"Unsung Heroes," by Claire Helton
Now a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph. Pharaoh said to the Egyptians, “Look at how powerful the Israelites have become, and how they outnumber us! We need to deal shrewdly with their increase, or else in a time of war they might turn against us and join our enemy, and so escape out of the country.” So they oppressed the Israelites with overseers who put them to forced labor; and with them they built the storage cities of Pitom and Ra’amses. Yet the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they multiplied and burst forth, until the Egyptians dreaded the Israelites. So they made the Israelites utterly subservient with hard labor, brick-and-mortar work, and every kind of field work. The Egyptians were merciless in subjugating them with crushing labor. Pharaoh spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews—one was Shiphrah, and the other Puah—and said, “When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, examine them on the birthing-stool. If the baby is a boy, kill it. If it is a girl, let it live.” But the midwives were God-fearing women, and they ignored the Pharaoh’s instructions, and let the male babies live. So Pharaoh summoned the midwives and asked why they let the male babies live. The midwives responded, “These Hebrew women are different from Egyptian women; they are more robust, and deliver even before the midwife arrives.” God rewarded the midwives, and the people increased in numbers and in power.
I’ve noticed a lot of ‘unsung hero’ stories as I’ve scrolled through my news feed lately. Our American sensibilities have always meant that we love a good story about a behind-the-scenes do-gooder. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has worn on and good news has seemed, at times, hard to come by, it does feel like we’ve sort of collectively settled on an unspoken agreement to share more and more good news every chance we get. And so we share them: the stories of not just doctors and nurses, but lab technicians working long shifts to facilitate the surge in testing that is so crucial to fighting this virus; or the sanitation & waste workers without whom all the lengthy new protocols for cleaning and disinfecting could not take place; or the curbside greeter at the cancer center who’d been accustomed to escorting the same patients in the door week after week, but whose sign now reads, “Corona made me stop hugging you, but God knows I still love you.”
We love unsung heroes, and for good reason. In the case of these recent examples, one of the things that makes their stories compelling is the commitment of these individuals to doing their work to the best of their ability, without notice or acclaim, despite unprecedented and incredibly difficult circumstances. The Bible is full of hero stories – both ‘sung’ and ‘unsung,’ and more often, something more closely resembling the anti-hero genre. Two of my favorite unsung heroes in all of scripture are found in our text today from the very beginning of the Exodus story. However, these are two women, Puah and Shiphrah, midwives to the Hebrews, who are cast as heroes precisely for what they did not do when faced with unprecedented and incredibly difficult circumstances. And in fact, while in my opinion Puah and Shiphrah steal the show, in this story they are only a part of a whole chorus of women making up the unsung heroes of the Exodus, all encapsulated in these first two chapters of the book. The two midwives defy Pharaoh first, but they are followed by Moses’ mother, who places Moses in the basket in the reeds, by his sister Miriam who accompanies him until he finds safekeeping, and by the Pharaoh’s own daughter who allows compassion to win out over nationalist loyalties and tribal fear.
In the interest of giving these unsung heroes a leading role, especially since many of us may have only breezed past their one mention here in Exodus chapter 1, perhaps it would be most helpful to tell the midwives’ story from their perspective:
“Now there arose a tyrant over Egypt who turned a blind eye to the past in favor of his own self-interest in the present. He allowed fear to drive his political policies and an entire ethnic group paid the price. These are the ones we would come to know as the people of God, the Hebrews. The chief midwives to the Hebrews, Shiphrah and Puah, were strong women, though likely not Hebrews themselves or else the Pharaoh would not have thought to entrust them with the heinous task he was about to place on their shoulders. You see, the Pharaoh had noticed that the Hebrews were growing in number, and he was beginning to let fear drive his thinking. At best, he considered, should the day come, the Hebrews might choose to resettle further north where they could serve their own interests rather than his. That would certainly be a financial blow. At worst, they might even gain enough strength and numbers to overthrow him in his own land. That was unthinkable.
And so, the Pharaoh began a smear campaign against the Hebrews. And it led where smear campaigns always do: toward the dehumanization of his enemy. Only by somehow managing to psychologically distance himself from an entire people group could a ruler conceive of making the kind of request he was about to make of these midwives. We can imagine that it was even sort of off-the-books at this point. Not yet public policy, as it would become when this plan didn’t pan out. Right now, the pharaoh just wanted a verbal agreement with the midwives: As you go about your work, if the infant is a girl, what is that to me? Let her live. But if on that birthing stool they could see that the child was a boy, he was to be killed.
