Thursday 18th June 2020 – Shiprah and Puah
Exodus 1: 15 – 21
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 birthstool, 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.’
The television series ‘Call the Midwife’ with all its grim social background and graphic obstetric detail has been a huge and maybe surprising success as Sunday night viewing even overtaking ‘Downton Abbey’ in the popularity ratings. Although the stories have moved on from the memoirs of Jennifer Worth who worked as a midwife in Poplar in the East End of London in the 50s and 60s it has, nonetheless, caught the imagination of millions of people as it highlights many contentious social and ethical issues with both realism and honesty..
You don’t have to be a parent to admire what midwives do. They accompany women through some of the most intense and painful experiences they will ever have and hold out hope and encouragement during labour and delivery. They have to be both strong and knowledgeable to carry out the awesome responsibility of delivering babies into the world and Shiphra and Puah are no exception to this. In an attempt to cull the number of Israelites, Pharoah’s brutal order (pre-echoing King Herod’s action centuries later in Matthew chapter 2) is a murderous policy aimed at killing every Israelite boy at birth. This goes against every instinct a midwife would have and so these two find a way of explaining what is really an act of civil disobedience in failing to carry out Pharoah’s orders. The explanation that Israelite women are strong and give birth before the midwife arrives seems to satisfy the (presumably male) authorities who do not challenge their account and this gives rise to a new policy of throwing the babies into the River Nile instead. The resourcefulness of mothers who weave waterproof baskets and send their sons downstream to be caught and fostered by sympathetic strangers has a wonderful twist as baby Moses is later taken into the Egyptian court itself..
Despite being co-opted as hostile agents of the state Shiphra and Puah become the heroines of the day as they thwart the order and save lives. As Martin Luther King said much later ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’. Thanks be to God!
May we not keep silent when we know things are wrong. Give us the wits and the words to speak out to protect the vulnerable and help save the lost in Jesus name. Amen.