The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday August 23, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We’ve now moved from Genesis to Exodus. From a book that tells the origin story of the people of Israel, to a book that tells the story of how they sought freedom from slavery.  Exodus. Exit. Us.

A lot of time has passed since Abraham and Sarah scratched their heads at how God could create a great nation without providing them with even a single child.

Now their descendants are so numerous that the king of Egypt views them as a threat.  Enough time has passed that this new Pharaoh could not reasonably be expected to know Joseph personally, but he does seem to be willfully ignoring his own history.

We don’t know why he views the Israelites as a threat. Is it simply because there are so many of them? It is because they are different and he fears difference?

Whatever the reason, Pharaoh convinces his people that the Israelites are dangerous, that they cannot be trusted, that they are a threat to the safety of the Egyptian people.

He says, “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.” (8-10)

Are they really more powerful? If so, how do the Egyptians manage to enslave them? Pharaoh doesn’t offer any proof to back up his statements. This seems like the case of a corrupt leader cultivating a fear of immigrants,  a fear of the other, in order to secure his own wealth and power.  This seems like fake news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Egyptians do what Pharaoh wants and enslave the Israelites and, we are told, “They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” (14). The Israelites suffered, but their numbers also continued to increase. (12)

Pharaoh continues to view the Israelites as a threat and he decides that the solution to this threat is to control their numbers by murdering all newborn Israelite boys.  Girls – less valuable, less of a threat – will be allowed to live.

But Pharaoh miscalculates, because the greatest threats to his plan are two women, Shiprah and Puah.

Pharaoh orders them to continue to assist the Hebrew women when they give birth, but to kill every boy who is born. The adult women remain valuable, the boy babies, aren’t.

Shiprah and Puah are described as Hebrew midwives in our English translation of the original text, but it’s not actually clear if they were Hebrew women who were also midwives, or perhaps Egyptian women or women of some other unnamed ethnic group who focused their midwifery practice on helping Hebrew women.  Are they insiders helping their own people or allies? We don’t know, we just know they are fiercely committed to saving lives.

Shiprah and Puah do not directly challenge Pharaoh’s orders, to do so would likely have resulted in their deaths, but they also do not obey him. They let the boys live.

Why? Because they feared God. (17)

Not fear in the sense of the terror.  Fear in the sense of awe and respect that led them to act courageously because they wanted to align their actions with God’s will.

This is a story of genocide. It is really difficult material but I wish I had the time to write a novel or make a movie out of this story because I have a lot of questions, and it would be fun to be able to explore them in a creative medium.  Yes, that is in fact my idea of fun.

I don’t know of any novels or movies that explore this story in depth, but if you want to read a great book that asks and answers a lot of these sorts of questions, you should check out Womanist Midrash, which was written by Dr. Wil Gafney. You may recall I also referenced Dr Gafney’s work in last week’s sermon.

So back to my questions.

First,  the text has established that the Israelite people are already so numerous that Pharaoh believes they are a threat and that sense of threat increases as the Israelite population continues to grow. It’s unlikely that Shiprah and Puah are the only midwives who help Israelite women give birth, they’d need help. In Womanist Midrash, Dr Gafney describes Shiprah and Puah as the heads of their midwifery guild.[1] Perhaps there is a whole host of women working to subvert Pharaoh’s plans under Shiprah and Puah’s capable leadership. This resistance requires more than simply helping baby boys be born.  It’s not enough to simply be preoccupied with ensuring a baby is born if you haven’t thought about how you are going to care for it after it’s born

So what are they doing with all the male babies? How are they hiding the fact that boys continue to be born?

Are they, perhaps, disguising at least some of the newborn boys as girls?  Are they just pretending that there is something in the water and while lots of babies continue to be born they’re all girls?

It’s fun to think about.

I suspect they employed a whole host of methods, but there are two that we are told about.

First, it’s important to note that in order for Shiprah and Puah to lead a resistance against the Pharaoh, they need the support and buy in of the Israelite people. Everyone has a role to play if they are going to be successful. Imagine them, perhaps, presenting a newborn boy baby to his mother and saying with a wink, “It’s a girl!” And the mother looking at her son, nodding in agreement and saying, “It sure is!”

