Before Moses: the midwives’ resistance
Heavy emphasis on personal spirituality can often mean missing out on the powerful way the Bible speaks about the nature of political power in human society. The Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt has inspired oppressed people throughout history, and numerous tropes of the story have been adopted by liberation theologies. But although the Sunday school story starts with Moses in the bulrushes, the first chapter of Exodus is a fantastic resource for understanding the nature of power, evil, and divinely-ordained resistance.
Exodus starts where Genesis left off, with the death of Joseph. An old era has passed away, and there is now a “new king” (v8) on the throne. Like all new rulers, elected or otherwise, this one is keen to assert his power and consolidate his position. What is more, the new king is ignorant of the nation’s history, and its debt to one particular Israelite.
Unaware of the past, the king can only see the present prosperity of this alien people in his nation. It is interesting to note that the only ‘problem’ with the Israelites was that they were “fruitful” and “exceedingly numerous”; in the minds of the paranoid Egyptians, “the land was filled them.” (v7) Factually, this is incorrect, as Exodus goes on to stress how the Israelites are concentrated in the Goshen area1, but it is a good representation of how people’s perceptions will not always correspond to reality.
The Israelites are not reported to have been responsible for any social ills; their only ‘crime’ is to be living well in a foreign land. Their increased prosperity could well have embittered Egyptians who already had a tradition of racial suspicion and separation from the Hebrews.2 It is with this background that Pharaoh makes his appeal to his people, and in verses 9-10, the Bible gives us the template for rulers playing the race card.
The passage tells us that Pharaoh speaks these words “to his people”. There is no indication of whether this was what he really believed, or if it was just a public front. The first incitement against the Israelites are that they have become “much too numerous” (v9); a classic complaint against the ethnic minority or refugee. Pharaoh then appeals to the intelligence of the Egyptians, urging that “we must deal shrewdly with them”. Thousands of years before Hannah Arendt wrote about the ‘banality of evil’, the Bible shows us that fear and racism will likely manifest themselves not in blind fury or pogroms (at least to begin with), but in ‘sensible’ or ‘practical’ policies, advocated by ordinary people.
Having tapped into the Egyptians’ xenophobia, Pharaoh proceeds to scare the people with the potential consequences of inaction. The first threat is that the Israelites “will become even more numerous”. The second threat is that the Israelites would be the treacherous ‘fifth’ column, who would “join our enemies” and “fight against us” – “if war breaks out” (v10). It is unclear if war was a very real prospect in the immediate future, but for Pharaoh to manipulate a climate of fear would suggest that war was not impossibility.
The touch paper has been lit. What unfolds in Egypt are events that echo right through to the twentieth century and our own time; stages of progressive oppression that lead to the ultimate expression of racist hate, genocide. The first step taken by the Egyptians towards this final violence is to implement a state-organised system of discrimination and exploitation, putting “slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour” (v11). The institutional injustice, however, has the opposite of the intended effect, since “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (v12). But having started down the road of oppression, any sign of vitality amongst the Israelites merely intensifies the Egyptians’ hatred; “the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly” (vv12-13).
This ‘dread’ is only mentioned after the repressive policies have been implemented. It is the reaction of the perpetrator towards those being mistreated, the rage of the guilty towards the victim, and it leads to a hardening of the heart in the oppressor: “in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly” (v14). This pushes Pharaoh and the Egyptians further down the line to the next stage, secret slaughter:“‘if it is a boy, kill him’” (v16). Finally, by the end of the chapter, when policy hitherto has not destroyed the Israelites, the Egyptians embark on full-fledged public genocide. Sparing the girls (v22) is not done to reduce the Israelites by 50% but to exterminate them as a people. Progression from institutionalised oppression to secret slaughter to public genocide is now complete.3
But within this gruesome, and wearily familiar, story, there is a parallel narrative of resistance, and of God’s protection of his people. When Pharaoh tries to enlist the support of the Hebrew midwives to implement the policy of infanticide, their reaction is different from the rest: “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” (v17) The crucial motivation is that they feared God more than the king4; God’s principles came above obeying the state. The verse deliberately juxtaposes ‘God’ with the ‘king’, stressing Pharaoh’s temporal and political position at this point of refusal and resistance.
Shiprah and Puah (the midwives, unlike Pharaoh, are named), resist in order to save lives. It was not, like Daniel in Babylon for example, a question of direct idol worship, but a refusal to participate in the murder of innocents. Their responsibilities to the state are trumped by obedience to a higher power, so much so that it appears they are prepared to lie (v19), in order to avoid taking lives. Their biological answer to Pharaoh’s question, while potentially true, is not actually why they “let the boys live” (v18). They do not answer Pharaoh’s question entirely honourably, but it is an action God honours (v20-21). Before Moses, resistance to Pharaoh is from two women for whom this is there only appearance in the Bible.
This passage is a wonderful testimony to God’s sovereignty, and his protection of those who obey his commands. He blesses those who put him first, and this will sometimes mean defying the authorities. “‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’” is more about what not to give to Caesar than what belongs to the state. Lest we get complacent, it should be remembered that not all the Israelites were as courageous as the midwives; many had their wills broken and forsake their identity as God’s people.6 Exodus’ story of racial incitement, scare-mongering and state-sanctioned murder- and the imperative for God’s people to resist – has not lost any of its relevancy in the 21st century West.
1 Exodus 8v22
2 Genesis 43v32, 46v34
3 Howard Peskett, Encounter With God, Feb 14 2004
4 Acts 5v29
5 Matt 22v21
6 Joshua 24:14, Ezekiel 20:8