“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of the vital role health workers play to relieve suffering and save lives,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General. Around the world, acts of violence related to the pandemic take place against the background of escalating ‘social untouchability’ and bigoted behaviors against anyone suspected to have been in contact with the coronavirus (‘newer untouchables’). Health resources, patients, healthcare providers, and their immediate family members are at principally high risk of experiencing physical bouts due to the misinformation (‘infodemic’) that they have become points of contagion in a community.
The healthcare professionals who have stood out as the ‘courageous midwives,’ as in the book of Exodus (1:15-22), in todays’ tough times save humanity from a possible ‘health collapse.’ During this time of unprecedented and unparalleled upheaval, they hold the life of humanity in their hands just as a mother holds a newborn baby. They reach out to those who are suffering and save their lives at the cost of their own peace, security, and dreams of their dear ones. They have revealed that ‘fear and pain’ itself is possibly a pandemic even among the frontline workers. The lack of adequate personal protection, poor working conditions, long working hours, constant threat of infection, and subsequent risk to their family and friends worsen the situation.
One of the most riveting chronicles in the Hebrew scripture — the account of the escape of bonded laborers from bondage to freedom — begins in carnage of newborn sons. For his gigantic building projects, Rameses II preferred to conscript foreigners in the area, rather than native Egyptians. This was reported by the Greco-Roman historian Diodorus Siculus. The enslavement of the Israelites falls into the category that Diodorus describes.
Although the people of Israel were a “cheap” labor force, their unbridled growth in population became a major threat to the Empire. The language used to describe the high birth rate of the people of Israel (“fruitful” and “multiplied”) is perhaps an echo of the fertility of humanity of creation (Genesis 1:28) and at the new creation after the flood (Genesis 9:1,7). The Hebrew verb râbâ (“to be/become great, numerous”), translated “multiplied” in verse 7, repeated in verse 9 (as part of the phrase “more numerous”), verse 10 (“increase”), verse 12 (“multiplied”), and verse 20 (“multiplied”). Pharaoh must have thought that the massive populace of Israelites would join his enemies and destabilize his Empire.
So Pharaoh devised a strategy to deplete the Israelites by subjecting them to insufferable working conditions. What the people of Israel are dealing with is state slavery, the organized imposition of forced labor upon the male population for long and indeterminate terms of service under humiliating and ruthless conditions. Organized in large work groups, they became an unnamed biomass, depersonalized, losing all individuality in the eyes of their persecutors.
However, their population continued to grow and were an ongoing perceived threat to Egypt. At this point, foiled in the effort to lessen the Israelite population, another ploy was added to the repertoire of tactics for demographic control: elective infanticide.
Pharaoh ordered Shiphrah and Puah, who served as midwives in Egypt, to kill every baby boy born to a Hebrew woman. In issuing his decree to the midwives, Pharaoh perceptibly trusted upon the ease with which the baby could be killed at the moment of delivery by means not effortlessly noticeable in those days. Some advocate that Pharaoh, dreading an uprising, tried to dupe the Hebrew mothers into believing their children are stillborn. If so, Shiphrah and Puah are simply repaying Pharaoh in his own false coin. What is not clear is whether these midwives were Israelite or Egyptian women, for the Hebrew text can yield the renderings “Hebrew midwives” and “midwives of the Hebrew women.” It would have been strange for Pharaoh to have expected the Israelites to kill the males of their own people.
Another oddity is that only two midwives are mentioned for such a huge population. Either they were the supervisors of the practitioners and were directly accountable to the authorities for the women under them, or the two names, Shiphrah and Puah, are those of guilds or teams of midwives called after the original founders of the order. The conflict between Pharaoh and the Israelites began to take shape as a conflict between life and death.
But Shiphrah and Puah “feared God” more than the mighty Pharaoh. They refused to do the king’s bidding. In not killing male newborns, they engage in what might be termed civil disobedience. They displayed incredible courage. They fought against the agent of death on behalf of the God of life. Like other biblical acts of insubordination, the midwives’ noncompliance involves an element of ducking and diving. Ostensibly powerless, they do not openly defy Pharaoh, but deceive him. The Bible tells many stories in which a weak party tricks a stronger or in which characters engage in reciprocal, even competitive, trickery.
In today’s context, the frontline COVID-19 workers are the Shiphrah and Puah whom the God of life has appointed for our times. Their fear and pain are genuine, but like that of a woman in labor. When a woman goes through labor, she can withstand her agony as she is aware that a new life is about to deliver. They are not just saving the lives of COVID-19-affected people but saving humanity itself. God used the two midwives to redeem his people. Health workers are also few in numbers, like Shiphrah and Puah, but God has now placed the life and future of humanity in their strong and caring hands. It is their pain that shoulders humanity. It is in their sweat and tears, a seed of their untiring commitment that gives birth to a rainbow of hope. We honor them when we wear a mask, social distance, and deter the spread of the virus.
The Rev. Dr. Mothy Varkey is an ordained priest of the Malankara Mar Thoma Church, India. He is the Professor of New Testament at the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Kerala, India. He is also the visiting fellow at the Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. Among his many and influential works are Concept of Power in Matthew: A Postcolonial Reading (CSS, 2010), Salvation in Continuity: Reconsidering Matthew’s Soteriology (Fortress, 2017), Church and Diakonia in the Age of COVID-19 (ISPCK, 2020), and Inheritance and Resistance: Reclaiming Bible, Body and Power (CWI, 2020).
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