Honest Reflections on Exodus 2

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.

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11 thoughts on “Honest Reflections on Exodus 2

  1. “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.”

    Honestly, I don’t read enough narrative theology (mostly just Hauerwas) to have a sense for whether this is an accurate dig, but I do think that highlighting those moments where the integrity of the biblical narratives are subverted form within is a really important move for any kind of liberative reading.

  2. Even a “subaltern” ethic subsists within a narrative. It would either be disingenuous not to admit that or you just don’t realize the narrative shaping of all human thinking and living.

    Furthermore, a synthetic reading of Scripture (i.e., Christian theology) does not necessarily do violence to the text (though such violence is possible as the history of biblical interpretation shows). Rather, a synthetic reading tries to respond to the pressure that the canonical scriptures exerts on its readers to articulate a coherent account of who God is, what creation is, who we are, and what our final end shall be. Even though you appear to disdain narrative theology, you actually did a fine piece of it by telling a story about how “God has used these woman to bring about the salvation of Israel.” I think the work you are doing is a good step in the direction of receiving the pressure of a text that is often overlooked in the canon in order to give a fuller account of the Christian faith.

    • I think maybe Paul means something different by “narrative theology” because a Ricoeurian narrative theology would seem to fit well with what he’s saying (and what Andrew is describing in his first paragraph.)

    • I think, in agreement with Joel, that Paul is inciting a particular narrative theology, which is the “Western, white, male” narrative–the narrative that has been created by a Western, white, male reading of the text. I could be wrong, but I sense that Paul would want to move towards theologies of narratives, or something, where many different narrative readerships (group discourses) are given voice and preferenced, synchronistically and diachronically.

  3. So perhaps I read it a bit too quickly but I’m confused as to your conclusions. Do you applaud the narrators positive stance toward the midwives’ subterfuge? Is that not at least one strike against the inherent patriarchy?

    • I wonder if your response is not a bit hasty, and should have either been preceded by a more considerate reading of Paul’s post or an abstention from commenting.

      With that said, I think upon a closer, more thoughtful look you’ll see that Paul’s concern is not with the narrator’s positioning but with the traditional interpretations and presentations of the text. That is, you are absolutely on target with the narrator’s presentation of the midwives’ subterfuge; it is a point of Paul’s post, however, that the narrator’s stance towards those midwives has been placed on the back burner by a significant force of theologians, biblical scholars, and preachers, who have instead focused on Moses as the savior figure, when in fact it is the women through whom the saving act is incited. I think the focus, here, is less on “conclusions” and more on this process of reading the Bible in certain ways that are contrary to the Western, white, male reading.

      • You’re right. I threw this up as I was leaving for class today. I probably should of read it again before I commented. I understand the focus is not on Moses but on the midwives. This post has made me think through this passage today and I guess the question I was trying to get at is what a reading of this passage would look like if the position of the midwives was given equal footing with Moses as savior figure. I certainly do not want to downgrade the position of Moses considering how he is a continual force in the canon of Scripture. If we are to give the midwife subterfuge an equal footing in understanding this text would we necessarily solve the inherent underlying issue of patriarchy or would we need to go further and posit the midwives as *the* paradigm for reading Exodus 2?

        • The focus need not *not* be on Moses, I should think, but it needs to not be *merely* on Moses. That is, the narrative as presented in Exodus follows Moses–it would be unfaithful to the immediately available narrative context to ignore that aspect. Neither should this be an issue of giving “equal footing,” probably. Moses’ status as sort of the “main” character of this section of scripture, or something, means that those pieces of the story which have been detailed and recorded have importance. It’s not an action sequence that we can skim through to see what happens. Therefore, the paradigm of any reading will focus on what aspects of a story have been presented (and how they are). That to say, the narrative should be read in terms of “wait, why the hell was this detail added? Weren’t we just talking about Moses? Couldn’t we have skipped over this?” or something. In this case, then, the passage, while certainly “about” Moses, is to be *understood,* probably, in relation to the midwives subterfuge (and likely several other sub-narratives).

          This isn’t really to address the underlying issue of patriarchy, though. To begin to actually address that, the church would need to ordain only women for the next, say, five hundred years or so.

      • @mwhitejr:

        “would we need to go further and posit the midwives as *the* paradigm for reading Exodus 2?”

        If I understand what Paul is doing here, it’s precisely the metanarrative move of positing a *the* paradigm that he’s trying to resist in favor of a sort of textual liminality where these sort of counter-narratives are allowed to emerge in the midst of the text.

  4. “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.”

    Great questions, very much enjoyed what you have written. In terms of exegesis, this is an incisive critique of postliberal theology. Though I do like some aspects of postliberal theology, your point of the text within the text is something I also struggle with.
    No criticism-for-the-sake-of-criticism here (as is so prevalent on the interwebz). Just wanted to say how well done this is.

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