COMPASSION OVER POLITICS
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“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.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The 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.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
(Exodus 1:15-21, NRSV)
This has been a tumultuous week in the life of our nation. Americans in every state—blue, red, and purple—reacted strongly against separating migrant parents from their children at the U.S./Mexican border. It has been a most unusual week in the life of America’s churches as leaders from all across the religious spectrum, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals to the progressive National Council of Churches, the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops to the leaders of our own United Church of Christ, have spoken with one voice denouncing the unjust and inhumane policy of taking children (babies included) from undocumented parents at the border.
Members of the administration threw gasoline on the fire by misreading Romans chapter 13. They were not the first to misread these verses. This passage has been misread and misapplied by slave owners, the KKK, and Nazis before them. (Not what you’d call good company.)
Don’t believe anyone who cites Romans 13 as proof that governments possess a God-given authority which the rest of us must obey. This passage is not about the divine right of kings (another wrongheaded concept). Rather it is the Apostle Paul’s advice to Christians who, instead of living in a modern democracy, live in a totalitarian state ruled by an iron fisted emperor. More specifically, Paul is advising his readers to obey the law as opposed to mounting an insurrection that was doomed to fail. Paul knew that well-meaning zealots had failed time and again to free Israel from Roman occupation, to no avail. Bear in mind too, that during this period, Christians were a persecuted group suffering the worst imaginable torture at the hands of Nero and others. In essence Paul is saying to his readers, keep your head down. Don’t draw attention to yourself lest you be punished too.
It has been suggested that Paul was being ironic when he told his readers to obey the Romans because it was God who had put these brutes in power. Instead this passage reminds people in every age that earthly kingdoms have their day, but only God’s rule is eternal. One should also pay attention to one specific issue in Romans 13, taxes. Just as Jesus said render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and render unto God that which is God’s, Paul was advising his readers to be good citizens and pay their taxes or else the Romans could make them pay with their lives. Keep in mind that Paul is not telling his readers to obey an unjust law. Instead he’s just saying to play it cool.
There are numerous stories in the Bible where people are told not to obey an unjust law, but instead to obey our just and loving God. One of my favorite stories of people choosing to obey God instead of an unjust ruler involves two Jewish midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. They aren't exactly household names, but they are among the Bible's unsung heroines. Let me introduce you to them.
To understand the context, we need to rewind a few centuries to the time of Joseph who once owned an Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. As you will recall, Joseph, his father, and his brothers dwelled peacefully in Egypt because of Joseph's great service to the Egyptian government. By interpreting Pharaoh's dreams, Joseph predicted there would be seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of famine. Under Joseph's direction, the Egyptians built large silos to house the abundant grain. When the famine came, the people survived because of Joseph’s God-given wisdom. After the seven year famine, life returned to normal. Joseph and his twelve brothers had many children. Years passed, the Hebrew people grew in numbers, and eventually Joseph and his immediate family died. During this time the Egyptians and the Hebrew people coexisted peacefully. However, these good relations went by the wayside when the Pharaoh who loved Joseph was replaced by another. This new Pharaoh either did not know or simply did not care about the life-saving efforts Joseph, a Hebrew, had made on behalf of the Egyptians. Instead of seeing the Hebrew people as fellow humans, the new king zeroed in on their differences. They worshipped a different God; they sprang from a different history; they observed different customs and furthermore, they were multiplying like rabbits. Soon a paranoid “us against them” mentality developed and the Pharaoh began to view the Israelites as enemies. He wondered to himself, “What would happen if the Hebrews joined together with our enemies? If war breaks out, they will kill us all!” Having deluded himself into believing that the Israelites were a threat to the Egyptian way of life, the Pharaoh convinced his people that these foreigners were a threat to national security. (Does this sound familiar?) He decided something had to be done about “those people.”
The Pharaoh’s first plan of action was enslavement. He divided the Hebrews into work gangs and forced them to labor under harsh conditions. Whips were cracked and backs were bent in agonizing work--the building of larger-than-life statues and pyramids, cities and storehouses, and the planting and harvesting of food for their Egyptian masters. Pharaoh intended to break the spirit of the Hebrew people, and thereby curb their increasing numbers. But the harsher the treatment, the more resilient they became. God continued to bless the Israelites with children, keeping the promise God made to Abraham hundreds of years before that he “would be the father of many nations.”
Despite his power, the Pharaoh's plan was not working. Infuriated, he devised a policy even more cruel and inhuman. And here enter our heroines. Pharaoh ordered two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all baby boys born to Hebrew mothers. They were to do so immediately after birth. Surely Shiphrah and Puah left Pharaoh's court shocked, frightened, and bewildered. Their vocation as midwives was one of assisting in life and in comfort. They encouraged the mother in her labor pains, they held her hand and wiped her brow. They exclaimed the joyful news when the baby's head appeared, assisted the babies with their first breaths, and presented them to their parents. Amidst the babies' cries of new life and the parent's cries of joy, these midwives worked tirelessly to assure that all went well. Now the Pharaoh had ordered them to do the unthinkable--to be harbingers of death instead of angels of life.
What would they do? Nancy Hastings Sehested, a progressive Baptist pastor, writes, “All [Pharaoh] could see was his…imagined threat to Egyptian national security. All he could see were two ordinary women who had no power, whom he considered weak, and who would certainly obey him. But Shiphrah and Puah knew who they were. They knew their vocation meant assisting in life, not death.” We know from the scriptures that Shiphrah and Puah engaged in acts of civil disobedience, ignoring the unjust orders of Pharaoh. In defiance of Pharaoh, and in obedience to God, they spared the babies' lives.
Naturally, before long Pharaoh heard the news that the Hebrew women were still birthing baby boys. He angrily called the courageous midwives into his court and demanded an explanation. At this point Shiphrah and Puah rendered a “creative version of the truth.” In other words, they lied through their teeth! In dramatic fashion, they extolled the strength of the Hebrew women who managed to birth their babies before the midwives could even make it through the door. Pharaoh sent them away in disgust, and ordered his people to take charge of the now infamous proclamation to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. You'll recall this is how baby Moses ended up in a basket, floating down the Nile river, saved by three women--his mother, Jochebed, his sister, Miriam, and the Egyptian princess who adopted Moses on the spot and raised him as her own.
It was Mother Teresa who said, “Love cannot remain by itself--it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service.” Putting love into action means facing the unjust pharaohs in this world and speaking truth to power. In so doing, we rightly value compassion over politics and action against unjust policies. For in saying no to pharaoh, we are saying yes to God. Amen.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
June 24, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
 And Blessed Is She, p. 214
 # 561, Singing the Living Tradition
God of mercy and healing, you hear the cries of those in need. Receive these petitions of your people that all who are troubled may know peace, comfort, and courage. Be near our earthly family including those who are uprooted—for our sister who is fleeing domestic violence, for our brother who is being harassed by gangs and drug cartels, for our children lost and lonely throughout our nation and throughout our world, we ask your help. You call us to hold the needs of our sisters and brothers and children as dear to us as our own needs. Pour out your Spirit of wisdom and discernment. Having ascertained the way you would have us go, pour out your strength and courage upon us that we might speak out for the voiceless, act on behalf of the weak, and stand by those who feel abandoned. May your Spirit remind us that we are ever secure in your love, not only for us, but for the betterment of women, men, and children with whom we share this fragile planet.
We pray through Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior. AMEN.