“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys lives” (Exodus 1:17).
It’s presidential campaign season here in the United States, and an emerging theme between Barack Obama and John McCain seems to be patriotism. Words have started flying back and forth; there have been attacks from McCain’s camp about Obama’s patriotism, and Obama has recently called on McCain to acknowledge that he is a patriot.
What is getting buried in all the debate about patriotism is the fact that, underneath all of the talk and rhetoric, there seems to be somewhat of a difference of opinion about what patriotism is. For some, patriotism is blind faith in the flag and the government that flies it. To question the decisions or the actions of the president or the government…well, you’re being unpatriotic.
Except that form of patriotism, which more accurately could be described as naïve nationalism, is not true to our own history. If the leaders of the American colonies had thought that way, they never would have protested against King George and his taxation policies and would not have eventually sought independence. The ability to protest the actions of the government was so important to the founders of this country, they made sure that right was upheld by including it in the Bill of Rights in the form of the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition.
Or in the paraphrased words of comedian Lewis Black: “I love my country. In what other country in the world can I get away with saying this stuff?”
Maybe true loyalty to one’s country is holding that country to a higher standard than what it is doing. Maybe true patriotism is holding one’s country to the high standards that is demanded of the powerful. Maybe true love for our country demands that we, as people of faith, stand up before our country and declaring to it what the kingdom of God calls for this world to be.
In the generations that span the time between the Joseph narrative at the end of Genesis and the Moses narrative in Exodus, the political landscape of Egypt had shifted. The descendents of Jacob’s sons and their households thrive in Egypt, so much so that “the land was filled with them” (Exo 1:7). Their power, their status, their social standing had grown.
There is nothing that indicates the Israelites were anything other than loyal subjects to Pharaoh. Joseph had been Pharaoh’s right hand, and his family probably had some favored status due to Joseph’s position. They were most likely well-settled, productive, fully integrated members of Egyptian society.
Something had shifted, however. The text says that, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exo 1:8). The memory of the Israelite contribution to the country’s success and well being had faded, and the new Pharaoh was able toe exploit that to advance his own agenda. Pharaoh thus begins a systematic enslavement and oppression of the Israelites, even to the point of ordering the newborn Israelite males killed.
This is where Shiphrah and Puah enter the story. They’re described as Hebrew midwives, and when Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to carry out the genocidal plan to kill the Hebrew male children, Shiphrah and Puah refuse to go along. The text tells us that they “feared God,” and one could infer from this statement that they feared God more than they feared Pharaoh and his possible retribution.
We don’t like to think about “fearing” God; it’s language that has fallen out of favor with many mainline Christians in the West. But as I mentioned in my blog on the Wrestling Jacob story, there is something dangerous about encountering God. Secondly, fear in this sense is not the same fear that one feels from the Pharaohs of the world; instead, it is a healthy respect for their power and authority. Alternately yr’ “to fear” can be translated as “to tremble for” or “to honor” when God is the object, and that this verb can mean to awesome or terrible in the niphal stem (see HALOT 432-33).
These midwives knew that Pharaoh’s actions were evil, and they would play no part in it. They knew the character of the God they served as Israelites, and they “feared” or honored that God’s ways more than they feared the wrath of Pharaoh.
That kind of fear is one that we in the church need more of, the kind of “fear” or respect and honor of God’s kingdom and authority that drives us to stop and stand in the way of injustice. As we vow in The United Methodist Church whenever someone is baptized or joins the church:
We don’t always live up this call very well, and I confess that I’m far from perfect in doing so myself. But when I stood up at my confirmation almost fifteen years ago, I answered yes to this very question. I answered yes, saying that I would be a bulwark in the storm of life, putting myself in the way of evil as it attempts to batter this hurt and broken world even more than it already has been. At it’s most basic it is a giving of ourselves without concern for cost and with fear of reprisal, knowing that we are doing God’s work in the world.
The Hebrew midwives are great examples of faithful loyalty to their true kingdom, God’s kingdom, the kingdom and reign to which all kingdoms and reigns should be upheld. I love this country, and I know that my country has done great things with its power and influence in the past. But I also know that this country is composed of human beings who often struggle to do the right things with what we have.
And so I hope I, and that all of us, will continue to hold this country up to a higher standard, to look at the actions of the Pharaohs, the rulers and authorities of this world, and with God’s help and grace strive for the ways of God’s kingdom first and foremost. And it is in this sense that I can honestly pray those words that are quickly becoming cliché, that God might bless America.