Exodus 1: 15-22
The Hebrew title for the second book of the Pentateuch is “Weelleh Shemoth” meaning “Now these are the names of…” the initial words of the document. This is commonly abbreviated as ‘Shemoth’ which means ‘Names’. Exodus is a naturalised English word resting on the Septuagint title. Exodus cannot be seen as the history of Israel in a strict sense. It is rather an exposition of the meaning of that history for Israel. It is an interpretation of Israel’s faith. Exodus deals seriously with the fact that Israel’s faith rests on a historic revelation.
One of the major themes that orders the book of Exodus and that provides focal point for interpretation is Liberation. The book of Exodus starts with the picturization of a slave community and this community is named ‘Hebrews.’ Hebrews was not the name of the Israelites; it was a general name that was used to call a collection of marginalised people who had no communal identity of their own and were powerless to change their social circumstances. Also, the author connects the marginalised community to the genesis story, indicating that the promise made to the ancestor is still operative and decisive for this community of slaves. Here the author presents two opposite forces, one the continuing power of an enduring promise and the other an expose of current social helplessness. The juxtaposition creates a tension between the past promise and the present struggle. The selected text presents before us a ruler who is afraid of the growing strength of the Israelites and wants to annihilate them and, the midwives who in spite of being under the rule of Pharaoh affirm the life of the Israelites. Here the act of Pharaoh clearly negates life whereas at the same time the act of midwives affirms life. From this text we can clearly see two characters who being in their own positions, explain and see life in two distinct ways. Therefore the theme derived for our meditation is:
“Reverence for Life”, a response in situations of life negation.
The two characters present in the text take different views towards the issues they face in life. The contemporary world view teaches that in midst of a problem, finding a solution is important, not the means by which the issue is resolved. Pharaoh can be seen as a patron of this worldview; he saw the people of Israel as a threat and wanted to tackle them by any means. Whereas, when the midwives face the problem related to their own profession they try to find solution to it in a more life affirming way. In spite of being in a situation of life negation they come up with ways to affirm life. Pharaoh can be seen as the one who represents the empire and the power that is bestowed upon it, and the midwives are the ones who are submissive under this above power but the way in which they both view life is entirely different. This leads us to our first sub point:
Pharaoh as a symbol of life annihilation
In verses 15-22 we can see two characters that are dominant in the text, the Pharaoh and the midwives. The most interesting thing is that the character that is the most dominant is not named but only designated, whereas the ones who are submissive are given specific identity. When the pharaoh came to power, he was afraid of the great multitude of Israelites and thus tried to have control over them. The text does not present before us any conflict between the Egyptians and the people of Israel. It is written that a pharaoh came who did not know Joseph and thus all the problems started. The problem here is that the Pharaoh who came was not aware of the roots of his own tradition and therefore saw Israelites as a threat. This Pharaoh was not the successor of the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time, and therefore it is clear that the Pharaohs before did not have any problem with the Israelites. They knew how Joseph had played a vital role in saving the country from great famine and also the role he played in the development of the nation. Therefore the Pharaohs had a feeling of reverence towards the people of Israel. But this Pharaoh was not aware of these facts or we can say that he was not bothered to look into it and hence saw the people of Israel as a threat, and wanted to suppress them. In the beginning, he tried to torment the Israelites by imposing on them extra labour and dealing shrewdly with them. But the more they were oppressed the more they multiplied and spread. Thus the pharaoh planned of killing the male children as it would automatically annihilate their whole race. Here the king or the pharaoh who should have been the protector of his subject became their annihilator. The problem lies in the way the pharaoh understands life. If we look into the later narrations about the life of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus we can see that the Pharaoh saw life with close reference to the power bestowed upon him through the empire. His confrontation with Moses with regard to leaving of the Israelites to worship shows how, for momentary relief from the plagues, he accepted the demand of Moses but as the plagues are removed he became stubborn. The reason for such a behaviour is that pharaoh feared that if the Israelites left Egypt he would lose the labour force which was the backbone of the empire. The pharaoh needed the slaves to support the existence of his own empire. To every ruler his power was directly related to the empire he built and every powerful empire had a community of slaves who would be exploited. It is said about the great Roman Empire that they had about 1 million slaves working in the Empire. Another incident that supports the above argument is Pharaoh’s decision of killing the male child. This affirms that he saw life as a matter of consumption. He wanted the male child to be killed and the females to be preserved. The question that should be asked here is that why the females were to be preserved? If the Israelites were a threat to Egyptians then the entire race should be annihilated. But the Pharaoh asked the midwives to save the females. God had created man and woman in His own image and a community is always complete with a right proportion between both male and female. By killing the males, Pharaoh wants to disturb this