August 23, 2008

Immigration and the Hebrew Midwives

by Debra Dean Murphy
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20

"For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." - Thomas Paine, 1776

“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”- Exodus 1:17

In a class I used to teach called “Women and the Bible” my students and I would examine the Exodus story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as one in a long line of narratives about female tricksters. Through their wily and inventive ways, these women and others like them (Rebekah, Tamar, Rahab, Michal) carry out the purposes of Yahweh and extend the fortunes of Israel. They may not possess any real authority in the patriarchal world they inhabit but these clever women do wield remarkable power.

Shiphrah and Puah (the names did not roll trippingly off the tongue for my students or for me) are summoned to appear before Pharoah, the king of Egypt, who is nervous about the high fertility rates among the Hebrew people he has recently colonized.
In this strange and rare encounter between royalty and lowliness, the king directly orders the midwives to kill any male child born to a Hebrew woman. That’ll slow down the out-of-control growth of this crazy-fruitful people, he reasons.
But the midwives, we are told, “let the boys live.” Summoned again to explain themselves, Shiphrah and Puah spin quite a tale: the Hebrew women are so “vigorous” they birth their babies before we can get there!

In our conversations these last couple of weeks on immigration (see previous post), the “rule of law” is regularly brought up. Indeed, the concept is often a brick wall in such discussions because it seems to nullify all subsequent points (though we’ve managed to keep talking—so far). It’s the trump card in the immigration debate, whether it’s played first or last: If some of these folks are here illegally, the argument goes, then we (Christians) must respect the power of the state to deal with them as the law-breakers they are. End of story.

But of course it’s not the end of the story in the biblical witness. What Shiphrah and Puah undertake (at great risk to their own safety and well-being) is to defy a power that does not—cannot—claim their primary allegiance. It is to their God, Yahweh, not to the Pharoah-King, that they are ultimately accountable—this God who has made them part of a people called to bear testimony to the fullness of life and health and abundance that God desires for the whole world.

In the gospel lesson this week, Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom. Can we imagine that those keys unlock for us, the Church, the power to restore, to reconcile, to make new; the power to bind us in love and fellowship to the alien among us, and to loosen our grip on the false gods of security and status that keep us estranged from one another?

Can we imagine that those keys might even unlock our hard hearts?

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