Moses’s mother Jochebed was an active participant in the resistance. Risking her own life and that of the rest of her family, she hid her infant son for three months -how she managed to hide him we don’t know, but she did.  Eventually, she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer and so she puts him in a waterproof basket and places him in the river. (2:1-3)

What a horrifying choice for a mother to make. If my child stays with me, he will surely die. If I stick him in a basket on the river, he might die, but maybe, just maybe, something miraculous will happen to him.

And a miracle does happen. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses, adopts him, and is in fact the person who gives him his name. Moses means “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10). Presumably his own mother had given him an appropriate Israelite name in those first three months, but that name has been lost and Moses’ Israelite heritage erased, at least for now.

In this part of the story we add two more women to the resistance, Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam carefully watches her brother float down the river and then bravely negotiates with Pharaoh’s daughter to arrange for own mother to care for the child. Pharaoh’s daughter seems to be aware of the resistance and defies her own brother by adopting this Israelite baby.

Clearly, not every Israelite boy who was born during this time could be floated down the river and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. What happened to the other baby boys?

Maybe some of the mothers managed to hide their sons as daughters, maybe some other baby boys were adopted by wealthy Egyptians, but not all of them. Some baby boys were being raised as boys by their families.  And Pharaoh notices.

So Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they disobeyed his orders.

Shiprah and Puah use Pharaoh’s own racist attitudes against him claiming that it’s not their fault that some baby boys remain alive because, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19)

Cameron B.R. Howard notes that, the Hebrew word translated as “vigorous” shares the same root as the word “life.”  So the language is playfully reminding the reader that “the Hebrew women are full of life. Their identity resists death.”[2]

It’s true that these women are full of life and actively resisting death, but Shiprah and Puah are also lying to Pharaoh. Israelite women aren’t just popping out babies with a startling speed.

They’re lying. Which is interesting, because even though we all know Christians lie, if you’ve spent even a small amount of time in the church you know that we’re not supposed to lie.  So why are we still telling this story in our churches?

We don’t have time for a deep dive into the history of Christian ethics this evening, but Shiprah and Puah show us that sometimes it’s OK to lie.  People have faced this ethical dilemma throughout history,  but one specific example occurred in World War 2.  Yes, it is wrong to lie, but it is more important to protect human life.

So, if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic and a Nazis official bangs on your door and asks if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic, you lie. You say, “No,” with a clean conscience.

Shiprah and Puah are not punished by God for lying. And, even more intriguingly, they are not punished by Pharaoh for disobeying his orders. These are two fiercely brave and powerful women.

The text says, “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, [God] gave them families.” (20-22)

It’s an interesting way to word this blessing. God gave them families. God did not give them husbands. God did not give them to men as wives as if they were property either. That’s not the blessing. Dr. Gafney notes, “there is no mention of men in their lives, even if they are married; they, not their husbands or other men, will be the heads of their households.”[3] This is a story of matriarchs.

That is a blessing made explicit by the text but there is an additional blessing implicit in this text.

We know their names.

We can say their names. We can remember these heroic women by name.

Shiprah, which means “beauty.”

Puah, which likely means “girl.”

In her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood Rachel Held Evans wrote about the echet chayil, the woman of valour found in Proverbs 31. Since the release of the book, this phrase has become a rallying cry used mostly by women to encourage other women.  “Echet chayil!”  we’ll cry or type into the comments on a social media post. Well done, woman of valour!

Shiprah and Puah. The other unnamed midwives. Jochabed. Miriam. Pharoah’s daughter. Echet chayil. Women of valour.

We are living through times when we are reminded on a daily basis that our choices impact the lives of those around us. Every day we make choices that help, or hurt, other people.  In the systems we participate in that support racism, misogyny, and classism.  In smaller individual choices like buying local or social distancing or wearing masks not to protect us, but to protect others.

May we choose well, may we make choices that, as our baptism vows say, “respect the dignity of every human being.”

May we be inspired by the fearless examples of Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed, Miriam, and every mother in this story who risked her life to save a child’s life.

Echet chayil. Women of valor.

In the strong name of the triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.


[1] P. 89


[3] Pg. 91

Privacy Preference Center