Monday, October 02, 2006

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 3 (The Hebrew Midwives)

God, as revealed on the pages of the Bible, likes the truth and hates lying. In the Eighth Commandment, God tells us, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." When God came to our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, He called Himself "the Truth," the foundation on which all the universe depends. Jesus also referred to Satan as "the father of lies," saying that he was a liar "from the beginning."

So, is it ever right to lie?
  • Is it okay to keep plans for a surprise birthday party a secret?
  • Is it good sometimes not to tell a friend about the harsh criticisms leveled at them by a gossip?
  • Is it acceptable to withhold news of a loved one's death from someone until the right person can be there to tell them?
  • Is it alright, at times, to avoid hurting a person's feelings by not telling them something that would bruise them deeply?
  • Does God deem it appropriate for us to spy on those who mean to do others harm?
  • Is it right in God's eyes to lie in order to protect people's lives?
These are all important questions. But today's story particularly helps to answer that last one, among others. It's told in the opening verses of the Old Testament book of Exodus.

You'll recall that centuries after humanity had fallen into sin, God began to forge a people into being. These people were to be "a light to the peoples," instructing the world on God and His will as well as the womb from which the Savior of humanity would emerge. The people, of course, were descended from an elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, and became known sometimes as the Hebrews and, even before they had a land, Israel.

In the course of the history of God's people, they became slaves in Egypt. According to the Bible, their enslavement lasted 430 years. As the decades and centuries rolled on, it was difficult for the Hebrews to keep their faith in the God Who had taught them that, irrespective of the human penchant for worshiping many gods (a penchant we still see evidenced today), He was the only God in existence. And despite their horrible circumstances, He called them to believe that they were still His people and He still was going to take them to a land that He would give to them. It would not be the first time that God's people, whether Jews or Christians, would have their faith tested.

The Hebrews cried out to God for freedom from their oppression, much as African-American slaves would do in this country centuries later. While many turn away from God in times of trial and pain, it's also true that such circumstances often become incubators of faith, also something American slaves have in common with the ancient Hebrews. Having seen the futility of belief in the finite and unreliable things of the world, including other human beings, oppressed people often see with a clarity two facts what others can't or refuse to see: their own powerlessness and their need of the God Who is eternal, reliable, and good.

When our story took place is variously estimated. One source I consulted suggests that it happened sometime before 1526BC, the date they claim for the birth of Moses. Another isn't quite so confident about a date, but does say that evidence in the text indicates that the entire book of Exodus is set during the 19th. Dynasty in Egypt, sometime between 1350-1200BC, a period when Egypt wielded enormous imperial power.

Whenever it took place, the story records what I believe to be a historical event and one filled with many truths about God and about human life:
Now a new king arose over Egypt...[who] said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. [Exodus 1:8-10]
A few thoughts.
  • The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, lied to the Pharaoh. Yet God "dealt well with" them, we're told.
They lied to protect the lives of children who didn't deserve a death sentence from a king or any other earthly power. By their lying, they actually told a deeper truth: Life is sacred.

We've seen others act on this truth while lying. Can there be any doubt that those people who provided safe haven to runaway slaves along the stops of the Underground Railroad were doing God's will? Yet every day, they lied to their neighbors and others about their activities.

And what about all those who, at risk to themselves, provided hiding places to Jews evading the gas chambers of Nazi Germany? Every time they opened their homes or buildings they owned to anyone escaping slaughter, they engaged in deception.

God lauds such deceptions, I think.
  • The Pharaoh suggested that he and his fellow Egyptians "deal shrewdly" with the Hebrew slaves. Yet it was the Hebrew midwives who showed the greater shrewdness.
Shiphrah and Puah understood an immutable truth about prejudice: Though its practitioners pretend superiority and strength over those they enslave, they're really weak and fearful. They're always afraid of their slaves and because they don't really know any of them as people, they project the most negative and fearful stereotyping onto them.

You can almost hear the conversation of Pharaoh and his advisers, can't you? "You know how those people are. They're strong as oxes, not really human. They can't keep from having sex all the time, either. So, they keep making babies. And because they're animals, if we let them, they'll become so populous that they overwhelm us. They'll start an insurrection. Let's keep them at hard physical labor; it's the only worthwhile thing they can do anyway." This is the paranoid logic of prejudice.

The midwives knew what the Egyptians thought. They knew that their overlords would believe them when they said that the Hebrew women were so strong that they were giving birth before they could arrive at the birthstools to assist them with their childbearing. They dealt more shrewdly with the Egyptians than the Egyptians had dealt with them.

Jesus once said that in their interaction with the world, His followers should "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). The midwives, with their desire to advance God's plan for God's people and their deception of Pharaoh certainly exhibited both wisdom and innocent. They represent that combination of clearheaded understanding of the world and unshakable commitment to following God's ways that can characterize the lives of those who surrender to Christ. To me, Shiphrah and Puah are notable models of faith lived out in the real world!
  • Either God gets His way...or God gets His way.
When I was a kid, after a rainfall, my playmates and I used to build dams made of twigs, grass clippings, and an occasional discarded Dixie cup or cigarette pack wrap along the kerb. It was fun. But whatever we did, the most we were able to do was divert the water. And then, only for a short time. At first, the water would simply flow around our little dams. Eventually, it would wear them down or they became waterlogged. But whether around or through the dams, the water always flowed toward the nearest sewer trap.

In the Bible, time and again, you read stories that show how the devil or sinful human beings tried to thwart God's plans to give grace and new life to those who turn from sin and follow Him. For a time, arrogance and sin seem to win. But, God wins. God always wins. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate proof of that.

The Egyptians thought that they could subordinate the will and the people of God to their shortsighted, selfish plans. People still think that today. Wrong.

Either God gets His way or God gets His way. There are no other possibilities.


L.L. Barkat said...

I love this story too. It shows that spiritual life is quite complex... we sure have to be listening to the Spirit to know how to live, because the rules don't always tell us what to do, even though they serve a constant and important purpose.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for your interesting comments...and for reading the blog.

Blessings in Christ,

sc said...

Well said.

Should we also lie to protect innocent tax payers from oppresive tax and majestic welfare kings and queens' iron fist?

Also, what about the "yes say yes and no say no?"

Unknown said...

I think we should love each and every teaching of Jesus properly. I don't think so it's about any particular stories.

Carol@ Bible