Sunday’s sermon: Strong, Defiant Women

well behaved women

Texts used – Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 27

  • One of my favorite bumper stickers says this: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
    • Quote that’s been erroneously attributed to a number of people
      • Anne Boleyn
      • Eleanor Roosevelt
      • Marilyn Monroe
    • Actual source: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard professor and American historian
      • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991
    • I think one of the greatest things about this quote is its broad application across generations, cultures, religions, and every other barrier. It is a quote that has certainly inspired many women since its inception in 1976, but it’s also a quote that can be appropriately applied to strong, defiant women throughout history, women like …
      • Marie Curie – Polish physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering work in radioactivity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries → co-winner with her husband (and first female winner) of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (a time when women didn’t work outside the home let alone in the field of science)
      • Kathrine Switzer – first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1967 → ran and finished even amidst physical and verbal assaults hurled at her starting at mile 4 and going all the way through mile 26.2 – assaults from race officials, journalists, bystanders, and even her own boyfriend who was running the race with her[1]
      • 588th Night Bomber Regiment – all-female regiment of Russian fighter pilots known as the “Night Witches” in WWII: “It was their enemies, the Nazis, who gave these women their nickname. … To the German pilots they fought, however, they were tormentors, harpies with seemingly supernatural powers of night vision and stealth. Shooting down one of their planes would automatically earn any German soldier the Iron Cross. … The 80-odd Night Witches had arguably the toughest task of all. Flying entirely in the dark, and in plywood planes better suited to dusting crops than withstanding enemy fire, the pilots developed a technique of switching off their engine and gliding toward the target to enable them to drop their bombs in near-silence; they also flew in threes to take turns drawing enemy fire while one pilot released her charges. It was, quite frankly, awesome — as even their enemies had to admit. ‘We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women,’ one top German commander wrote in 1942. ‘These women feared nothing.’”[2]
      • And so, so, so many more examples. And there are so many great Biblical examples as well. Queen Esther, who saved her people from Haman’s genocide; Deborah, who led the people of Israel through battles and conflicts as one of the judges pre-kingship; Ruth, the stubborn daughter-in-law who refused to leave Naomi and ended up being part of the lineage of Christ; Mary Magdalene, who stayed at the foot of the cross even to Jesus’ last breath and even when all of her male counterparts had run away.
  • But if I had asked you, “Who are your favorite strong, defiant women of the Bible,” would you have included Shiphrah and Puah? Were you even familiar with Shiphrah and Puah’s names before today? And yet these women are indeed They are indeed courageous. And they are indeed defiant – defiant in the face of a powerful king, defiant in the face of a death sentence, defiant in the face of blatant injustice. Surely, we’ve heard the story of Moses’ birth and fated journey on the river many times. But how many times have we really paid attention to the roles of the strong, defiant women in this story?
    • First portion of OT text drives home the plight of the Israelites at the time
      • Slavery
      • Oppression
      • Disenfranchisement
      • Text: The Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look on the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.[3]
    • That was the world they were living in. Hard, back-breaking, spirit-crushing work day in and day out with no salvation in sight. And yet, we encounter the bright, indomitable, undeniable spirits of Shiphrah and Puah – strong, defiant women who took their own lives in their hands even as they protected the vulnerable lives of so many.
      • Evil instructions: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives name Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.”[4]
      • Defiance: Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.[5]
      • Strength of will and spirit in the face of danger: So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?” The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.”
      • Think for a minute about just how much courage that must have taken on the part of those women, especially because they were women. They had zero standing in society on their own. They had no possession that were truly their own. Without their husbands or a male relative to care for them, they were considered nothing. And yet, they stood up to a king. They stood up to power. They stood up to intimidation. They stood up to injustice.
    • I love imagining the relationship between these two women.
      • Probably couldn’t have done what they did independently – safety/ support in numbers
        • Drawing strength from each other
