Checking Pharaoh’s Power

Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite women in the Bible. They are courageous  midwives who defy Pharaoh. Their story is recorded  in the very first chapter of  Exodus.  Pharaoh had instructed them to kill every  newborn baby boy born to Hebrew women.   They not only defy him, but when asked to explain why they weren’t obeying – they use his own prejudices to explain themselves.

Who, but a person blindly prejudiced,would have believed their story?  The story about how Hebrew women weren’t made like Egyptian women that he knew and loved. No, they told Pharaoh,  the  Hebrew women had babies that came so fast the midwives never got to the woman  before the baby was born. This was especially true of their boy babies. It must have been hard to hide their laughter as Pharaoh swallowed their story.  They were, of course, only telling Pharaoh something he already believed.  Those  Hebrew  were different – not at all like him and his kind.

Life in Egypt had started well for the Israelites after Joseph literally saved the people of Egypt. An earlier Pharaoh was indebted to Joseph. He welcomed Joseph’s family  when they arrived in  Egypt, making a place for them.  They found a good place to raise their families. With the blessing of Pharaoh these new immigrants quickly became successful and prosperous. But, memories dim with time. New generations don’t recall details of an earlier one. Memories of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt faded, until eventually, a Pharaoh comes to  power who knows nothing of the story.

Not knowing the story, the new Pharaoh  is afraid of the Israelites. Fearful they will join in war against the people, he decides to contain the people he fears. This was the kind of reasoning that sent thousands of Japanese Americans into camps, causing them to lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is what made German Americans suspect during the First World War. The root of all racism is fear – fear of a person not quite like ourselves. We either grow afraid of what we do not understand or seek to understand what we do not know. For the Israelites racism takes a sinister form. First the people are enslaved and put to the hard labor of building cities and monuments to Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh devises a form of genocide, that will effectively rid the nation of Hebrews by eliminating every boy baby born. He assumes he will be able to assimilate females into the Egyptian world.

What Pharaoh was not expecting was the defiance of the two midwives, Puah and Shiphrah. They listen instead to a higher authority. Fearing God, they will not harm their patients or break their trust. Their moral code will not conform to the mind set of Pharaoh. Because the women stayed close to God, they were prepared when faced with the words of Pharaoh.  Puah and Shiphrah chose to live by a higher law. In the process they checked the power of Pharaoh and saved the lives of the children. William Sloane Coffin, wrote, “Fear distorts truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world . . . but by underestimating our ability to deal with them . . . while love seeks truth, fear seeks safety.” –William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 60

Shiphrah and Puah risk everything. The story could have gone so  differently had they followed Pharaoh’s order – the destruction of our ancestors in faith. Instead,  these courageous women refuse to  violate the trust, faith, hopes and dreams of the people they serve. Throughout history there have been those who have chosen not to follow orders of a Pharaoh – choosing to be true to God instead. Members of the underground railroad helped escaped slaves find freedom. Others joined Ghandi’s long walk to the sea. Some sat at lunch counters in violation of unjust laws, refusing to leave during the Civil right era.  Shiphrah and Puah left us a legacy of courage, in checking Pharaoh’s power. They were life givers – giver’s of hope. Women of courage. Women of faith. Examples to follow.

Susanna Wesley – A Mother For the Ages

Susanna Wesley, mother of *John & Charles, was an amazing woman. Born in England in 1669 her seventy three years were lived during a challenging time. Susanna bore some nineteen children in a period of nineteen years. Nine of those children died as infants—including two sets of twins. One baby was smothered by a maid. Another was crippled for life in a tragic accident. Yet, in spite of those losses, Susanna carried on. She was a tireless worker and teacher of her children. She encouraged other’s to teach their children to pray as soon as the child could speak and to reward their children for good behavior.    The story is told that  Susanna expected her children to learn the alphabet within a day’s time. All but one of her children learned to read by the age of five. That must have been the child it took two days to teach the alphabet to.

I’ve often wondered how she managed to do these things.  William Henry Fitchett describes the Wesley children as “a cluster of bright, vehement, argumentative boys and girls, living by a clean and high code, and on the plainest fare; but drilled to soft tones, to pretty formal courtesies; with learning as an ideal, duty as an atmosphere and fear of God as law.”  Every week, each child had an hour of Suzanna’s time, to learn and to talk about the spiritual side of life.

I get tired just thinking of all that this woman did. Yet as I look around me (including my daughters and daughter-in-law) I see examples of modern women, just as dedicated to their children as Susanna was to hers. With rare exceptions, mothers are a breed  who don’t  give up on their children. As a mom, you never stop being a mom. It doesn’t matter if your children are infants, young adults, or parents themselves.   A mother’s concern and prayers for her children never end.

Susanna Wesley had a deep spiritual side. Her husband Samuel was a pastor but it didn’t keep him from Debtor’s prison.  There were no safe guards for the poor and poverty was rampant in England.   Twice Samuel  was sent to prison for nonpayment of debts.   During those periods, Susanna opened her home for Bible Study. Word got back to Samuel that Susanna was bringing disgrace to the parsonage with her Bible Studies which were inappropriate for her, as a woman, to be leading. Samuel got upset and sent a message to stop immediately. Susanna Wesley answered him by reporting what good the meetings had done.   She pointed out that there were only two people who opposed them. Then she wrote, “If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt . . .  for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before  . . .  our Lord Jesus Christ.” Samuel had nothing more to say on the subject after that.

Susanna was one of those women I wish I had known personally. A woman of faith, a mother to the end and one courageous human being. May her numbers increase.

* John and Charles Wesley are the founders of the Methodist movement.  John was the greater evangelistic, while Charles was a prolific writer of hymns.  His more well known hymns include, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Come thou Long Expected Jesus,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”