The Lord is my midwife
Peter Seal, 24 January 2021
Exodus 1: 15–21; Acts 9: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30
I want to explore with you the theme of God as a midwife, and what this might mean for us.
Two women, Shiphrah and Puah, were midwives in Egypt at the time of Moses. These brave, intensely practical women are hidden in the rich narrative of the Exodus story. The number of Israelite people is growing. There’s a new king; he’s a fearful and a threatened man. To control the number of Israelites, he orders that Hebrew baby boys be killed after birth. This would of course have included Moses.
We’re told the names of these midwives, which is a relatively rare occurrence in scripture and particularly in the Old Testament. God is almost always portrayed as patriarchal, and men are commonly the initiators of the action. Here’s a question: where would the big story of our faith be, without these midwives – these tenacious and crafty guardians of life? You see, these women ignored the king’s instructions and let the baby boys live. Ironically, Shiphrah and Puah stand guardian of the Exodus story and ultimately, thereby, of our story.
It’s probably true to say that our family album is God’s word written down by male authors and dealing primarily with male experiences. And yet it is punctuated by stories of pregnancy and birth – stories of new life which redirect and transform. Shiphrah and Puah are joined by Hagar, who fled into the wilderness with her son; Sarah laughed at the very idea of motherhood; Rachel wept for her children; and Hannah, whose fervour in prayer for a child was mistaken for drunkenness.
These pivotal women of the Old Testament prepare us for the story, the great mystery – what we call the incarnation. That is, God living on earth as a human being in the person of Jesus.
Luke sensitively and vividly gives us the Annunciation and the birth stories. Most women, on discovering that they are with child, utter something like Mary’s, ‘How can this be?’ as they, too, experience Mary’s joy, and fear, and excitement.
So it’s good just to pause and to acknowledge that the imagery of birth-giving has a central place in our faith. St Paul, usually reputed as something of a misogynist, describes the yearning for God in terms of the first stage of labour. ‘Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth’ (Romans 8: 22). We don’t understand how, but Paul seems to know what he is talking about – that birth is a difficult, painful and messy process.
And then in John’s gospel there’s that most powerful account of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee. You remember, the one who came to Jesus by night, secretly and drawn by mystery. Jesus answers his question before he can ask it. He tells the seeker perhaps more than he wants to know: you must be born anew. There’s irony and there’s humour in this story, as two learned men discuss the logistics of birth. They’re pondering how it’s possible for an unrepeatable process to be repeated. Nicodemus, like Mary, exclaims in wonderment, ‘How can this be?’
And then another biblical picture, from Psalm 22. The psalmist gives us a powerful image of Yahweh as midwife. Hear this:
You are he who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast.
I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb.
Psalm 22 is usually thought of as a great cry of desolation, of abandonment – yet here we have these verses about God as a midwife. They remind us that the midwife helps new life into being and protects it. Even more than the mother, the midwife is the tender guardian of the birth of the new one.
So, we’re given through scripture a compelling, though maybe surprising, picture of God as birth-helper. Shiphrah and Puah stand as an icon. You could call them the foremothers of all midwives; but behind them is that other faithful guardian of new life.
Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’. The Lord is also my midwife; I shall be kept safe. The maternal and birth imagery of scripture, along with the stories of birth, miraculous and otherwise, is integral to our faith story.
So I want to suggest that during these strange times, we’re actually in the midst of a time when something new is being born, and that birthing begins with each of us. We long for safe, fully vaccinated, post-Covid days, where there is no more fear; and we know they will come. What is more and more commonly acknowledged is that they will be different from our pre-Covid days. In many ways; for the sake of the world, they need to be different.
We’re in the midst of a time when something new is being born, and that birthing begins with each of us.
You and I will continue to live by the big, safe, all-embracing story of our faith, told through scripture. That will not change.
Shiphrah and Puah will continue to have their significant place, but things can, and will, and, I believe, must be different.
The question, I suggest, that we each need to take time to ask ourselves is this: ‘How am I going to be different?’ To use the conception, gestation and birth picture, we might ask:
- What is it that’s new which is beginning to find a place within me?
- What is being conceived?
- And then: what is growing within me?
- What is living within me, and just waiting, just waiting, until it’s sufficiently formed, to be born at the right time?
- And then, with God as our midwife, through the usual pain and struggle of all that’s new: what is it, that is about to live in a new way as part of me?
These questions are really important. God is working his purpose out, in and through each of us.
The way that we as part of the western world used to live is no longer sustainable; some would say, no longer credible. Climate change is just one example. Much of what used to govern our thinking has been challenged and tested and, yes, found wanting.
The good news, the very, very good news, is that God goes on being God. God reveals new possibilities. Our weaknesses become God’s opportunities.
St Paul, whose feast day we keep, would never ever have dreamed how he would change and how his life would change. His conversion, which we celebrate with profound thanksgiving, was a new birth if ever there was one.
In conclusion, the Lord is our midwife. In God we trust, in God we trust. Amen.