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Submissive Shes

Updated: Jan 29


a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

August 27, 2023

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.”

Yes. I know my title is questionable grammar. But I wanted to get your attention. Subversive Shes? It sounded more interesting than any other title I could think of. The Scripture tells the story of how a number of women acted to subvert the murderous plans of the King of Egypt. I had not thought of this aspect before. Sometimes we miss the way God moves in history. Sometimes we read Scripture and don’t even perceive just how shocking, how revolutionary what we are reading is. Let’s look at what these women did what that tells us about God, and maybe ourselves.

We join the story of the Hebrew people long after Joseph was the right-hand man to a previous King of Egypt. Joseph is long forgotten. The Hebrew people are nothing more than slaves in a country where they went as immigrants because of famine and hardships in their own land. Joseph is long forgotten and Power only remembers what is convenient for its narrative.

The King of Egypt’s narrative is that the Hebrew people are “too numerous” and a threat to the safety of the nation. Things don’t change much when it comes to the narrative about immigrants does it? They must be oppressed. Of course, now we oppress them in cages and jails at the border and bus them to cities whose politics we disagree with as a way to “own the libs.”

Another writer points out, “Notice the language that is used to describe their circumstances. The repetition of words and phrases like oppression, ruthless treatment, forced labor, and imposed tasks is striking. Verse 14 sums up what has happened: The Egyptians ‘ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.’[1]

That effort fails so the King becomes more violent. He orders the murder of all the male Hebrew babies. If you think about it, it isn’t the smartest move. Doesn’t he need more male slaves to build his pyramids, bring in his tomatoes, work as maids in his hotels? Oops, sorry, skipped a few thousand years there. But you get the point. In come the “subversive shes.” By the way, notice that the midwives are the only women whose names we know from this story. It is another way that the powerful show how unimportant the powerless really are, how less than human, so to speak. The powerless are generally nameless in history.

So, “King-o” orders the midwives to kill the male babies. But again, King Pharoah isn’t so smart. He asks Hebrew midwives to kill Hebrew babies The midwives, in an act of nonviolent resistance, do not. King-o asks why not, they give a rather amusing story: these Hebrew women are so quick to deliver they have the baby and hide it before we can get there! We are all laughing at this, but King Pharoah is not. When the Pharoah sees that he won’t be able to convince the Israelites to kill their own children, he turns to the Egyptian population, telling them to throw the baby boys into the Nile River. Political violence wasn’t invented in this century.

The story turns to a specific baby boy, who at this point is nameless too. Now add subversive shes to the story. An unnamed Hebrew woman has a baby boy. She hides him for months but soon he is too big or too loud or too something to hide. Mom makes a little ark [ same Hebrew word as used for Noah’s Big Boat ], and sets the baby off on the River to whatever fate may befall him. Pause for a moment and imagine the sheer sense of powerlessness in this move. You cannot save your baby from the murderous power of the King, you cannot take the chance of being punished and the rest of your family being punished for your “traitorous” act of having and hiding a boy baby against the laws of the King, so you put the baby in a little boat and send him down the river to whatever fate allows.

But the subversive shes step in again. The baby boy’s sister offers to follow the drifting infant at a safe distance and report back the outcome. Turns out maybe there was more than chance or fate at work. It just so happens, oddly enough, who would have “thunk” it, but none other than the King’s own daughter, Princess No-Name, becomes another subversive she. Now, do you imagine that the baby’s mom and daughter didn’t know that the Princess would be there? Do you think that the Princess just randomly decided to toss off clothes and take a spa bath in the Nile wherever she was? Or was this THE place the Princess often chose to, well, let’s just call it what it was, enjoy an imperial nude beach? I suspect the baby’s mom and sister both knew exactly where and when things like that happened and were there at a very specific time with a very specific plot. I just wonder how they knew the Princess was such a lover of those lighter-skinned Hebrew babies? One wonders if the Princess didn’t have a little of the blood of a long-ago Hebrew who rose to be the #2 in a previous Pharoah’s reign, old Joseph himself? The Bible doesn’t say, but is it a possibility? Was it possible that there was a rumor that Pharoah had a blood connection to the very Hebrew people he was so afraid of? Who knows?

Whatever the case, Princess becomes another subversive she and takes the baby in and as we all know, names him Moses. She raises him from infancy and then brings him to the King. Pharoah must have seen there were genetic similarities between this young heir to his throne and the people the King was so afraid of. But that’s another story about which we will never know the truth. So Moses grows up and the rest, as they say, is history. So what’s my point? Nice story, a little interesting embellishment maybe, but why am I preaching all this? I think it tells us a few things about God, about God’s power and about how people we may dismiss as nameless, powerless, unimportant people can change history.

Let’s talk about God first. The story tells us God chose a powerless, enslaved people to save. God chose to work through people who others thought of as less than human because they were of a different race, a different nationality. God chose to liberate people who were being oppressed and abused and murdered by one of the most powerful nations at the time. God chose people so unimportant in the eyes of the powerless that most of them were never remembered by name, yet they saved who knows how many lives by being subversive. And the ones that did this most effectively in this story – and in many other untold stories – were women. Women who were otherwise considered and treated as far less than equal.

The story tells us also that when the powerful ignore injustice and oppression, or worse, cause it, the powerless have a powerful ally in God. Again and again throughout history when the powerful have enslaved, oppressed and abused others, in the name of their own vanity, God moves people to disrupt, defy, and defeat the powerful. For me the lesson in this is at least this: the more our current nation seems to teeter on a pivot point of protecting the privileges of the powerful, and continuing to convince a portion of the poor and powerless that their enemy is “others” who are poor and powerless, the more injustice and oppression will expand.

Right now, the powerful continue to convince many poor white people that their enemy is people of color, immigrants, the poor, even LGBTQ+ people, people of a different political perspective. Truth is, most of these folks have suffered from the imbalances of our economic system and somehow believe that Pharaoh is on their side. They believe Pharaoh wants them to have what he has, when that is the last thing Pharaoh wants or will allow. So they make us become enemies of one another while the they – the powerful - continue to rig the system against everyone but themselves.

Here's what I believe. Throughout history God has stirred up those who see injustice and oppression, and those who suffer from it to act in subversive ways. This is in essence similar to that “third way” I talked about last week in discussing the meaning of “turning the other cheek.” These subversive shes used a nonviolent way to subvert injustice and to change history. Jesus of Nazareth came and pointed out how both the religious and politically powerful used their privileges to create hate and to dehumanize those who were powerless. He told parables that revealed the way the economic and religious rules and systems were not what God wanted, but what caused people to suffer. Neither Caesar, Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, or any of those who ruled in the political or religious systems liked that. That was why they held crucifixions.

What is our take away? God calls us to create systems of love and justice. God calls us to believe in, work for, and help create a world where all are treated as loved by God. Treated as our own siblings, regardless of their skin color, their nationality, their religion, their abilities or challenges, their sexuality or any other differences they may have with us that scare us or challenge our wrong beliefs.

Whenever, and wherever, and however we fail to do this, never forget that God will intervene. Never forget that, as shocking as it may be to us, God has used and will even use unnamed, subversive women if They have to. AMEN.

[1] Karla Suamalo,, August 20, 2017

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