Stories Seldom Heard
245th Edition - Exodus 1: 1-22
Puah and Shiphrah? What is their relevance to us?
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like
to welcome the members of Blessed Sacrament Parish, New York, New York.
The story of Puah and Shiphrah, the midwives who saved many Israelite
baby boys from Pharaoh’s death sentence, is also connected with the
rescue of baby Moses. It seems appropriate to review this story since
it echoes a similar story in St Matthew’s Gospel that we will be hearing
soon. It is the story of another ruthless, fearful king who orders the
murder of all boys under the age of two years old. Puah and Shiphrah,
women of deep faith, are often over looked in spite of their brilliant,
creative thwarting of a weak, demonic ruler. Their story encourages us
especially during this Advent season to reflect on how the power of God
is working in us, the little ones. Like Puah and Shiphrah, our
God-guided decisions and brave actions can change the course of history.
Many of us know the story of Moses’ birth, but before reading this
article it would be helpful to take a few minutes and read Exodus
1:1-22. It is such a good story you will probably find yourself reading
into the second chapter. As you read be sure to notice the details in
the story. What’s the situation? Is there anything that surprises
you? What are the ironical twists in the story? What qualities of Puah
and Shiphrah attract you?
On my desk I have a two-part cartoon. Since I can’t include the cartoon
in this e-mail, I will try to describe it. There’s a river lined with
cattails. Two young Egyptian girls are making their way towards two
small homemade baskets floating in the river. One of the girls looks
into the first basket and announces, “It’s a baby boy!” The second girl
pulls back the blanket in the second basket and with a shocked
expression on her face proclaims, “Pampers!”
This cartoon certainly adds a modern touch to an old story. Many of us
know the story of Moses’ rescue, but odd enough few of us have ever
heard of the two midwives who set the stage for Moses’ rescue - Puah and
Shiphrah. The Bible stories do not recount exactly what happened.
Rather they are the result of oral traditions handed on from one
generation to another. Yet, in the refining and shifting of the story
throughout the centuries these two names continually surface - Puah and
Shiphrah. Their courage and trust in God not only saved Moses from
death, but also saved many other baby boys as well. Without Puah and
Shiphrah Pharaoh’s plan to end the Israelite race might have succeeded.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Exodus 1:8 begins to unfold the story of the Israelites living in Egypt
many years after Joseph’s death. When Pharaoh began his reign, the land
was at peace. People of different nations and tribes worked together.
There was prosperity. In spite of a growing population, there was no
fear of famine.
However, everything is not as peaceful as it seems. The first hint of
Pharaoh’s inability to rule well appears early in the story. “Then
there came to power in Egypt a new king who knew nothing of Joseph.”
This statement might sound casual, but it is a subtle condemnation. If
Pharaoh did not know Joseph, Pharaoh also did not know Joseph’s God.
Further, it seems that Pharaoh does not wants to worship anyone but
himself. Pharaoh desires one thing: power. Fearing the growing number
of the Israelites, he plots their demise. “These people, the sons and
daughters of Israel, have become so numerous and strong they are a
threat to us.” Pharaoh is fed by two undesirable qualities: the lack of
a historical perspective and a fear-driven style of leadership. At
every turn Pharaoh’s pride and ignorance are revealed. He is bent on
breaking the Israelites’ backs and spirit. “The Egyptians forced the
sons of Israel into slavery, and made their lives unbearable with hard
Like many rulers who are blinded by their desire for power and control,
Pharaoh makes some major mistakes. One of them is when he calls into
his richly clad court some Hebrew midwives. With this decision, the
plot thickens! We can only imagine how intimidating it must have been
for these peasant women to enter into the power-center of the nation.
Yet, once again, Pharaoh has no idea of how poorly he has misread the
situation. These young women might not be wealthy, but they are wise.
They might not be of the ruling class, but their hearts are ruled by the
God of Love. They have a biblical wisdom that is rooted in their daily
work as midwives and their passion for life. Their “street-smarts” run
circles around Pharaoh. They are spiritual “God-fearing” women. They
know “the story” and “the God of Joseph.”
Pharaoh orders the young
midwives to "Throw all the boys born to the Hebrews into the river, but
let all of the girls live." In other words, Pharaoh is saying, “Don’t
worry about the girls. They’re no threat. They're too weak and
ignorant to lead a revolution.” In Pharaoh’s mind even if there were a
God of Israel that God wouldn’t be so foolish as to rely on such poorly
made rebels - girls. Once again, the God of life shifts the playing
field and does the unexpected.