rhythm and make the community weak. A weaker community would always be easy to exploit. By preserving the girl child he made sure that he did not lose his labour force and also found way to control the people. In the present text the Pharaoh speaks only two times and both the times they are the words of life annihilation. He is not concerned about the life of the children and only saw his selfish motive of preserving his own throne and fulfilled his desires. He saw the people of Israel as a threat to his throne. Pharaoh forgot that the people working in his country had great potential and that they were the people of God. The words of Albert Schweitzer are very relevant here “The most immediate fact of man’s consciousness is the assertion ‘I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live’.” Today man has forgotten to understand the life situations of his fellow being. God created man and placed him in Eden so that he can have a communitarian life. But today man wants to alienate himself from everyone and live selfishly relying on his own ability and power which are perishable. We have to learn to care and understand other lives and affirm them through our decisions and life. This leads us to our second sub-point:
Midwives a symbol of reverence for life
The other character that we see in the text is that of the midwives. It is not necessary that they were Israelites, since if they were, the king would not have called them for making such a plot against the Israelites. These women I believe faced the greatest challenge in their life, as the mission of the king enthroned upon them questioned the basic ethics of their profession. They were the persons who helped in preserving life but they were asked to destroy it. Their attitude of reverence for life is very clearly seen in the text. They decided not to listen to the command of the king and preserved the lives of the people as was their duty. The midwives set before us the example of how to respond to the structures of society. Another aspect that we can see in the life of the midwives is the power of the religion. I believe it is the strong religious ideology they upheld that would have helped the midwives to make strong decision. V17 says the midwives ‘feared God.’ This fear was not the paralysing fear but was the result of their experience of God and the awe and wonder that the experience had created. We know that the relationship between a devotee and deity is always related to the awe and wonder of the devotee towards the deity. Here we can see that the midwives had not lost their awe and wonder towards God and therefore feared Him more than the Pharaoh. That is the thing we see missing in the life of Pharaoh, he was so immersed in his power that he denied to believe that there was someone who was more powerful than him. But the midwives acknowledged the power of the God. The power of Pharaoh was well known to them and they were well aware of the consequences of pharaoh’s wrath and decided to heed the voice of God. Whereas we can see that pharaoh was so mesmerised in his own power and splendour that he did not experience the awe and wonder of God in his life. God wants us to be like the midwives who in situations of life negations affirm life through their action. Also we can see that the Hebrew midwives were rewarded for their act of deliverance. Were the midwives rewarded because they acted in favour of Israelites? I believe their reward was recognition of their ability to heed the will of God while taking decisions during the time of Crisis. The pharaoh tried to make the midwives participate in his own sinful plot, but the midwives were able to discern his evil will and saved themselves from becoming a part of his vicious plot. Another thing which can be noted in the work of midwives is that they did not disturb their social order for carrying out their plan. They did not organise any rebellious revolution to carry out their own way but used their presence of mind and convinced the Pharaoh that Hebrew women gave birth to children before the midwives reached them. By this act they not only saved their lives but also saved the life of the community which they represented. The structures in the society are sometimes so powerful that it is not in our hands to question their authority. During such instance we should have to find ways to affirm life without endangering our life and of those around us. ‘Thira’, a Malayalam movie shows the life of Dr. Rohini Pranab who fights against a large lobby of human traffickers. The interesting thing in the movie is that it does not show the doctor winning the fight against this lobby but she being able to retrieve some of her students who are kidnapped by them and places the example of a small resistance against a mighty system. The midwives in the same way discerned that they could resist in small ways the powerful structure of pharaoh’s life negating system and thus found ways to affirm life within their own limitations. Therefore we can say that discerning is a very important factor in Christian life and we in our life should discern the life negating situations and offer the needed resistance against it. Through the lives of the midwives we could understand their life affirming attitude. They gave importance to the faith that they had in their God. They did not allow the subjecting power of the pharaoh to suppress them. They viewed reverence for life as a response in their crisis situation.
We had been meditating on the theme Reverence for Life: A response in situations of life negation. We meditated on two sub points:
Pharaoh a symbol of life annihilation
Midwives a symbol of reverence for life
The lives of Pharaoh and midwives clearly speak to us about how we should opt for life affirming decisions when faced with situations of life negation. The perfect example can be seen in the life of Jesus, when a sinful woman was brought to him to be punished and stoned to death. The structures of society wanted to see the women being stoned to death but Jesus has compassion on her and affirms her life and forgives her, thus showing Reverence for Life in situation of life negation. May the God almighty enable us to have reverence for life in life negating situation.