On Who is in Charge
I want to talk for a minute about names in the Bible. When you go through the Bible looking for great men, you have no trouble finding their names. Rarely does a man go unnamed in the Bible. But all sorts of female characters in the Bible lack names. We refer to them by where they live, or what they do, but they don’t have much agency. Their needs and wants serve the storyline, they do not shape it. Often their purpose in the story is to have a need that someone else in the story, usually a man, resolves. The widow at Zarephath, the woman at the well, the woman who was bleeding for 12 years, the mother of Samson, Jairus’s daughter are all left nameless when everyone else around them has a name.
But not so with today’s story. In today’s story, the Hebrew women have names, and the men do not. Shiprah and Puah are the heroes of our story, and they shape the narrative of what happens to them. And I want us to pay attention to that, because if we look at the story through that lens, the whole of its truth unfolds before our eyes.
We begin the story with a new king rising in Egypt. The new king does not get a name. In fact, if the you know anything about ancient Egypt, you know that calling Pharaoh a king was a little bit of a dig. To the Egyptians Pharaoh was way more than a king, he was the son of Ra, the sun God, who ruled the world and all that was known. And Pharaoh does not get a name.
Pharaoh doesn’t get a name because he is just like every tyrant king who has ever been. Pharaoh is a stock villain. He is any king who oppresses, any leader who assumes that his cruel orders will be carried out by the very people to which he is cruel. Any powerful leader who feels threatened by the least powerful people around. Israel has known Pharaohs, and they are all the same. But Pharaoh does not know Israel. That’s why Pharaoh doesn’t get a name, just a blurb about how he does not know Joseph. That’s the only thing that matters about Pharaoh: he does not know who he’s dealing with.
Pharaoh sees the Hebrews, and they have become many and mighty. There is an irony here too. 40 chapters of Genesis recount how every single generation of Abraham’s children struggles to just barely keep their line from dying out and keep God’s promise from being a lie. Now in Exodus, not more than 2 chapters later, the children of Abraham are so numerous and prolific that they threaten mighty Egypt.
Pharaoh is threatened because the Hebrews are so numerous and could become powerful. Little does he know that they are already powerful, because they have God on their side. And he says, “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase, and might turn against us.” So Pharaoh imposes hard labor on them, backbreaking labor, building the cities of his empire. This is shrewd, according to Pharaoh—enslaving the vulnerable to keep them from growing strong. But it doesn’t work. The Israelites are fruitful and they multiply, and they fill the land even more.
So Pharaoh calls the midwives to the Hebrews. They are named Shiprah and Puah. And he tells them that when they deliver a child, if it is a boy, kill it, but if it is a girl, let it live. Pharaoh is afraid of the strength of the men of Israel. Little does he know that the strength of women will be his undoing.
Now Shiprah and Puah had an important choice. It is the same choice that all of us have made and are making today. It is not the choice of whether or not to obey Pharaoh’s orders. Because that choice is the result of a choice they made long ago, when Shiprah and Puah decided who they were going to be and how they were going to see the world. It was made when Shiprah and Puah came to recognize God’s call in their lives, and chose to obey that call. That is the choice that defines how they look at the world, and how they will act in the face of Pharaoh. The choice that Shiprah and Puah made was to recognize God as the authority in their world. Having done that, no one, not even Pharaoh himself, can make them do something counter to that authority.
So Shiprah and Puah don’t hem and haw about whether or not to obey Pharaoh’s cruel command. They don’t agonize over what Pharaoh might do, or what people might think. Because none of those matter. They know that they are God’s and that God is in charge. Therefore the only opinion that matters is God’s. God breathed life into the world, God treasured each and every one of the children of Israel, and lifted them up. So Shiprah and Puah do exactly as they have been doing. They bring life into the world, treasure each son that they hold, and lift them up into their mothers’ arms.
When Pharaoh realizes that Shiprah and Puah have disobeyed him, he doesn’t understand. Shiprah and Puah will not collaborate in the destruction of their own people. And Pharaoh cannot understand why. He calls them to his chambers and says, “Why, why have you let them live?” Pharaoh does not recognize any authority other than his own. He cannot understand why he has not been obeyed. Maybe it has never happened before.
Pharaoh has tried to deal shrewdly with the people of Israel, but now Shiprah and Puah deal shrewdly with him. They tell him a lie that confirms his fears. The Hebrew women are so full of life and so strong that it bursts forth from them before the midwives can arrive. Nothing can be done to stop them from growing. But in that lie there is a strong note of truth. For in the midst of Pharaoh’s obsession with getting rid of boys is the truth that prevents his success. The women of Israel are too strong to let it happen. Shiprah and Puah are too strong to let it happen.
Our story stops here, but I hope you’ll permit me a brief epilogue. After this, Pharaoh gives up on the midwives, and commands all of the people to fling any baby boy into the Nile. But one unnamed woman hides her son for three months, and eventually makes an ark and floats him down the Nile, where he is found and adopted by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter. The child’s sister, who was watching in the reeds, offers his own mother up as a wet-nurse. In Pharaoh’s house, on Pharaoh’s dime, she nurtures the boy, who Pharaoh’s daughter names Moses, which means, “drawn out from the water.” He will grow up to be the one who draws the people out of Egypt through the Red Sea, where Pharaoh and his armies meet their end. And all of it because Pharaoh could see no danger in a mother, a daughter, or a sister.
Pharaoh is frustrated at every turn because he thinks that he is in charge. And he ends up among the sea of nameless tyrants who each fail in their own way but always for the same reason. They do not recognize who was in charge of their world.
Shiprah and Puah are the not nearly proclaimed enough heroes of the story. They are the examples we hope to live up to. For all those who are underestimated, whether at work or at home or in the world, Shiprah and Puah are examples of those who know their own strength and power, and use it to bring life in the face of death.
For those who are expected to go along with the cruel voices of power against the oppressed, Shiprah and Puah are the lights which show us how to refuse to collaborate with the brutal Pharaohs of our world.
For those who are afraid of what might happen, Shiprah and Puah are models of those who will take their chances on earth because they answer to someone more powerful than anything in else in all Creation.
Shiprah and Puah are brave. They are good at what they do, and they know it. They are clever, and they face Pharaoh with a gleam in their eye and a joke on their lips. But most of all, Shiprah and Puah know who is the ultimate authority in this world and the next. It is not Pharaoh or the tyrants of this world, but God, the giver of life. And so, at the risk of their own lives, they choose to obey God over the emperor, to bring life in the face of death.
When the time comes for us to act on what we claim to believe, to accept that God has claimed us and that God is the authority to which we answer. When it comes time for us to obey God or some other authority, be it Pharaoh, or a bank account or an ideology or our own selfish desires. When it comes time for us to take a stand as Shiprah and Puah did, we would do well to remember their names.
 Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses; A Translation with Commentary, New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2004. P. 314.