Remember the Names of the Midwives

“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” The midwives’ names were Shiphrah and Puah. Remember the names of the midwives.

I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen. +

As many of you know, I was a labor and delivery nurse for six years before becoming a priest. To this day, I consider my role as an L&D nurse as one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. But it wasn’t just the care I gave to new moms that made it a privilege. It was a privilege to be surrounded by strong, brave, smart, and confident women who made it their job to shape and mold me into the best labor and delivery nurse I could be. That meant I had to always put the patient’s needs above everything else, and it also meant I was compelled to question authority when it threatened the lives of the patient. In the hospital where I worked, there was a wide power differential between doctors and nurses. We were often asked to carry out orders that were more self-serving to the physician than to the patient, and sometimes dangerous. Now don’t get me wrong…I love doctors, and this isn’t always the case, but in the context of my first job, this was how things operated. For this reason, personally, doctors scared me to death. But thank God for the all the amazing women who modeled how overcome fear, stand up to authority, and do the right thing.

The first time I heard the names of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, was in the Fall of 2016 in my Old Testament class in seminary. I remember feeling confused and then a little embarrassed, because the lecture was about the Exodus, a story I thought I knew well—the story of Moses, the liberator, leading an oppressed people away from tyranny and into freedom. As a L&D nurse, you’d think I would have heard of the midwives! ~for those of you who don’t know, a midwife is someone who cares for expectant mothers during the birthing process ~Then I realized, what I knew about the Exodus hadn’t actually come from Scripture…my knowledge was mainly based on watching the famous 1956 film “The Ten Commandments” and the 1998 animated feature “The Prince of Egypt.” These are great films, but as we know, the movie is rarely better than the book it is based on. Today, I want to highlight the portion of the story that most often gets edited out—the portion of the story that highlights brave and compassionate women—and how their liberating actions influenced the rest of the story. Today, we remember the names of the midwives, and how their influence stretches down into our own lives now.

For several weeks since Pentecost, we’ve been hearing the origin story of the Hebrew people as found in the book of Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah, and the promise of God that their descendants would outnumber the stars. The story continued with Isaac and Rebecca having Jacob, then Jacob having twelve sons. At the end of Genesis is Joseph’s story—how he was brought to Egypt as a slave, but later became an ally and friend with Egypt’s king, being given land in Egypt for the Hebrew people to live and flourish.

But today, the lectionary begins the book of Exodus. Hundreds of years have passed, and now there is a new king of Egypt—one who did not know Joseph. As the Israelites increase in number, Pharaoh fears an uprising. He considers them a threat to the life that he and the Egyptians have become accustomed. To protect their current way of life, he deemed this people unworthy of freedom and oppressed them with forced labor. But the more oppressed they were, the more they multiplied and spread. This enraged Pharaoh, so, in order to show his great power and authority, he enlisted the help of the Hebrew midwives. Their names were Shiphrah and Puah.

Interestingly enough, while the midwives are named, Pharaoh’s name is not mentioned in Scripture. This is purposeful because the authors want to highlight the concept and idea of Pharaoh—a leader representative of tyranny and hate that is too big and powerful to be given a name. And now, these two powerless women find themselves face to face with the most powerful and feared man in the world, and Pharaoh orders them to kill every newborn boy born to the Hebrew women.

What happens next is the first act of civil disobedience recorded in Scripture. Shiphrah and Puah continue doing their work. These women, whose sole job is to bring life, not death, into the world, when faced with the decision whether or not to follow orders—to carry out an edict and rule given to them by the leader of the country—because of who they were at the core of their being, the only decision they could make was to help others live. This was the beginning of many liberating acts within the Book of Exodus leading toward their freedom, and making it possible for Moses to be born and survive.

Pharaoh got word that Shiphrah and Puah had not carried out his orders and summoned them at once. “Why have you disobeyed me?” Knowing that Pharaoh, one- knew nothing about the birthing process, and two- knowing how he has treated their people as less than human, like slaves and willing to kill as if lives of this people doesn’t matter, the midwives cleverly answered him with a bold-faced lie of “how Hebrew women are not like other women…they are hardy and vigorous, almost animalistic, and are able to pop out their babies before we can arrive for the delivery.” Being xenophobic and racist, Pharaoh believed them. This lie was the second act of disobedience in the Bible.

After this, Pharaoh ordered his people to take any boy born to the Hebrew people and kill it by throwing the child in the Nile. Because of the liberating actions performed and modeled by the midwives, one Hebrew woman was inspired, even in the face of fear, to perform her own act of liberation by placing her newborn son, who would eventually be named Moses, in the safety of  an ark, a basket, that would be found by yet another woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, who, in her own act of civil disobedience, sees the child and through an overwhelming sense of pity and love, raises Moses as her own.

The rest of the story is the story we know well, but I love this portion because it shows that before God could lift up a liberator for God’s people, brave and liberating acts needed to be modeled. And in a world of powerful oppression where hope is actively being beaten out of the those whom the leader deems unworthy, God chooses the most unlikely and powerless to exhibit such saving acts. God chooses Shiphrah and Puah, who in their very being is the essence of love and life, to begin the long road toward justice and liberation.

This morning, I am asking you to remember the names of the midwives. If for no other reason because Scripture takes the time to name them. In Scripture, details like this matter, and it matters even more that they are women who are named…something that is rare in comparison to the mention of named men. Their names deserve to be lifted up and remembered.

But also, I want you to remember the names of the midwives because of what they have taught us, and what we can learn about God through their story. Especially now, when so many of us fear for the safety and well-being for ourselves and others—times in which it matters now more than ever who is in power and what motivates their rule—by remembering the midwives, we are reminded that no matter how powerless we may feel, no matter our station in society, God is calling each of us to take part in liberating acts. The midwives remind us that there is no such thing as subhuman, or less than, or other, but that everyone is made in the image of God and that we need to work like hell to respect, care, and ensure the survival of the oppressed. And lastly, the midwives remind us that there is no obstacle, no pandemic, no racist, too big and powerful for God; in this statement, we find the hope that we should always stand up for what is right and should dictate our actions over all else.

Make no mistake, when I started worked at the hospital, I was no midwife, not simply because I was a nurse who was also male, but because I don’t know that I would have had the courage and forthrightness to do what Shiphrah and Puah did. But I find courage and hope in their ability to confront power and patriarchy, and it is that gift of example and hope that I pray pervades our world today—in and through all of us.

Thank God for Shiphrah and Puah. Thank God for their saving acts, the bravery, and for modeling for us what it means to fulfill God’s will. And whatever you do, remember the names of the midwives. Amen.