The “Least Likely” Are Called to the Work of God
Anne Maura English
Every Easter Vigil includes the Exodus story and within that Moses is the human actor front and center. And this is as it should be. The deliverance of the Exodus is the central event of God’s work with us before the coming of Jesus and its retelling is a necessary and fitting reflection as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection.
However, this means that the women of the Book of Exodus are never featured in our Vigil’s tracing of the unfolding of God’s work. So—although this reflection should pick up in the desert after the deliverance from the Red Sea, we are going to back up a little and begin at the start of the Exodus story.
These are the stories of the “least likely” to be expected to advance the work of God—all of them women and all but one non-Israelites. Yet each has a crucial part to play in the unfolding of God’s desire.
Exodus 1:15-21 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 birthstool, 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 commanded 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 midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
The book’s opening sentence names the sons of Jacob who originally went down from Canaan to Egypt. They seem pasted there merely to bridge Exodus with the previous book, Genesis. Then a pharaoh is introduced, but not named. The first real involvement with persons with actual names are the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and they are busily engaged in committing civil disobedience! Faced with the command to kill all Jewish baby boys at birth, they defy it. Why? There is no evidence that they are Jewish. In fact it is unlikely a pharaoh intent on genocide would entrust such work to Jewish midwives. But their lives have been dedicated to bringing life into the world; they have witnessed that miracle again and again. And that seems to have brought them to a reverence for life that is stronger than the pharaoh’s position and power. How has God deepened my understanding of role in life though my work or volunteer service? How has God used these experiences to enable me to see the world around me differently?
Exodus 2:5-10 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.’
I don’t know that my early interpretation of this story was the result of having it explicitly described this way. But throughout my childhood and teens I saw this as “the clever Jewish daughter and mother put one over on the stupid daughter of pharoah.” I see it differently now. When Moses’ sister steps out of the bushes and offers to find a wet nurse for the baby, Pharoah’s daughter understands exactly what is going on. When Moses’ mother appears before her, they take a long moment to look deeply into each other’s eyes. In that moment a conspiracy is born, a conspiracy between the unlikeliest of allies, a commitment born of shared love and caring for this child. Their shared commitment, their “fiat”—let it be so—is crucial to God’s work. Without that commitment there is no Moses, no liberator learning leadership in Pharoah’s court, no exodus. As such, it mirrors another “fiat” centuries later on which salvation also hinges. Who is the “most unlikely” ally God has ever sent me to work with? What attitudes, fears, or prejudices keep me from joining with a particular someone in the work of God?
Exodus 4:24-26 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.’
This has to be the weirdest piece of the entire Exodus saga. I’ve never heard it used or even mentioned in passing, but—historical or not and despite the negative image of God it paints—it too is part of the biblical account. Again it is a woman—and a pagan woman—who saves Moses and thus the entire exodus event. Unlike her husband, she honors the covenant traditions of his faith which require circumcision as a sign of that covenant. Sometimes our emotional commitment to a faith belief or practice can be God’s voice—sometimes our own desire for security. What belief or practice has caused me to take a definite action? How do I justify it as the work of God?
Exodus 15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’
It is possible to read Miriam’s action here as merely repeating what Moses has already done in Exodus 15:1. Some Scripture scholars, however, attribute the original to Miriam. Later editors gave Moses the lead because . . . well, after all he’s the guy, the hero. But they didn’t feel comfortable just discarding the original version so they kept her in twenty verses later. That would mean Miriam is the one with the insight, the sensitivity to God’s work, to understand the true significance of what has just happened. And she celebrates that, whether or not she gets the credit for doing so. Have there been times when my insight, my contribution to the work of God, has been taken over by someone else?Can I nevertheless rejoice in and celebrate its advancing the work of God?
Joshua 2:1-24; 6:22-25 Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you… The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’ The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’ Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. She said to them, ‘Go towards the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there for three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterwards you may go on your way.’
Once again we have a non-Israelite woman whose decisive intervention advances the advance of salvation history: the taking of the promised land. Why on earth would she choose to help these guys? She, like the other inhabitants of Jericho, is supposed to have heard the stories about God’s work with these Israelites and, motivated by her concern for her family, decides to act in a way totally counter to her culture. How has God led me to adopt a belief or action counter to the . . . family, community, country, wider culture that I consider myself to be part of?
Judges 4:1-10, 12-16 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement. She sent and summoned Barak, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’ Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ And she said, ‘I will surely go with you…
Don’t you wish we knew more about this Deborah? She seems to be totally accepting of her own gifts, but without any need to brandish them in arrogance or lust for control. But she also doesn’t hide her own strength behind false modesty, calling it exactly as God has helped her see it. Am I able to hear the voice of God in my own gifts and strengths?
Judges 4: 17-21 Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died.
And we’re back to another non-Israelite heroine! Again, what is she thinking? Her husband and his family—and thus her family—are at peace with the king who sent Sisera against the Israelites. The Israelites should therefore be her enemy. Yet she responds to a deeper voice within her. The result is gruesome, but these are gruesome times and she does what they demand. (I can’t help wondering what price she paid when her husband and his family learned what she had done. Surely she was aware of the possible consequences—but convinced this was the right thing to do.) What is the most radical and/or the most daring step to which God seems to have called me? Was I able to take it despite the consequences?