I’m no great TV fan and don’t watch a lot of shows. But there’s one show that has stolen my heart: Call the Midwife. This BBC series portrays the lives and work of midwives, some of whom are vowed religious sisters, helping mothers bring new life into the world, often in precarious circumstances in working-class London in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. These midwives have a lot in common with their predecessors, Shiphrah and Puah.
It is quite amazing that the Book of Exodus opens with the witness of midwives. The story of Joseph and his family is now several generations later. Scripture itself tells us that the collective memory is fading: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8). This new king, Pharaoh, now has enslaved the Israelites, forcing them into hard labour with little reward. But as usual with corrupt leaders, he fears the very people he seeks to control. And he wants to oppress them more fiercely. Enter our two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh instructs them to kill all baby boys born to the Israelites. (Exodus 1)
What Pharaoh doesn’t realize is that these two women pose a much greater threat than any of the baby boys! For Shiphrah and Puah are clever. Shiphrah and Puah fear God more than they fear Pharaoh. These midwives serve a God of life, by ushering new children into life – literally. Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s orders and let all the children live, male and female. Their courageous defiance puts their own lives at risk.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of courage. It’s hard to imagine the subversive effort it can take to bring life into the world when you are aware of just what a dangerous place the world can be. And yet these women fought back against Pharaoh, and fought against the despair of forced labour, and they brought children into the world. They brought new life into a world bent on life’s destruction.
What kind of courage does it take to give and protect life, in a world full of landmines? For the Israelites, when they were slaves in Egypt, just being born a Hebrew baby boy was a death sentence. Just being born a certain ethnicity—Hebrew— and being born a certain gender, a boy, meant that Pharaoh was going to try and kill that child.
Even today there are plenty of children being born into life-threatening situations. There are plenty of mothers and fathers worried sick about their beloved sons and daughters for the simple reason of being born in the wrong country, in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong skin colour, or the wrong religion.
Being born a girl in China is the worst thing in the world. The well-known female Chinese-born filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo wrote about this graphically in her memoirs Once Upon a Time in the East. A girl in China is likely aborted before birth or sent away into foreign adoption. Muslim mothers, black mothers and Indigenous mothers share the same fear as the Hebrew women in Pharaoh’s time. They fear raising children in a society that sees their sons as a threat, and their girls as sexual prey. Cntinuing racial and religious prejudice compels mothers of Muslim, African American and Indigenous children to have to give their children “the talk:” how to respond if a police officer pulls you over for no apparent reason. How to deal with racial slurs and sexual innuendos; how to remain respectful despite your anger because you know you are being targeted just because of the colour of your skin or your religion. Proctor & Gamble caused quite a stir recently in the US with a new TV ad that features “The Talk” that women of colour have to have with their children.
Even today the world is full of Pharaohs, forces and situations and people that threaten our kids, our daughters and son of every colour and religion, of every ability and gender. Every child and vulnerable person deserves the heroic intervention and help from midwives such as Shiphrah and Puah. These two women were radical in their zeal to bring forth and protect life without playing favourites. They refused to collude with injustice and oppression, and used their wit to save lives. God blessed their courage and fearless witness by ensuring Scripture would remember them by name.
And guess what? Shiphrah and Puah’s act of civil disobedience changed history, and that is the second miracle in the story. Neither of these women likely thought of themselves as game-changers in history. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the promptings of their hearts, by heeding the call of their conscience. For one of the boys saved was Moses, the one who lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, the one who delivered God’s law to the Israelites and brought them to the promised land. And it all started with two women willing to say “no” to injustice!
What’s more, Moses owes his entire existence to several courageous women who secured his safety: his mother, who stared down her own fear and hid him in a basket on the river. His sister, likely Miriam, who watched from the shore to see what would become of her baby brother, and stepped forward at the right time. And, to shame Pharaoh’s lame oppressive power, Pharaoh’s OWN DAUGHTER, the princess, who found Moses, took pity on him, and hired his mother to nurse him! Trust women to weave a conspiracy of life! While Pharaoh was busy killing baby boys, it was the women, including his own daughter, who schemed to save life! (Exodus 2:1-10)
This coming week school begins again. Teachers, children and parents enter another year engaging with an ever increasing diversity of children and families, some very different from what we are familiar with. And there are plenty of ways children become targets because of differences in abilities or background or ethnic origins. There are plenty of mothers and fathers out there, worried about how their children might be treated. There are plenty of parents afraid of sending their children into the world because of the proverbial landmines.
God knows we need the kind acts of millions of people to help secure a healthy future for our children’s children everywhere. We are all, women and men, called to be midwives of life. Despite the darkness in the world, never underestimate the effect one small act of love can have in a child’s life. We never know when we might be standing up to a Pharaoh and saving the life of the world’s next Moses.
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