Commentary
By Sylvia Keesmaat 6-25-2018

This isn’t the first time in history that oppressive rulers have targeted the children of their so-called enemies. The pharaoh, who ruled Egypt when the people of God were migrant workers of the empire, also forged a plan directed at children.

He enlisted the Egyptian midwives and gave them this instruction: “When the Hebrew women have a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (Exodus 1:17) 

This was an edict of death directed at the children of his slaves. But the midwives knew that their calling was to bring life, not death. They refused to carry out Pharaoh’s orders. They lied to Pharaoh, telling him that the Hebrew women gave birth too fast. “We don’t arrive in time to do the deed,” they said (Exodus 1:19).

But Pharaoh willed death and death he would have. “Throw the baby boys into the river,” he commanded his people (Exodus 1:22). The waters of life were turned into the instrument of death. 

 So in the midst of an overwhelming governmental push for death, a mother, a sister, and a daughter came up with a life-giving plan.

The mother does place her boy in the waters of the Nile, but she first makes a cradle out of reeds, seals it up, and covers him safely while his sister watches. Astoundingly, the daughter of Pharaoh pulls the basket from the water and decides to save the child, the offspring of her father’s enemies (Exodus 2:1-10). 

Where faceless bureaucracy (after all, Pharaoh isn’t even dignified with a name in this story) meets the resistance of faithful women, everything is turned on its head. And these women are not faceless, they are named Shiphrah, Puah, Bithiah, Jochebed, and Miriam. These women were united across ethnic and patriotic lines — Egyptian midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter are allies for Moses’ mother and sister. Together they provide a path for life in the face of death. 

Years later, when another ruler demands the death of the children, there is no time for such resistance. This ruler is more cunning, more vicious, and even more afraid of losing power. There is just enough time for an angel to whisper a warning, just enough time for Joseph and Mary to rise from their sleep, quickly gather a few belongings, and steal away into the shadows with the child Jesus. They are now refugees, crossing the desert, taking their child from the danger of Herod. Thankfully they were heading to Egypt, not the United States, or Jesus would have been ripped from their arms in the very place that they had hoped to find safety.

What is the fear that drives the leaders of the United States to tear children from their parents and put them in places of horror and despair? For both Pharaoh and Herod, the destruction of children had nothing to do with “safety” and everything to do with insecurity, a pathological hatred of the other, and a fanatical desire to hold on to power at all costs. It is hard to see any other motives for rulers who target children today. 

Do we identify with the rulers? Or with the audacious women who resisted the powers of death and hatched a plan to bring life? These resisters “feared God” rather than their rulers (Exodus 2.21). It seems clear that those of us who fear God today have a path laid out for us, a path made by two midwives, a mother, a sister, and the daughter of the king. 

Dr. Sylvia C. Keesmaat is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology and author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and the forthcoming book Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with her husband Brian Walsh. Sylvia lives on an off-grid permaculture farm with a fluctuating number of people and animals.

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