Sunday, March 31, 2013

Months have passed and I've gained a lot of new insight regarding my manuscript, Unheard Voices. As a result, I'm going to post these stories of biblical women in this blog. I'll go throuhg the 13 women as I have them sequenced in the manuscript.
Please let me know what you think of each one as she appears so that I have an opportunity to reply to you or modify the story.

We seldom think about biblical women as business women so I've begun with their stories.

The Midwives

The woman’s scream shattered the stillness of the night, and her husband ran toward the hovel where she was giving birth. Before he entered, two older men grabbed him, dragging him back to their seats by the open fire.

"Don’t worry, Nathan. This is normal. As soon as the baby is born, things will calm down. Dinah will be all right."

The young man bent over, holding his head in his hands. "Is it always like this?"

The second man answered, "After the third child, it seemed faster. My wife recovered more quickly too. It’s the first one that’s so hard."

Inside the mud daub home, oil lamps provided dim light. Dinah’s huge belly almost hid her face as she slouched against the wall. Dinah’s mother, aunts and older sisters sang songs to encourage the mother to push, beating a steady rhythm on a small drum. The rhythm intensified whenever the mother pushed, as if the drummer’s efforts could help her in some way.

The midwife felt the swollen belly and spoke to Dinah’s mother, Leah.

"I need help. Send someone for Shiprah0. Tell her that Puah needs her immediately."

"Is it bad?" Leah whispered.

"It could be if I don’t get help."

Leah scurried out the door to the men. Soon heavy footsteps could be heard as one of them ran to get Shiprah.

The flap that served as a door snapped open as Shiprah, another midwife, entered. She assessed the situation and noted Puah on her knees massaging the woman’s lower abdomen. "What do you want me to do?" Shiprah asked.

Puah directed her friend and colleague to get behind the woman and hold her up to put more pressure on her belly as she pushed. At this stage of the mother’s labor, words were superfluous. Shiprah supported the mother’s back into a half-sitting position. Puah massaged her with each contraction. Dinah was nearing exhaustion. Finally, with a loud scream and one great push, the baby’s head appeared with the cord wrapped around its neck. Puah eased her fingers under the cord as she caught the baby. Its face had a bluish tinge. Puah struggled to remove the cord, then holding the baby by its feet, turned it upside down and massaged its back. A lusty cry filled the room and Dinah reached for her son.

The sun was rising when Leah dashed outside to share the news with the men, who erupted with loud singing and rhythmic foot stomping. Soon, neighbors joined in the celebration.

Work was not yet finished for the midwives. Shiprah cleaned and wrapped the newborn as Puah worked with the mother and watched for the afterbirth. Suddenly the celebrations stopped. Not a sound was to be heard. Leah went outside to see what had happened and was faced with one of Pharaoh’s soldiers.

"Where are the midwives?" He demanded.

Leah’s voice quavered, "They’re inside attending to my daughter."

"As soon as they’re finished, I must take them to the royal court. I’ll wait."

Shiprah and Puah exchanged glances, but were too occupied to think about what awaited them. With the last bowl of water, they washed their face and hands before meeting the soldier outside.

He paused to look them over. The wrap Puah wore tied at her waist to protect her clothes was bloody. Shiprah’s head scarf was knocked askew.

"Follow me."

He marched them out of the Hebrew encampment and through the streets of the city to the royal compound. At the gate, two royal guards escorted them to Pharaoh. They were the last to arrive and stood behind the other Hebrew midwives. Breathless from the fast walk and exhausted from their night’s work, Shiprah and Puah were slow to take in their surroundings.

A horn sounded. The midwives huddled closer together as Amenhotep II entered the room from a door at the far end of the hall. He mounted the dias and arranged his gold embroidered robes into a dazzling display before taking his seat. The ebony throne, decorated with gold leaf and inlaid gemstones, was the only furniture in the vast room. He examined the women before him as they tried to sneak looks at him. His headdress included an ornate cloth that fell to his shoulders and a slender gold crown of a cobra poised to attack. The heavy kohl on Pharaoh’s eyes gave them a snake-like, hooded appearance.

Bare-chested and stone-faced, Pharaoh’s guards each wore a royal blue headdress with a bronze crown that signified their status. With a short sword in their belts and carrying iron spears, the men flanked a group of a dozen Hebrew women, easily recognized by the poor quality of their homespun clothes. The only distinctive feature that they all shared was the style of their head covering, tied in a way that indicated their profession as midwives. The guards prodded them to approach the Pharaoh.

"I order you to kill male Hebrew babies when they are born. Only female babies are allowed to survive. Do you understand?" His voice gradually increased in volume until his question was shouted at them.

None dared speak before the Pharaoh, but all nodded that they understood. The captain of the guards looked to each of his men to verify that all of the women had gestured appropriately. Pharaoh watched the captain’s exchange with his men and ended the audience with a hand gesture to sweep them away. The guards marched the women out of the throne room and across the compound. At the gate, a contingent of regular soldiers accompanied the women to the entrance of the Hebrew encampment.

