15 The 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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.” Exodus 1:15-2
BBC aired the first season of Call the Midwife in 2012. Call the Midwife invites viewers into the lives and stories of a group of midwives who live and work with the poorest populations of Poplar in London’s east end in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In any given episode, I find myself delighted by the formidable Sister Evangelina and the eccentric Sister Monica Joan, the loyal Shelagh, the endearing Chummy, and the independent Trixie. I shed tears every time a baby is born – which is often in a show about midwives. And in the stories of these women and the community in which they dwell, I have witnessed the ways in which love enters spaces and heals wounds. And I think I have learned more about what it means to be a pastor from this group of midwives than from any book I’ve read.
The first chapter of Exodus, the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from the bondage of slavery, introduces this epic narrative in a surprising way. Before Moses and Aaron, before the signs and wonders, and before the law inscribed by the very hand of God, the first-named characters who are players in this unfolding drama are Shiphrah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives. The text tells us that the Hebrew people, living alongside the Egyptians, were growing in number and strength: “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (verse 7) They were so strong, and so prolific, in fact, that when a new king rose to power in Egypt, he proclaims the Hebrews more powerful and numerous than the Egyptians. Fear and power combine into a deadly cocktail and the solution to the “Hebrew problem” is enslavement under the oppression of Egyptian bondage. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” (verse 12) So the Egyptian powers work the Israelite people harder. The text tells us that they were ruthless and made the lives of the Hebrew people bitter. But enslavement is not enough. Enter into the scene, Shiphrah and Puah.
Approached by the king of Egypt himself, these two Hebrew midwives are instructed to kill all of the Hebrew baby boys during the delivery process, but to let the girls live. Do you see the irony in this story? Does the king not realize that his plan to kill the very ones he needs to control and enslave undermines his whole enslavement project? The cycle of fear, power, and oppression is vicious and defies all ethics of basic human reason or decency. The most powerful man in the world, who isn’t even named, by the way, seeks out two ordinary Hebrew women named Shiphrah and Puah to carry out his sordid plan to destroy their own Hebrew people, one by one, in the most vulnerable moment of any person’s life. But Pharaoh, willing to give the daughters of Israel a pass, is ironically subverted by two Hebrew daughters. Shiphrah and Puah say, “no.”
They say no to the powers of injustice.
They say no to death.
At great personal risk, they turn the tables on fear and power, and say “no.”
My friend, Shawna Songer Gaines, says this: “The Midwives in Exodus literally help to deliver Moses, the one who will deliver the people of Israel. Their story of delivering baby boys in the face of violence and oppression casts light on the rest of the Exodus story. Deliverance from the clutches of Egypt is not seen as a military conflict in which one party is the victor and the other the loser. Rather, when we see the children of Israel coming out of the parted waters of the Red Sea, we see a new people being born into the world, bringing with them new possibility for God’s redemption of all creation!”
Not only do Shiphrah and Puah engage the hard work of laboring with mothers in their most vulnerable moments, fully present and bearing witness to the new life being born in them, they bear witness to the new life being born in an entire nation. In the groans and pains of labor; in the throes of violence and oppression, even in these shadowy spaces God is working to bring new life.
And these midwives not only have a front-row seat to witness what God is up to, they partner with God in bringing it to life.
In the Christmas episode of the very first season of Call the Midwife, we meet Mrs. Jenkins, reclusive and wrecked with the years’ old pain of losing multiple children in a workhouse after the blitz in WWII. Mrs. Jenkins is discovered living in a condemned building near Nonnatus house. The midwives, who also serve their community as home visit nurses, are invited into the space of this heart-broken, reluctant, fear-filled woman. Jenni and Sister Evangelina prepare a bath, and Jenni struggles to get Mrs. Jenkins shoes off and discovers that they are literally stuck to her skin. Sister Evangelina, always the pragmatist, suggests Vaseline, and they are able to pull the shoe off. Her foot, dirty, bloodied, toenails overgrown and mis-shapen, is revealed and Mrs. Jenkins looks away in horror. “They shame me,” she mumbles through tears, and Sister Evangelina replies, “No. Not anymore.” They slowly and gently help Mrs. Jenkins peel off layer after layer of soiled clothing, as a lone soprano voice sings, “O Come oh Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” They bathe her with the utmost care and respect for her dignity as the voice continues, “that mourns in lowly exile here…until the son of God appears. Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel. Shall come to thee oh Israel.”
Though not under oppression or occupation by Egypt, Poplar is a community filled with the oppression of poverty, disease, and hunger, forgotten and overlooked, oppressed by the systems that have failed to care for the most vulnerable among them. Like Shiphrah and Puah, these midwives engage the hard work of laboring with a community, fully present and bearing witness to both tragic death and new life being born in them. And like Shiphrah and Puah these midwives not only have a front-row seat to witness what God is up to, even in the most shadowed spaces, they partner with God in bringing it to life.
The stories of Shiprah and Puah and the sisters and midwives of Poplar seem almost prophetically relevant today, yes?
Sisters and brothers, we are standing on the edge of a precipice. In churches, neighborhoods, cities, counties, and states all over this country, people of color, specifically our Black and African American sisters and brothers, are crying out for justice. Are we going to dive off the precipice into the unknown – into the uncomfortable work of dismantling our own racist ideas and the racist policies that perpetuate systems of oppression? Into the long, hard work of listening, the long, hard journey of walking-alongside? Or are we going to turn around – finding a more convenient way forward?
God is always bringing forth new life in us and around us.
Who will bear witness?
Who will say yes to God and no to the powers and principalities that kill and destroy? Who will be present in the pain and the waiting?
Who are the midwives in your life?
Is God raising you up as a midwife in someone else’s life?
May we allow our grief and righteous anger to fuel our hope – hope that God is working to make all things new. And may we have the courage to dive into the spaciousness of the unknown – knowing that it is in that very space God dwells.
*adapted from a sermon I preached in Dec 2019