Having read the bible through an androcentric lens for the majority of my life, my recent transition to Feminist and Postcolonial criticism of biblical texts has been refreshing, to say the least. Through connecting subversive readings of biblical texts with the extensive physical and verbal abuse I endured as a child, I find hope in stories where liminal groups attempt to confront the systematic power, torture, and injustice of the elite.
The story of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus renders me hopeful:
As the Hebrew’s continue to overpopulate Egypt, Pharaoh issues a decree of infanticide for the male, Hebrew children. This story is particularly ironic: in a traditional reading, we see Moses as the one who, ultimately, liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage; in another reading we see the midwives as tricksters, playing Pharaoh for a fool. “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Ex. 2:16). Pharaoh’s lack of concern for the women in this story is picked up by the narrator and exposed as the irony within the exodus story: it is because of these women that Moses even lived! In Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the Hebrew boys, the women rise up and take matters into their own hands, right under Pharaoh’s nose.
“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live… So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So god dealt well with the midwives” (Ex. 2:18-20a). The narrator of the story applauds the trickery of the women. It is because of their subversive actions that Moses is even allowed to live; God has used these woman to bring about the salvation of Israel.
As a Christian, I continue to be uplifted by subaltern ethics due to their questioning of Christian, narrative theology. Viewing the entirety of scripture as a meta-narrative does violence to the “text within the text.” Even reading scripture through a Postliberal lens, while recognizing that there can be no meta-ethic, still presumes that the actions of individuals within the group will correspond to the virtues of the community. This begs me to ask: Did the Hebrew midwives act in accordance with their particular ethics? Were their actions considered virtuous, even though the writers of scripture applaud them for their subterfuge? The women may have acted in accordance with their ethical context; they may not have, even though the authors celebrate their actions. Stories, like this one, make me question the place of narrative theology within Christianity. The narrative theology that I have read, at least the theology that tries to construct a meta-narrative of the entire canon, tends to leave these “text within the text” out of their normative ethical categories.
Reading these stories also evokes disheartenment within me. Seeing histories of subjugated peoples, sensing that I am called to listen to these groups rather than advance racist systems of Western, white, male thought, and knowing that I am continuing to perpetuate white, male thought is the tension in which I live. Having only experienced such injustice on a personal scale, I cannot imagine the despair that one must feel when confronted with systematic oppression. I pray that God might render us hospitable as we seek to live lives open to others who have been coerced into living a history that they cannot control.