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There are days it’s too hard to see God’s presence in the world. Between our news and newsmakers, we have to ask, what’s happened to the world God intended? Why doesn’t somebody fix this? Why doesn’tGod?
The Hebrew prophets laboured with the same question. Now, these Hebrew prophets weren’t the kind of prophets who tossed the dice and predicted the future. They would have had no opinion about who was going to win the next Stanley Cup. No, the role of the Hebrew prophets was to make God’s presence in their world tangible to their people. They listened intently to God’s voice, then made sense of it for others. Most often by words. Sometimes by actions. Most often they were men. Sometimes, at least once, they were women.
Puah and Shiphrah lived in Egypt 3300 years ago. They were midwives, although now we would call them nurse practitioners. And for their actions, I call them prophets.
Puah and Shiphrah lived in dangerous times. For 150 years foreigners had conquered and oppressed their country. Dynasties had risen and fallen like the waters of the Nile. Now a new Pharaoh had clawed his way into power and he was going to be ruthless. He didn’t trust the remnants of foreigners still living within his borders. He didn’t trust the Hebrew descendants of Joseph and his 12 prolific brothers. He meant to crush them so hard they could never rise against him.
He drove them into slavery and gave them so much work their men should have been too tired to make their wives pregnant. It didn’t work. The exhaustion of a man laying bricks is not the exhaustion of a Pharaoh with too many concubines in his harem. The Hebrew women were fruitful and multiplied. Pharaoh was terrified the Hebrews would realize their strength and align with his enemies.
Pharaoh’s heart was surely steeped with evil. He summoned the two midwives. “Go about you work among the Hebrew slaves,” he told them. “Tell them what to eat and how to breathe. Hold their hands through their pains if you think it’s really worth it.” Pharaoh’s eyes grew narrow and his voice hard and deep, “But when they are delivered, if it is a male child, set it aside to die before its mother knows. The girls may live. But the boys must die.”
Pharaoh had condemned the Hebrews to worse than genocide. He believed in life after death, at least,his life after death. He intended to live forever in the massive tomb his slaves were building. But in those days the Hebrews did not believe in life after death. They believed a man lived only as long as his sons’ and grandsons’ memories. And Pharaoh intended they’d have no sons––no memories.
Now Puah and Shiphrah were not Hebrew women. Their names are Egyptian, meaning, Splendor andBeauty. Yet they worked in the Hebrew slave camps. It couldn’t have been for the money. Slaves don’t have money. I like to think they were early examples of the kind of people who work with the dispossessed. I like to think they’d witnessed the mystery of life and death, then taken the oath of their calling, to in all ways serve life.
Puah and Shiphrah stumbled from Pharaoh’s court, each mute in her own fear. Puah was thinking of a young girl far away from her own mother and frightened by her first pregnancy. Shiphrah was thinking of an older woman torn apart by the loss of her other babies, now hoping against fear this midwife’s skills would bring her to full term and safe delivery. “I have felt a child’s heartbeat before it was born,” whispered Puah. “I have turned a child in its mother’s womb,” sighed Shiphrah. “We cannot do this thing,” whispered Puah. “If we don’t, he’ll kill us. Our families too,” sighed Shiphrah.
Days passed. Nights. Sometimes Puah and Shiphrah caught brief glimpses of each other scurrying along dark alleyways and into the slaves’ hovels. The same night Puah held the girl’s hands while she wept for the pains, Shiphrah smoothed the older woman’s belly and hushed her fears. The same hour before dawn they each delivered fine healthy boys and laid them, squawling and kicking, in their mothers’ arms. “Her eyes were on me,” whispered Puah. “I know what it is to lose a child,” sighed Shiphrah.
That same day Pharaoh summoned them back to his palace. “Where are the baby boys?” he thundered. “Was I not perfectly clear? My soldiers say you’ve brought them none. Where are they!” And he shook his fist so hard his double crown nearly fell from his head and the slaves hiding behind the linen curtain quaked in terror. Puah and Shiphrah quaked too, of course, but that dawn they’d held new life in their hands and now they were too exhausted to think beyond the moment. “The Hebrew women are not like us,” said Puah. “No,” said Shiphrah, “they have their babies so fast, we can’t get to them before they’re up and back in their kitchens.” The two midwives looked at each other and nodded. “They’re not like us, great Pharaoh.”
“Can this be true?” Pharaoh glared at the priest kneeling at his feet. For though he had fathered many, many children by many, many beautiful wives and concubines, Pharaoh had never troubled himself with the details of childbirth and other female problems. The priest shrugged; like most middle management of his time he was a eunuch and didn’t know either. “Then go,” thundered Pharaoh, “but from now on, gofaster.” And the midwives scuttled from his presence, and indeed they tried, but they always swore they never got to their deliveries in time to deliver death.
This story was written 300 years after it happened. By then the Hebrew people were safely delivered into the Promised Land and beginning to write the oral history of their ancestors. In 300 years they’d forgotten some of the details. They’d forgotten, for instance, thePharaoh’s name. Imagine that. The most powerful man in the world and the descendants of slaves had forgottenhisname. But the two midwives who’d safely delivered their nation when its very existence hung by an umbilical cord, their names they’d remembered. I like to think that by then many generations of baby girls had been named after them. Today there is a clinic in Israel that helps couples conceive. It’s named for them too. In the end Pharaoh’s acts of construction bought him less than 300 years of fame. Puah and Shiphrah’s acts of compassion brought them 3000 years of honour, and counting.
What can this mean to us, here and now, so many years and far beyond anywhere Puah and Shiphrah could imagine? Puah and Shiphrah made God’s presence tangible in their world. But if they’d heard us call them prophets, they would have laughed, “No, no, not us. We’re too ordinary. It’s just that in every birth there comes a moment as if life and death are balanced on a scale. We chose life. Of course it would have been easier to do what Pharaoh said. To leave it to more important people to resolve. But we were all those women had. God gave us opportunities every day, (Shiphrah yawns, ‘every night too’) to help others. Acting on God’s voice was hard work. But so is childbirth. And every mother knows its reward.”
Then Puah and Shiphrah might look down at their own hands and say, “It was as if God himself was in labour to give birth to a new world. He couldn’t do it alone. He needed our help. Now he needs yours.
Look about you. Is there a child, client, neighbour who needs your help? Help him. Is there a parent, student, stranger who needs your love? You may be the only one she has. Love her. You call us prophets, well so are you. In your work, your homes, your communities God’s chosen you to be partner in his creation. Don’t let him suffer through childbirth alone. It’s your hands he needs to deliver his work in his world today.”
Copyright 2009, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.