“Birthing God” Exodus 1:15-22
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 birth stool, 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.’
I’ve had company all week. Usually I plan ahead for visitors, but these guests showed up uninvited; they weren’t written into my calendar, they snuck in when I wasn’t paying attention. I first noticed they were in my house when I was cleaning the basement earlier in the week. I bent down to move two cinder blocks standing on end when I thought I heard someone say:
“Those remind me of birthing bricks.”
I turned and stared at the two women standing behind me.
“Say what,” I asked.
“Sometimes they called them birthing stones, or birthing stools,” the taller one said. “But really they were just bricks, like the bricks my people made for the Egyptians out of clay and straw,” she added, by way of explanation.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re Shiphrah and you are Puah,” pointing first to the short one and then the tall one.”
“The other way around,” Shiphrah, the tall one, said.
I just shook my head and went back to work sweeping and moving things into the trash pile. I hate it when these biblical characters just show up unannounced and follow me around all week. It’s much easier when sermon writing is one dimensional on a piece of paper, but when the stories start to intrude into my life, that’s another thing all together.
“You’re going to be with here all week aren’t you,” I asked.
I peered more closely at the shorter one, who looked strangely familiar, reminding me a little of someone I knew.
“You look a lot like Martha Jane Hackett,” I said. “She was a member of OCBC, a midwife. She died about a year and a half ago, but she’s still very much with us.”
The corners of Puah’s mouth lifted up. Her patient, knowing smile reminded me of Martha Jane, only she was dressed like an ancient Hebrew woman.
“We are midwives, you know,” Shiphrah said. She pointed at the cinder blocks. “Women would squat on those while giving birth.”
“You don’t exist,” I said.
“The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world,” Puah said wisely. “It was the Goodreads Quote of the day yesterday.”
“You’ve been reading my email,” I said.
They just smiled at each other. I sighed and moved the blocks to the side of the room. It was going to be a long week.
The day after that Shiphrah and Puah showed up in my therapy office after my last client left.
“Who’s this,” Shiphrah asked, picking up the icon of St. Bridget I keep propped up on the table next to my chair. “She looks like one of us.”
I regarded her over my glasses and then kept writing my notes. When they didn’t go away I put down my pen and said:
“That’s St. Bridget of Ireland. And she may well have been one of you.”
One of my favorite legends about St. Bridget is that on Christmas Eve the angels carried Bridget to Bethlehem where she was a midwife to Mary as she delivered Jesus. Another legend tells a creation story of Ireland, where Bridget hears the earth crying in distress, a plea for help that everyone else ignores. Bridget knows that the earth weeps because it has dreamed of beauty, the earth longs for more than chaos and despair. Bridget comes to the aid of the earth, and “makes gladness in the abyss.” I explained all of this to the midwives, who nodded as if it made perfect sense to them.
“I get that,” Shiphrah said. “That is exactly what midwives do. We help babies to be delivered from the enslavement of the womb to new life. We help women cross that threshold from Chaos into gladness. It’s our job to get the mother to the other side in that transition from labor to delivery.”
I thought about the one midwife I’ve known well, Martha Jane. She delivered hundreds of babies in Chinatown and beyond. I thought of her calm, sure, steady presence, comforting hundreds of frightened mothers as they crossed that great divide between labor and delivery. When I looked up again the two midwives were gone again.
Another day Shiphrah and Puah showed up in my car on my way home from work, sitting in the backseat.
“Turn that up,” Puah said, leaning over the front seat and pointing at the radio. There was a story on NPR about the death this week of a man named Willie Louis. Louis, born Willie Reed, was a black man who had testified against two white men who were on trial in Mississippi for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old black boy. Louis had heard the men beating and torturing Till, and knew that he had to testify against the men even though it meant he might be killed as well. An all white jury acquitted the two white men, who later confessed to the crime when they knew they couldn’t be tried again for the murder. Willie Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi to Chicago, where he changed his name and lived in exile, knowing he could not return home.
“That Willie Louis,” Shiphrah said, “He stood up to Pharaoh.”
I glanced at her in my rearview mirror. We listened while the radio announcer said: "At that time, it was virtually unheard of for a black person to testify against a white, particularly if that person was a sharecropper, dependent on whites for his livelihood.”
“That Willie, he didn’t have any power at all. Not in Pharaoh’s courts anyway,” Puah said. “He was nothing against Pharaoh. What was he thinking?”
We listened as the reporter finished the story. Then Puah added: “What were we thinking? We were simple midwives. We had no power, no protection. Who were we to stand up against Pharaoh? He could have destroyed us in a cold minute.”
There was a long silence in the back seat. I imagined the two midwives being called into Pharaoh’s palace, following the guard down the long hallway, standing outside the massive doors. Puah practicing the deep breathing which she urged the women in labor to use, Shiphrah squeezing her friend’s hand.
