A Reflection by Alisdair Smith for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
I’ve come across Margaret Wheatley’s work on warriors of the human spirit. She writes, “Warriors for the Human Spirit are awake human beings who have chosen not to flee. They abide. They serve as beacons of an ancient story that tells of the goodness and generosity and creativity of humanity. You can identify them by their cheerfulness.You will know them by their compassion. When asked how they do it they will tell you about discipline, dedication and the necessity of community.”
And then, we hear the Hebrew Bible Reading this evening. Oh my goodness, what a reading it is; midwives, murder and Moses! Genocide, Grace and guile! This evening, I’d like to explore parts of this terrible and terrific story, suggesting that what Dr. Wheatley is calling the Human Spirit contains that spark of the Divine within each and everyone of us. The women in these two stories, Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother and his sister, Miriam are warriors of the Divine Spirit. They choose to abide. They choose to work towards good, generosity, and creativity. They have discipline, dedication and community. I’d like us to look at the two scenes in this reading, to find the Divine Spirit at work.
The first scene, and the whole story, begins with what we soon realize is an ominous phrase, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Ex 1:8) Joseph (he of the multi-colour dream coat) had risen to great heights in Egypt, and after some period of time, the Hebrews are now quite plentiful, things are going ok, and then… cue the dramatic minor chords, “A new king arose over Egypt.”
And this king is governed himself by fear; the foreigners are multiplying! We can imagine the voices in the corridors of power, in the country clubs and gated communities of Egypt; ‘Did you notice how many of them there are? We need to do something to control them.’ I wonder if this starts to sound familiar? Can you hear the fear? “Immigrants?! Have you noticed how many there are, we need to do something.” In tonight’s text, it reads “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase…” (Ex 1:9-10)
And, then the murders start.
When the people in power are afraid, we start killing. And I say ‘we’ on two levels. First, in the current time, I mean people like me, straight white men, we are dangerous when we think we are cornered. And we are especially dangerous when we are armed and cornered. And secondly, its not just straight white men, Pharaoh was brown skinned, if not black. We, as a species, when we have power, we fight and kill to hold on to it. And when we have absolute power, we kill absolutely.
Pharaoh summons the Israelite midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, (I imagine he’s thinking they will be awed by his wealth, power and virility) and orders that they kill the Hebrew newborn boys. And into this genocidal terror comes Spirit with a capital S. As always it seems to me, Spirit appears in the people farthest away from the power; in this case women who serve other women who are slaves. Often the most powerful Warriors of the Divine Spirit are the farthest away from power.
In this story, God is awakening the warrior spirit in these women, inviting them to resist human power. And Spirit provides them with a very creative way, by using the Pharaoh’s fear and power against him. To see how they do this, I turn to the martial art Kung Fu. Yes, the one from the old 70s TV show and song – “everybody was Kung Fu fighting!” That particular martial art, made so famous by Bruce Lee and others is unique in that most of the leg and arm movements are very small and close to the body. They make use of the attacker’s energy, so that rather than taking the blows, they divert the blows and use that energy to sidestep and trip up the attacker. Any idea why? Because Kung Fu was a marital art designed for and by women. Their skirts were too long to allow for large leg movements and their sleeves restricted big arm movements. And rather than standing and taking the blows full on – likely a dangerous move with a large man coming at you, you take the attackers energy and use it against them.
These courageous women warriors of the Divine Spirit do some verbal kung fu moves on Pharaoh. Here’s how biblical scholar Amy Merrill Willis describes it.“In the ruse, they appeal to Pharaoh’s own prejudices. The Hebrew women are like animals (khayot) and give birth too quickly, the midwives say to Pharaoh (1:19). Indeed, Pharaoh’s genocidal plan indicates that he has ceased to regard the Hebrews as fully human, and the midwives use this to satisfy Pharaoh’s inquiries. At the same time, the midwives contrast the Hebrew women’s animalistic vigor with the delicate constitution of the Egyptian mothers who are forced to labor harder and longer during childbirth. Apparently, the midwives intend Pharaoh to hear such a statement as echoing his own loathing of the Hebrews and his own positive valuation of the Egyptian women and their delicacy.”
King Fu Warriors of the Divine Spirit indeed.
The second scene, illustrates the Divine Spirit through a couple of fascinating phrases. First, in the NRSV Bible, Moses mother sees “he was a fine baby.”(Ex 2:2) Interestingly, another translation of the same words would be, and “she saw that he was good”. Recognize that turn of phrase? It echoes the words of the first Creation story where the refrain is, “and God saw that it was good.” And Moses mother saw that he was good. This is the birth of a Warrior of the Divine Spirit, recognized by other warriors. And then, in Ex 2:3, she places the infant Warrior of the Divine Spirit in a ‘basket’, in the translation we heard tonight. Hang on to your hats, the Hebrew word is also translated as Ark. Yes, ark. She sees that this baby is good, and she places him in an ark to protect him. In two phrases, the creation story and Noah’s Ark are included in the beginning of the Exodus narrative. (With thanks to scholar Karla Suomala) Isn’t that amazing – in the midst of this terrible and terrifying story, God’s Spirit is enlivened in the kung fu resistance of these courageous women, and we are assured, that even here, there is goodness, and salvation.
I believe we then are called, by God to be Warriors of the Divine Spirit; not to flee, but to abide even in the midst of terror. To resist fear based power; not falling into its trap by using force, but to use its fear based energy against itself, to sidestep it, to trip it up. To know that God’s creation is Good, and that our species, even in the darkest times will survive. We are called as Warriors of the Divine Spirit to abide with discipline, dedication and community to bring good life into possibility and change.
I’m reminded as we close of William Sloan Coffin’s benediction to each of us;
“1May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short;
The grace to risk something big for something good;
The grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for
anything but truth
and too small
for anything but love.”