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Father, help us to listen. Inspire us with Your truth, convict us of sin, encourage us with the hope and the grace of the Gospel, and give to us great strength and courage to live as unsung heroes of the faith. In Jesus we pray. Amen.
Our text this morning comes from Exodus chapter 1. If you checked ahead to the preaching schedule, you may have seen that next week was supposed to be Shiphrah and Puah, but given the monumental events of this week in the Supreme Court decision on Friday, which I have a friend who has contacts in Washington and said, “I think that this may be coming out on Thursday or Friday,” so Nathan was gracious enough to plan services, depending on what might happen, and so we made the decision on Friday morning to switch, and so you’ll get Onesiphorus next week, and it felt like it was the Lord’s providence in timing that we would move up next week’s sermon to this week as we think about these unsung heroes of the faith, these Hebrew midwives.
So follow along as I read from Exodus chapter 1. We’ll look mainly at verses 15 through 22, but I want to read into chapter 2 through verse 10.
“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.””
“Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.””
I want to give you three reasons that Shiphrah and Puah are heroes of the faith, or heroines, if you like.
Number one – they did the right thing even when they were told to do what was wrong.
Number two – they feared the right person even when it seemed they had everything to lose.
Number three – they loved the right people even more than they loved themselves.
First reason that Shiphrah and Puah are heroes of the faith – they did the right thing even when they were told to do what was wrong.
So Pharaoh gives this order that you are to kill all of the boys. Now that may seem strange, why would Pharaoh want to kill all of the sons. Seems like you might want to kill the daughters because the people are multiplying and it’s through the daughters, it’s through the women. You need the women, you need much more women to have children than you need men, and besides, the men are going to be the brute force of your slave army, you’re working at the pyramids and don’t you need the men more than you need the women?
But this is Pharaoh’s thinking, if you look back up at verse 10, “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them less they multiply and if war breaks out they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” So even though the boys would have been the labor force, and the boys could have kept multiplying, yet he wants the boys to be put to death because they can grow into a military threat. They were the army so he wants to put an end to the males.
Famously, these Hebrew midwives do not listen to Pharaoh’s command. They do not do as he said because to obey an unjust order, even when it comes from an authority, there’s always a higher authority and that is God Himself.
Some time likely elapsed between verse 16, when the instruction is given, and then verse 18, when the king of Egypt calls them back. This probably was not just a few days or weeks later when they got some report, but it may have been even years later when Pharaoh looked out and saw that this doesn’t seem to be working. There are still just as many boys as ever before. They keep multiplying. Maybe he’s hearing whispers from different people in the ranks that this doesn’t seem to be going well and these two Hebrew midwives in charge of the operation are not doing as you told.
So he brings these two in. Obviously, for a vast multitude of people, there’s more than two midwives, but it seems as if these two, Shiphrah and Puah, though Hebrews, had been appointed by Pharaoh to have some operational, organizational control over the rest of the birthing operation. Now they get the question that no doubt they wondered for years when it would be coming. They’re brought in to the king and they probably looked at one another and said, “We knew this day would come.” For all these weeks, or months, or maybe years, when they quietly disobeyed the unjust order, they knew that the day would likely come when Pharaoh would notice and they would be brought in to give an account for themselves.
“Why have you done this?” he asks, in verse 18. And they have a response: “Well, the Hebrew women, ba da boom, ba da bing, they just, whew, they’re just going. They’re vigorous.” It may mean that these women are more active, perhaps Pharaoh was used to a class of royal women who needed the assistance and help of others and the midwives are saying, “Look, these Hebrew women just go at it. We can’t do it.” Or maybe they’re saying, “Look, these are like rabbits here. We just can’t keep an eye over all of this.”
Now if it’s true, it’s a partial truth. No doubt the midwives had thought about what are we going to say. And if it was the truth, it was still to point Pharaoh in a different direction. We’re not going to get waylaid here, but you’ll know that many commentators, Christian ethicists, debate, “Well, were they wrong to lie?”
It’s the same sort of question that you deal with Rahab and the spies, or in World War II, you know, somebody who’s hiding Jews. Should you then tell the truth? And you can certainly see both sides of it. Many commentators, like Calvin, argue that Shiphrah and Puah sinned, and they should have basically told Pharaoh, “Well, they’re alive because we refuse to obey your wicked command.”
