I could have very easily entitled this sermon ‘Five Moms and a Baby’ since there really are five prominent women who take the opening two chapters of the Book of Exodus by storm. There are the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and then three unnamed women of which we will hear more about in a minute.
Exodus opens with a new King arising over Egypt. He could care less about Joseph which was bad for the Israelites who, by now, were tipping the population charts in their favor. This did not make for a happy Pharaoh by any means. So he made their lives miserable, more miserable than usual. Forced labor, imposing menial and backbreaking tasks, Pharaoh was ruthless.
He orders the midwives of the Hebrews, Shiphrah and Puah to murder all of the male children when they were born. But they did not. They loved God, they feared God and they let the little boy babies live. “Why did you do this?” yelled Pharaoh. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” they said. “The Hebrew women give birth too fast before any respecting midwife can get to them.” They answered. Sneaky? Yes! Did they save lives? Most definitely.
"Baby Moses" by He Qi
God liked their acts of civil disobedience! Shiphrah and Puah stood up to the mighty Pharaoh and they were rewarded by God; they had families of their own and the Hebrews became even more prolific and strong. But Pharaoh continued on his murderous rampage and life dragged on for the Hebrews.
Let’s pick up Exodus the 2nd chapter.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 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.
His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 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. 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.
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?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 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. 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.’
Enter three more women, all unnamed. There was the mother of Moses who, later in chapter 6 is named as Yocheved. There was Pharaoh’s daughter who was the Princess and then there was Moses’ sister whom we later know to be Miriam. But for now, we don’t know anything of these women. All we know of is their motherly acts toward this little baby boy. It doesn’t matter whether one was the birth mother and the others adoptive mothers, all, in some way acted as mother to Moses.
I always struggle with preaching on Mother’s Day. It can be quite sensitive for some women on so many levels, I understand that. It can illicit sadness and emptiness for some or dashed dreams for others. It can affirm decisions made by some and it can remind others of their remarkable or unremarkable relationships with own their mothers. Mother’s Day is a joy filled with complications. But so is life because we are relational creatures.
I do believe though that we miss an opportunity for theological reflection if we let the day pass by. If we are all, male and female, mother and father, created in God’s image then God has a stake in Mothers Day and the inherent gift that nurturing women possess. Men, you too have been given these gifts so don’t turn down the volume on your set.
God had a very large stake in our story from Exodus. God’s providential handprints are all over this story of mothers – birth mothers, adoptive mothers and siblings who act in motherly roles are the ones who love and nurture Moses, the future leader of the Israelites who will eventually lead them out of slavery into the promised land. What God needs to accomplish, God will through unlikely sources and the most usual circumstances.
Who knew that the one who would lead a great band of people out of slavery, provide for their needs and eventually get them to their promised land would be birthed, nurtured and grown by five women? If Moses were alive today surely he would be a candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch.Sometimes our mothering comes from unlikely sources and unusual people. People whom you would never think could possibly give you what a mother can give which is unconditional love, nurture, support, and a space to grow, really is the person who can extend that motherly love.
And what is motherly love? Well in the case of Moses it was Shiphrah and Puah whose willful disobedience of Pharaoh let little boy babies live. They did the right thing rather than the ordered or expected thing. As a mother I had to advocate tirelessly for one of my children, threatening the educational system with legal action so that he could get the resources he needed.
It was Moses birth mother who unselfishly floated him away so that he could have a chance at life. We hear of heart rending decisions that women make who cannot care for their child and give them up for adoption or place them in the care of another family member.
It was his sister who so lovingly protected him and watched out for him when his own mother couldn’t be there. Foster mothers, grandmothers, even siblings are those who step in so that a child has parental influence in their lives, and it was Pharaoh’s daughter who was able to nurture him and provide for him, and who was compassionate towards him. Through these women God acted. Through these women God’s compassionate and maternal nature is shown.
God has the capacity to love us beyond all human understanding. Which is a very good thing, believe me. We cannot fathom the wideness of God’s mercy, to do so would place upon God human constraints and shortcomings. But we can know God through the love and the faces of others.
This is why Mother’s Day is a joy filled with complications. There are disappointments to be sure but God gives you what you need through others who provide you with mothering love.
Today is about mothers but it is more about God who acts through mothers. We all need motherly love no matter our age. We all can extend motherly love and let God work through us.
A friend of mine, Eva, began an organization named “Mothers’ Day Movement” after she read an article by Nickolas Kristoff in the New York Times. He noted that we spend around $14 billion on Mother’s Day. MDM encourages people to donate money, that would have been spent on gifts and food, to a well researched organization that benefits mothers on a global level. Each year is different.
This year it is ‘Saving Mothers’ an organization that aims to reduce maternal mortality in childbirth in underdeveloped countries.
This is God working through one mother to make other mothers lives better.
May the mothering spirit of God be with you today and may all of your tomorrows being filled with divine maternal presence.