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." (Exodus 1:15-19)
Sometimes we have to find a way around.
It was many, many years ago, more than we could readily count, more than we can understand easily in our rational minds, and so we might say “once upon a time” to find our way there.
Once upon a time, in faraway Egypt, a new Pharaoh came to power, and he did not remember Joseph.
Now, we remember Joseph, and his coat of many colors, and his irritated, jealous, homicidal brothers. We remember his adventures in Egypt, accused of sleeping with his master’s wife, later interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, preparing him to deal with a time of plenty followed by a time of famine. We remember the way he tricked his father and his brothers into coming to him, all of them, frightening old Jacob with the threat to take away Benjamin, the only other child of his beloved Rachel, beautiful Rachel, a fairy-tale woman worth working and waiting to wed.
Once upon a time they all met again in Egypt and had a happy ending, but that is in the past, and now there is a new Pharaoh, and he does not remember Joseph, his importance to the nation, his significance in managing a terrible time, his insight, his vision, his invaluable life.
The beginning of the Book of Exodus tells the truth about fresh starts. They come at a cost. They come with the cutting of old ties. They come about through the courage to break the rules.
I am in ministry because I don’t adhere to the rules of the denomination of my childhood, where I would not be eligible for ordained ministry, for positions where I hold authority over men (to the extent that any pastor in the Congregational wing of the United Church of Christ has authority over anyone at all), to stand in the pulpit and attempt to bring the Good News to Christ’s people. If I listened to those rules, if I continued to live as a good little Southern Baptist girl, I would not be faithful to God’s call in my life.
Sometimes we have to find a way around.
Shiphrah and Puah, faced with a choice between faithfulness and authority, chose faithfulness. Midwifery must be a calling, don’t you think? It’s hard work, and it takes a person to the gateway between not-yet-life and birth, between life and death. In my last experience of childbirth, in a place of pain and awe I had not visited before in more ordinary deliveries, I suddenly understood how close to death we come in giving birth, or perhaps I should say how close to the other side, to the place where the spirit comes from and goes to, to the gate of delivery, here and there.
It must be a sacred trust to tend that gate, even moreso in a time when no monitors or ultrasounds or IVs helped keep mothers safe.
The story Shiphrah and Puah concoct plays to the fears of the Pharaoh and therefore rings true. Those thriving Hebrews, so intimidating to the Egyptians, *would* be the sort who could tend the gateway all by themselves, wouldn’t they?
Shiphrah and Puah had their way around, and it allowed for Moses’ mother to find hers and even for the Princess to find one, too, to take in the boy she would love and raise as her own child. Imagine Miriam on the shore, a girl anointed by the spirits of those other women, encouraged to speak up and keep the little one safe, to keep faith with midwives and mothers, aware of but not cowed by the demands of authority.
I have friends in ministry who tell me they knew they had a call to ministry even though they had never seen an ordained woman. They found a way around, claiming their calls despite the resistance they met along the way, living as examples for the young women who can now take for granted in our mainline denominations that they are acceptable not only to God but to human authority, too.
Eventually I found myself in a church with a woman pastor, and then realized I was in a denomination with lots of them, and then found myself in a seminary full of other women, and I began to think being a woman in ministry had no limitations. But I’m finding now it does, some self-imposed (my sense that staying in this place is more faithful at this time in our lives than moving for a job), some part of wider church culture (they say it’s easy for a woman to get the first job, but hard to get the second, and that would appear to be true, which is galling). I could go on working as an Interim indefinitely, but I feel called to live in community with others, to have a ministry that is not a set of tasks but a way of life.
What is the way around?
It seems my way around is starting something new, that my second settled call will be a birth experience, that I will be a midwife. I hope I have the courage of Shiphrah and Puah.
(Image from a quilt by Mary Ann Rosenbloom.)