Sermon - 17th June 2012
Pharoah’s Daughter, Shiprah and Puah
Scripture - Exodus 1:8 to 2:10
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Our reading today is no less horrific than the stories we’ve heard over the last two weeks. The story of Lot’s daughters, who we looked at last week, was troubling. Lot offered them to the crowd and they later seduced their father. The week before, we looked at Jephthah who made a vow to sacrifice the first person to leave his home if he was successful in battle and, predictably, his daughter came to greet him. Today’s central characters are easier to relate to – we can admire the midwives Puah and Shiphrah and Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. We can’t admire Lot’s daughters – though we can feel sorry for them, and we are horrified at what happened to Jephthah’s daughter but are left with questions about why no one stood up for her.
The book of Exodus moves the story of the Jewish people on from the stories of their pre-history which are in Genesis. We have a more tangible sense of history, but the stories are undated – we’re not sure which Pharaoh’s are referred to and extra-Biblical sources don’t help. So we’re left with the narrative and try and make sense of it. But these narratives are more immediate to us as we can relate to them.
Pogrom and Persecution
The passage today starts with the news that there was a new king in Egypt, one who was unaware of the help that Joseph had given them in years of famine. That sets the scene for racism. The king is afraid of the Jews who were a minority in their midst and so he enslaves them hoping to weaken them. We know from our own history in Europe how pernicious racism can me, how it feeds on the fears and resentments of the larger population and how easy it is for rabble rousing politicians to gain popularity by exploiting these fears and resentments. Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, in part, through a racist ideology which tried to blame the Jewish people for the economic disasters that had befallen Germany. The neighbour became a stranger. We saw the same thing happen in the former Yugoslavia during their civil war where resentment about minorities was stoked up by murderous generals and politicians. The far right always want to use racism as a weapon for their own ends – we’re seeing now electoral success for racism in Greece and France so when we read these stories of persecution and pogrom in the Bible we can relate to them. Of course the King’s strategy to weaken the Jewish people backfired as the experience of enslavement, and then of the murder of their male children, served only to strengthen the people.
The three women in our reading today are all brave, they all resist patriarchy and put their own lives in danger. The midwives knew their job was to bring life into the world, not destroy it at the whim of a king. In defying him, however, they put their own lives at risk. Shiphrah and Puah represent all who stand against oppression, all who defy the murderous ideologies of the powers, all who fight to protect the weak and the innocent. They are crafty and have a ready answer for Pharaoh when he questions them but they run a terrible risk. As does Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter.
Princesses in history may, at first glance, seem to have a charmed life. After all they are brought up in palaces, have the best food and clothing, and servants or slaves to do their bidding. Who wouldn’t want that? But the marvellous palace was, in fact, a gilded cage as women had no real authority or power. The authority they had derived from their fathers or husbands. They could, and were, married off to cement internal or external political alliances and their usefulness to male designs was measured in their ability to have children. This has been the lot of women throughout most of recorded history and has only really changed in the last 150 years or so. So Pharaoh’s daughter does a brave thing – she knows of her father’s decree against the Jews and yet she rescues this helpless baby. I guess she realised she was being set up as the wet nurse just happened to be at hand. But by taking Moses into her family she protected him and defied her father. She, like Shiphrah and Puah, stood up for what is right even at great cost to themselves. They understood their world, they resisted the murderous demands of the powers and they disrupted those same plans. We can do the same.
Understand, Resist, Disrupt
Shiphrah, Puah and Pharoah’s daughter offer us a model for how we function in an unjust world. We don’t live in a society which is as murderously racist as the one described in the opening chapters of Exodus and we are, rightly, thankful for the freedoms we enjoy but there is much injustice in our society that we need to understand and describe and then resist and disrupt.
Recently many of us have been following the debates on marriage – I don’t like the term gay marriage as it sounds like we want something separate and that’s what we’ve got with Civil Partnership. The Church of England seems to have gone into a form of apoplexy about opening marriage up to same-sex couples predicting legal challenges and even, horror of horrors, the end of their privileged place as the Established Church. On more serious issues there is a growing gap between rich and poor in our society and on the edge, those who are here as asylum seekers and those who have not been successful in their claims but haven’t been, or can’t be, removed are living in dire poverty with little hope that things will get better. Racism still effects and stymies many in our society, women still are subjected to brutalising treatment from men.
We have the tools at our disposal, as Christians, to describe and understand the State we’re in. In an age which seeks to emphasise difference between peoples – gay and marriage, black and white, British and asylum seeker, male and female – we can assert our belief that in Christ we’re all one. When we were baptised all the labels that we give ourselves or are given to us are eclipsed by the one identity that matters - our adoption as God’s people.
That understanding helps us resist policies and processes that separate people into groups – like the pernicious ideology of racism – and disrupt them. If one part of God’s people is hurting then we all are. If one part of God’s creation is being discriminated against or treated unfairly then we all have the responsibility to name that, resist it and disrupt it.
The campaign for equal marriage has been very good at this. Questions about how two women getting married threaten anyone else’s are good at this, as are some of the funny cartoons and quips. They help to describe the prejudice, resist the assumptions used and disrupt them. I did this in a radio interview on equal marriage this week when the interviewer seemed concerned that if marriage was opened to gay people it would lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England. My response was that this would be a good thing, as it’s wrong that 26 bishops of one particular church get to make laws for everyone else by virtue of sitting in the House of Lords. Suddenly, what was seen as a threat to our way of life, became, instead, a more thoughtful debate about privilege.
When we befriend an asylum seeker we learn about their life and how our society treats them. We resist the official policy to keep them separate poor and, at times destitute. We disrupt this by making tangible personal, political and financial differences to their lives. In doing this we’re helping to save lives in no less a way than did the brave women in today’s reading.
We do this not because of adherence to a particular party political view – though our political affiliations should be influenced by our faith – but because it’s our understanding of the Good News. At the start of his ministry Jesus took the words of Isaiah and made them his own when he announced that he came to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the captive, sight to the blind and release to the oppressed. This is the heart of the Gospel, this is our work and it involves for us, just as it did for those ancient women, a process of understanding and description of their reality, as well as resistance and disruption of evil.