What I have always found as one of the most stunning verses about the nature of God occurs as the Exodus narrative begins. It is the verse where God hears the cries of the people of Israel and moves into action. So when I saw the section for the week, I had years of youth ministry lessons to draw from in order to write on this verse. But for the careful reader, you will notice the absence of this verse.
In fact, other than God being good to the midwives, you might notice an absence of God’s activity all together.
When we think about Exodus we think God the Liberator showing His strength and might. This flexing of divine muscle takes place between God’s servant Moses and the unnamed faceless leader of the oppressive empire – Pharaoh. Again, a careful look might notice the masculine energy associate with this story.
Yet Exodus begins in a different place. We meet the generic Pharaoh and we see the cruelty he brings to Israel. But we haven’t gotten to the “mighty works” of God. And Moses is just “the baby” until the very last verse.
So who drives the narrative?
A woman gives birth to a baby who turns out to be pretty important. A girl keeps watch over this important baby as he floats the river. Another woman draws this baby out of the water (notice the woman’s action gives Moses his name) and then the girl convinces Pharaoh’s daughter to allow her mother to nurture and care for this baby.
And if that doesn’t beat the women thing into your head enough, jump up a few verses.
Other than Moses, again in the very last verse, the only two proper names are Shiphrah and Puah – the Hebrew midwives.
These women should have been the faceless unnamed ones. They were low on the totem pole for who was important in their day. But they get mentioned by name for their heroic act.
Exodus is a story of heroic acts. But before Moses, and even before the recorded actions of God, we have Shiphrah and Puah.
God working in subversive fashion through lowly, rejected, and unrecognized people doing their ordinary every day jobs. Without the heroic, ordinary acts of these women, we don’t even get to the extraordinary stories we came to love on the flannel graph.
No Shiphrah and Puah, no courage for a mother to rescue her own son. And without a sister, mother, and surrogate mother to watch over and care for and protect him, we would have no Moses.
We want to rush to burning bushes and plagues and parting seas, but the writer here wants us to slow down and pay attention to what happens BEFORE the narrative we all know and love.
Notice how often gender is mentioned. Notice how often Israel and Egypt are mentioned.
This is a story about gender and ethnicity.
This is a story about radically crossing the boarders of gender, race, and culture.
This is a story about resisting the powerful forces of darkness when they rear their ugly heads.
This is a story about nurturing new life into being, right in the midst of that darkness.
This is a story about the liberating presence of God in the ordinary, everyday moments.
This is a story about overlooked people doing something colossal for God.
This is a story about standing up for the dignity and well-being of those others deem as second class.
This is a story about what it means to be the people of God.
So what can we learn about the nature of God here?
1. God cares about all people. God does not discriminate between male and female. Egyptian and Israelite. God cares about dehumanization in all forms. God cares about gender issues. God cares about race issues. We know this because God gets involved!
2. Sometimes God’s most important work happens behind the scenes. The story of Exodus does not happen without Shiphrah and Puah. Yet how many of us are familiar with their story?
3. God works in our response. There is no burning bush for Shiphrah and Puah. They simply knew who God was and who God cared about. Because of this, they actively resisted the dehumanizing power of Pharaoh.
So this tells us something about our response as well.
1. We should be people who constantly examine the status quo, and resist when necessary. Shiphrah and Puah could have easily just gone about their business and done what the powers that be told them to do. But they didn’t. They understand their situation, and they understood their God and this required them to resist the status quo. We need to people who are in constant and critical thought about our lives and the systems we find ourselves in.
2. We should be people who enter into issues of gender, race, or any other oppressive ways of looking at the world. There are no second class humans in the Kingdom of God. Any time we create a system or way of being which makes people second class, we have missed God. The story of salvation begins with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the ignored.
3. God wants our ordinary lives. Shiphrah and Puah resisted and served God right where they were. They don’t have the extraordinary story Moses does. And if we are honest, not many of us do. We talk about this a lot on our blog, but it is because this is often where we get tripped up. People are often looking for a Moses experience and therefore miss being a Shiphrah or a Puah. The question we must ask is how does God want to work, resist, and bring new life right where we are?