The midwives “feared God.” Like me, you may have sped right past that little phrase in the long Exodus reading. The Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives who bear the new life of Hebrew babies into the world, if they are boys, to drown them into the Nile: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” And then, when they are summoned into the imposing “East Room,” they spin a story for the king that sounds, dangerously, like fake news: “These Hebrew women! They are so strong, so vigorous. By the time we get there, they’ve already given birth.” Not only that, they are already back out in the fields lifting 50 pounds bags of straw and running ultra-marathons and developing flying cars. It’s a tall tale, and yet, it works!
They feared God. It’s easy to blow right by for how often it is thrown around, but the phrase is worth pulling off to the shelf to take a closer look. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah—their names preserved for all of history as monuments to heroic acts that save an oppressed people—feared God. They feared God more than they feared this king, this Pharaoh and his ruthless ecosystem of intimidation and oppression—the tyrannical managers to enforce it; the military industrial infrastructure to support it; a public works project that constructed whole cities to sustain these systems of oppression against a people whose vitality puts the Egyptians to shame.