One of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience appears in scripture. As a result of unfounded fear of immigrant Israelites, Egypt’s Pharaoh had enacted a number of draconian decrees against these aliens within his borders; culminating in his demand that two Hebrew midwives – named Shiphorah and Puah – kill all the male children they helped deliver to Israeli women.
The only recourse these brave women had was to lie to Pharaoh, telling him the Israeli women were so fit and strong, they delivered their babies unaided. Raising the question: Were they right to lie? In this extreme case, God evidently thought so; rewarding their actions even as “…the (Hebrews) increased and became even more numerous.” Exodus 1:15-21 (Somewhat reminiscent of Peter’s declaration when accused of defying the Sanhedrin’s instruction to stop proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. “We must obey God rather than men!” Acts 5:29)
Which seems to indicate that occasionally – rarely – we must decide between one ethical stand and another. Do not lie – Do not kill. Most moral issues being relatively easy to identify, defining what is or is not just being more problematic as individual perception intrudes – or informs – the debate. Some incidents and issues aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, including this one. Scripture does indeed instruct us to obey those set in authority over us. (See Romans 13:1 & Hebrews 13:17 And gives the reason for that obedience in 1 Timothy 2:2) But when those in authority suggest or demand we do that which is immoral – running counter to God’s expectations – we have the right and duty to disobey.
In the story of Shiphorah and Puah, women we celebrate some 3000 years after the fact – even though the Pharaoh they stood up to and disobeyed is unnamed and his identity problematic – we have two women exemplifying for us what courage looks like; inviting us to join them in resisting evil no matter the potential cost.
Two other Pharaoh defiers follow closely on the heels of these two midwives, saving a specific child – Moses – Israel’s future law-giver, social leader and nation-builder. Jochabed, Moses’ birthmother, hid him for three months and then set him afloat in the area frequented by Pharaoh’s daughter, “…to see what would happen to him.” Exodus 2:1-4 (Which was one of two things. He would either be pulled out of the Nile River and saved or become crocodile bait.) This being the Bible’s first story of “adoption.” Love dictating that Jochabed give up her son to save him.
And finally, Pharaoh’s daughter, seemingly the least likely to defy her father’s decree. (Exodus 1:22) Taking in a child of the people whom he had enslaved and who worshiped a God who diametrically opposed the gods and goddesses of her land. God using her to assume the role of mother to a child who became as important as any other in human history.
Moses’ birth and rescue graphically displays how God typically works in our world – through people. Exodus 2:1-10 barely mentions God at all, although He is clearly understood to be acting through these women. God often using ordinary people, in ordinary ways, to accomplish extraordinary things.
As ordinary people, we often pray for God to miraculously intervene in our circumstances. Moses’ mother undoubtedly did. But God chose not to send a host of angels to rescue him or dramatically intimidate Pharaoh into changing his mind. (That would come later.) Rather, he used two midwives who feared God more than men and who worked courageously to thwart Pharaoh’s plans; saving many Hebrew children – likely including Moses. He likewise inspiring a self-sacrificing mother to consider the welfare of her child over her own wishes and need, choosing to lose – to gain. (Which she did indeed, later called in to the Princess’ presence and employed as a wet-nurse for the baby – her son. Exodus 2:7-9) And then God used that Egyptian princess, who listened to her heart rather than her “Lord Father’s” decrees and took Moses in as her son. (Exodus 2:1-6 & 10)
Author Adam Hamilton writing, “Owing to the actions of these four heroic women, Moses survived and was raised in the Pharaoh’s household, where he would receive the finest education… in language, culture, philosophy and religion; he learned economics, construction, leadership, and doubtless many other important skills… which ultimately would prepare him for God’s mission – a mission to challenge a future pharaoh, to lead the children of Israel out of bondage, and to form a new nation.”1
1From Moses – In the Footsteps of the Reluctant Prophet, Abingdon Publishing
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