In Israel this summer, my group went to the ruins of the synagogue at Magdala, a little town on the Sea of Galilee where Mary called the “Magdalene” probably came from. In the brand new Roman Catholic church on the site, among other fascinating iconography which I will talk about this fall when I do my class on this portion of my sabbatical, there is a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, with a mosaic behind the altar of a scene from her life in the Gospel. Now, if you were going to represent Mary Magdalene in a scene in which she is prominently featured in scripture, what would you choose? (Congregation said “Easter!”)
Exactly… If it were up to me, I would choose the resurrection appearance in John—where she weeps in the Garden, sees Jesus, and then is sent out as the “apostle to the apostles.” She’s in all four resurrection stories—but John’s gospel is the fullest story of her faith. Maybe, if you wanted a different emphasis, you could depict Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross; it’s more of a supportive role, but again, very biblically based and central to her role as a witness to Good Friday and Easter.
The church in Magdala depicted Luke 8:2, a single verse that refers to Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons had come out.” That’s not included in any of the other gospels, and it’s just a reference in one verse—not even an event or a story. Jesus doesn’t come to Magdala, meet Mary, and cast out seven demons in any of the Gospels—it’s just a throwaway line.
So here, the powerful story of a woman who is the first witness to the resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles, is diminished to an insignificant side note. That didn’t (totally) surprise me, because in our history, both as churches and as nations, we have often tended to hold up stories of men being in power, and ignored stories of powerful women. And frankly, if I’m looking for somewhere that will uphold the stories of powerful female church leaders, I am not likely to look to the Roman church… But it still saddened me. And it’s not an accident. If may not be conscious, but it is a deliberate choice, and it carries a message: this is not a place of women’s leadership; it is a place where women are demon possessed and in need of exorcism.
This is all a prelude to my central question to you today: how many of you had heard the names Shiphrah and Puah before today? (No one at 10:30am raised their hands). Exactly. And yet, before Moses delivered Israel, Shiphrah and Puah delivered Moses. And a lot of other Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah commit the first acts of civil disobedience in scripture. They quietly disobey Pharaoh; they shrewdly lie to keep themselves—and their families—safe; they fear God, and act with compassion. They give life.
Shiphrah and Puah should be household names.
But they’re not. I don’t think that’s an accident either.
Riffing on that first verse of Exodus today, “There arose in the world a church that did not know Shiphrah and Puah.” We do not always know our history of civil disobedience on the side of justice—because it has been deliberately hidden—perhaps unconsciously, but hidden nonetheless. We are hearing this story today only because it is part of the “new” Revised common lectionary that the Episcopal Church adopted about 10 years ago, which changes the relationship between the Hebrew Bible readings and the Gospels; instead of reading a Hebrew Bible reading that directly relates to the Gospel, we get an option for a series of continuous Hebrew Bible readings over a number of weeks—which is why this summer we have heard about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—and Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah.
We do not always know the stories of women of faith because they have been hidden and ignored, and sometimes deliberately erased. Sometimes it is the scripture itself that does the erasing--but sometimes it’s been right there all along! Sometimes the authors of scripture are far more open and progressive than the generations of faithful people that follow them. (And sometimes, lets be fair, they’re not.) We don’t have to invent a separate feminist Bible or something—we just have to use what we have!
Shiphrah and Puah are our good news today—tell us, sisters from so long ago, how can we be midwives? What should we do when we are tasked with committing acts of injustice—how can we refuse to carry them out? How can we be surrounded by frightened leaders—and have the courage in everyday life to do what is right. What rules and laws that we encounter have been created to oppress people—and how can we creatively disobey them to give life?
And how do we tell this story to our children, especially in the context of the larger story. At Vacation Bible School this week, where we were focusing on Bible stories about heroes, I wish we’d had this story—we should have little girls and boys wanting to be like Shiphrah and Puah.
And that larger context matters too: “A new king arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” The new pharaoh did not know the dreamer. He did not remember his history—he did not know that Joseph was the savior not just of Israel but of Egypt, and that Egypt and Israel were friends! The new Pharaoh had inherited a history that held up the wrong things: it held up the power of Egypt—but did not remember that the power of Egypt was interdependent with the power of Israel. The history Pharaoh knew did not hold up Joseph, and so Pharaoh knew him not and enabled his own destruction by setting the stage for Moses. Instead of working with the people of Israel, Pharaoh was frightened of them; and as they grew ever more numerous, Pharaoh grew more and more frightened, more and more threatened, and became crueler and crueler in how he oppressed them, until finally there was no veneer of “These are just slaves who must work,” but Pharaoh is literally decreeing that all their male children will die.
Pharaoh fears people—even though he is powerful and the king and has no real cause to fear the Israelites. But the midwives fear God. Even though they are poor and vulnerable and would have good cause to fear Pharaoh. And because they fear God rather than Pharaoh they deliver those babies, they hear their first cries, they give them into the waiting and loving arms of their mothers, and they follow God’s calling to life rather than death. And it strikes me as curious—from the distance of over 3,000 years—that Pharaoh’s fear focuses on the male children, when it’s the Israelite women who are doing all the acts of disobedience. It’s Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Moses’ mother who are planting the seeds for rebellion—not the men. Pharaoh’s fear is misplaced, in so many ways.
And that fear informs so much of why the women’s history is quieted. It does not take anything away from Moses’ story leading the children of Israel out of Egypt to also tell the story of Shiphrah and Puah as important. We can have both examples. It doesn’t take anything away from Saint Peter, and his role as the rock of the church (today’s Gospel reading) to also have Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles. If we assume that the stories that are below the surface are subversive, they will be—but if we bring them into the light and celebrate them, there will be room for all of us. Israelites and Egyptians.
Where do you see yourself in this story from Exodus today? There’s lots of choices—Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Israelites, the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’s sister and mother… where do you see your story and their story intersecting? And what do you fear? Do you fear God more than people?
I wrote a prayer for Shiphrah and Puah this week; I couldn’t find one already written—like I said, they aren’t in a lot of things. But let us pray and let them guide us:
God of all people, give us the courage of Shiphrah and Puah. When we see unjust power, help us have the courage and creativity to disobey and give life rather than death. Give us faith that our actions—small though they may seem—can bring about freedom, if not for us personally, then for the generations that follow us. We ask this in the name of God who loves us, Amen.