“ But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live’” (Exodus 1:17).
The Hand of God
The painting above is John McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God.” Yes. That is the U.S. Constitution that Jesus is holding and pointing to — a document that McNaughton says is “inspired by God.”
Many Christians smack their foreheads at this type of image, but it is not so unique. The idea that the laws descended from the heavens is an ancient one. People have been envisioning it for a long time.
The Code of Hammurabi — containing the famous “eye for an eye” formula — was carved into stone at a time when most people couldn’t read. At the top of the stele that holds that famous law code, however, is an image: it’s Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice, handing Hammurabi the authority to make laws. Images like this ancient one (and the contemporary one above) carry the same subtext: whatever the government says, does or commands, God wills. Therefore, we don’t question the government.
The political conclusions in ancient Egypt were the similar. “[an Egyptian king] was the center of all aspects of life, both religious and secular (2).” Pharaohs were thought to be more than human: an incarnation of the gods keeping the universe balanced. Opposing him (or her) was no small matter. To paraphrase a famous pastor — those who resisted the king also resisted the hand of God. Someone should have sent a memo those Hebrew midwives.
Someone should have explained to Shiphrah and Puah that God had already told their ancestor Abraham that they would be slaves in Egypt generations beforehand(Genesis 15:13–14). That Egypt would be judged for enslaving them and they’d be brought back to Canaan eventually. That they just needed to be patient because their moment for salvation was in the future. In the present, they should “submit to the authorities that God had placed over them.”
Maybe then, they wouldn’t have acted like a couple of “criminals” and broken the law.
They did more than break the law. They lied about it:
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 (Exodus 1:18–19).
Yet, God honored them for this act of resistance. They knew that the law was evil, and they feared God too much to obey it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “ One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” God seems to agree with Dr. King. God rewarded those insubordinate, rebellious, deceitful, God-fearing women for their civil disobedience (Exodus 1:21–22).
God Blesses the Disobedient
It may be a biblical idea that God may allow leaders to come to power, but it is not a biblical idea that leaders are always right. The scriptures are consistent that God opposes kings that do evil, even the ones that God likes (2 Samuel 12:1–13). Therefore, no one can justify themselves before God for participating in any kind of social evil on the basis that it was the law or that the king commanded it.
It is precisely because God is on the throne that we must resist evil kings. This story tells us that when the powerful demand we participate in crushing the oppressed, God blesses the disobedient.
In order to do what these women did, they couldn’t subscribe to the notion that to oppose the king is to automatically oppose God. They were willing to question whether or not the law was ethical, and whether or not the king deserved to be obeyed, depending on the answer to that question — because what is legal is not necessarily always ethical, and what is illegal is not necessarily always immoral.
They could not be committed to naivete about the structure of Egyptian society: They could not assume that an officer only stops a civilian for good reason, or that the prisons are only filled with people who deserve to be there, or that if someone died in a police encounter that they probably deserved it. They were committed enough to thinking critically about their society that they could determine that what Pharaoh was asking for unconscionable.
Shiprah and Puah remind us that we cannot outsource our responsibility to discern between right and wrong to the government: such definitions are not the sole property (or prerogative!) of the state. Those that are invested in the status quo have proven that they can’t be trusted to name its challengers.
The champions of an oppressive system will always label dissenters as criminals and critics as traitors. We must never forget that a great cloud of witnesses before now were labeled in such terms: Harriet Tubman was a “criminal”, as was Rosa Parks, as was Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many other bold women and men that feared God too much to obey the laws when the laws were clearly unjust.
This text is telling us that sometimes the most righteous thing one can do is to protest, to refuse to comply, to disobey, to resist, and to protect the vulnerable by any means necessary.
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For Further Exploration:
- On the function of Hammurabi’s code in ancient Babylon: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “The Growth of Territorial States: 6.2 Hammurabi’s Babylon.” A History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000–323 BC, 2016, pp. 111–114.
- On the role of Egyptian kings in ancient Egyptian civic life: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “Chapter 2: Ideological Foundations of the New State.” A History of Ancient Egypt, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 36.