There is a little-known story of two women in the beginning of the book of Exodus. Shiphrah and Puah are midwives who work for the King of Egypt. A role that takes a dark turn when they are commanded to kill the very children they bring into the world: all sons born to Hebrew mothers.
Before going further, it is significant to note two easily passed-over details: 1) This text of women is actually recorded. 2) The women are named. Consider the following:
The Bible is no stranger to patriarchy. It was written mostly if not entirely by men. It was edited by men. It describes a succession of societies over a period of roughly 1200 years whose public life was dominated by men…It talks almost only about men. In the Hebrew Bible as a whole, only 111 of the 1426 people who are given names are women. (Cullen Murphy, “Women and the Bible,” Atlantic Monthly, 8/93)
Two of those 111 women are Shiphrah and Puah. Barely known, hardly mentioned, but for some reason, not only noted, but named. I find this stunning.
I’ll speak to this more in a few paragraphs, but I cannot continue without noting that for me, this is the Sacred Feminine showing up – boldly, provocatively, undeniably. Given the above-noted predominance of patriarchy, there is no reason whatsoever that this text should have ever been told, let alone these women’s names recorded. The Sacred Feminine has always been present and at work…bringing forth life.
Consider their story.
Shiphrah and Puah: Two women who stood alongside one another. Two women who risked their lives by willingly choosing to disobey a king. Two women who, when brought before a furious king demanding an explanation, were quick on their feet and brilliant under pressure. Two women who knew and embodied the Sacred Feminine in undeniable ways.
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 dwelt well with the midwives, and the people multipled and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, [God] gave them families. (Exodus 1:15-21)
One of the sons who managed to live was Moses—the first “savior” to the Hebrew people. Born in a cloud of controversy and danger, but alive, he grow up to lead the Hebrew people away from captivity and into freedom. Two women enabled the saving of an entire people’s future – together.
This is not the last time that two women will be responsible for the birth of another “savior” to the Hebrew people. Elizabeth and her cousin Mary bring forth the life of two more boys (John the Baptist and Jesus). Born in a cloud of controversy and danger, but alive, they grow up and invite the Hebrew people away from captivity and into freedom. Two women enabled the saving of an entire people’s future – together.
There is much to be mined in this short text. Even apart from the allusion to the women they preceded, though that can hardly be ignored, they offer us a wise and winsome template for women’s capacity, courage, and profound beauty. (And yes, the embodiment of the Sacred Feminine – birthed again and again throughout time.)
They support one another.
Shiphrah and Puah are not understood separate from one another in this text. Their actions are as one in defiance. Their voices are as one before the king. Their courage, resolve, and ability to act are strengthened because of one another. (The same is true for Elizabeth and Mary.)
I wonder? Is this one of the predominant markers of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst? Our passionate collaboration with and support of one another?
They defy predominant culture and its leading voices of power.
Shiprah and Puah, both Egyptians, are described as “fearing God” (a completely counter-cultural act) which only heightens the level of risk inherent in their actions – as if disobeying the king weren’t enough. In doing so, they name and defy the existing and dangerous system of power.
I wonder? Is this one of the predominant markers of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst? Our passionate voices rising in unity to speak out against injustice?
They say and live their truth.
Truth-telling is a life-or-death matter: their own and those of all Hebrew sons. When confronted they cunningly save their own skin while simultaneously saving that of others as well. Their actions shout the truth about an existing system of power that is violent and out-of-control; they have the capacity to stand up to it and effect change.
I wonder? Is this one of the predominant markers of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst? Our passionate telling of the truth – rife with consequence and risk but compelling our capacity to effect change?
Is this not the way it has always been with women throughout history? No matter what era or context we would find these same truths:
Women supporting one another.
Women defying predominant culture and its leading voices of power.
Women saying and living their truth.
The Suffrage Movement. Slavery. Sexual Trafficking. Causes far before. Causes that yet remain.
Causes that yet remain. And sometimes, just the day-to-day stuff of life.
When I started this post a couple of days ago I felt full of encouragement, full of hope, full of conviction about the power of this story, the power of these women, the power of the Sacred Feminine showing up. But now, even as I type, I am struggling. It’s been an excruciating few hours – with hard news I did not want to receive. News that makes me anxious, tense, afraid. ‘Hardly the traits of Shiprah/Puah.
How do I let the strength, courage, and clarity of these two women and of the Sacred Feminine encourage me?
That’s the question.
Here’s my answer:
In this tale of two women (and so many others) – its retelling, its reimagining, and its revealing of the Sacred Feminine, I am reminded that I am not alone.
- I am supported by amazingly strong and courageous women.
- Despite circumstances that threaten to overwhelm, there is a way through.
- Saying and living my truth matters, will be heard, and ultimately will bring forth life.
I don’t always believe these things. Events and circumstances cause me to doubt, to waver, to forget. But other women (and men) – both present tense and past – and the ever-abiding, ever-increasing presence of the Sacred Feminine – come alongside to strengthen, to embolden, to empower, to encourage.
Shiphrah and Puah. A tale of two women: retold, reimagined, revealing the Sacred Feminine and remembered.
And because of such, my story: retold, reimagined, revealing the Sacred Feminine and remembered.
By way of benediction (perhaps more for myself than anyone else): it is well worth noting that the midwives’ were given families of their own because of their courage. Out of a place of death – fertility, birth, and life prevailed. Such is the way of women. Such is the way of the Sacred Feminine. An endless cycle of bringing forth life – even in the midst of seeming death.
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