Once there were five women who defied the king. And he wasn’t just any king. In his time and in that place, he was considered God. That is no exaggeration. Thus, to defy his order was to forfeit your life.
The king, who was Egyptian, gave an order to the midwives of the land that, whenever they helped deliver a Hebrew boy, they were to kill it. We do not know the name of the king because the story never tells us, but we do know the names of the midwives: Shiphrah and Puah.
How interesting that the names of the midwives are remembered, but today scholars debate who was pharaoh at the time Moses was born. I believe we know the names of Shiphrah and Puah because they regarded their life as nothing if they could spare the lives of the vulnerable newborn children. I believe we know their names because of their courage.
Scripture tells us what happened in Exodus 1:15-20.
“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?’
“The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.’
“So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.”
I love this story because it is rich with irony and surprise. From a cultural perspective, Shiphrah and Puah were powerless compared to pharaoh. He was king while they were simply midwives. He was Lord, and they were his subjects. Yet from their position of weakness, they subverted the king’s wishes, wielding a power greater than pharaoh’s—the power of life over death.
What’s more, they used a little inside humor in their ploy to thwart the king. I always chuckle when I read their response to pharaoh as he asks them why they let the boys live: the Hebrew women are very vigorous; they start labor and—POP!—out comes that kid! They must have laughed to themselves about that one. What I especially love about that little joke is that it esteemed the people whom pharaoh regarded as Egypt’s enemy—worthless, if not for the slave labor they provided.
One of the greatest stories of all time, therefore, hinges on the compassion, cunning and courage of two women who, by all accounts, are just like the countless women we have opportunity to meet every day today. Shiphrah and Puah are “ordinary” women who do “extraordinary” things because they dared defy the king’s oppressive regime.
But that is just the beginning of the story. Three more women appear in the next chapter: Jochebed, Miriam and pharaoh’s daughter.
After pharaoh heard from Shiphrah and Puah that it would be impossible for the midwives to carry out his orders, he extended his reach by ordering anyone to carry out his orders. That is when Jochebed, a Hebrew woman, had a baby boy.
She tried to hide him as long as she could, but when it became impossible to keep the child with her at home, she placed him in an ark and hid him among the reeds in the Nile river. Now, the river was the place pharaoh told his people to throw the Hebrew baby boys in order to kill them. So, Jochebed’s plan to hide her son in that same river was an act of supreme defiance—yet notice how gently, quietly, she defied him. Like Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed exhibited a quiet, confident sort of courage—but it was courage nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Jochebed’s daughter Miriam kept an eye on her baby brother as he floated among the reeds. And she risked much in her own way. See, pharaoh’s own daughter came to the place where the baby was hidden. This is where she went to bathe.
Pharaoh’s daughter found him there and the story says he was crying so she felt sorry for him. She could see he was a Hebrew but she, too, had compassion on him. Well, Miriam approached pharaoh’s daughter to offer her help. The Bible describes the scene in Exodus 2:7-10. Miriam asked her: “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
“Yes, go,” she answered. So, the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So, the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
What a rich story this is! For starters, notice that it isn't until the end of this narrative that the "baby boy" has a name. From a literary perspective, the focus is on the women and all the women risk something. On top of that, the two men in the story are pharaoh and Moses—but pharaoh is the powerful king who fades namelessly into the background while Moses is still a helpless (and also nameless!) baby who is dependent on the strength and courage of women. What’s more, the women are moved to these acts of courage out of compassion for the helpless. It is not courage for their own sake. They are laying their lives on the line for the sake of others.
And key questions loom between the lines, such as: Wouldn’t Miriam have been afraid of approaching pharaoh’s daughter? To Miriam, pharaoh’s daughter represented the enemy. And wouldn’t pharaoh’s daughter have wondered what her father would say when she took in a Hebrew as her own son? How scandalous for the Egyptian government at the time! I wonder what she said to him to convince him. After all, it would have appeared to the country that pharaoh failed to keep his own order.
What a beautiful subversion to the power structures of the day. We often give credit to Moses for leading the Hebrews out of slavery, but the fact is the story of the Exodus is nothing without these five brave, compassionate and wise women.
What I find most refreshing about this story is how counter-cultural it is. In ancient Egypt women did not enjoy privilege, prestige and power. In light of the cultural powerlessness of women it is astounding to see them wield incredible power in this story.
I’m writing about this because I think the same is true in our culture today. Our “cultural script” tells us women are suitable for a certain set of responsibilities but not for another set. Speaking from experience in “Christian” culture, I am embarrassed to say we marginalize women even more. My colleague in ministry Mandy Olson puts it this way: “The stained glass ceiling is even thicker than the glass ceiling.”
And it grieves me that women are discriminated against in numerous ways, some subtle and some not-so-subtle.
