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In this Lenten season let us meditate on the book of Exodus.
Lent invites us to follow Jesus in the desert, led by the Spirit:
” I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16)
There have always been empires, and they still exist. But today we are getting used to them – which makes it increasingly difficult to recognize them. And since we do not recognize them we do not call them by name either, we do not feel oppressed by them and we do not start any process of liberation. There remains only the “sovereignty” of consumers, who in turn are more and more unhappy and lonely sitting on their couches. The reading of and meditating on the Book of Exodus is a great spiritual and ethical exercise, perhaps the greatest of all, for those who want to become aware of the “pharaohs” that oppress us, to feel the desire for freedom inside themselves again, to hear the cry of the poor because of oppression and to try to liberate at least some. And for those who want to imitate the midwives of Egypt, the lovers of the children of all.
Between Genesis and Exodus there is a direct continuity: ‘Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph’ (1:6-8). The population growth of the Jews (1:10) coupled with the fear that among the newborns there might be those who would have undermined his power (1:22) in Pharaoh’s mind and he perceived it as a serious threat. And so he exacerbates the conditions of the Jews – that is, the tangle of heterogeneous nomadic peoples who were foreigners in Egypt as slaves, and among whom the tribes of Israel also ended up. So he ‘made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field’ (1:14). But the hard labour for men was not enough for Pharaoh. He attempted a more drastic solution, one that opens one of the most beautiful pages of the Scriptures: ‘Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, »When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.«’ (1:15-16)
The profession of midwives in Egypt was highly respected and developed. At Sais there was a school known throughout antiquity, and two midwives, Neferica-Ra and later Peseshet, are remembered as the first lady doctors in history. The midwives have always been regarded by the people as a “common good”, women who help with the labour of mothers through their work, always fighting on the side of life, beloved by the whole community that is receiving its children from their expert, good hands (“Signora Germana”, the last midwife of the place where I was born, is still a bright star among locals). In ancient times this craft was altogether and exclusively female: managing the last stage of pregnancy, that sacred moment in which women generate us and regenerate the world. In biblical culture, birth is given a central place. Rachel, one of the most beautiful and important characters of Genesis, dies while giving birth. And it is during that last birth that the word midwife first appears in the Bible: ‘the midwife said to her, »Do not fear, for you have another son.«’ (Gen 35:17). That first midwife said, whispered, good words of hope (you do not talk to mothers in childbirth: you whisper to them, caress them, speak to them through hand gestures). But Benomì-Benjamin was born to the death of Rachel. We’ll meet the midwife again when Tamar is giving birth, then she puts a ‘scarlet thread’ on the hand of her first twin born (38:28). And finally, there are the midwives of Egypt, and they are the last ones, because after the infinite words of Shiphrah and Puah all was said.
That nomadic people, with difficult births in mobile tents, decided to put two midwives of Egypt to the origin of their great history of liberation. Of Shiphrah (‘beautiful’) and Puah (‘splendor’, ‘light’), we know little. Almost certainly they were Egyptian, perhaps the heads of the midwives of the Jews or of the whole of Egypt. We know their names, but above all we know that they were the first conscientious objectors: ‘But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.’ (1:17). The first art of the earth is that of midwifery: ‘letting the children live’, our children and those of others, the children of all. When this first art is eclipsed, life loses the first place and civilizations mingle, become ill and, eventually, fall. In this “no” to Pharaoh, and “yes” to life, a great message for each job is hidden: the deepest and truest law of our professions and our crafts is not the one enacted by the many pharaohs who are dominated by old and new forms of greed for power and omnipotence. Their laws must be complied with only if and only when they serve the law of life. When we forget that the “law of the pharaohs” is always the second law, never the first one, we are all transformed into subjects of empires, and do not start any liberation of ourselves and others. Shiphrah and Puah tell us that ‘children should not be killed’, neither the children of the Egyptians, nor those of the Jews should ever be killed. Children should not be killed either in Egypt or in any place. Yesterday, today, ever. If we want to remain human, that is. And every time we do not do so, we do not ‘fear God’, we do not obey life and we deny the legacy of the midwives of Egypt.
In Shiphrah and Puah, two women, two workers, two human beings on the side of life, echoes of the Greek myth of Antigone may be heard (she disobeys the king to obey the more profound law of life: to bury his brother who died in battle). The women of Genesis and the other women of the Bible come back to life through them. Mary is announced by them, and all the women who still continue to beget children. The charismas and the “Marian image” of the earth come back to life through them. The whole beginning of the Book of Exodus seems to be ordered under the sign of women who save lives. Moses’ mother disobeyed the new order of Pharaoh, ‘Every son that is born … you shall cast into the Nile’ (1:22), and saved her baby boy. She first hid the baby, and when she could ‘hide him no longer,’ she built a basket from papyrus, put him in it and trust him to the waters of the Nile (2:2-3). Another woman, the daughter of Pharaoh, found the basket in the river, and when she saw that it contained ‘one of the Hebrews’ children’ she “took pity on him” (2:5-7).
The whole scene of the discovery of the basket on the bank of the great river is accompanied by the gaze of the Moses’s sister: ‘And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.’ (2:4) It is wonderful how, running along the shore, the gaze of this woman-child accompanies the passing of the basket along the river. It is a benevolent gaze of innocent love that reminds us of Elohim who followed the passage of that other basket-boat on the water which contained Noah the righteous – it is not by coincidence that the Hebrew word tevah is used both for Moses’ basket and Noah’s ark. Moses’ sister talked to Pharaoh’s daughter, and offered to find a nurse for him among the Jews. Pharaoh’s daughter accepted the offer and said: ‘Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.’ (2:9)
Another work of a woman with a saving effect, the most intimate one (milk exchanged between women for life), which here is being combined with another crucial word: wages. In a time when both work and wages suffer, and when the laws of the pharaohs do not want children to be born or turn them into merchandise, the beginning of Exodus should speak to us loudly and shake us strongly. Pharaoh wanted to use two types of work in order to eliminate the children of Israel: the forced labour with bricks and that of the midwives. But neither of the two was an ally of death. By vocation the midwives chose life, but forced labour could not win either, because ‘the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad’ (1:12). Contrary to the pharaohs design, work remains an ally of life, and will not be easily used for purposes of death. Pharaohs are always tempted to manipulate our work, but we can save ourselves even in the worst jobs. Work is part of the human condition, and so we have the ability to befriend it in spite of powerful leaders and empires, and convert the “work wolf” into “brother work”. In fact, in our days it is more difficult to save ourselves from “forced non-labour”.
The beginning of Exodus shows us a wonderful alliance between women, cooperating for life beyond social hierarchies, husbands and fathers, oppressors and oppressed. These alliances between women have saved many lives during the wars and dictatorships of men, by building ‘baskets’ of salvation with their hands. These are the covenants that we continue to see in our cities, and the ones that allow our children to live and grow up. Children should be saved: it is the law of midwives, women, the first law of the earth.
‘So God dealt well with the midwives … And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.’ (1:20-21) It is the numerous ‘family’ of midwifery in the world, families of loving people, guardians of life, mothers of the baby girls and boys born to all.
published in Avvenire on 10/08/2014