Sweeping back-story: Polygamous Jacob—renamed Israel by God—has twelve sons and a daughter by four wives. Just imagine what Mothers’ Day would have been like in that household! Joseph—second-youngest son; daddy’s favourite; bit of an upstart—so angers his brothers that they throw him into a dry well and then sell him to human traffickers, who sell him on to a high-ranking Egyptian army-officer. Falsely accused of attempted rape, Joseph ends up in another tight spot, a celebrity prison for celebrity inmates. But his God-given ability to interpret dreams eventually gets him an audience with Pharaoh, and the job of heading-up Egypt’s disaster-relief organisation. As famine grips the wider region, Joseph is eventually reunited with his treacherous brothers, and—after letting them squirm awhile—is reconciled with his entire dysfunctional family. The whole of Egypt owes a debt of gratitude to Joseph—and is financially indebted to Pharaoh—and as a result, the family of Israel get to stay as refugee guests-of-honour—while the native-born Egyptians are, in effect, slaves to their ruler. So far, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, for whatever reason, when things start to look up back home, the sons of Israel don’t go back.
Fast-forward: that Pharaoh is dead and buried under shifting sand. A new Pharaoh comes to the throne. He does not know the back-story. He is troubled by the Israelites. He believes that if opportunistic foreigners attack from outside, the opportunistic foreigners within their borders will side with those others, and All Would Be Lost. And so, he turns the tables, so that now it is the Israelites who are enslaved. Why did they allow it to happen? Perhaps, valuing their own history, they remembered that this was the move by which Egypt had provided for her citizens in the past. In any case, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread. Pharaoh is forced to think again. This time he summons Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, and orders them to kill any Hebrew boys at birth. But midwives are A Force To Be Reckoned With. These feisty women defy Pharaoh. Essentially, they tell him that Egyptian women are Too Posh To Push; whereas not so the Hebrew women: for when they Call The Midwife, well, by the time the midwife gets there, the child is already born and nursing. Forced back once more, Pharaoh commands the Egyptian people to spy on their Hebrew neighbours, to note all pregnancies, and to throw any boys born into the Nile.
This is where we pick the story up. A woman brings forth a son; and sees that he is good. We are expected to recall God looking on his creative acts and declaring the result good. Next, she makes a waterproof basket to float on the waters; but in Hebrew the word for the basket is the same one as that used for the ark, in which God sealed Noah. Again, we are expected to make the connection. We are being invited to see the actions of this woman as recalling and representing God’s activity, as continuing God’s actions in the present.
It is interesting to observe that, in this account, no one is named. Pharaoh is a title: when we attempt to grasp on to what passes for earthly power, when we become the oppressor, we dehumanise ourselves as much as those we oppress. The boy’s father and mother and sister all go un-named. The fact that all three are named later in the story tells us that they are un-named not because they don’t matter, but deliberately, to make a point. Pharaoh’s daughter is not named; nor her attendants or her maid. Finally, when the child grew up, he is given an adoptive name by Pharaoh’s daughter: an ambiguous name that works in both Egyptian and Hebrew. But as for whatever name his birth-mother called him, that remains hidden.
This is a story about two contrasting constructions of what it looks like to be powerful and powerless. Pharaoh is all-powerful, according to one. Yet he is powerless to prevent his power from being undermined by a woman who obeys his edict and casts her son into the Nile—dripping wet with irony—and a daughter of his own household who defies his edict and draws the baby boy out of the Nile.
The Pharaohs are long gone. But, with the pyramids, their traditional construction of power remains. Indeed, it remains the dominant one. From this world-view, we might consider the women of our first reading to be subversive—and we might view such subversion as needed. Better, I think, to perceive them as modelling for us a wholly-other construction of power—a God-endorsed pattern in which power is exercised not through control but through conferring and reaffirming life; through recognising the Other (albeit that such recognition can only ever be partial, on the basis of revelation, or, what the Other chooses to share and what they conceal—which is to say, such recognition is necessarily relational); through choosing freedom, for ourselves and others.
Such power-of-the-powerless is transformative. It risks self; fosters ingenuity; births creativity; all-but-bursts-its-banks with trust; waits with active patience to see what will unfold; is moved by pity; improvises boldly. It is also costly, over-and-over-again. Imagine yourself in their position.
This same power-of-the-powerless is displayed in our Gospel reading. Here, again, women take the lead in an act of defiance in the face of injustice; an act of bearing witness to truth, before the soldiers and chief-priests, the representatives of Pharaoh-style power (which always appeals to divine appointment). Here, again, the power-of-the-powerless is costly: a mother watching her son die a slow and agonising death under conditions of torture; a woman who will—miraculously—be given back her son, only to have to give him up again. Here, again, the power-of-the-powerless is relational: not only in the moment of protest, but afterward, in the living with consequences. A man and a woman, needing one another, so as not to be alone. To keep one another company, to work side-by-side. The power of the powerless brings men and women together.
Earlier this week, we marked International Women’s Day (8th March). Today is both Mothers’ Day—a celebration of mothers, biological and otherwise—and Mothering Sunday—a day to return to our mother Church, the place where we were drawn from the waters of our baptism. In her short but insightful, and eminently readable, Women & Power: A Manifesto, Professor Mary Beard concludes:
‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have—and that they want.’ (Beard, 2017, pp. 86, 87)
The world is still in thrall to Pharaoh, and Caesar, and always will be. God consistently holds out an alternative way (often, watching evil implode in on itself); and though it is for men and women, again and again it is women who have shown the way. There is no irony in my publicly recognising that as a man. God—not the world, not political-correctness, nor indeed political corrective—calls us to exercise the very power Professor Beard speaks of. And though the Church falls short as much as anyone, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit. We have the mantle of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness (that is, having a teachable spirit), and patience. We have the tools of forgiveness, love, and peace; of thankfulness, and gratitude. And we have the most amazing treasury of stories to inspire us, and our daughters and sons, in the footsteps of Moses’ mother Jochebed and of Jesus’ mother Mary.
May we learn from them. And may we represent God as faithfully as they did.