BIBLE STUDY: RISK TAKING HOSPITALITY
by GLORY E. DHARMARAJ*
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth-stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."
But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt com-manded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to 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 mid-wives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
Exodus 1:8-22, tells the story of two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who saved newborn Hebrew boys when Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, declared they were to be killed. God, who stands on behalf of victims, turned the situation to the advantage of the Hebrew people through the work of two midwives. The only strategy available to the midwives to circumvent state-sponsored terrorism was mother wit. The story mentions the women's names but not the king's.
The Pharaoh's edict came as the Hebrews had multiplied to outnumber the Egyptians (Exodus 1:8-10). The Hebrew people came to Egypt as immigrants. From economic refugees, they regressed into slavery (Exodus 1:13-14). They lost their land tenure and became cheap labor for building supply cities (Exodus 1:11). The king's solution to containing the Hebrews was to kill the newborn boys.
The Hebrew midwives had an alternative vision. They gave birth to a movement of resistance. They struck at a powerful empire with the bare threads of a made-up story and mother wit. As Hebrews who saw the law of the land from the victim's perspective, they set out an ingenious strategy.
Commenting on the vulnerability of the Hebrew women and the superiority of Pharaoh in her book, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston says:
"The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. ... The Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyp-tian law."
Forging a risk-taking network
The story expands to include more key players: a nameless princess; Jochebed, the mother of Moses who is named in Numbers 26:59; and Miriam, the sister of Moses whose name is mentioned in Exodus 15:20. The name Miriam is suited to her mission. Women scholars argue the name Miriam is linked to the national bondage of the Hebrew people. In Hebrew, Miriam means bitter water or bitter sea. In Egyptian, Miriam may mean love or beloved.
Symbolizing a people's sorrow, Miriam, a girl child, took a message to Pharaoh's daughter: she knew a wet nurse who could care for the baby in the basket. While she shared the bitter lot of her people, she emerged as beloved in saving her brother, and later, as a leader by her own merit.
Mother and girl child organized a survival strategy for the newborn. Jochebed's son, placed in a basket on the bank of the Nile, attracted the attention of the Egyptian princess. She recognized the child to be Hebrew yet was determined to save the child.
Miriam ran to the princess to offer help. The birth mother was hired to care for the baby. The princess reached across boundaries of race, class, marital status and age.
Fearing immigrants, dispossessed
The use of the word Hebrews instead of Israelites is significant. Israelites is used only in Exodus 1:9 and 1:13. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says the term Hebrews, known across the ancient Near East, refers to any group of dispossessed and disenfranchised people who:
- Do not have land,
- Live on the margins of society and
- "Endlessly disrupt ordered society."
Mr. Brueggemann says:
"They may function variously as mercenaries, as state slaves, or as terrorists, depending on governmental policies and the state of economy."
The word Hebrew could refer to any of the wretched of the earth in the Near East. The Hebrew slave can refer to any of the oppressed around the world. Mr. Brueggemann defines such people as "little people" and "devalued folk who suffer at the hands of violent legitimated policy."
Mission as border crossing
Jochebed and Miriam were among these powerless "little people," yet they took initiative to combat an unjust law. The baby floating on the Nile was a symbol of the rising power of these women and their nation as they took their destiny as it was imposed on them and reshaped it.
From the Egyptian side came a royal response to the Hebrew women's crisis. The princess crossed borders on the banks of the Nile to forge a partnership with Hebrews Miriam, Jochebed and the baby.
New space was created for new relationships. In a moment of crisis, networks were forged across race, class and national identities for the sake of saving a child who was at risk.
Saving Moses enacted a courageous, bold vision of an alternative world to that of a ruler who had neither the political will nor the willingness to imagine different possibilities. The women imagined an alternative world of justice and equality. God smiled on them.
Faith communities then and now are called to take risks. The Egyptian princess recognized the other in the baby and went beyond the prevalent notions of race and ethnicity, master and slave. She took the child home, offering him a safe zone. She refused to be trapped inside an identity that perceived the Hebrew child as someone to be killed to preserve her national identity.
Creating safe zones
Around the world then and now, women seek to create safe zones on multiple levels: physical, moral, spiritual, political. As a response to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. lawmakers signed the USA Patriot Act into law "to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law-enforcement investigatory tools and for other purposes."
While those who commit terrorist acts must be brought to justice, care should be taken to ensure the safety and liberty of innocent people. The Patriot Act was enacted
in haste, not allowing time for the needed debate and review, so some constitutional rights and liberties guaranteed by federal and state constitutions are threatened by it. Since Sept. 11, 2001, some immigrants have come under racial and ethnic profiling, especially Arab, Muslim and South Asian men.
Activist Nancy Talanian of Massachusetts responded to the Patriot Act by co-founding the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which has established civil-liberties safe zones in communities across the United States. This national grassroots movement urges lawmakers to pass resolutions to establish the zones.
The Women's Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries supports the movement and is educating members of United Methodist Women to advocate for establishing the safe zones.
United Methodist Women's Mission Giving helped fund the film "Lives for Sale," a documentary that reveals the realities of illegal immigration toward expanding awareness of trafficking of women and children and providing safe space for them. Providing safe zones for women, children and youth is risk-taking hospitality.
God of solidarity
In the Exodus story, God seems to be absent, though readers are assured the midwives feared God (Exodus 1:17). When women came up with alternatives to fear-ridden visions, God stood in solidarity with them. The midwives' fear of God helped them shape a strategy. Survival against unjust state-sponsored laws motivated Jochebed and Miriam to save Moses.
Today, women find solidarity with God and these powerful Bible women. Their examples of mother wit are inspirations today as we are engaged in the mission of risk-taking hospitality.
Jesus' family too, had to flee state-sponsored terrorism when King Herod ordered the killing of all boys two and younger. God warned the holy family to flee and the magi to not report back to Herod after their visit with Jesus' family.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, refugees in Egypt for some time, were likely dependent on hospitality of people in that land - hospitality that may have included risk for the hosts.
Mission as risk-taking hospitality is a challenge today as displaced people around the world exchange their homes and roots for freedom from hunger and oppression.
Mission as risk-taking hospitality is a challenge in the United States, a nation that labels people as illegal and alien, while, annually, more than 1 million people attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in search of the American dream.
Mission as risk-taking hospitality is a challenge as government policy and social pressures pit newcomers against existing vulnerable communities for jobs, housing and education.
Mission as risk-taking hospitality is a challenge as immigrants to the United States are increasingly people of color, and worldwide, 54 percent of all migrants are women.
Mission as risk-taking hospitality is a challenge that Christians are called to embrace. Let us search Scripture for more examples of God's people practicing risk-taking hospitality. Let us pray for the courage to engage in it:
Dear God, you give us Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed and Miriam, and Pharaoh's daughter as models of courageous women who risked. Instill in us that courage. Instill in us a fear of God that drives us to challenge unjust laws and oppression. Let us feel your presence with us when we step out to extend your hospitality to newcomers and strangers in our midst. Amen.