        • Drawing inspiration from each other
        • Drawing support from each other
        • I can imagine them having whispered conversations long into the night – conversations that ranged from fearful to tearful, from conspiratorial to emboldened, from a half-serious “what if?” to a whole-hearted “how can we not?”. Since our Scripture story tells us that Shiphrah and Puah were women who “respected God”[6] (other translations: “feared God”), we know that these were devout women. They were strong, defiant women of faith. So I imagine that the psalm that we read this morning could have been one of the things that kept them going – feeding their strength and their defiance.
          • Ps: The Lord is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The Lord is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be afraid of anything? … Lord, teach me your way; because of my opponents, lead me on a good path. Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies, because false witnesses and violent accusers have taken their stand against me. But I have sure faith that I will experience the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living! Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord![7] → That sounds like the battle cry of the strong, defiant women! “Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord!” I can just hear Shiphrah and Puah whispering those words to one another, holding them in their hearts as they delivered one safe Hebrew boy baby after another, clinging to them as they were accused by the Pharaoh and as they told the lie that would save not only their own lives but the lives of so many innocent baby boys.
  • But Shiphrah and Puah are not the only strong, defiant women in this story.
    • MIRIAM – Text: The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him. … Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.[8] → We also have Miriam – strong, defiant woman-in-training.
      • Watches the strong defiance of her mother as she hides her “healthy and beautiful”[9] baby boy for 3 whole months
      • Watches fretfully as her mother prepares a basket and sends this boy down the river
      • Continues to watch from the riverbank as the basket floats further and further down the river until it is picked up by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter – the daughter of the one who had given her baby brother his undeserved death sentence
      • Part where Miriam herself becomes strong and defiant = when she steps out of hiding and boldly addresses Pharaoh’s daughter → Remember, Miriam was just a Hebrew slave girl. Not worth much in the eyes of the Egyptians. Certainly not worthy of addressing the daughter of the almighty Pharaoh. And yet she doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t beg for the life of the child in the basket. And she doesn’t reveal that precious secret – that this child is, in fact, her own baby brother. She courageously steps up, asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she needs a wet nurse for the baby, and then runs to find her own mother – the baby’s own beloved mother – to fill the role.
      • Also cannot deny that Pharaoh’s daughter = strong, defiant woman, too → She surely must have heard about her father’s unspeakable edict. Why else would she expect to find “one of the Hebrews’ children”[10] in the river? And yet she takes this Hebrew boy – this one whom her father had destined for a grossly premature death – and brought him into her own household (Pharaoh’s own household!) to love and cherish and raise as her own son. That kind of quiet, subversive resistance is its own form of strong defiance as well.
  • Friends, sometimes sermons are about breaking down the meaning of a text – parsing it out and digging into the how and the why and the “what does it mean for me?” of the text. Very often, that’s the kind of sermon I preach. But today’s sermon is different. Today’s sermon is about reading a familiar story in a whole new light. It’s about reading a story you’ve read or heard a hundred times before and looking for the people you haven’t seen before – the names you glossed over, the roles that on first glance look like supporting roles but when turned around can really be the whole point of the story. It’s about encouraging you to encounter God’s Word in a different way – finding those characters you may have missed, those elements of the story that didn’t seem important the first or 101st time around.
    • Important to do when we read Scripture
      • Keeps us seeing and learning new things
      • Keeps Scripture fresh
    • Important to do in our own lives, too → As you think about the strong, defiant women that you met this morning – Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter … as these strong, defiant women float through your mind this week, be on the lookout for other characters in your own life that you may have overlooked. Because you never know … they just may turn the whole tide of the Story. Amen.


[2] Jessica Phelan. “7 of the most badass women who ever lived (who you’ve probably never heard of)” from PRI: GlobalPost, Posted January 16, 2014, accessed August 24, 2017.

[3] Ex 1:11, 13-14.

[4] Ex 1:15.

[5] Ex 1:16.

[6] Ex 1:17.

[7] Ps 27:1, 11-14.

[8] Ex 2:4, 7-8.

[9] Ex 2:2.

[10] Ex 2:6.

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