God seems so very absent. The people are suffering. People who survived a famine are now oppressed by the state. They are killed without warrant by officers of the regime. They are forced to labor without pay, treated as prisoners, treated as a threat. And God seems absent. God is not named as an actor in this first chapter of Exodus, except by the midwives Shiprah and Puah. If it weren’t for their naming God, this chapter would be hopeless.
Naming matters. “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. For once, Simon Peter gets it right. Peter understands Jesus‘ identity. He names the one before him. Messiah, and Son of the Living God, the power of that name. Others had names for Jesus as well. The pharisees called him an interloper, a heretic, a blasphemer. The Romans saw an irritant, an enemy of the state, a protestor.
Names are powerful in the Gospel, and they are powerful in this story we have from Exodus. Shiphrah and Puah. That we know their names is itself important. We don’t hear enough women’s names in the Hebrew Bible. These are the first women named with careers, they are midwives.
Shiphrah, Puah, and the Women of Exodus 1-2
Shiphrah and Puah provide the context of liberation into which Moses is born. These wily midwives use Pharoah’s prejudice against him in order save lives. St. Augustine said, lex iniusta non est lex, Dr. King translated, “an unjust law is no law at all.” The story begins as a Pharaoh rises over Egypt, who “knew not Joseph.” That is to say Pharaoh doesn’t know his history.
And Pharaoh is afraid of “them.” Ah there is the name. The powerful name: “Them. The other.” Pharaoh names the people of Israel as other. “Let us deal shrewdly with them.” “Those people.” “The other.” “Them” is a powerful name, it means “not us.” “Those people” they are multiplying too fast. They have too many babies. Pharaoh says to his people, blame “them.” Pharaohs use scapegoats to distract from their failings… He says, “kill their boys.” He could never say, “kill our children.” “Them” is a powerful name.
Can you imagine Shiphrah and Puah listening to his order. Unable to believe their ears, but unable to express their disagreement, for fear of their lives, they try to hold their composure. They back out of the throne room. You see, Exodus tells us that Shiphrah and Puah “feared God.” That is to say, they knew that Pharaoh’s name for the Hebrew babies did not match God’s name. These children were beloved, worthy. Their lives mattered.
Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh, and they lay the groundwork for other women to act. This chapter of Exodus does not tell us the names of the other women, but later the Scriptures do. Moses’ mother Jochebed hides her son. She weaves a basket and plugs the holes with pitch. Sister Miriam keeps her eyes on the basket as it floats down the Nile.
Bithiah, Pharaoh’s own daughter, walks along the water and sees the basket, hears the illegal child’s cries. She takes pity, Scripture tells us. She has compassion. Something causes this woman to move beyond her privilege. This compassion she feels, it does something to her, it changes her. Not only does she save the child whose death had been ordered by her father, she also employs his mother. She provides a wage for the work of mothering. She reunites the family.
Later on in the first book of Chronicles, buried deep in one of those lists of ancestors, we learn Bithiah’s name. We learn that she not only saved a Hebrew child. She wasn’t a one-time accidental ally. Bithiah became part of the family not just by adoption but by marriage. She married a Hebrew man named Mered. We learn she named one of her own daughter’s “Miriam,” after Moses’ sister.
The name “Bithiah” matters. In Exodus she is called simply Bat-Pharaoh (daughter of Pharaoh), but First Chronicles changes her name: Bat-Yah, Daughter of God. Through her defiance of her father, through her decision to save a child, to join God’s people, her identity changes.
A generation later God’s people are freed, famously walking through the Red Sea. But the quiet defiant patient persistent work, the hope of women Shiprah, Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, and Bithiah broke the ground. Moses’ way was set by the women who raised him up. Their example of faith paved the road of salvation he walked.
Shiphrah and Puah, the Bible tells us, feared God. Even when God seemed so absent, even when God had not yet acted to save the people, even while the lash and the mistreatment were at a height, when the judges of the land ruled that Hebrew Lives did not matter, these women feared God. Their defiant hope paved the way.
Another Faithful Defiant Woman: Pauli Murray
As I considered the women in the first chapters of Exodus, as I considered the lineage of defiance and hope that we inherit as people of faith, another faithful defiant character came to mind.
You may have never heard the name: Pauli Murray is celebrated as the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Pauli was ordained late in life, priesthood hadn’t been a possibility as a first career. I am grateful to have been raised up in the church that eventually found the guts to ordain someone like the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, a church that even had the guts to name Pauli a saint in recent General Conventions.
The Episcopal Church was just one of the institutions in which Pauli faced discrimination, growing up in the Jim Crow South, in segregated North Carolina. But Pauli Murray called Jim Crow by another name, “Jane Crow.” Jane Crow names the double discrimination Pauli faced for race and gender.
I thought of Pauli Murray this week, as I read the stories of the women in Exodus, because like them, Pauli was ahead of her time. Pauli was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus years before Rosa Parks. She was one of the first women to graduate from Howard Law School, having failed at her attempt to sue her way into the University of North Carolina’s law program. At Howard, she wrote a thesis about school segregation. The thesis would be dusted off years later to become part of the framework for the Brown v. Board of education. Pauli figured out how to break segregation itself, years before Thurgood Marshall argued the case to the Supreme Court.
Pauli’s life was hard. She fought depression. Pauli had to hide her sexuality and her frustration with gender binaries. Pauli is regarded as a forerunner of today’s trans community, having rejected feminine dress and even the name “Anna” chosen by parents. Pauli Murray was often called “ahead of her time,” but without women and men and people like Pauli, the groundwork wouldn’t have been laid. If you ask me where God was in Jim Crow, I would say, go and find Pauli Murray, who knew God and so knew separating between “us” and “them” always leads to inequality. God names us all worthy, beloved, redeemed.
What is faith?
Without the faith and the defiance and the persistence of folks like Pauli, we don’t arrive at moments like Brown v. Board of Education. Pauli is one of the giants who lend us their broad shoulders and point the way to freedom. We need to learn more names like The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray’s.
In times when the hopelessness of the world oppresses. In times when the news is all bad news, and God seems far off, the trail is often already being blazed. Shiphrah and Puah knew God, and defied Pharoah. Jochebed and Bithiah conspired to raise Moses right. Moses’ sister Miram stood by to watch over him at the river. Miriam would also stand with Moses to sing God’s praise the morning after the Red Sea parted. Pauli Murray refused to sit down on that bus, or in classrooms where she was called names. She demanded respect, when the laws and the culture were against her. Faith isn’t blind optimism. Faith is clear-eyed rule-breaking love. Faith can change the world.
The times when hope is obscured are the times we most need faith. We need defiant faith, patient faith, hopeful faith. Yes, next week we will thank God for Moses. We will thank God for the loud liberators, for those we know how to celebrate. We thank God for the big breakthroughs and those who lucked into the time when the world was ready for a breakthrough. But first thank God for the women who whispered God’s name defiantly when doing so was punished as a crime. Thank God for the women, name those women, whose defiant faith cleared the way we hope to walk.