August 27, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Kristin White

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Shiphrah and Puah.

I want you to know their names, because God does, and we need to.

They are the women who resisted, bringing forth life and deliverance to this world.

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus begins just after the conclusion of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, went on to use his power with Pharaoh to become their rescuer in a time of famine. He reconciled with his brothers, returned to bury their father, and finally, at the end of that first book of the Bible, Joseph’s own life drew to an end.

Today’s passage begins: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

Cue the eerie music, the looming dread.

“The Israelites are more powerful, and more numerous than we are,” that king, that new Pharaoh, said. “So come. Let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will continue to increase, and overtake us, and escape.”

So the Israelites, until then guests in the land, now became slaves in Egypt. The Egyptians put those Israelite slaves to work, forced them to serve hard labor as they made mortar and brick, worked them ruthlessly in the fields.

But, scripture tells us, the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.

So slavery wasn’t enough, the king decided.

He called the Hebrew midwives before him. Their names matter: Shiphrah and Puah. The Pharaoh called Shiphrah and Puah before him. He told them that as they worked, if they delivered baby girls to be born to the Hebrew women, those babies should live. And he told them that if they delivered babies who were boys, those babies should die. The Pharaoh told the midwives Puah and Shiphrah to kill the babies who were boys.

“But the midwives feared God,” the text tells us. Puah and Shiphrah feared God.

So they did not kill the lives they helped to bring into being, boy babies or girl babies. Instead they persisted in bringing forth life, acting together in “conspiracies of hope.”[1]

The babies lived: both the girl babies and the boy babies.

“So God dealt well with the midwives,” the lesson says, “and the people multiplied and became very strong.”

It wasn’t enough, then, for the king to enslave the people. It wasn’t enough for him to command those who would bring life, to end it instead. Because conspiracies of hope had already begun to take hold.

So the king required of all the people: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Sometimes conspiracies choose interesting folks to work together.

A Hebrew Levite man, from the tribe whose members serve as priests in the temple, married a Hebrew Levite woman. She gave birth to a son, and she hid him away for three months. But when she couldn’t hide him any longer, she made a basket for him, made it as safe as she could for her son, and then, God help her, she followed the king’s command. She cast her baby boy out into the river.

This is a story about conspiracies of hope.

This is a story about Puah and Shiphrah, who resisted the powers that called forth death, and instead took the risk of bringing life into being. This is a story about a mother who entrusted her baby to the waters, about a big sister who watched her infant brother float out among the reeds.

And this story about conspiracies of hope is also about the daughter of that king who enslaved and condemned and commanded death. Because the king’s daughter bathed at that river. And she saw the baby boy cast out into the water in the basket his mother had so carefully made for him.

She knew.

And she took that baby boy out of the water.

“This must be a Hebrew baby,” she said. Because she knew.

“Can I help find you a nurse for him?” the baby’s sister asked. Was she eager? Was she right there, right away? Did the Pharaoh’s daughter notice the resemblance between the baby in the basket and the girl offering to help?

Conspiracies of hope, indeed. So, as it happened, the daughter of that king would conspire with Puah and Shiphrah, with the baby boy’s sister and with his mother. A conspiracy of hope is the only kind of story in which, instead of killing the baby, the daughter of the king who made that evil edict would not only save the child but would use her resources to pay his mother to sustain her own son’s life. The king’s daughter would go on to raise that child as her own son. She would call him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

The baby boy Moses will grow up, will do violence in the name of protecting his people, and will seek to escape. He will marry and tend sheep that belong to his father-in-law, will see a crazy bush that burns and is not consumed, and he will turn aside to find out what that is all about. He will deliver the people from slavery in Egypt, will stretch forth his hand and, with God’s help, he will separate the waters from the waters so the Israelites walk through to safety on dry land. He will hide his face before God. He will hand down the gift of the law. And he will lead the people Israel to the land that God has promised them for generations upon generations.

All of this will be possible because Puah and Shiphrah joined a conspiracy of hope, choosing to bring forth life instead of death.

Most women in the Bible are never named. If they are mentioned at all, they are usually mentioned by their attachment to men, and they are nearly always the objects rather than the subjects of the story. We hear about wives and daughters and sisters, widows and prostitutes. Rarely do we hear their names. More rarely do we see their actions or read words they are remembered as having spoken.

We hear about the centurion’s daughter who is healed; or the woman accused and brought before Jesus; or the widow whose son has just died, leaving her helpless and alone; or the “besides women and children” that accompany the 5,000 men present for the miracle of five loaves and two fish.

Puah and Shiphrah’s names mean “beautiful” and “splendid.”

This story about a splendid and beautiful conspiracy of hope gives us that rare biblical glimpse of women as the agents, acting together to bring forth and sustain life.

Much will come because of what they did in this passage from the second book of the bible. My guess, it’s much more than Puah and Shiphrah could have imagined, when they sat down at their birthing stools to do the simple work of resistance that God gave them to do.

We are a people who have seen too much of enslavement and oppression and condemnation in recent times. We are a people called to simple acts of resistance that, instead of dealing in death, will bring forth life.

We are a people called to conspiracies of hope: splendid and beautiful conspiracies of hope.

And God knows our names.


[1] Rowan Williams. “Waiting on God: A sermon for Lady Day 1992, preached to members and friends of the Movement for the Ordination of Women,” A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995. 13.