Sunday’s sermon: Shiphrah and Puah: Women of Life-Giving Subversion

Text used – Exodus 1:15-21

  • 12.5 miles. Just 12.5 miles.
    • From here, that would take you to …
      • Zwingli UCC (“Pizza Church”) over in Berne
      • Marshalls or Eastwood Golf Course in Rochester
      • Just short of Millville in one direction and just short of Mantorville in the other
      • Trophy Store and More just outside of Zumbro Falls
      • Covered Bridge Restaurant or Land’s Lutheran Church in Zumbrota
    • 12.5 miles. That’s how far Paul Revere rode on his famous midnight right to warn the American colonists that the British troops were coming – “one of by land, two if by sea.” 12.5 miles. It may not seem like that long to us today, but back in the 1700s over rough ground on horseback in the dark and the rain, that’s a significant distance.
  • And yet … 40 miles. It’s a significantly longer distance, even today.
    • Distance my kids would complain about for riding in the car (can and do!)
    • From here, that would take you to …
      • NORTH: up to Hampton (just shy of the Twin Cities)
      • SOUTH: past Ostrander and just a few miles from the MN-IA border
      • EAST: across the Mississippi River a fair way into WI
      • WEST: all the way through Faribault
    • 40 miles is nothing to sneeze at even today. We can only imagine how difficult, how uncomfortable, how frightening a 40 mile ride would have been on the same night and under the same conditions as Paul Revere’s ride: over rough ground on horseback in the dark and the rain. We know and remember the name of Paul Revere – the man who rode 12.5 miles to deliver the warning. But do we know and remember the name of Sybil Ludington?[1]
      • Sybil Ludington carried the same message that Paul Revere carried: The British are coming! (though like Revere, she didn’t shout it through the streets as historical dramas portray but passed the message along with both haste and the utmost secrecy)
      • Sybil Ludington rode through the same dark uncertainty on the same night as Paul Revere – Apr. 26, 1777
      • But there were three major differences between Paul Revere and Sybil Ludington. First, while Revere rode 12.5 miles, Sybil Ludington rode 40 miles to deliver her message. Second, while Revere’s message resulted in the mustering of local militia groups, the result of Sybil Ludington delivering her message was the rousing of nearly the entire 400-man regiment of the Colonial army. And finally, while Revere was a 41-yr-old man and a well-established local merchant – a husband, a father, and a respected figure in many circles, Sybil Ludington was only a 16-yr-old girl – the oldest child of Colonial Colonel Henry Ludington’s 12 children.
        • Rode throughout the New York countryside waking up soldiers and alerting them to the immanent British invasion
        • Later personally thanked by General George Washington for her efforts and her bravery
      • Sybil Ludington – a young woman defying the unjust orders of a powerful ruler to save countless lives. Sounds a lot like our women of the Bible for today: Shiphrah and Puah.
  • Shiphrah and Puah make fairly short appearance in the Biblical text
    • Just this one instance – a few short verses at the beginning of the Exodus story → But truly, without these two women, there would be no Exodus story. So fleeting though our Scriptural interaction with them may be, they are truly crucial women in our Grand Story of Faith.
      • SIDE NOTE: I have to say this is why I’m enjoying this sermon series so much (and hopefully you are, too). I know I’ve touched on Shiphrah and Puah in sermons before, but they’ve always had to be a footnote in the wider story of Moses’ birth. Today, they get the spotlight. So let’s get to know these two fierce and subversive women better.
  • First, their profession – text: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah.[2] → Believe it or not, there’s some interesting debate about this introductory sentence. You see, the original Hebrew is a little vague on whether Shiphrah and Puah were two Hebrew women who acted as midwives or whether they were two Egyptian women designated as midwives to the Hebrews.
    • Literal translation = “the midwives the Hebrews” → could be “the Hebrew midwives” (indicating that Shiphrah and Puah were Heb. themselves) or “the midwives to the Hebrews” (indicating they were Egyptian women performing their midwife duties for the Heb. slaves)
      • Some argue they must have been Egyptians because of the tone of the interactions they have with Pharaoh
      • Some argue they must have been Hebrews because the names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” are Hebrew names
    • Either way, we can gather both from the text and from cultural historical knowledge of the birthing practices of the time that Shiphrah and Puah were not just a couple of random midwives that Pharaoh called to himself to deliver this message. They were more than likely the women in charge of a cadre of midwives who helped deliver the Hebrews’ babies.
      • Wilda Gafney, author, Episcopal priest, and Assoc. Prof. of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX (in Womanist Midrash): Given their presentation, we can read Shiphrah and Puah as the “mothers” or “heads” of the Israelite midwifery guild. It seems incredible that just two women are responsible for (attending) all the births of the Hebrew people, a people who are described in Exodus 1:7 as “filling the land.”[3]
    • And as the ones in charge, it falls to Shiphrah and Puah to receive Pharaoh’s heinous, genocidal mandate – text: “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] → Ick. Right? But here’s the thing about this horrible proclamation: I feel like it tips Pharaoh’s hand a little bit. It reveals a fraction of a weakness that Shiphrah and Puah can take advantage of … and they do.
      • Pharaoh’s mandate is designed to rid the Heb. people of all their male heirs but leaves the female offspring out of the picture à the idea: Heb. males who reproduce will clearly father more Heb. children, but if other cultures were to reproduce with Heb. females, those offspring would inherit their cultural heritage from their father, not their Heb. mother → Clearly, Pharaoh doesn’t find the cultural or societal contributions of women to be important. To him, the Hebrew women are of such little significance that he’s willing to allow all the girl babies live because he cannot fathom that those girl babies will grow up to be a problem for him. Nope. Hebrew women could never be a problem for him. … Or could they?