I imagine that as Shiphrah and Puah walked, stunned, away from the royal court that day they felt the conflict already beginning to consume them. First on their minds, of course, was the matter of the murder they were being asked to commit, the crime itself, and one on such a large scale. Then, too, there was the reality that they were likely not the only two midwives for the entire Hebrew population but instead the overseers of all the ranks of midwives who worked with the Hebrew women. And so in that moment they felt, too, the anticipation of multiplying the guilt of the atrocity they’d been assigned not only by the number of mothers they would attend, but they would carry the weight of passing on that murderous task to all the midwives who reported to them. That weight alone had to be crushing.
And then there was the other thing, the notion they couldn’t even quite bring themselves to voice out loud, though they both felt it. It chewed on them as they went back to their rounds, minds in a blur, tending to the pregnant women in their care as if by rote. It was still there, gnawing on them, later that evening, as they were called in to attend for the first birth since the pharaoh’s edict had been laid upon them. In the low lamplight of that sacred room, her own hands trembling, Shiphrah strained to hold the mother steady, not even knowing in that moment what she would do when the time came. Deep breathing for both mother and midwife, and when finally the child was born and Shiphrah placed into Puah’s arms a perfect, healthy little girl, they looked deeply into one another’s eyes, and each confirmed what the other had come to know in that moment. It was something about the tragic irony of their fate as women, the sense of scorching indignation that this infant child, who held all the power and potential of the stars in her being, but who would become a woman and not a man, was, in the eyes of the pharaoh, no more threat to him alive than she was dead. It was a sickening feeling, a sharp tearing at the moral fabric of their being, the feeling that on the one hand, this was no jealousy – never in a million years would they wish a death sentence on this child. And at the same time, the feeling of anger rising in them like a cobra ready to strike: How dare he overlook me? underestimate us? And then, in an instant, the shame that immediately rushed in for even having the thought at all, and then the rage at being put in the position to have to consider any of it in the first place.
And in that moment, the child let out her first cry.
And in that moment, the midwives knew what their work would be.
They would deliver the children of the Hebrews, all of them, because in their faces they could see the image of God, male and female. They would knowingly lie to the Pharaoh, using against him the very patriarchal assumptions that had inflamed their spirits: they would play the ‘mystified woman.’ “Those Hebrew women, they’re just too quick for us!” And although in the end the Pharaoh’s wrath would find a way to achieve its end – the midwives could not stave off forever the horror that was to come – by the time that it did they had already set in motion the revolution that would change everything.
It is no wonder that out of the fury born of this deep and unspeakable wound they carried came the first pulsing of the tidal wave of defiance that would eventually sweep Moses in the basket down the river, that would sweep the nation of Israel off their feet and across the sea toward liberation.
It is no wonder that if, as scholars believe, Shiphrah and Puah weren’t Hebrew but Egyptian, this rising spirit of revolt was enough to unite women across the lines of race and ethnicity, to work for the good together in common cause.
It is no wonder that with this subversive spirit in the air, Moses’ mother was inspired to take the action she needed to take to ensure the survival of her child, keeping watch over the Pharaoh’s daughter so that she knew when and where the princess would be, placing Moses in a basket in the reeds, empowering her own daughter Miriam to guide her brother to safety.
It is no wonder that the Pharaoh’s own daughter knew enough of this wound, of the great overlooking, that she willingly chose the bond of her shared womanhood over the order of her father, the king, when she opened the basket and pulled the child from the water. Her father had raged about the midwives and the Hebrews often enough that she knew who this child was. She knew what kind of choice she had made. Perhaps she even whispered a prayer of thanksgiving for Puah and Shiphrah, who had delivered this child, as she lifted him into her arms and called him, “my son.”
There is a reason unsung heroes often go unsung, uncelebrated. It usually has to do with the size of their sphere of influence. Those who are in a position of authority or power over multitudes are never lacking in praise for their good work. But the reason stories of unsung heroes touch so many of us so deeply is because we can relate to feeling like we don’t have much control, much say over our lives or the lives of others. We, too, feel like our sphere of influence is small, and so our efforts, too, go ‘unsung.’
I imagine, though, most of us do know what it is to be angry. And not just angry in a self-justifying or self-righteous kind of way; this isn’t about nursing grudges or harboring resentment. This is about anger that is grounded in Love. What is it that causes the cobra in you to rise up, ready to strike on behalf of another? What injustice lights a fire in you deep in your bones? Where is the holy anger in you that hungers and thirsts for the justice of God?
The invitation of the midwives is to become aware of that holy anger, to harness it, and then to find the place where that anger overlaps with whatever sphere of influence we call our own, no matter how large or how small.
The stories of the unsung heroes – heroines – of the Exodus are not pleasant or heartwarming tales, as ‘unsung hero’ stories tend to be. But here’s to the angry ones. The ones who made hard choices. The ones who took an unbelievable risk. The ones who set a nation on the path toward liberation. May we, too, find the courage to harness our anger, to use it to set our feet – and all those around us – on the path toward freedom, the path that leads toward a merciful justice, justice in the name of Love.