An example. Today, a song came on the radio that began: “We were made to be courageous.” That message is good and needed, but the song itself only addresses men. It asks, “Where are you, men of courage?” and employs images of being “warriors” instead of “watching from the sidelines.” It tells men to take back the “fight” and paints us as supreme defenders of women and children.
On the one hand, I think the song has a valid point that too many men do not take a stand for what is good and right. Sometimes men are portrayed in our culture as clueless and apathetic, only interested in sports, beer and food, unavailable to children and emotionally shallow. In that light, the song rightly questions that cultural script and that is good.
But there is another cultural script which I find unhelpful that is perhaps faintly echoed between the lines of this song. It is this: culturally-approved maleness often consists of aggression and brute force—it’s reflected in the expectation that to men belong activities like hunting, playing sports, and getting rowdy. The “bad boy” is portrayed as more manly than the sensitive poet or introverted intellectual. The male heroes of film and television often portray power in violent and forceful terms. And that cultural script is unhelpful, too. It is a false view of manhood.
There is an element in Christian culture that plays into this cultural script. Men are expected to be charismatic and direct but when women exhibit the same qualities they are treated as pushy or too bold. In many churches women are not allowed to serve in certain leadership capacities, even if they have the gift of leadership.
This flies in the face of Scripture, which says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
It grieves me that women have been historically marginalized because of these cultural scripts we adopt. That is why stories like those we read in the early chapters of the Exodus hearten me. They challenge the cultural script. They remind us that when the world says women have no power, the power of women is not thereby diminished. The power of women will endure no matter what the culture says.
Stories like the one we read in Exodus remind me that “courage” is not an inherently “male” quality. Men and women share the quality of courage equally.
Such a fact calls to mind the many women in my life who have exhibited the quality of courage such that I’ve been inspired to greater courage personally.
I think of my wife, for starters. She is an incredible woman of courage. What I love about her courage is that it isn’t aggressive, as we often think courage must be. No, Heather’s courage comes from an inner strength that, when she acts in courage, she does so simply and confidently. It isn’t flashy but it sure is strong and steadfast. If it is challenged, she will not back down.
I want to emulate that. I want to learn from that. She has courage like I do not.
I think of my sister, also. She is not afraid to speak the truth. She is an incredibly strong woman who has faced all manner of criticism in her life—not the least of which is due to the fact that she has fourteen children. You have no idea how many unkind and thoughtless comments she has received because of this. Yet, the fact is: she has that many children because, in many ways, she is just like Shiphrah and Puah who knew the value of each and every life—especially the lives of vulnerable infants, defenseless if we do not stand watch.
Yes, she is a woman of courage and great strength. I want to learn from that. She has something I do not.
I think of my daughter, who has been courageous her entire life. She’s had to have courage because, for Pete’s sake, we’ve moved her from one place to the next because of our lifestyle and career. Because of that, she’s had to develop incredible inner strength, a power that derives from knowing just who she is in spite of shifting circumstances. When I think of the obstacles she’s faced in life with confidence and strength, I think: “She’s a woman of courage.”
I also think of my colleague in ministry, Mandy Olson. She has had to face all kinds of demeaning questions because, gasp, she is an ordained woman serving as the lead pastor of our church. I marvel at how she always holds herself with dignity and grace when she faces insensitive queries about her calling. And, it’s not easy leading in an urban context, either. Because of our context, she wrestles with another cultural script which is that Christians do not often treat Muslims with compassion, yet just the other day she reached out to our Muslim neighbors to assure them we wish them well. That gesture took courage, let me tell you, because it means there may be fellow Christians who will question her actions.
But such ridicule is, well, ridiculous. The short of it is: her courage is an example to me.
I think of my friend Sabrina, who stood up to drug dealers and gang members in her neighborhood, all the while homeschooling her children and teaching them to be strong in their faith. Talk about courage! Now, what’s amazing about Sabrina is she would say she didn’t do it alone; her husband was right there with her in it. But, the fact is, without Sabrina and her courage, nothing would have happened. It took her strength, wisdom and perseverance to see it through.
I could go on and on, listing the many women I’ve had the privilege of knowing throughout my life, but the point is: it’s time for us to wake up and see the incredible gifts each person brings to the world, regardless of their gender. Men do not have a lock on courage, nor are men exempt from cultivating qualities our culture regards as “weak” or “feminine.”
Men, we need to learn from women. We need to help disrupt the cultural script that portrays men as “courageous” and women as “supportive.” In God’s kingdom, such roles do not partition neatly. What we see in the case of the Exodus narrative is that the courage of women springs from compassion and is marked by great wisdom and wit. Men would do well to learn from women as mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, colleagues and leaders.