  • Next verse: text gives us some insight into Shiphrah’s and Puah’s character – text: Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.[5] → Now, no matter whether Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian midwives or Hebrew midwives, this statement is critical because it gives us both their motivation and their salvation.
    • Heb. “respected” = particular Heb. word that shows up a lot in psalms → to fear, to shudder at, to be in awe of, to revere, to hold in honor
      • In a way, this is the word on which the faith of the Hebrew people hinges throughout the Old Testament.
        • Word used time and again by God for the appropriate response of the people to God’s presence
        • Word echoed back to God by the Heb. people in their worship and their prayers
          • Ps 139: I am fearfully and wonderfully made = this same word[6]
          • Ps 130: Forgiveness is with you – that’s why you are honored[7]
        • Word used time and again when God sends messengers to reassure the people: “Do not be afraid” (one of the most common phrases in Scripture) = this word
    • So with this statement that Shiphrah and Puah feared God … respected God … honored God … were in awe of God, they are acknowledged as part of God’s covenant with the people – that ever-present, ever-powerful promise of God’s presence and protection for the people of Israel.
  • Now, my friends … now we come to the subversive part. 😊
    • End of the last verse states that Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh’s barbarous mandate and instead let the Heb. boys live → But a bunch of Hebrew baby boys in the slave compound after Pharaoh had specifically ordered them all to be killed wasn’t exactly something that could be hidden. So in his indignation and fury, Pharaoh calls Shiphrah and Puah before him once again. – text (Pharaoh to the midwives): “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”[8]
      • Can only imagine how frightening and intimidating this audience must have been for these two Hebrew midwives → Remember, Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the world to these two women. He has the power to throw them in prison. He has the power to have them flogged. He has the power to have them executed! And clearly, he is not happy with them.
    • But this is where Shiphrah’s and Puah’s true subversive radiance and life-giving strength shines through. – text: 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.”[9] → Okay, we have to stop and talk about this verse because there’s so much here!
      • First and most obvious = the utter chutzpah of these two women! → Pharaoh is furious and questioning them on the spot as to why they’ve deliberately disobeyed his disgustingly explicit order, and instead of losing it or falling apart or begging for mercy … they trick him! They deliver this bold-faced lie about how all these Hebrew women are waiting so long to call for their midwifery services that the babies are born before they even get there.
        • Plays on what we talked about earlier with Pharaoh’s weakness of underestimating the Heb. women → Pharaoh doesn’t think Hebrew women are capable of causing him problems … so here are these two bold and courageous Hebrew women causing him problems! (I just love this part!)
      • Shiphrah and Puah play their part even more thoroughly than we understand through just the Eng. translation
        • Our text (Common English Bible) – excuse given by the midwives: “[The Hebrew women] are much stronger
        • NRSV: “[The Hebrew women] are vigorous
        • KJV: “[The Hebrew women] are lively
        • And this sounds like a compliment, right? Yeah … no. That word in Hebrew isn’t nearly as flattering as all that.
          • Late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Jewish author and professor at a number of highly respectable American divinity schools and rabbinical colleges: [Shiphrah and Puah] trick Pharaoh, belittling the Israelite women as “animals” who give birth so quickly that they need no midwives. The word ḥayyôt, “animals,” is too often softened in translation to “lively.” But the midwives would certainly not compliment the Hebrews over the Egyptian women! Instead, building on the fact that Pharaoh sees Israel as “other,” they make an ethnic slur belittling these “others.” In this way, they demonstrate to Pharaoh that they are not in favor of Hebrews. Not seeing the power of these women to defy him, Pharaoh is all too willing to hear something negative about Hebrews and falls for their trick.[10]
    • Pharaoh falls for their trick … and God rewards them (and, indeed, all Israel!) for it – text (culmination of Shiphrah and Puah’s foray into the Biblical text): So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.[11]
  • Without the literally life-giving subversiveness of Shiphrah and Puah, there would be no Moses. There would be no exodos for the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. There would be no trek through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan. Shiphrah and Puah had the courage and audacity to defy the unjust, evil, deadly orders of a very powerful king, and through that act of defiance, an entire nation was saved.
    • Makes me think of a line from one of the favorite movies in our house right now – Frozen II: When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again // Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice // And do the next right thing.[12] → “Do the next right thing.” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=24115.

[2] Ex 1:15 (emphasis added).

[3] Wilda C. Gafney. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 89.

[4] Ex 1:16.

[5] Ex 1:17 (emphasis added).

[6] Ps 139:14 (emphasis added).

[7] Ps 130:4 (emphasis added).

[8] Ex 1:18.

[9] Ex 1:19.

[10] Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 25-26.

[11] Ex 1:20-21.

[12] Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “The Next Right Thing” from Frozen 2, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2019), streaming platform: Disney + (Walt Disney Pictures, 2020).