Beautiful are the Hands that Work for Justice

[A sermon preached at St. James Presbyterian Church on Exodus 1:8-2:10.]

It’s always been a fault of mine that I’m a sucker for a good commercial. As seen on TV? Gotta have it. Only $19.95? Sold. Three easy payments and a bonus gift? Yes, please. Whatever the product, whatever its purpose, I’m easily hooked by a good ole television ad. But even if you’re a more discerning consumer than I am, I think we can all find some value in the recent advertisements released by Dove body products. Dove calls this series of commercials its “campaign for real beauty,” and true to their name, rather than using professional models and photoshopped images to sell beauty products at the expense of people’s self-image, the advertisements feature images of diverse women, real people of all ages, shapes, and skin color. Billboards featured as a part of this initiative say things like, “beauty has no age limit,” and “you’re more beautiful than you think.” But my favorite out of all of these ads is a commercial that went absolutely viral just a few months ago. Dove hired a forensic artist from the FBI to sketch the faces of a handful of normal, everyday women. As he drew, he would ask open-ended questions of the women, and they would describe their face to him. He could not see them, and they could not see him. Then another person, who had been waiting with the woman in another room, without any prompting, would be asked the same questions, and the artists would draw a second sketch based on this person’s description of the woman. When both sketches were revealed side by side, the women were astounded at how much more beautiful the drawings based on someone else’s description of them were than the sketches based on their own description of themselves. The commercial as a whole, like the rest of these advertisements, calls us to examine our definitions of beauty and to make sure that there is room for each of us within them.

Like the Dove campaign for real beauty, our Scripture text today challenges the traditional notion of beauty that we find splayed across billboards, commercials, and music videos alike. This is a text that features five women as the leading ladies in the opening act of the Exodus story. Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. Moses’ mother and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. These are five women who defy expectations. Five women who defy fear, who choose to live as a spark of hope rather than giving in to darkness. Five women, upon whose disobedience the entire future of God’s people depends. Five women, some of whose names are long forgotten, some of whose names live on in our collective memory. Five women who redeem an entire people with their courage in the face of power. Five women who live in the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of fear.

I doubt I need to tell you how unusual it is to have this many women in one section of a story. I doubt I need to tell you how rare it is to have this many women cast as heroes. I doubt I need to tell you that the number of male Bible characters far outnumber the number of female characters, and that even among the female characters, very rarely is their actual name recorded. More often, they are listed as so-and-so’s daughter or so-and-so’s wife. But in this story, we have two names. Two women whose story, whose contribution to the covenant community, is so essential and important that their names couldn’t be edited out. Two women named Shiphrah and Puah. Just the act of leaving the names in was controversial enough for the day and age in which this text was written, but the actual meaning of these names goes on to undermine cultural conventions even further. Shiphrah, in the Hebrew, means “beauty” and Puah comes from a word that means “speaker” or “to cry out.” Despite having five women in the passage, nowhere does it mention anything about these ladies physical appearance. With other important biblical women, even the tersest biblical editors feel the need to linger on their looks. Rachel is remembered for her beautiful figure and lovely face. Esther is widely considered to be drop-dead gorgeous, attractive enough to turn even the head of the king. Leah, the second-choice sister, has eyes that are tender and gentle. And the Shulamite maiden from Song of Solomon? Well, her beloved’s head-to-toe description of her beauty makes even the best of us blush. Nevertheless, with Shiphrah, whose name means “beauty,” we don’t get even a hint of what she looks like. Shiphrah’s beauty defies our conventions and norms. She is beautiful, not because of her appearance, but because of her role. She is beautiful because, as Puah’s name reminds us, she “speaks out.”

Shiphrah and Puah are beautiful because they are agents of justice, just like the other three women in the story. They see the injustices perpetrated against their people, and when Pharaoh demands that these midwives, these women who usher in new life, help him commit genocide by killing all the Hebrew baby boys, they know they must take a stand. And so they look Pharaoh in the eye and do the last thing that we would expect of nice, proper ladies – they lie! They don’t apologize, they don’t plead for their lives, they don’t even appeal to religion or name their God. They just tell their made up-story, and tell it convincingly enough that they leave the palace free women, able to continue their lives and their important work, the saving of many lives.

Miriam and Moses’ mother are beautiful because they are agents of justice. Moses’ mother did what she needed to do to save her son’s life. She looked Empire in the face and with all of the maternal love and protective instinct she could muster, openly defied the royal decree. She was resourceful, using what she could from the materials that she had access to in order to give her child the best shot at a full life that she could give. She sent Moses down the river, floating a frail hope on the vast waters of the world’s pain. Then Miriam, defiant in hope, used her cunning and quick thinking to intervene on behalf of her brother. She smooth-talked Pharaoh’s daughter into keeping the child, and she orchestrated a plan wherein their mother would not only still have access to him, but would get paid to be a caretaker during Moses’ early years. Miriam found a way to work within an unjust system, to undermine and subvert it from the inside in order to bring about justice and a better future for her people.

Pharoah’s daughter is beautiful because she, too, is an agent of justice in this story. Even though she is an Egyptian, a privileged member of the oppressor class, she uses her power to help the most vulnerable. She looks with compassion on Moses and chooses to protect and nurture him even though she knows that he is one of the Hebrew babies who have been sentenced to death. She openly defies her father, the king, not only in saving this child, which would be risky enough, but in taking him in as her own son, giving him the opportunity to have the best of the best, to overcome his rough start in life.

Five women. Five beautiful women. Beautiful not because of their physical attributes, but because of their commitment to justice. But the good news is, you don’t have to be a woman for this story to be about you. Egypt isn’t some far away land, it is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got and acquire more all at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. It is every place where mothers and fathers fear for the future of their children and grandchildren. It’s every place where people commit acts of violence against one another, violating the image of God deep within us. It’s every place where the future seems bleak and all hope seems lost. There are Egypts all around us. In Israel-Palestine, in Ferguson, Missouri, in Syria and Ukraine, in Iraq and central America, in West Africa, in our families, and in our own hearts. And so it is our place to join hands with these five beautiful women. To be clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, and angry enough to join the small but persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night trying to bamboozle the king. To work for justice, to lift up the oppressed, to hear the voices of those long silenced, to speak truth to power even if our voice shakes. Because this . . . this . . . is beautiful. Amen.

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