When at last the doors swung open, I saw them walking into Pharaoh’s presence with their heads bowed in fear, not in reverence. I could almost see Willie Louis standing there beside them, trembling in fear. After all, Pharaoh is Pharaoh, no matter when or where, corrupt power wears the same face.
I wondered how Shiphrah and Puah managed to walk across the threshold into Pharaoh’s presence without melting in fear, but when I turned to ask them, they were gone again.
The two women showed up again yesterday when I was trying to write this sermon. “Tell them what the Talmud says about us,” the tall one said. I smiled at that, grateful to see healthy, genuine pride on their faces. An article on The Jewish Woman website says: “According to the Talmud, it was in reward for the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt.”
“The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world,” Shiphrah said. “When we walked into Pharaoh’s chambers, the story we told ourselves was that Pharaoh was all powerful, that he could kill us if we didn’t do what he said.”
Once again I could see the two women standing before Pharaoh. He began to speak to them, his voice almost musical as he called them by name and offered them sweets and prattled on about the weather and other inane things. The sun slanted through the window behind Pharaoh, shining behind his head like a halo, making him look like a powerful God. The midwives’ hands were shaking.
I could almost hear the women’s thoughts: “There is but one God, the God of Israel.” And I heard Pharaoh calmly explaining that the population growth among the Hebrew people was going to become a problem, not for him, you see, but for the Hebrew people themselves. There wouldn’t be enough food or resources for them all, he said. I’m appealing to your good sense, he argued, never raising his calm voice. If they would just make sure that all of the male babies died at birth, it would go a long way toward solving the problem. It would be quite simple really, he went on, just to pinch their little nostrils until the life ran out of them. And think of how many hungry people they would be helping.
“The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” Pharaoh’s world was one of power shored up by fear. But by the grace of God, Shiphrah and Puah believed another story about the world, a story that claimed that God’s goodness and power were stronger than any local Pharaoh.
“Pharaoh dealt in death and fear and misuse of power,” Puah said. “And Yahweh offered to deliver us from that chaos, to birth something new into the world. We served a birthing God, not a death-dealing ruler. “
I could almost imagine that moment when the midwives suddenly felt their fear ebb away. As they stood before him, the sun began to dip toward the horizon, so that it no longer provided a stunning backdrop for the Pharaoh, and they could see that he was just an ordinary man all dressed up in fancy clothes. What was more, they realized that every pore in his body oozed fear. Why was Pharaoh so afraid of them, they wondered?
“What was it that your Bridget called it,” Shiphrah suddenly asked. “Making gladness in the abyss? That’s what we do, like your Bridget, midwife to Jesus’ mother, we birth God into the world.”
I thought of all of the brave and courageous people who lived their lives in a way that participated in birthing God into the world: Willie Louis who was incredibly courageous in testifying to the truth in a dangerous situation, taking a stand for justice, Martha Jane who delivered hundreds of babies in a medically underserved community and ministered among communities in need in Burma, Shiphrah and Puah who stood their ground against the corrupt and poisonous Pharaoh, any of us who push back against injustice with foolish passion…all serve a birthing God.
When the great doors of Pharaoh’s palace swung open a second time the midwives faced a man who could not understand why the male babies still lived. Pharaoh no longer looked bathed in golden light. His skin was pale and tight, his eyes dull. He was silent while they explained that they Hebrew women were so healthy that they climbed up on the birthing bricks by themselves, delivered their babies, went back to work, and all before the midwives ever arrived. The world was now a new story they told themselves about the world: that God is mightier than Pharaoh, that delivery is stronger than slavery, that God will be birthed into the world with or without our help, but that God welcomes our help.
And the Pharaoh looked at the women for a long time, trying to figure out why their story about the world sounded so foreign to him. He sat in silence for so long it felt as if time had stopped. Then he dismissed them with a wave. The midwives hurried through the streets, the power of God within and all around them, a birthing God making gladness in their broken world.
They showed up again this morning, after the sermon was printed out and put to bed. Shiphrah and Puah, who apparently like being chauffeured around, were again in my backseat, and next to them was Willie Louis. I could see in my rear view mirror Bridget sitting in the way back.
“Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, dear,” said Martha Jane, who was sitting in the front seat next to me.
Puah said, “Just tell them that Pharaoh isn’t as powerful as God.”
Willie added: “And that telling the truth…”
“Speaking the truth to power,” Shiphrah interjected.
“…Telling the truth even if it scares you to death won’t kill your soul,” Willie said. “Even if others will try to kill your body.”
“Giving birth to a new nation is not terribly different from delivering babies,” Shiphrah said.
I caught Bridget’s eye in the mirror, waiting for her two cents worth.
“Listen for the cry of those who dream of beauty,” she said.
“And make gladness,” Willie added, turning to smile at her.
“And tell them,” said Marty, placing her capable hand on my arm, “That with the help of the Holy Spirit anything is possible- even birthing God into this world.”
I’ve had company all week. These two midwives and their friends came uninvited. I hope they never leave. AMEN.