May 1, aka "May Day", traditionally celebrates the onslaught of fertility and procreative urges that springtime can't help but bring. May 1 is also known as International Workers/Labor Day, an honoring of and call for support for the globe's laborers and working classes.
This is certainly an appropriate time to lift up a biblical account that is all about procreation, fertility, labor and…labor. I'm referring to the story of "The Hebrew Midwives", found at Exodus 1:8-22.
The story begins as the Israelite/Hebrew slaves are suffering greatly at the hands of the oppressive, evil Egyptian Empire. Because injustice and pain are only serving to increase the slaves’ fertility and threaten to someday make them numerous enough to take the reins of power, Pharaoh devises a most heinous scheme to thin their ranks: kill all male Israelite/Hebrew babies the minute they’re delivered. He summons two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and commands them to proceed.
The next thing we know Shiphrah and Puah are returning to Pharaoh confessing their inability to follow through. Boy babies are continuing to live, and why? “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
We’re told that God blesses these midwives with families of their own, the Israelite/Hebrews continue to multiply and become strong, and the Empire moves on to a Plan B: throw all Israelite/Hebrew male babies into the Nile and drown them.
This is a story about the terrible things the powerful can do to the powerless, because they’re afraid and because they can. It is also a story about the blessings of choosing bravery and faith and what is morally right in the face of almost unimaginable intimidation to do otherwise.
It is also a story filled with comedy.
For one thing, we have a most ironic-to-the-point-of-being comic situation instigating the action: the hard work meant to oppress the slaves is actually increasing their numbers and thereby threatening to give them the wherewithal to oppress their oppressors!
Secondly, it’s a pretty kooky plan that the Egyptian brass concoct -- destroying all the male babies while sparing the girls. While I’m all for equality in the workplace, if it’s moving horribly heavy stones 24/7 that the Egyptians are needing from their slave force, they’re going to be sorely disappointed when only women are doing the moving. Sure, those women will know to ask directions and will move the stones to practical places and all that, but those pyramids are going to be pretty darned tiny no matter how much the masters beat their lady slaves to get a move on.
Thirdly, the showdown between Pharaoh and the brave midwives is also surprisingly goofy. In a straight-forward heroic tale it would be more likely that those midwives would stand before Power with chests high and mighty words about the wrongness of situation, perhaps even a word or two about the invariably victorious God who is on their side.
Instead, those midwives make a crazy excuse: the Hebrew babies have been coming out so fast and furious who can keep up? The image of an out-of-control tennis machine comes to my mind, with newborns shooting out between the legs of Hebrew women all over the place. The midwives, wearing large softball-type mitts, are trying to catch these babies as they rocket out of the womb, but they keep running into one another like hapless Chicago Cub outfielders. !!
Pharaoh doesn’t challenge what these women are nuttily suggesting nor does he punish the women for failing to execute the execution. Nor NOR is he phased when the midwives make an underhanded swipe about Egyptian women’s comparatively weak and inferior ability to bear children.
It’s crazy to think this story would be considered sacred scripture – it’s so unreal, so silly, actually.
But then again, maybe that’s one of the best ways we get in touch with the truth that God is in fact at work in our world. This story reminds us that in spite of all the dread that surrounds us and threatens to undo us, there are always going to be delightful surprises, ironies and clever inspirations that can, if we let them, undercut our fear and remind us that, believe it or not, all is not lost. Not at all.
In addition, this story reminds us of the human ability – tendency actually – to look back on the tragedy of our lives and, after enough time, laugh. Laugh at our foolishness as well as our luck. Laugh at the delightful surprises we couldn’t see then, but get to now. It’s a powerful way we celebrate survival, and get to remember the promises of God.
It’s a great story to remember -- and laugh with! – this early May….