Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Exodus 1) transports me to a late 1980s small concert venue in Stoneville, NC, where Kim and I are hooting and hollering with the rowdy crowd at a concert of Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women. During this decade when I took a hiatus from listening to rock and roll, I was glad to delve into more of the blues, and The Uppity Blues Women became one of my favorite groups. This diverse trio, comprised originally of three women from African American, Jewish, and Cherokee Indian descent, were irreverent, witty, and bawdy, on top of being blues virtuosos of guitar, piano, and bass. Their repertoire was filled with sharp double entendres and humor, with songs like, Hey Mr. Insurance Man Won’t You Take Out That Thing For Me, Ain’t No Use to Go Pissin’ on a Skunk, and Your Husband’s Cheating on Us. They could get away with saying a lot of things through the blues that most folks wouldn’t include in everyday conversation.
I thought about these uppity women when I read the Exodus story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. They were the original uppity blues women, living as they did in a bluesy world of insecure men in positions of power, but subverting and sabotoging that power through wit and wisdom. It is fascinating to me that these two slave names are preserved for posterity, while the name of the powerful Pharaoh is never mentioned. Given the heroic nature of these midwives’ work and their inclusion in the litany of liberation, it’s a wonder we don’t have more girls running around today answering to the names of Shiphrah and Puah. Maybe that’s precisely because they represent such a savvy and shrewd nature, and today’s parents are not sure they want to reinforce defiant and devious traits in their little girls. Nevertheless, it falls to these midwives to move the story along, from the hopeless drudgery of a slave community to the hopeful anticipation of freedom. These colorful con artists play Pharaoh like a fiddle as he shakes with insecurity at the thought of a Hebrew uprising. When he calls on the duo to do his dirty work for him, to “pacify” the infant boys, they salute him and and take their marching orders. They then proceed to ignore those orders, inventing a little white lie that enables them to cover their a’s and dodge punishment for their insubordination.
Shiphrah and Puah represent a hopeful sign for those of us whose accidents of birth put us within the walls of imperial power. Many progressive people of faith in the developing world write off the privileged Christianity of America as irrelevant at best and complicit in exporting misery at worst. Our captivity to our cultural norms often does prevent us from acting in the interests of liberation. Third World Christian communities have an easy time locating themselves within the narratives of scripture, as God works to liberate the oppressed time and time again, finally sending Jesus to live on the margins and minister among the least of these. Those of us living far from those margins, in the centers of privilege, have a harder time figuring out where we are in the story. And then we read about women like Shiphrah and Puah, who had face time with Pharaoh, which meant they had access to some degree of power, but they chose to wield that power in a subversive way. They chose to side with the slaves instead of the sovereign. Their story is repeated in stories like Pharaoh’s daughter participating in Moses’ rescue, and in Saul’s son Jonathon defying his father’s authority by leaking messages and warnings to his beloved friend David. We who live within Pharaoh’s house, within Saul’s house, within our houses of privilege, need to dive deeply into these stories and see them as our own. For we have lessons to learn from Shiphrah and Puah. We who have face-time with the pharaohs of our world need to learn from these uppity blues women how to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, how to bring humor to the most dangerous acts of subversion, and how to midwife the birth of good news and hope in the midst of hopelessly violent times.