Yet others argue that every indication we have from the text is that they feared God, we read that twice, they were blessed by God with families of their own. We don’t read that God looked down upon this. So it might be that just as in a time of war, if you have a POW, you would not expect that the POW has to tell the truth in order to be a good Christian. Or if in a time of war the general sends part of the army this way in order to send his opponents that way and then comes around with the flank, you wouldn’t say, “Well, he’s not telling the truth.” You understand that this is the sort of war that you’re in.
So perhaps here the women are justified in telling Pharaoh this half-truth. It’s very different from Abraham or Isaac lying about their wife to save their own neck. This is to save the lives of others.
However you come down on whether Shiphrah and Puah did what was right or they did what was wrong in the lie but the Lord overlooked it because of their greater good, let us not miss the larger point: They absolutely did the right thing by saving life even when it meant that they could very well lose their own life.
The point that we see over and over in Scripture is that we ought not to kill innocent life. No matter how accepted it may seem. No matter what the laws of the land may say. No matter what people in authority may offer or command. We do not kill innocent life.
We’ve already from Psalm 139, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
We know from Exodus 21, the famous line about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You’ve perhaps heard of that. What you may not realize is in Exodus 21, that’s specifically about injuring a pregnant woman’s baby, that the baby inside her womb was recognized to be a person.
The Westminster Larger Catechism cites Exodus 21 when it says, “Whatsoever else tends to the destruction of any life is forbidden.”
The first century church manual, The Didache, commanded “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.”
Or here’s Calvin: “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.”
Of course, there is forgiveness for any who turn and repent of having committed this sin, and the Lord extends His hand of favor and grace. All of us are sinners in need of a Savior, and yet it is fitting from this text and on this Sunday that we would underline and highlight in bold letters that the Church of Jesus Christ, until about a minute ago, until the mid-part of the last century, the Church has always and everywhere stood against abortion.
Because of the Scriptures, because of what we know about life, because of what we know about God’s heart for children, because of all of these passages which speak of God’s handiwork inside the womb.
Indeed, this has been the position of not only of the Church, but it has been the position in this country until 50 or 60 years ago, overwhelmingly so.
Let me give to you a quotation that’s going to surprise you. You may know that Planned Parenthood traces its roots back to Margaret Sanger. In fact, it says on their website, “Planned Parenthood traces its roots back to a nurse named Margaret Sanger. On October 16, 1916 Sanger, together with her sister Ethel Byrne and activist Fania Mindell, opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Women lined up down the block to get birth control information and advice from Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell.”
The highest honor that Planned Parenthood gives is called the “Margaret Sanger Award.” Though she was into eugenics and saw birth control, among other things, as a way to end the lesser races as she saw it and to end those lesser persons and feeble individuals, they continue to name it the Margaret Sanger award.
But here’s the surprise. In her autobiography, Margaret Sanger talks about that day, October 16, 1916, opening the first birth control clinic in America. Margaret Sanger, here’s what she says: “To each group we explained simply what contraception was, that abortion was the wrong way. No matter how early it was performed, it was taking life, that contraception was the better way, the safer way. It took a little time, a little trouble, but it was well worth it in the long run because life had not yet begun.”
Not commending to you her opinions on any of these other matters, but isn’t that striking? You can find it for yourself. Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, published 1938, page 217. It says on the opposite page, 216, in all capital letters: DO NOT KILL. DO NOT TAKE LIFE.
And she does not say “do not take life” because it’s illegal, though it was at the time. She does not say do not take life because there’s no safe access. She says, Margaret Sanger, of all people, “Do not take life because it is a life.”
The newborn baby, lovingly cuddled for the first time, welcomed into the world with tears of joy, is the very same child who just seconds ago, a few inches away down the birth canal, could have been and was for 49 years, able to be terminated for any reason. No questions asked.
Governments exist to protect innocent human life. We ought to pray and labor toward those ends, and if a government or an employer or a boyfriend or a family member tells us to terminate innocent human life, we would do well to follow the example of these Hebrew midwives, who did the right thing, even when they were told to do what was wrong.
Here’s the second reason they are unsung heroes. Number two – they feared the right person, even when they had everything to lose.
This passage is dominated by fear. Everyone has something to be afraid of. It starts with Pharaoh, verse 9: “He said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. ”” That is a king who is afraid.
Look at verse 12: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.”
Pharaoh is afraid. He feared the Hebrews. But these Hebrew midwives did not fear Pharaoh, or if they did, they knew one much more powerful to be feared.
The action in this story all hinges on that amazing statement in verse 17. Having been just told by the most powerful person in the nation, in the empire, and one could argue the most powerful person in the world at that time, we read in verse 17, “But the midwives feared God.”
