I grew up in a typical nineties Sunday school and youth group culture. If you’re familiar with it, you might remember dressing up as “superheroes of the faith,” acting out biblical scenes on a flannel board or, better yet, in musicals you got to perform in “big church.” Of course, there weren’t a lot of hero roles for us girls to play—especially since gender-bending was a big no-no. If I couldn’t dress up as Paul, Moses, Jesus, David, Samuel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, John, Peter, or so on and so forth, what role could I play exactly?
When I read the Bible as an adult, I realized those costume closets were missing a few important characters. Over and over again in the Old Testament, linking together all the stories of the so-called “superheroes,” were stories of women: some in the background and some in the foreground, all nurturing life in the face of death. Sometimes their heroics were on the national stage—like Deborah or Esther. Often, however, their courage and faith played out in what appeared to be a quiet faithfulness. And yet, the actions of these women had cosmic implications.
Agents of Deliverance
Nowhere is the impact of women more evident—and mostly missed—than in the story of the Exodus. I’m sure many of you know it, even if you didn’t have the ten plagues drilled into your head through the aforementioned flannel boards. The Exodus is possibly the most important event in Israel’s history. The circumstances and story surrounding the Exodus came to define what it meant to be an Israelite: God’s people were enslaved by an oppressive political power and in need of a deliverer.
At the time of the Exodus, God’s people had spent four hundred years in Egypt in ever-worsening conditions, but instead of their lives getting better, they’ve only gotten worse—slavery accompanied with back-breaking physical labor had been ruthlessly imposed by Pharoah, the evil king. Finally, God heard their cries, raised up Moses to be his agent, then drew his people out of slavery and bondage and to himself through miraculous signs and wonders, including plagues and the parting of a sea. Pretty big deal. We’ve been waiting all year for something to change; they waited for four hundred.
That’s the part taught on the flannel boards. But the first heroes in Exodus aren’t men. It’s not Moses or Aaron. The first agents of salvation are two single women, Shiphrah and Puah, a terrified, postpartum mother, Jochebed, and a brave big sister, Miriam. And the daughter of the evil king himself. These women rarely make the flannel boards or costume closets (You know what does though? The locusts.) but the whole story hinges on them.
The problem at the beginning of Exodus, according to Pharoah, the evil king, was that those Israelite women were having too many babies. Despite their oppressed state, they were increasing and multiplying at an alarming rate—exactly, in fact, as God had told them to and said they would way back in Genesis. So Pharaoh called in the midwives and ordered them to kill any baby boy they delivered. Apparently, he thought he could handle just the Israelite girls.
Dear reader, he cannot.
He underestimated the power of faithful women who believe God is a king above all others. Not only did they defy Pharaoh’s orders, delivering child after child, they defied him to his face, telling him that the Israelite women are too strong in childbirth to be stopped. They are experts in delivering children. Agents of deliverance.
Thwarted by the midwives, the evil king ramped up his evil, inciting a massacre of male Israelite children, and the story turns to Jochebed, a newly-delivered mother with a baby boy about three months old. Three months. She had carried this child within her body and then her arms for a year, and this evil king expected her to throw his little face and his little hands into the river and let him drown. She delivered him once; she was desperate to do so again.
Faced with immense suffering, Jochebed’s faith and fear lead her to do the unimaginable. Jochebed and her daughter, big sister Miriam, did indeed throw the baby into the river—but in a waterproofed basket, and floated him right into Pharoah’s own household. It turns out the evil king had misestimated not only Israelite daughters, but his own as well. She drew the baby out of the water, took pity on him, and extended her protection and privilege to him. She chose life in the face of death, and it had cosmic implications for God’s people. The baby was Moses.
Before Moses was a savior, he was saved. Before he parted the waters, he was drawn out of them.
Mary, the Deliverer
Why do I tell you this story in the middle of Advent? Not a lot of good cheer or peace for all humankind in Exodus. A lot of darkness, sickness, oppression, race-based violence, and death. More 2020 and less tinsel and twinkle.
I tell you this story because it points forward to the one we hear alot this time of year. The story of another young girl who delivered a child in the middle of a dark time of political turmoil and kept him safe through a massacre of male children so that he might grow up to save his people. You might know her as Mary, but she would have called herself Mariam or Miriam.
Like Shiprah, Puah, Jochebed, and the first Miriam, Mary was acquainted with grief and sorrow. She grew up poor, the lowliest of a lowly people, oppressed by both an evil king and a powerful empire. Like her foremothers, Mary and her people were waiting for the Lord to hear their cries. Waiting for the Lord to come and deliver them.
It was to this second Mariam that the incredible news came—God indeed was on the move. It may have sounded like news of pure joy—for it was and is and will always be—but to Mary, it came with a price. For God was going to raise up a deliverer through her very own body and Mary, like all women, was well aware of what God said in Genesis: the price of our sin was multiplied pain and suffering in childbearing.
Before Jesus delivered us, he was delivered. Before his body broke for all of us, her body broke for his. Before he shed his blood that we might live, she bled to give him life. Before he gave himself freely, she gave herself to him.
Does that make her superior in some way? By no means. Not superior to her son, anyway. But she shows us that throughout history, God has worked through the real pain and suffering of real people to bring about real deliverance. In God’s hands, our pain is productive. It produces new life. And ordinary faithfulness has cosmic implications.
The Lady in Waiting
Like both Mariams, we too—men and women alike— are waiting on deliverance. We too are suffering as we wait. Hoping, believing, praying, that this pain is productive. That there might be meaning even in a year as bleak as this one. And that our ordinary faithfulness in the midst of our pain matters.
We too have a role to play in this cosmic drama, and it’s not the masculine lead. As strange as it might seem to a generation of men who had their pick of the costume closet and central characters in Sunday school, none of us gets to play the hero. Rather, the most important role we fill is better found in my young daughters’ wardrobes: the bride.
The bride of Christ waits for him to come again and once more deliver his people. While we wait, we do what Shiprah and Puah and Jochebed and Miriam and Mariam and countless other faithful men and women did: we nurture life in the face of death. We deliver as we await deliverance. We choose faith over fear in big ways and in small ways, knowing that in God’s hands, even the smallest of heroic choices can bring about new life.
Just as Mary’s cries of pain turned to cries of joy on that fateful night as her labor ceased and her son was laid in her arms, so too will our suffering come to an end, and in its place will be joy. Like Moses and Jesus we will be delivered, tenderly held, brought to life in perfect love.
Cover image by Thom Masat.