The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.
These are lines from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien.
I wonder how these words meet you? There are many reasons why we may lose hope and meaning, and many times in our lives where love is mingled with grief.
The story we hear in Genesis is surely one of peril and grief. Even in the opening sentence- “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph”- there is a sense of foreboding about how the future is going to play out for Jacob’s descendants. The Egyptian king of a growing empire allows the fear of threats to his complete power to spill over into violence, as it does in authoritarian regimes. There is bitterness in the servitude and hard labour. Enslaved peoples are robbed of their time, their creativity, their dignity as well as their freedom.
This was not apparently sufficient for Pharaoh though, who became alarmed at the numbers of potential warriors being born who could one day rebel and challenge. The problem with ruling with absolute control is that you are always fearful of the one who may grow strong enough to defy you. Which makes it all the more ironic that today we hear the story of Pharoah being defeated in his aims not by warriors or assassins, but by the midwives of new life.
These two Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah, midwives to their people, find themselves summoned to the presence of Pharoah. Pharoah is not just a leader but a god to the people, and commands carried absolute authority. These women were told that while they could allow any girl born to live, any male baby must be killed, and they are to do it, on Pharoah’s command. Imagine those women, whose vocation in life was to assist labouring mothers to bring a healthy infant into the world, being asked instead to ensure the baby boys did not have a safe delivery. There is, thankfully, forces in this world greater than the naked power of an absolute ruler. Shiphrah and Puah, we are told, fear God more than Pharoah, and stay faithful to their vocation as midwives. Womanist theologian Wilda Gafney imagines these two gathering their fellow midwives to communicate what they have been told, perhaps shooing away their Egyptian overseers with an insistence that “this is women’s business.” She describes the scene;
There is talk. Shop talk, women’s words, shared experiences and new techniques: herbs to stop bleeding, herbs to bring on labour, teas to increase milk production, ways to limit pregnancies. …Finally Shiphrah speaks: She tells them Pharoah’s words. The women gasp…Shiphrah and Puah shush them and call for calm. Shiphrah begins to prophesy: “God has brought our people a mighty long way. And I don’t believe God has brought us this far to leave us. Do not fear this pharoah or his warriors, nor his warhorses nor his chariots…In our days God will break the back of Egypt and wash away its might. God will raise up one of our sons to lead us and all our children out of this house of slavery.”
Puah speaks: “Trust in God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy. This is what we shall do: deliver the babies; hide as many of the boys as you can…Do not worry about the Egyptians; they will not come house to house to check on women! They cannot imagine that we would defy the pharaoh..
I love this tableau that Gafney paints for us because it brings the work of liberation squarely back to everyday people who trust in God and God’s ability to sustain life and love. Deceiving their overlords and preserving the lives of these baby boys is the outcome of choosing whom to serve and in what power to trust.
When challenged, the courage of these women holds as they apparently seem to use pharaoh’s own cultural bias against him, excusing their lack of effectiveness in murdering infants by saying, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” The unusual Hebrew word chayeh, translated here as vigorous, is very close to the nouncheyva which means an animal, a beast. Gafney suggests that the midwives are affirming what the Egyptians already thinks by labelling their own women as brutish and animalistic, giving birth so quickly they cannot keep up. The subversion of power continues in the narrative as the baby who would become Moses the deliverer is plucked from the water and reunited with his own Hebrew mother-who is paid for the privilege of nursing her own child! Here is the God of surprise and subversive power who undercuts human desire to become godlike, controlling life and death.
I have spent a long time in reflecting on this rich story this morning, but its real depth is found when we consider how such a story intersects our own lives. Some of you may already have been pondering the presence of despots and populist leaders in the world who seek only to control and dominate. How fearful they must always be of the next power rising to displace them! Or perhaps you have been reflecting on the slow work of a God whose purposes are revealed in the steadfast commitment to life of those women vocationally sworn to the wellbeing of mothers and babies. Deep in this story is an invitation to choose, and it is this that I would draw into our own lived experience. These Hebrew women have a stark choice between life and death; to choose a safer individual life for themselves in submitting to the will of pharaoh, or to choose life for the infant children and future of Israel. It was a perilous choice indeed, but one born out of a trust in the way of God.
There may be many ways where we sense darkness in the world. There are fears we may have for the future of our children or our children’s children, for the wellbeing of creation and for peace amongst increasingly polarised communities. As we recognise these fears, the words of St Paul in Romans may recall us to the transformational work that is ours as we choose this day, to trust not in powers and principalities but in the God who loved us into life and calls us to be about the work of discerning the will of God in the world. We could wish sometimes that this task was easier, but we can return to a steadfast choice to be a life-giver over a death-dealer. This is not easy sometimes when it seems that there is so much hatred and ridicule in the world. We can, however, trust in the Christ who would not turn away from the suffering and violence, but reveal to us the love that can outshine the darkness of any shame.
There are many moments where we might struggle to hope in the love that grows greater amid the many causes for grief. In those moments, there is encouragement from these words in Romans to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but instead to see ourselves as we really are, for there is to be found the way of both humility and dignity. And what is it that we really are? We are children of God, whose honour can never be taken by any human empire or individual because it is given by the God who first breathed us into life and freedom. For love to grow the greater even amidst this world’s grief, we need the children of God to go about their everyday lives, moment by moment choosing life by the way receive love and share it with one another. We may not be always able to choose individual safety, whether that be physical or emotional, but we can in our moments of greatest fear and self-doubt, choose to live into our identity as the beloved children of God. We can choose to be known by the way we honour life and one another with dignity and compassion. Only then can we be midwives of the Spirit, co-creating a world where love, and not fear, determines the everyday choices we can make. Only then, can the love in our communities be strong enough to encourage one another to choose life and a future, even amidst peril and grief.
Beloved, let us be midwives of life. Let us love another.
 Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Westmontser John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2017: pp 89-90
 Ibid, p 91