realized that the best way to control a people is to manage their expectations for the future. If you control their future, their hope, their own personal and communal connection to a better world to come, then you can make them labor without worrying that they will rebel. People who cannot imagine a better future will toil in the present, and they might despair, but they will not fight back. It’s only when people catch a glimpse of a different kind of world that they’re willing to start struggling for it.
So Pharaoh tried to take Israel’s future from her. He told the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all of the Hebrew boys on the birthing stool. If Pharaoh could intervene at birth, Pharaoh could make a whole people docile like domesticated animals to his kind of world. If you remind a people that your power is present with them even in their most intimate moments, from the very origins of their lives to death itself, you can rule them, body, mind, and soul. Power, real power, is not just content to rule the borders and the streets. Power wants to work its way into our bedrooms, our bathrooms, under our clothes into our most intimate places and moments so that we will always be possessed by the gnawing sense that we are not our own or even each other's. We belong to Pharaoh. Pharaoh wants to transform a people’s greatest joy into a deep fear of loss, so that anytime a new possibility emerges, it comes with the common sense that such possibilities are utopian fantasies and we should really just return to our labor. On the birthing stool, Pharaoh would discipline the Israelites to know that there is not a moment of their lives where they are not his.
But it is in that place of intimacy and oppression, at the birthing stool, where liberation begins. The midwives are the first to stand up to Pharaoh and say “let these people go." The midwives refused Pharaoh's wishes. They brought the boys into the world like they’d always done and lied to Pharaoh that they had not been able to arrive in time “because the Hebrew women were vigorous.” The midwives save the children of Israel by standing between them and Pharaoh. By doing what they have done for thousands of years and continue to do today, midwives save the lowly people who are called to save the world.
My family has spent a lot of time with midwives over the last few years. When Caitlin told me she wanted to have our babies at the birth center instead of a hospital, my initial response was skepticism and, honestly, fear. It made me think of every movie set in the Middle Ages or Victorian times, which make it seem like most births end in tragedy. I liked the idea of monitors and drugs and an operating room complete with a surgeon right around the corner in case anything went wrong. Or not even “in case” something went wrong, but when it inevitably went wrong because when you have such fancy hospitals all around, they give the impression that they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t necessary. It’s incredible how when you walk into a hospital all of the sudden every aspect of being alive is a potential “symptom,” a potential reason to worry.
But of course, because I would not be the one having our children, Caitlin called the shots. And so we met the midwives. They talked about how women’s bodies know how to give birth and babies in some way know how to be born. A birth is not a medical event. It’s a birth. They talked about how technology can be a good thing because it lets us know about complications we might not have known about otherwise, but a lot of the time women simply need support and care as they work with their bodies (rather than against them) to bring their babies into the world. One husband in our group told a story from the birth of his first child: his wife was in a pretty intense moment in her labor and he could tell she was in a lot of pain and he started to panic that something was wrong with her. But he looked up and he saw that their midwives were sitting there quietly sipping on some tea, clearly paying attention but unfazed by what they were seeing. They had been there before, they knew when to be worried, and more importantly they knew when not to be worried.
Midwives are trained not to worry because their craft remembers that our bodies are attuned to deeper rhythms of creation. Sometimes we need help finding those rhythms but they are there and our bodies know them. Midwives remember that fear and sometimes even pain are not realities to which we must succumb. Instead they can be explored and experienced and acknowledged for what they are and then we can find room within them to maneuver.
God has given our bodies a grace all their own, that knows how to live, how to bring about life, how to birth life into the world, how to slow down, and eventually, unless they are interrupted by some violence, how to die, as well. In so many ways, however, we have been taught that our bodies are problems. You don’t know what’s going on with yourself. You must listen to the experts. You should be skinnier: here’s a diet and a nutritionist you can pay to help with that. You should be less tired. Don’t get more sleep. Here’s some caffeine. Here’s a pill that will help you focus. Now get back to work. Something hurts: your body is a machine; lets change out the parts and you can feel like you did when you were young. Sometimes these technologies are great, and sometimes they are enjoyable and even life-giving. But they also make a certain kind of world, a world where everything is correctable and so you must correct yourself. Rather than an intimate moment between a mother and her child and her partner, birth becomes a medical event, pregnancy a disease. New life and every stage of life after that, from adolescence to adulthood to old age become constant sites of worry and our worry is good for Pharaoh, who offers the technologies to keep us safe from ourselves.
But that’s not the kind of world God made. That’s not the kind of life God wants us to have. God does not give a spirit of fear but a peace that surpasses all understanding. Fear constricts and constrains, keeping us in place and causing us to forget the deep delight that God has woven into the whole of creation, our bodies included. There is a grace to our bodies that worry would have us forget, that Pharaoh would have us forget so that we are so busy with our worry Pharaoh can take the fruits of our labor.
But I have found, in this story and in my own experience, that midwives bear witness to a different world, or at least different possibilities in our own world. Because of my son James’ heart condition, he needed to be born in the hospital. (Technology wouldn’t have any power at all if it weren’t necessary from time to time.) But we found out later that on the morning of March 10, the midwives had heard that Caitlin was in labor and while she was doing the work of bringing James into the world, they lit candles for the two of them all over the birth center. In whatever way they could, they were going to remember us and give their care. In a moment when we had lots of reasons to be worried, they put light into the world to acknowledge the light that is already here, no matter how dark the shadows grow. It was as though they were saying that even a sick baby is a light coming into the world, a humble flickering light that shines nonetheless, and no matter how many monitors and cuts and sticks to which we must submit for him to survive, he is good.
That’s what midwives do. That’s what our midwives did and thousands of years ago it’s what Shiphrah and Puah did, too. In spaces of darkness and worry and fear, they shepherd the light that is life coming into the world. They remind us that for all Pharaoh’s attempts to control us and the world, women have been having babies for tens of thousands of years, people have been living and eating and loving and dying and they have even on occasion been happy.
The world is often brutal and painful and hard and it is designed to be such by men who have much to gain by the whole arrangement, who need bricks for their pyramids and cheap disposable labor to make them. But God wants to make a different kind of world. And to begin that world he calls a people to be a people of care, a people who forgive each other's debts, and return lands that have been taken, a people who are always called to give special care to the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow, a people who are demanded to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the stranger will always have something to eat. And when God wants to call that people out, it begins with the midwives.
Without the courageous nurturing of the midwives, who stand between Pharaoh and the Hebrew women, who touch with care what Pharaoh would strike with malice, who cradle what Pharaoh would harm, who protect the innocent in their most vulnerable state, there would be no Israel, there would be no David, there would be no Jesus, there would be no church. We are here because we have been nurtured by those who have stood between us and Pharaoh when we were most vulnerable. We are here because some have chosen to light candles for us in our hardest moments. This is how salvation begins. With care and affirmation standing against brutality in all its forms. Salvation begins again with Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who saved the world. Amen.
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