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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Thursday, August 20, 2020  

Today’s Scripture Reading  |  Exodus 1:8—2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 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.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (NRSV)

It is quite stunning, really, how the story of our faith hangs on acts of faithfulness out of public view. And it is even more stunning that those whom God taps or that tap God for a measure of strength or imagination or just plain ferocious disobedience are often the least expected ones—the ones with little power in the equation of power. They are generally the hidden ones, who are just living their life and are not fancy people, who are just doing their job. This story is no exception.

A new king in Egypt comes on the scene. He doesn’t have a clue about a people in the land, the Israelites, their history, their God. All he sees is the threat. They seem to be increasing in numbers exponentially. The king seems to be pretty good at math and also knows about the birds and bees and figures if he can have all the male babies killed, that will take care of things in a generation. So the shrewd king summons the midwives, whose work is off the grid from men’s involvement. He seeks to turn the Hebrews against themselves. And he knows that birthing is a vulnerable moment in any community. So he says to Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women and see them on the birth-stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” A death-dealing king meets a divine power of God in these women.

These two feared God; they trusted God. They knew their history, the promises to the generations to come that this new king knew nothing of. These determined, on-their-game, working-behind-the-scenes women simply disobeyed the king. And when male babies were flourishing, the king confronted the women, asking why they let the boys live? We can imagine the nonchalant response, “Oh, your Majesty, those Hebrew women are so vigorous, the babies just arrive before we can even get there.” Fingers crossed behind their back, and a little smirk to boot.

Were they courageous? Did they risk their lives? Were they fools? Was the work of the midwives dramatic and heroic? I have a feeling the midwives never thought of what they did as courageous. They might have just said, “I was just doing my job.” And maybe after the fact, when from their civil disobedience in the birthing chambers a fine boy was born who would lead the people from bondage to promise, they may have slapped a high-five and partied to the wee hours.

God of bountiful surprises, God of radical awakening, God who works behind the scenes, in the birthing chambers, where new life defies the powers that try to control and contain, thank you. Make us midwives of your realm this day, O God. Amen.

Written by Lucy Forster-Smith, Senior Associate Pastor for Leadership Development and Adult Education

Reflection and prayer © Fourth Presbyterian Church

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