Everyone will fear something. You all do. Every human being fears something. You fear some sort of loss, you fear what your parents think, you fear what your employer thinks, you fear what would happen without a job, you fear what will happen if you do the right thing, you fear what your classmates will say about you. Everyone fears something.
Pharaoh was afraid. The midwives were not afraid of Pharaoh, but they feared the Lord. If everyone is going to fear something or someone, this is why the Bible tells us, you know the verse, I bet, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Okay, you’re all going to be afraid of something, you’re all going to fear. There’s always going to be something, someone, in your life that you do not want to be on the wrong side of. Someone who you so revere, so respect, so honor, that you above all else want to live a life of integrity before that person, that’s what it means to fear. The Bible says if you want to be wise, if you want to be smart, if you want to life the right way, it all starts with whom you will fear.
Because we know God is watching, even if no one else is. When we fear God, it means the presence and the purposes of God weigh upon us more than the world of the flesh and the devil. And all sorts of people profess to be Christians but live as practical atheists, going about their days and lives as if God did not exist, God resting lightly upon them and upon many churches.
But not so with the midwives. They feared God. And think of everything else that they had to fear. They could have feared the majority host culture in which they lived. It’s always hard to be a minority, whether that’s because of the way you look or the way you speak or increasingly because of what you believe.
They could have feared for their livelihood. They had, after all, risen to an important position. They are the two chief midwives in the land. sap
They could have feared ultimately for their lives. “This is going to go really poorly,” they could have thought to themselves, “and what good is it to do if we’re dead? Think about all the people depending upon us, our jobs, our families.” They easily could have rationalized to themselves, “Well, we don’t like it but we just have to do what we’re told.”
Or maybe they could have convinced themselves, “You know, there’s a greater good. If we just kill a few here and there, then we can at least say we’re doing our job and that will allow many more to live.”
Or they might have rationalized to themselves, “We are in an important position and we can help a lot of people. What good will it do if we die? Pharaoh’s going to put somebody else in here who’s going to do his order. Somebody else who isn’t going to try to at least meet things halfway. Things are just going to get worse, so maybe we just do a little bit of this because after all, isn’t there more good we can do if we don’t lose this position?”
There are all sorts of ways they might have rationalized, or maybe even to think, “Well, they are just helpless children, and they are born to a slave people. These are destitute people. After all, they may not really want one more mouth to feed, such a drain on the family. What sort of life will they be born into? What sort of quality of life? How can they afford to have another child? Aren’t we just doing what we’re told to do and perhaps even we could convince the people that it might, in the end, be for some good benefit?”
The decision they made, from thousands of years of hindsight, looks obvious to us, but that’s because we’re safely removed from it. Whether the midwives struggled with the decision we do not know, but they certainly had all sorts of reasons to be conflicted. On one side was their job, their prestige, their safety, and their life, and on the other side uncertainty, suffering, and possible death.
It may be that within our lifetimes, on this issue or other issues, you will face that. Some of you already are facing those difficult questions in the workplace. On one side, your job, prestige, safety, and life; on the other side, uncertainty, suffering, and possible death.
What tipped the scales for the midwives? It was fear. The right fear. They feared the right person. You’re going to be afraid of something or someone. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That’s how you do the right thing, in the right way, even when you have everything to lose.
Often we will have to say, like Esther, another courageous woman in the Bible, “If I perish, I perish. So be it. it’s the right thing to do no matter what I lose.”
And sometimes in doing the right thing we will receive earthly blessing. The midwives did. They, too, received families because they feared God.
But at other times it may be that our reward will only be truly known in the next life, and that our honor may not be here but may be later.
Who was more important in Egypt at this time? The Pharaoh, who was thought to be a god, or two Hebrew midwives, women of a slave people who attend to the birth of children? Who would have thought to be worthy of more honor, and yet did you notice we are not told Pharaoh’s name? But we have the name of these two women that will live forever, Shiphrah and Puah. They are rightly honored because they feared God, even when they had everything to lose.
A final point, a final reason that these are heroes of the faith – they loved the right people even more than they loved themselves.
Here’s where we need to set Shiphrah and Puah alongside the characters at the beginning of chapter 2. Because there’s other women to mention.
Think about Moses’ mother. We know from Exodus 6:20 her name is Jochebed. Here she is with the edict re-upped at the end of verse 22, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile.” Sometime after that edict is issued, she has another son. She has another son, an older brother to this Moses, his name is Aaron, so he must have been born before this edict was issued, and we’re going to meet his sister as well, but now this new baby is born. He’s supposed to be thrown into the Nile.
