DARING WOMEN

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10


Holy Moses! Where would Western Civilization be without Moses?

In all of Western Civilization, he is hailed as the great Lawgiver, the mouthpiece for God when the Lord handed down the Ten Commandments. Moses is the founder of ethics and morality in the Judeo-Christian heritage. He is the great liberator. Sent by God, Moses ordered Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" Moses has become symbolically the liberator for oppressed peoples everywhere. 

Where would world religions be without Moses?

Moses is a founding hero of three world religions. Islam recognizes Moses among its top tier of great prophets, the first messenger to predict the coming of Mohammed. Judaism cherishes Moses as Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses, our Master," the greatest of all Jewish teachers. Christianity honors Moses as the prototype of the Christ, indeed Jesus was considered by many to be a "new Moses."Where would Christians be without Moses? He is more than the hero of the Old Testament, more than the emancipator of the Hebrew people, more than the standard bearer for prophets. He is the forerunner of the Messiah, the Christ. 

Without there being a Moses, there would be no Bible story, no Messiah, no Christ, yet as you will learn today, without some remarkable women, there would have been no Moses.

The story starts long, long ago in the distant lands of the Middle East.  Eighteen hundred or so years before Jesus, Jacob’s entire clan moved from their recently acquired family homestead in Palestine down to Egypt in order to escape from catastrophic famine that threatened their livelihood and lives. At the invitation of Joseph, a son of Jacob who had been appointed to chief-of-state in Pharaoh’s cabinet, the entire family relocated and resettled in the land of Goshen.

For generations they lived in peace and enjoyed the advantages life in prosperous Egypt afforded, until a new political leader came into office, a leader who had no recollection or reason for extending gratitude toward Jacob's descendants. Instead of considering them as an ally, the new king feared them as a threat.In a top-level cabinet meeting, advisors were alarmed upon hearing the latest census estimations. The native Egyptian population was in decline, while birthrates among foreigners, especially among the Hebrews, were exploding. The Hebrew people were making up a larger and larger percentage of Egypt’s demographics.

Pharaoh voiced the fears many ordinary Egyptians felt.

"If we project the Israelite's high birth rate for the next few decades, they will soon outnumber our native citizens. That could be dangerous to the Egyptian lifestyle we have enjoyed for years, not to mention a threat to our national security. If they become more numerous than we, they could lower our standard of living, or carry the swing vote in the primaries, or even ally with our enemies to threaten our safety. We must control them,” urged Pharaoh.  “We must act quickly, without arousing any unfavorable international publicity. We need to control them.”

Pharaoh's first program was to work the Hebrews to death. Through executive order, he conscripted battalions of Israelites to become slave laborers, resettled them in work camps, and set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. The announced purpose was to construct public works projects, but the actual purpose was population control. Pharaoh set a precedent followed by latter-day taskmasters of Nazi Germany, who used similar techniques to resettle and subdue more than six million Jews during the Holocaust. The Nazis, however, succeeded where the Egyptians failed.

In spite of the rigors of enforced slave labor, the Hebrew population continued to climb. Therefore, Pharaoh took a more direct approach. He ordered the midwives who attended the births of the Hebrew babies to practice partial-birth abortions on any male Hebrew babies, while letting the female babies live. The idea of murdering babies was an acceptable method of birth control in the ancient world. The exposure and abandonment of unwanted, deformed or unhealthy infants was acceptable and widely practiced.  In most instances, however, the victims of infanticide were girls. Girls were considered to be less productive members of society, more of a drain on family assets, and thus baby girls were more expendable, whereas boys were valued. Pharaoh reversed the historical trend, possibly to impose an even more grievous infliction upon the Hebrews. 

However, some of the very midwives, whom Pharaoh recruited for killing babies, resisted Pharaoh’s orders. They practiced the first instance of civil disobedience recorded in the Bible. Two midwives proved to be so remarkable, so daring, that the Bible records their names. Shiphrah and Puah defied the order to murder male Hebrew infants.

According to the story, the reason for their act of civil disobedience was that "they feared God" (Exodus 1:17).  They refused to obey the king because they feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh. Their fear of God freed them from their fear of Pharaoh's reprisals. 

We, modern Christians, look askance at the notion that people ought to fear God. We prefer a loving and forgiving God, not one who engenders fear. But, if you had been an expectant Hebrew mother in ancient Egypt would you have wanted a midwife who feared God more or one who, even with a loving God, feared Pharaoh more? I’d prefer the God-fearing midwife. 

