The Sermon on Shiphrah and Puah

Below the fold is a written version of my (John’s) sermon from Sunday, August 27, 2017 on Exodus 1:8-2:10.

Our last reading today is from the book of Exodus. It’s a long one, but it’s all necessary. I invite you to settle in and get comfortable.

Exodus 1:8-2:10 (NRSV)

8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”


The painting that we’re using on the screens today is by He Qi and titled “Finding Moses.” [1] It depicts the events of the second half of this reading.

There are two stories in this reading. The second story is the story of Moses and how his parents and his sister preserved his life. That is that is the better-known story. So you can find lots of lots of painting lots of drawings of baby Moses and the basket and the Egyptian princess.

But I want to focus today on the first and lesser known half of the reading. The setting is that of a difficult time in the life of Israel.

Last week, Jenny recapped the saga of God’s people from Moses to Joseph. In between last week’s reading and today’s reading Joseph’s entire extended family has moved to Egypt, Jacob has died, and finally, Joseph has died, but the children of Israel have continued to prosper.

During his life, Joseph had preserved not only his own family but all of Egypt from the ravages of famine, and so Egypt was thankful to Joseph and by extension his family. And so when the Israelites moved into Egypt and began to prosper and multiply there was not an immediate concern because it was remembered what Joseph had done for Egypt.

But the first verse of today’s reading (Exodus 1:8) is a frightening one. Now a new king has risen over Egypt, and this new king does not know Joseph. He did not know who Joseph was. He did not know what Joseph had done for Egypt.

And thus the Israelites lost their favored status. Not only were they put to work laboring in forced labor. But the king of Egypt tried to kill off all the Israelite boys. Things were not good for the children of Israel. Times were difficult. They were in a hard spot.

We are not in that tough of a spot. But times are difficult. We can barely escape the bad news. Whether it’s a storm, a natural storm, that’s hitting Texas and the floods that are occurring there or it’s the storm of human hatred and violence that hit Charlottesville a few weeks ago or the dysfunction that seems to have gripped our government, the news never seems to be good. But they were even worse back then. And they were worse than we tend to realize immediately. The king of Egypt refers to the Israelites; he refers to the children of Abraham, God’s chosen people, as Hebrews.

“ ‘Hebrews.’ ” This term, with its cognates known all over the ancient Near East, refers to any group of marginal people who have no social standing, own no land, and who endlessly disrupt ordered society.” [2]

The “Hebrews” were the unwanted lower classes of the ancient Middle East.

And that’s how Pharaoh has come to see the children of Israel. That’s how Pharaoh has come to see the descendants of Abraham, and you know what, Pharaoh may have been right. There may have been something there. There may have been something to that. If it was not that way at the time, then it became that way later. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to be associated with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, those with no land, and those with no social standing. They are little people who don’t matter, unwanted people who are of no account.

That’s how the king sees them. But that’s not how God sees them.

And while the King schemes against them, God is at work on their behalf. God is at work in both halves of today’s reading, but I’m focusing on how God was at work in the first half.

The king of Egypt was a mighty man at the pinnacle of wealth and power in a highly stratified society. The Hebrew midwives are women in a marginalized class at the bottom of the pile. In a patriarchy, women are always slightly below men no matter how low the men’s status is.

And so when you hear that the king of Egypt looks and sees only Hebrews, know that the Hebrew midwives are at the bottom of the bottom. In the eyes of the King, they are of no account, and yet God is at work through them.

The king of Egypt, the guy at the top, instructs the women at the bottom to kill all newborn boys, but the midwives fear God and they will not do it. God was at work in Shiphrah and Puah because they allowed God to work through them.

I want to point out that we know their names: Shiphrah and Puah. We know their names, whereas we are not given the name of the king of Egypt, the most powerful person of his time. The Bible names Shiphrah and Puah because they acted faithfully and they mattered to God.

Like Shiphrah and Puah, we too can be part of what God is doing no matter how insignificant the world thinks we are; no matter how insignificant we think we are.

We can be part of what God is doing right here and right now. Mother Teresa used to say, “Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.” [3]

There are Calcuttas all over the world. There is need all over the world. We can be part of what God is seeking to do. Right here and now in Abilene.

In the same way a couple of weeks ago we witnessed the events at Charlottesville, and many of us felt like we needed to do something to respond.

I’m going to suggest that going to Charlottesville would only have added to the mess but there is plenty to do right here and now if we only open our eyes to see.

If we open our eyes, if we find those things, if we follow through and do what we can to address those things, we will be remembered just like Shiphrah and Puah. God will not forget what we do for the coming Kingdom. And in the end, it doesn’t matter what the king of Egypt thinks of us. It matters what God thinks of us.

What Shiphrah and Puah did was recorded in the Book of Exodus. What we do or fail to do will be recorded in the book of life. Amen.


[1] You can find it here: Please note that we have purchased the rights to use these images in worship.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 695.

[3] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 79.