Friday, March 1, 2019

Infanticide and women helping women (Ex 1:15-2:20)

From Potiphar's wife, the categorical villainess, we move right along to the book of Exodus and our first unmitigated heroines, the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. When we left off in Genesis, the Israelites had just arrived in Egypt at Pharaoh's invitation. The last 10 chapters or so of Genesis, though they feature a few women, are mostly about Joseph and his father and brothers and how God blesses them with the favor and wealth of Egypt. Important stories in God's plan, but not specifically useful for looking at what God has to say about women. But when Exodus opens, we are greeted by some truly incredible women handing awful circumstances with the courage, faith, compassion, and grit.

However, to set the stage for their stories, we do need the larger context of what is going on with God's people at large. The Israelites arrived in Egypt in honor, which was afterward forgotten and replaced with persecution, oppression and enslavement.

The story of the Exodus has been treasured by oppressed people throughout history. Reading the part of the story we are focusing on, parallels between the plight of the Israelites and enslaved African Americans are plain, but I noticed a new similarity this time. The obvious parallel is that both groups are enslaved and oppressed, and feared because they are becoming too numerous. In the United States, as time has passed, some liberation for African enslaved people has been gained. But another similarity between these two people groups that was particularly salient for me at this cultural moment, and in thinking about the part women play in the story, involves the solution Pharaoh proposes to control the group he wants to oppress. This is where the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, come in. Pharaoh tells them to kill the Hebrew baby boys as they are being born. “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The concept that made this parallel jump out to me was "infanticide," which we have horrifyingly found in our headlines lately, around the national discussion of what we will allow when we permit abortion. Infanticide is the horrible extreme of the permission given to mothers to end the early lives of babies who would burden them. Pharaoh is clearly barbaric for ordering the murder of born-alive babies whose mothers want them to live. But there is some overlap in strategy between his plan and the historic racist eugenics movement, which has its current iteration in clinics in offering abortions to African Americans at a much higher rate than the rest of the population (some key statistics can be found on this page). The root idea employed there is the same--to manage an oppressed people by lessening their numbers, through keeping their offspring from living.

Women helping women
In our modern conversation, this topic appears much more complex, because abortion is linked to the idea of helping women avoid the loss of power and agency that happens to them when they bear children. Women are asked to participate in the decision to kill their babies, and encouraged that though the decision is difficult, it will be better for everyone if there are less dependents to care for. In one light, abortion is seen as a strategy that women must fight to make available, to help each other, despite it's terrible nature. Women who want to help other women often want to preserve the right to use it, with the idea that it will help some people, closing their eyes to the even more innocent people who it destroys. But can we really call this women helping women?

The way this "parallel" works when it come to the women in the story is actually not as a parallel, but a contrast in how women have seen their own flourishing and needs in biblical history versus our own moment. In ancient Egypt as well as 18th century America, there were similar conflicts between oppressive governments and enslaved people. Pharaoh relied on his evil authority to kill the baby boys among his slaves to keep them down, where as Margaret Sanger and her crew turned to the idea of eugenics for similar reasons. But the women upon whom the strategies were implemented reacted in very different ways then and now.

When it comes to Shiprah and Puah, the brave Hebrew midwives, we have a different dynamic of women helping women than what is offered in abortion clinics. In order to help their fellow women, the midwives defied, not an obvious moral standard, but rather the decree of an evil king. The reason they did not kill the Hebrew baby boys was because "they feared God." This is a sound way of choosing between right and wrong and determining a course of action in a difficult situation. Their fear of God led them to a reverence for the lives of the new people he was bringing into the world. They understood the miracle and blessing of new life, and they had too much fear of God to be able to listen to Pharaoh and commit murder.

What kind of blessing?
Verse 20 tells us that because of Shiprah and Puah's fear of God, God was kind to them, the people continued to increase, and in my favorite detail, "because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own." Mark down another instance of God rewarding women by blessing them with the gift and holy task of bearing children. I love that the reward comes to them because they helped babies live and helped mothers keep their children, and that the reward is for them to also have children. This is a banner story for women as mothers, and as helpers of mothers. We can so clearly see God's favor on these roles for women who fear him.

