A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Five Courageous Women and the Miracle of 'Godness'
October 30, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 31 Ex 1:8-2:10 Rom 12:1-8 Matt 16:13-20
Some outcomes are so wonderful it seems they have a touch of godness about them. Take the story of baby Moses. Condemned at birth to be killed. Hidden in the house for the first three months. Then, under the watchful eye of his sister, placed in a basket among the bulrushes. Pharaoh's daughter chances to see the baby, has pity, takes and names the child as her son.
Thank God! A baby has been saved from death. That's always a miracle in my book. Yet while I can say 'Thank God' and call it a miracle I am hesitant to say, "God saved Moses". For such a statement raises the question, 'Why didn't God save the other Hebrew babies slaughtered by the repressive regime? Has God got favourites? Is God therefore unjust?'
There is a difference between saying 'God willed it, a miracle happened!' and saying 'Moses survived, so miraculously, God was surely in it'. The former has God as a heavenly C.E.O. apportioning miracles in order to fit with a grand strategic plan. The latter has God as a synergy, a spark that emerges when humans endeavor to protect and provide for those who are vulnerable. The former has an anthropomorphic God in control. The latter has an empowering spirit God who works through and beyond us.
To say that God saved Moses can also detract our attention away from the courageous feats of five women:
Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew midwives. On the one hand they were slaves, part of the Hebraic minority oppressed by their Egyptian masters. On the other hand they were health professionals who were personally instructed by the Pharaoh and personally disobeyed him. Pharaoh wanted them to murder the male babies. Shiphrah and Puah, however, believed in God and refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: "The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes." It is doubtful that Pharaoh believed them. Instead he circumvented them in order to carry out his murderous intent.
I think those who work in the health sector need to remember the ethics and courageous leadership of Shiphrah and Puah. They are the only women in the Book of Exodus to act in an overtly political sphere. They are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation, the liberated people of Yahweh their God. Shiphrah and Puah understood that God's priority, and the priority of their profession, to save life was a higher priority than the dictates of Pharaoh, or the Egyptian Metropolitan Area Health Board. Loyalty to management is secondary to loyalty to those within your care. Also, in this story we have two women who were prepared to face the Pharaoh and lie to him. Honesty is sometimes not the best policy. The ethic of preventing the death of children has a higher priority.
We are next introduced to two nameless women: Moses' mother, whom we know from other texts to be Jochebed [Ex. 6:20], and his sister, whom we know to be Miriam [Num. 26:59]. Bravery is again to the fore. After his birth Jochebed hides Moses in her house for three months. Think of the fears - that every little cry will be alerting someone, that every neighbour or stranger may betray them, … Then, in time, the family considers another option: place baby Moses in a basket, down by the riverside [ironically fulfilling Pharaoh's requirements that babies be thrown in the river!!]. There Miriam stayed and watched over her brother. Note the bravery of Miriam when the Egyptian Princess finds Moses: coming forward, rather than scuttling off, and bravely offering a wet nurse [that is her mother] for the babe. The Princess could have easily have had the baby thrown into the deep. It would also have been easy to surmise [or see!] the connection between Moses and Miriam, and deal with Miriam as one would with a lawbreaker. Instead Miriam's bravery enables Jochebed to carry on feeding, bonding with, and enjoying her infant son, until such time as he was admitted to the palatial environs.
Lastly there is the bravery of the unnamed Princess: Walking along and finding the baby. Realizing that he is one of the immigrants that her father despises. Knowing that her father has asked every Egyptian to throw these babies to their death. Feeling her heart moved to pity and daring to act on the basis of that feeling.
The stunning part though, the part that alerts us here we have a princess worthy of that title, is her claiming and naming Moses as her son. To save the baby's life she could have taken him as a slave. That would have been enough to get daddy's attention! If she liked Moses she could even have had him castrated and elevated to the status of a royal eunuch. Yet instead she takes this outcast, immigrant child, of the race her father detests, and invites him into the royal inner sanctum as her son.
Biblical commentators often compare birth stories in different traditions. The closest parallel is the birth of Sargon of Akkad, founder of the Assyrian empire, whose mother bore him in secret, and set him in a basket of rushes, sealing the lid with bitumen. A certain Akki lifted him out and reared him as his own son. The strikingly difference is the role of the five courageous women in the Moses saga, compared with the absence of women [save his mother] in the Sargon account.
Theologically speaking we could say that the enlivening, hopeful Spirit called God was incarnated, manifested, in this story of Moses in the bulrushes, in the solid and confrontational ethics of the midwives, in the love of his mother, the solution engendering bravery of his sister, and the daring inclusivity of his adoptive mother. This Spirit was part of the spirit of these women, whether they were part of God's so-called 'chosen people' or not. ['Chosen people' is always a dubious accolade as it implies some are 'unchosen.'] This Spirit works from below, in partnership with the brave, in contrast to the kingly God who orders from above and oversees it happening.
A God in control, the heavenly C.E.O. or even a more modest loving, nurturing 'daddy up above' is problematic. Simply put, how can an all-loving, all-powerful deity allow those little Hebrew baby boys to drown? Explanations like freewill, the power of evil, etcetera, just don't wash. We know they don't. We put the problem in the 'too hard' basket. When some hyped-up preacher rolls into town proclaiming a God of miracles, judgment, and salvation we politely distance ourselves. We know what we don't believe, even if we aren't sure what we do believe.
Yet, although problematic, there is something persistent about a God in control. We want to believe that there is some order, despite the disorder all around; there is some security, despite the multiple insecurities; and some powerful love, despite the absence of it. God as enlivening Spirit doesn't seem to have the same muscle when fronting up to the Pharaohs of this world. The biblical narrative though disagrees. 'Don't be fooled by Pharaoh', it says. 'The power of five can topple the intentions of the Mighty Muscle'. But it takes faith. Faith in the little things, the little sparks, rather than the big power show.
A chap said to me the other week, "If God wants it to happen, God will have to make it happen." He'd given his best, in the face of significant odds, and it didn't happen. Sometimes I hear the Romans 8:28 quoted: "Everything works together for the good" - a first century rendition of "always look on the bright side of life." It's one of those wonderfully hopeful verses.
Yet you know and I know people whose lives consist of one tragedy dumped on another. The gurus of 'get-ahead' say it's all about attitude, re-arranging your thoughts, and running for gold. There is some truth in that of course, but it's not the full story. It's hard to win any race when you're little, racially discarded, floating on a river of death.
These hopes of God helping it to happen, of things working for the good, can be understood as a primal, positivist, life urge. Something like physis - that 'whatever' in plants that keeps them seeking the light, not matter how many big trees are blocking the way. That urge in humans that wants to embrace life, and feel life embracing us. That urge that helps a rejected people, and women of heart, strive to save at least one baby.
The Church has taken, adopted, and named this life urge, attaching God's imprimatur to it. And, maybe, rightly so. For can't the ordinary be extraordinary, the chance happening be holy? Can't grace break into the mundane? Godness pervades our lives and surprises us. It is transformative. It often takes us, working collaboratively with spirit to make it happen. It is miracle bubbling from below.