Continuing our study this week in the early chapters of Exodus, we read with incredulity the story about the brave midwives who spoke out in front of the Pharoah. (Part 1 HERE)
It’s startling because nobody has spoken a word in the story to this point, except the Pharoah. And all we have heard from him are the harsh edicts of the ruler—what Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg describes as his ‘monologue against life.’ His word to the midwives is a sharp instruction. He tells them to keep a close watch on pregnant Hebrew women. The Hebrew word for observe is actually a play on the word ‘to cut’ and the notion of separation. “See if it’s a boy and cut him off.”
(I’m reminded of Solomon and his wisdom here, when the women, the first people to receive a name, Shiprah and Puah, and they are described in the same terms as Abraham (Gen 22:12).)
Both the Pharoah and the midwives see and observe, and things happen. For the Pharoah, his seeing comes from a position of ignorance and leads to death (Exo 1:8,9). But the careful observance and discernment of the women nurtures life (Exo 1:19-21).
After the story of the midwives, the narrative shifts into anonymity again—the marriage between a man and a woman of the house of Levi, her pregnancy carried to term and the attempt to hide the boy. This is the plight of countless, anonymous oppressed women throughout the world. The task for us in our reflections was to try and imagine what might be required for a woman to hide her pregnancy despite living as a slave, to give birth and then to hide a baby for three months.
Generally speaking, the stuff surrounding childbirth in our culture is carefully managed and celebrated. It makes it hard to imagine the whole process in the context of oppression and great lack. In places where death is everywhere present, and life is contingent and fragile, what it is like to give birth and to raise a child? This was what it was like back then, and what it is like in places around the globe today.
When she could no longer hide him (what horror is contained in that little phrase) she placed him in an ark and set him adrift on the river. After bonding with her ‘fine child’ she now has to give him up. What caused this? Was it pressure from neighbours who feared that her act of civil disobedience would have awful implications for the whole compound of slaves? Was it her conclusion that his chances of survival were greater in the river than in the midst of the terrible struggle to put food in his mouth? How unbelievably painful was this for the anonymous Hebrew mother?
Then we are presented with another act of seeing. The baby’s sister waits at a distance to see (Exo 2:4). What motivated this young girl to follow the basket? Was she moved with compassion having seen her mother surrender her child? Was it that she couldn’t bear to be parted from her baby brother? She sees Pharoah’s daughter seeing (Exo 2:5) and this act of seeing opens the door to hope even as she opens the ark and sees the baby. And what Pharoah’s daughter sees is a Hebrew child. And he was crying. And she felt sorry for him (Exo 2:6).
What a completely different reaction to seeing than her father had! Pharoah’s seeing causes oppression and death. The midwives seeing brings new life. And Pharoah’s daughter sees with a new moral empathy and preserves the boy’s life. And gives him a name, Moses. The name, meaning ‘I drew him from the water’ both remembers his origins and looks ahead to what this newly named boy will do.
Pharoah sees the swarm of Israel and is threatened. His seeing leads him to deal ruthlessly and brutally with the people before embarking on a process of genocide and ethnic cleansing. His daughter sees a Hebrew child and names him and by so doing she dignifies a people that the Empire sought to oppressed and enslave. Yet another act of civil disobedience. When she sees and has compassion and recognises the baby as an illegal alien over whom the sentence of death hangs she knows in the moment that the command of the Empire is wrong. That her father is wrong. And she decides to disobey.
How easy to sit in ignorance in the face of the need in our world. Or in our street. Or in our home. How easy to pass over the nameless millions suffering oppression, traded across borders, dying in wars, denied basic dignities like the joy of giving birth and raising a child. How many women today will give birth, see their fine child and know that their child is under a sentence of death?
This story calls us to see. To really look. To learn empathy. And to put a name to what we would rather stayed anonymous.