Puah and Shiphrah stand in contrast to Pharaoh whose decisions will not
only result in the collapse of his kingdom, but also will cause his own
people great suffering. Ironically Puah and Shiphrah observe the same
facts as Pharaoh does, but they name them differently. Puah and
Shiphrah don't see the tremendous growth in the Hebrew population as a
possible threat to any earthly king, but rather as a partial fulfillment
of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah. Puah and Shiphrah have heard the
death commands from their earthly ruler, but they don't fear the
authority of Pharaoh. What draws them to act is a different kind of
fear - a biblical fear - that is better translated as the “love of
God.” This fear or love of God is built on a reverence and respect that
comes from their experience of God.
Puah and Shiphrah have experienced the awe-filled mysteries of life and
death while delivering babies into this world. These wonder-filled
experiences of joy and struggle, laughter and pain, life and sometimes
death have given them the strength to act according to their hard -
learned God-wisdom. In their waiting, hoping, silence and the
bittersweet pains of birth, they have come to know God intimately and to
place all of their trust in God.
The story of Puah and Shiphrah is the story of God working behind the
scenes. It’s the story of God working through the decisions and lives
of ordinary people like us and Mary and Joseph as St Matthew describes
the birth of Jesus. The decisions of these two women and the others with
whom they worked changed the course of the Israelite history. For them
there was no burning bush, no flash on the mountain as there was for
Moses. For them, it had to do with listening and timing things right.
Puah and Shiphrah were midwives, life-catchers. They caught the
Israelites at birth. In other words, they caught the unwanted in their
nation, the powerless, the delicate and fragile. They caught those who
otherwise could be lost. In turn, God caught them and protected them.
God graced these ordinary women with extraordinary insight and courage.
Through their daily work within the community God touched Puah and
Shiphrah and shaped their God fearing/loving hearts into hearts filled
with integrity, wisdom and justice.
Puah and Shiphrah aren’t the only ones who the world counts as
unimportant and under-valued. There are many stories in scripture and in
our own lives of "those kinds of people" who listen well to the small
voice of God who lives within each of us. There are many people who do
great things and make courageous decisions that affect the course of
history. Their stories might not be written in the Bible or even in our
daily newspapers, but they surround us. They are people like us who
often feel ordinary, or on the fringe of society, but who through their
daily choices are life-catchers like Puah and Shiphrah.
Each of us is a life-catcher in our own way. We make life-giving
choices for our families and for those we know. But as people of faith
our concerns go beyond our family and friends. Puah and Shiphrah
shrewdly examined their situation. Then in faith followed the law of
the God of life. Their faith
invites us to do the same. How
can we use our gifts to protect life? What practice can we develop, not
just for this Advent/Christmas season, but a life-giving practice for
all year? A question that is worthy of Advent pondering and prayer.
Oh, there’s one more ironical part of the story on which I would like to
comment. Puah and Shiphrah are named in the story and their story
continues to be told even today. However, the Bible doesn’t mention the
name of the Pharaoh. “Pharaoh” is not a personal name, but a generic
Egyptian word that means “the House.” In modern day terms it is an
expression similar to the one we use for “The White House,” “Parliament”
or “House of Lords.” In the story the use of the word “Pharaoh”
heightens the irony because he who thinks he is so important is never
personally identified. It’s a way for the authors to say that Pharaoh
doesn’t deserve to be remembered. In other words, in history Pharaoh is
viewed as just one more brutal king who thirsts for power and wealth and
has no desire to know God.
As we reflect on this story, we might want to give thanks for the
those who have been life-catchers for us in our lives,
those who have been there for us during frail transitions,
And reach out and pray for:
women who are oppressed, treated unjustly and disrespected
foreigners who are underappreciated and marginalized whose gifts and
services are undervalued and unnoticed
"Stories Seldom Heard" is a monthly article written by Sister
Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael,
California. This service is offered to the Christian community to
enrich one's personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for
individual or group reflection.
If you would like to support this ministry, please send your
contributions to: Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, c/o Sister Patricia
Bruno, O.P., 2517 Pine Street, San Francisco, CA
94115 Thank you.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green, and Maria Hetherton who have helped
in editing this article. To make changes or remove your name from
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Thank you. Bob McGrath.