So what do you do? Well, he could sleep for the first few months, at least that’s what they tell new mothers. They must have had a whole army of pacifiers from something.
But the older he gets, that’s going to be harder to keep this infant quiet. He’s not going to sleep all day. Something had to be done. So she took a basket, more like a chest, something sturdy, something solid, waterproofed it with tar, put her little baby in there, and prayed like crazy.
You may remember me saying in the Genesis series that this basket in which he is placed is the same Hebrew word translated in Genesis 6 through 9 as the ark. This is another ark. That ark was to be the means of salvation for God’s people amidst the watery chaos. Here’s another ark that is going to be the means of deliverance for God’s people in the midst of this watery evil.
Do not think that Moses’ mother is a weak character, just sending her baby up the river through a veil of tears and she doesn’t know what to do. No, she is full of courage.
One commentator says, “Jochebed’s actions are an ironic reversal of Abraham’s in Genesis 22. Abraham obeys God’s order to kill Isaac, yet Isaac is spared. Jochebed disobeys Pharaoh’s order to kill Moses, yet Moses is spared. In one incident God honors obedience, in the other He honors defiance.”
Hebrews 11:23: “By faith Moses when he was born was hidden for three months by his parents because they saw the child was beautiful and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.”
This whole story moves by fear. And like the midwives, they knew to fear the Lord, not this earthly king.
It’s likely that Moses’ mother had some sort of plan afoot. Float the child down to the Egyptians, send your daughter to spy things out, give her a plan if the baby is found. At the very least, this gives Moses a chance.
It was smart, and it must have been unbelievably difficult. What is harder than to give your baby away? And yet what is more courageous than to give up the child when you know that the only chance for that child’s life is to be with someone else? It’s a great parable, even, for adoption.
Imagine the rejoicing when this child is brought back to Jochebed, that she might nurse him for, in that culture, probably two or three years? Amazing. He’s brought back from the dead, just like Isaac was. But, in a matter of years, she will have to send him to his adopted mother.
Mothers letting go of their children. It’s a theme in the Scriptures. Hannah and Samuel, the woman before Solomon with her child, Mary at the foot of the cross. Sometimes the bravest thing a mother can ever do is to let go of the child that belongs to God even more than it belongs to her.
You have Moses’ mother, and you have Moses’ sister. We know her name to be Miriam. Obviously, she’s not so old that she was expected to be at home or in the field with some sort of task, but she’s old enough to speak to people, and she plays an integral role in this plan. Miriam will be named later in Exodus 15 a leader of the Israelite women who are singing the victory song. She’s placed alongside Moses and Aaron. And if Moses’ mom was courageous and creative, then his sister here is resolute and resourceful. She’s likely part of this plan, too. She’s not just a neutral observer running along the bulrushes.
The same expression of Miriam is used later in Esther 2 when it says, “Everyday Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was going to happen.”
So Miriam is going to see what is going to happen because she knows she may just have a part to play.
Kids, kids, kids. You listening? You know you have a part to play in God’s plan? It doesn’t always mean you just wait until you’re a grownup. You have a part to play right now.
Miriam was probably 6 to 12 years old. Old enough to carry out a plan, not so old that the Egyptians would wonder why is this kid wandering around the river.
And I wonder, kids, would you look after your baby brother like this? Would you say, “Oh, send ’em down the river.” I hope not. Would you be able to speak to an adult in a time like this? A very important adult comes and opens it and says, “Well, what should we do? There’s a baby. It’s a Hebrew child,” and then the sister says to Pharaoh’s daughter, perhaps even having to speak in her second language, “I know a mom who can nurse that baby for you.”
They had a plan. You run down, if this works, God be praised, and they need a nurse, then you raise your hand and you speak to them and let them know that you know a Hebrew mother who would love to nurse this baby.
You have Jochebed, you have Miriam, and let us not forget Moses’ adoptive mother. We don’t know much about her. Was she risking her neck to do this? Did Pharaoh care? Did Pharaoh look down upon this? Maybe this happened on other occasions. Maybe she thought, “Well, if the point is that the nation not get bigger than us, then to lose one of their children to our side is doubly good. One less for them, one more for us.”
Whatever the risks might have been or not have been, what a sweetly human and maternal thing that this princess did. If Moses’ mother was courageous, his sister resolute, his adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, was powerful and full of pity.