An ancient Jewish rabbi on his deathbed (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai,Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b) said: "May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of [men] people." The rabbi was very wise. For most humans fear other people more than they fear God. You have surely noticed that when people are tempted to act immorally, they are more prone to succumb to the temptation if they sense that no other person is watching. Why else do shoplifters scan nearby before they pilfer items? People fear what observers might think or do if they are seen. But rarely, when we are on the verge of doing something wrong, are we hesitant to carry through because we sense God will observe what we do. The rabbi was wise enough to realize that if people feared God even only to the same degree that they fear other human observers, and then they would perform fewer, if any, evil actions.

The fear of God protects us.

Even Voltaire, an outspoken atheist, who himself had no fear or even regard for God, admitted that the fear of God was a means of protecting himself. He is reported to have once said, "I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in [and fear] God. I think that if they do, I shall be robbed less and cheated less."

Because those two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, feared God, they protected the lives of helpless Hebrew babies. When Pharaoh learned from his informants that his program of enforced partial-birth abortions did not stem the birth rate of males among the Hebrews, he called the two midwives for an explanation. They offered an excuse, a medical explanation. They said that when the expectant Hebrew mothers entered labor, they dropped their babies so quickly, that mother and baby were gone before the midwives could arrive to assist. The Pharaoh, who evidently had never been present in a labor and delivery room, accepted the midwives' flimsy excuse. Their excuses did not matter; he had another program, a final solution to the problem of the Hebrews.

 

Pharaoh instituted the first recorded pogrom, the first state-sponsored practice of mass murder, genocide. Pharaoh charged all the people: "Every boy that is born to the Hebrew people you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live." Exposure was in ancient times a common way of disposing of unwanted children. But Pharaoh decreed infanticide to be state policy, not for select babies that parents did not want, but for all the infants that Pharaoh did not want (Exodus 1:22). To discharge his bloody plans Pharaoh recruited every law-abiding Egyptian citizen. He authorized every Egyptian to seize and drown the Hebrews' baby boys. 

What Pharaoh never expected was that again some daring women would thwart his plans to subdue the Hebrews! One Hebrew mother defied the Pharaoh's order to expose her baby boy. When her son was born, she hid him from the Egyptian death squads for three months. She was determined that her son would not suffer the fate of so many other innocent boys. As Jonathan Kirsch, a modern biographer of Moses, wrote: "Drawing on resources of courage and ingenuity that make her seem truly heroic, she took it upon herself to defy the will of Pharaoh and deny the baby-killers at least one victim."She constructs a floating basket, seals it with tar, and then puts the child in this miniature ark onto the waters of the Nile. She hopes that the Nile, the same river that claimed the lives of so many babies, will somehow protect hers. The mother's other child, her daughter, another female, secretly watches the basket bobbing in the water.

Then, as if by design, the Pharaoh's daughter comes to bathe in the Nile. The princess sees the basket among the reeds, opens it and sees the child. Upon hearing the baby cry, she caresses him. As soon as she changes his diaper, she realizes that he is one of the lucky Hebrew baby boys still alive. From her hiding place, Moses’ older sister springs into action. Before she can tell if Pharaoh’s daughter will drown the baby in keeping with her father’s executive order, the teenage girl speaks up. She offers to find a wet nurse from among the Hebrews to nurse the crying baby. The Egyptian princess, in deliberate defiance of her father's pogrom, promptly accepts the offer to preserve the child's life. By a providential turn of events, the boy is spared, reunited with his mother and sister, while afforded all the luxuries of Egyptian elite. Luck, or to be more precise, God is on his side. The princess adopts the foster baby, whom she names Moses. Thus, in spite of the Pharaoh's bloodthirsty efforts to destroy the Hebrew people, the one who eventually defy Pharaoh, grows up in Pharaoh's own household. 

There would have been no Moses without these defiant women: the midwives, Moses’ mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. The stories of these defiant women set the stage for the defiance Moses later showed. These women promoted life rather than death. The two midwives followed the dictates of conscience rather than comply with the king's partial-birth abortion order. The unnamed Hebrew mother and daughter protected the newborn child rather than subject him to fatal exposure. The daughter of Pharaoh was moved by compassion to guard the helpless baby from her father's evil intentions. The midwives' fear of God, the sister's quick thinking, the mother's resourcefulness, and the princess' compassion thwart the king's murderous plans. 

As I asked at the start, I asked a question: “Where would Jews, Christians, Muslims, ethics, morality, law, art of Western Civilization be without Moses?” To give credit where credit is due, the question probably should be: "Where would we be without these daring women?" Their acts of courageous civil disobedience set the stage for the rest of the story.