Contrast this picture of blessing for women and the one we often maintain in this century: women as self-sufficient, unencumbered by the heavy work of bearing and caring for children, empowered to pursue any agenda without thought for this aspect of their lives. The two ideas are very different. We have lost the understanding that children and motherhood are at the heart of some of the greatest purposes and blessings for women. This devaluing of our feminine humanity has lead to terrible consequences. When motherhood is a hindrance that we need to dispense with in order to live fully, it is not a big jump to see actual children as hindrances that need to be dispensed with. But this is a great and tragic error. Its consequences keep women from the most fulfilling (though surely also the most costly and demanding) parts of life, and encourage them to commit murder to avoid experiencing them. To the babies themselves, the error denies the blessing of life.

For modern mothers, even if we believe that abortion is wrong, it's worth looking at our assessments of our lives and asking which kind of blessing we are valuing more heavily? Are our goals in life encumbered by our care for our children, or vice versa? What will the result be of our struggle to "have it all"? Can we win it? If we have to land on one side or another, which side will we land on?

Though we have been really emphasizing the privilege and goodness of motherhood for women here, there is another beautiful piece of this story for women who are not mothers. Shiprah and Puah only receive their reward of having families at the end of their part in it. In their work supporting women and families, they are full participants and heroines in God's plan. Motherhood is not required for a meaningful and influential life as a woman in God's sight, though it may become a reward from him, for women who bravely and faithfully live in holy fear of him. The midwives are single ladies, and fully serving God in that role.

I drew him out of the water
Moving on in the story--tragically, Pharaoh will not be completely outwitted by the Hebrew midwives. His next step goes further than subtly making it look like the baby boys are being born dead. To ensure that live baby boys are not allowed to live, he orders them to be thrown into the Nile.

Moses' mother and sister are the next two brave, God-fearing women we meet in this section. His mother is in a terrible situation where she cannot legally provide for her son. Horribly, Pharaoh has instructed "all his people" to throw the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. Moses is in terrible danger from which his mother can't save him. But she does what she can to help him survive. Technically she does put Moses into the Nile, but she sets him in a little basket boat, nestled in the reeds, and sends his sister to watch over him. It's hard to imagine being in this horrible position as a mother. Perhaps she was planning to just keep him in the basket "in the Nile" and continue to care for him there? That would have been an ingenious solution if you ask me.

But this desperate mother receives help when it is desperately needed. Pharoah's daughter hears the baby crying, understands his plight, and decides to take care of him. Moses' sister Miriam cleverly inserts herself into the situation, offering to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. I just wonder if they are all aware of what is going on here, if Pharaoh's daughter understands how Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" are related to Moses. I like to think so. Pharaoh's daughter "adopts" Moses to save him, but then brings his mother along, keeping her in the picture and supporting her to allow her to care for her son. This is an incredibly beautiful picture of how women can truly help and encourage each other. It is a stark contrast from women helping each other to abandon and kill their babies to make a better life for themselves. Rather these women are helping each other provide for babies, sharing the burden in really difficult and dangerous circumstances. God is deeply involved with them, unfolding his plan to save the whole nation of his people. They have a role of honor, bravery, and privilege both trusting him in their lack of power, and using what power they have to save life, and mother together.

At this part of the story we can discuss another component of the abortion issue. Openness to adoption is the obvious required corollary to a pro-life stance. But adoption is also critiqued sometimes as a means for babies to be taken from families who can't support them and effectively bought by wealthy families of the dominant culture who then assimilate the children into that culture, robbing them of their cultural identity, and robbing other communities and families of their youth.

Because it can be so difficult, open-adoption, where biological parents maintain contact with children who are adopted by other families, is often avoided. But here we have a different perspective, where a whole family is adopted and supported through the resources of a wealthy, concerned woman. Maybe this is a better way? Pharaoh's daughter names the baby Moses- "I drew him out of the water." What if Christian women with power and resources everywhere listened for those crying babies in trouble, drew them from the water, and then found their mothers to help them and bring them along too? The application seems obvious, though it's much easier to write about than to actually do.

These stories read to me like a ballad of honorable women: Shiprah and Puah, Moses' mother, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter, all heroines. What a delightful place to stop and think about women in God's plan.

  • Pharaoh's plan to kill the Hebrew baby boys is a prefiguration of the racist policy of selectively offering abortion for African Americans more than other races. Both attack babies to oppress a population.
  • God shows his favor to women by giving them children again in this story.
  • The heroic action of the midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter are a key component of God's plan to bring his people out of Egypt.
  • God provides for Moses' mother when a wealthy, powerful woman intervenes and supports their family as a unit.
  • Did Pharaoh's daughter know who Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" were?
  • If you are a mother, do you honestly see yourself as more blessed or burdened by your children? Probably a combination, right?
  • What exactly is the current way to find families with babies in the reeds and help them?

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