Now we don’t know was she duped? Or did she have an idea all along, this is a little too convenient. The instant I find the child, there’s a young girl who’s ready there to bring the child to a mother. Was there a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, we know what’ going on here? We don’t know.
What we do know is that this is a beautiful picture of common grace. She simply cared for a crying child. She had mercy on helpless children.
I’ve seen this many times, and so have you. Many times traveling, and you’re on a plane and there’s a child making some loud noise as children are wont to do on planes. Nothing against the dads and the fathers, but I’ve never had a man turn to us and do cootchy-cootchy-coo or do peek-a-boo and what a precious child you have.
Sometimes, when I’m the person to the other child, I’ve sort of wished someone would ask me, I want to say, “I have a lot of children. I can tune it out.”
But you know it’s moms, it’s women, whether they’re moms or not, it’s the women who have the ear to hear. Science, research, has shown to us that even in the first days of life, a female child can distinguish the cry of another human being better than a male child can. That’s how God has wired moms, how God wired women.
When you see a child in need, whether you’re a mom or not, a grandmother or not, an aunt or not, there is so often implanted within the female heart an instinct to say, “Let me help you.” The pro-life movement was led in so many ways by women. The polls have consistently shown more women are pro-life than pro-choice. It’s women who understand the value of human life.
If we have heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan, this is the parable of the Good Egyptian. Motivated, a decent, caring woman, motivated by the cry of a helpless child.
Now many of us are familiar with this story and we know that it kicks off the book of Exodus, and we often think of this as the story of Moses’ birth, and it is. We know that Moses is going to be the main human character for the rest of this book, but I want you to note this very well. Up to this point in the story of Exodus, the story which will be the picture of all pictures in the Old Testament of God’s great plan of redemption, in chapter 1 and chapter 2, this entire story, this great plan of redemption which is unfolding, is moving forward by women. And by women caring for children.
We’ve seen five women so far. Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, Pharaoh’s daughter. And God used all of them in ways they could not fully understand simply by loving children and protecting their little lives.
Moms, your work is not in vain. Is there any class of people who are more unsung heroes than mothers who spend their days with rambunctious children? And I know the proverb says they will rise up and call you blessed, but it seems to take a lot of years before they do.
It’s one of the pet peeves of mine, that all of the Christian schools, Christian alumni magazines, good Christian schools, just once I’d like to see them feature on the cover of their magazine a stay-at-home mom. You don’t see it. It’s not to say that that’s the only thing moms can do and that it’s not right to celebrate the many other things that women do. For sure celebrate the graduates that go on to be an opera singer or the graduates who go on to have a wonderful career in molecular biology, but give honor to those to whom honor is due.
It’s that class of persons that is most often overlooked, and it sends the not-so-subtle message that if you go to our school, there’s a lot of wonderful things we’re going to celebrate, but if you come through her and you end up spending the next 30 years of your life caring for children, don’t expect to receive any awards.
But moms, you deserve to. All of you who are in that busy season of life with your kids, wondering what in the world am I doing? Nobody sees what I’m doing. Is this why I have these intellectual gifts and desires? Is this why God’s given me all of this ability? And you wonder what in the world you are doing.
Notice here God’s great plan of redemption, to save an entire nation, moves on these hinges of women caring for children.
So I don’t know what God is up to in your life, women, and what He will do through your life and because of your life, if your child will be a Moses. Most of us are not going to have a Moses. But you need to know this – a life given away in care for children and in compassion toward children, is not a wasted life.
God the Father sent His Son to give His life away for His children. Now, of course, none of us are atoning for the sins of anyone, only Christ can do that, but what a picture of what it means to give your life away for another. Though in the moment it seemed for all the world that Jesus had just wasted His life, 33 years old, all the power You had, all the teaching, all the gifts, all the following…Gone. But God had a plan.
You save life by losing it. You give life by giving yours away.
So let us note these unsung heroes. Just as last week with Tychicus we had occasion to think of fathers, let this be an encouragement for all of us, and especially to the women in this congregation, that your labors are not in vain, and the children that you love, your own and others, we need not just earthly mothers but spiritual mothers. Though they may not rise up and call you blessed as much as you deserve, the Lord your God knows and sees and is accomplishing a great act of deliverance through your mommy’s heart.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we thank You again for the news of this week, and we pray that You would help us to so love and work and labor, that no one would doubt how precious life is. Thank You for the children in this congregation, thank You for those born, those brought in, those raised, those saved. We pray Your richest blessing upon all of us and may we learn from these courageous women and may we know the grace and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His life for ours. In His name we pray. Amen.