This month Steve and I are preaching a sermon series on the women of the Old Testament, a series that could also aptly be named “the unsung heroes of the Bible” for these women are often quite overlooked or not well known. These are stories of women in the Bible whose voices, whose lives, whose presence in the biblical narrative shape the lives of those around them. We will meet along the journey faithful women, disobedient women, powerful women, kind women, and all sorts in between.
These women teach us, as so many women continue to do today, about being faithful, and they do this all not for fame or recognition or power, but each of them are faithful to God, because of their love of God.
So we turn to these women for the next few weeks asking the questions – what can these women teach us about faithfulness? How did these women shape the biblical narrative? How do their experiences with God help us to understand our own experiences with God? How can their story of faith help to shape my story of faith?
The first women we encounter in our series appear in the first chapter of Exodus, their names are unknown to most, if not all, of us but their faithfulness and their story teach us about loving God and being obedient to God.
Our scripture reading comes from Exodus 1:8-10,15-20. We’re only 7 verses into the book of Exodus and the Israelites are already in trouble. The new Pharoah has forgotten Joseph and the Israelite people and the good which they did for the Egyptians. They are now living as an oppressed people in a foreign land under a harsh Pharoah. That is where our scripture reading today picks up. Listen now for God’s word to us this morning:
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
Will you join your hearts with mine in prayer? Holy God, Your presence is in our midst move your Spirit so that we can sense your being, open our ears so that we can hear your word to us, open our hearts that we may be stirred to greater discipleship. And now Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What if I told you that you could make a difference? That the decisions you make each day could have an affect on the whole world? No matter who you are, no matter what your position in society, no matter where you come from, no matter who you are or who you are not, your actions, your choices, they make a difference? They make a difference not just in our immediate little world, but they make a difference in the kingdom of God? You, you can make a difference for the kingdom of God.
That’s the story of Shiphrah and Puah we hear today. Two women who made a big choice, a choice not to listen, a choice not to blindly obey, a choice to fear God rather than to fear Pharoah.
These 7 verses of the bible are the only time you will hear about Shiphrah and Puah, their names never come to light again, they’re minor characters in a big story. But because of their bold act of faith, the story continues. Because of the fear of God they have within them, the midwives help save the lives of thousands of baby boys. And one of those baby boys born to the Hebrew women is Moses, who goes on to lead the exodus of the Hebrew people out of slavery and oppression and into the promised land. A story that never would have been had it not been for these disobedient, ever faithful, God-fearing women.
Because of disobedient women who didn’t listen but rather feared God, one action that allowed another to happen, that allowed another, that eventually allowed for the Israelite’s to be freed from captivity. Yes, the actions we take, the decisions we make, the ways we follow God, they matter. They make a difference, just like the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two women who feared God. Shiphrah and Puah made a difference in the kingdom of God, and you do too.
The story of Shiphrah and Puah is a story of women who don’t listen, women who don’t blindly obey, it’s also a story about God, a story about how God calls us to be in the world.
Shiphrah and Puah live in a world where oppression, slavery, and hatred are results of fear, fear of the other, fear of the one who may become more powerful, fear of what we do not know or understand. Shiphrah and Puah live in ancient Egypt, a system that should not be understood to exist only in the past – it’s a system of fear and oppression that has spanned time from ancient Egypt to present day. It need not take much imagination to think of places and people across our country and our world who are oppressed, given less rights, or hated because of their differences to those in power.
They live in a place where they ought to fear the Pharoah, where the fear of Pharoah is understood, the fear of what Pharoah may do to those who are disobedient is quite real and terrifying. Pharoah’s decree to the midwives is horrible and yet they are left to fear what would happen to them should they choose to disobey Pharoah.
But the midwives choose instead to fear God. They choose instead a different kind of fear, the fear of God. A fear which is unlike the fear of Pharoah and unlike the fear Pharoah has for the Israelites.
I spent some time trying to better understand what this fear is though – if it is not a fear of what God will do to us, or a fear of consequences, what kind of fear is it?
The fear of Pharaoh is a fear we all likely understand better a fear of danger, a threatening kind of fear. But the fear of God is different – the fear of God which the midwives speak of – this is a reverent fear, a loving fear, a trusting kind of fear. The kind of fear that we can have only for God. The kind of fear that is steeped in love, the kind of fear that is rooted in trust, a fear that comes from reverence.
Perhaps these things seem antithetical. How can a loving God be a figure to fear? How can I fear something and love that thing at the same time? How do I reconcile God as both all-loving and yet to be feared?
The fear of God, the fear that these midwives, these pillars of faith, had is a fear of what life looks like outside of living with God. A fear of what life looks like when we choose to obey the Pharoahs of the world over the call of God, the fear of what life looks like when God’s will is not lived out in God’s people. A fear of God is not a fear of a wrathful God, but a fear of life without God.
A fear that causes the women to obey, not because of what may happen to them, but because they are steeped in fear of God – in the trust and reverence of God. A fear of God which allows the women to choose God over Pharaoh’s commands. For when those two things are put in contention – the way of God and the way of Pharaoh – the midwives make a choice – a choice to follow the way of God, despite the more imminent fear of Pharaoh. They choose instead the hard right, to follow the way of God over the easy wrong, to listen to Pharaoh.
The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is not simply a lesson of right and wrong or a lesson in moral exhortation. The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is a lesson on how to stand up against evil, a lesson in how to follow God.
It’s one we’re familiar with hearing – the realities of the world are in contention with how we believe God is calling us as Christians to be in the world. The ways and expectations of the world, of ruling powers, whatever they may be are at odds with how we have heard God guiding our actions. The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is to not simply follow blindly, or to follow out of imminent fear, the lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is to listen for the greater kind of fear in your life – the fear of life without God, fear of what the world would look like if we do not heed God’s call for our lives and our world.
The actions we take, the decisions we make, the way we are in the world can and does make a difference. Not just for our own little world, but makes a difference for the kingdom of God. What happens when we listen to the greater fear – the fear of God, rather than the imminent fear of danger that Pharaoh and the likes of Pharaoh put in our lives?
Shiphrah and Puah – two names that are unknown to most of the world, two women who were thought to be of little threat to the raging Egyptian emperor, made a difference. They made a difference for the safety of the Israelite people, for the furthering of God’s work in the world. Shiphrah and Puah made a difference.
So, let us go into the world like Shiphrah and Puah, with the boldness to not listen to the powers of the world that are in contention with God. Let us go into the world trusting and fearing God. Let us go into the world knowing that the actions we take, the ways we listen and do not listen, the ways we act and choose not to act, matter, they make a difference in the kingdom of God, you make a difference in the kingdom of God.
In the name of God our creator, our sustainer and our redeemer. Amen.