Shiprah and Puah, a distinctive pair as the tallest and shortest of the midwives, walked together. Puah’s slenderness gave her face sharply defined angles. Tiny Shiprah walked with a rolling gait, having worked on the Nile boats as a slave to an Egyptian family for a year. Her face was uncharacteristically blank; under normal conditions, she would have made a witty quip, triggering laughter. Shiprah grabbed hold of Puah’s hand as they walked, but neither woman spoke until after the guards left them and they were walking along the well-known paths of the Hebrew encampment. Then, Shiprah pulled Puah in the direction of the Nile River. At this late hour of the morning, shadows hadn’t begun to form; only fisherman readying their nets and boats for the afternoon’s sailing remained, selling the day’s catch. They were too busy to pay any attention to the women. Aside from the jokes they called back and forth, the only other sound was the screech of water birds trying to find an easy meal in the detritus thrown back into the water.

Shiprah released her colleague’s hand and turned to face her. "Well?"

Puah looked into her colleagues eyes and shook her head. "It’s unthinkable." A steely look of determination darkened her eyes. "I learned to bring life into the world, not to extinguish it—ever."

Shiprah looked across the river without seeing the wavelets coming to shore or the sails, bleached a brilliant, white in the noon day sun. "I needed a chance for us to talk about this. I feel the same way you do, but how do we proceed? He has spies everywhere and will find out if we’re not following his orders."

"Can we tell him that Hebrew women differ from Egyptian ladies because they give birth faster and have their babies before we get there?" asked Puah.

"I guess it’s good enough, until we come up with another idea." Shiprah heaved a deep sigh as they turned back toward their homes.

Weeks passed without any further summons to the royal court. Rumors circulated in the camp about the Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn boys. Whether women sent for a midwife at all depended on the rapport that they had with her. Some of the midwives lost their clients, but others remained busy. Shiprah noticed that many of her clients waited longer before calling for her to attend them and as a consequence there were many more complications during labor and delivery. Shiprah and Puah often worked together on these calls when the circumstances were too dire to worry about Pharaoh.

In the hours just before dawn, Pharaoh’s soldier came to the hovel where Shiprah and Puah had worked together through the night to help a mother give birth. As they stepped outside, the soldier intercepted them to escort them immediately to the royal palace. Weary and disheveled, they only had a quick wash before leaving the client’s house. They found it hard to keep up and straggled behind the other midwives who grumbled about the order to leave what they were doing at Pharaoh’s whim.

"His order is absurd," said a midwife walking in front of Puah.

"Since word of it spread through the camp, women have tried to avoid calling me. One woman and her newborn died before I arrived. The family was too afraid. I can’t believe that women actually believe that we might try to do what Pharaoh wants."

They turned the corner and all conversation stopped as they approached the entrance to the royal compound.

The throne room was still intimidating, but the impact was lost on the two exhausted women. Shiprah and Puah stood in the back. To avoid blocking others’ view of events, Puah always stood toward the back. Her unusual height often drew attention and today was no exception. Amenhotep II scanned the group until he spied Puah.

He pointed. "You and your partner come to the front where I can see you. I understand you just left a Hebrew woman. Tell me about your night."

Puah saw Shiprah sway and grabbed her arm before responding. "We had a very difficult night, Pharaoh. The woman had been in labor several hours before she called for us."

His voice boomed in the chamber. "Was is a boy or girl?"

"A girl," Puah said.

"Tell me what’s going on. Boy babies are still being born. Your group has not followed my orders. Why?" His eyes bored into Puah’s.

She looked at the Pharaoh as her reply echoed. "Rumors about your order have spread through our camp. Many women have stopped calling us and those that do usually have serious complications like last night. It’s amazing that the baby survived."

Pharaoh tugged on his bearded chin. "My order to you stands that you must kill boy babies." He leaned toward and advisor standing next to him. The acoustics of the room were so good that a few words carried to the women’s ears. "...too many Hebrew men." He looked at the head guard and said, "Get them out of here."

When the soldiers left them, the midwives crowded around Puah and Shiprah. Many of them hugged the two and some expressed thanks for how they had stood up to Pharaoh and for Puah’s answers.

The unofficial leader of the midwives said, "Many of us would never have been able to stand there under his glare, but you both appeared so calm. Thank you for speaking up; you spoke for all of us and we appreciate it."

Since Shiprah’s home was closest to the camp’s entrance, she took Puah with her. They collapsed on the bedding and slept a few hours. Shiprah’s mother brought them food when they woke.

Puah looked around. "Thank you for letting me rest here. I was so tired after last night."

Shiprah said, "We were both exhausted. The audience with Pharaoh took the last bit of strength we had and you had to do all of the talking."

"I remember answering Pharaoh’s questions—blurting out the truth. I can’t understand why the other midwives thought what we did was so special." Puah sat cross-legged, leaning forward to cup her chin in her hand.

"I overheard the royal guard tell Pharaoh that we had arrived. He used such submissive language that it took some time to state his business. Perhaps the women reacted because you answered Pharaoh directly, as an equal, without any deferential language."

Puah shrugged. "I think they would have reacted the same way we did, if Pharoah had questioned them."

Shiprah refilled their cups from the water jug. "Pharaoh’s orders to kill baby boys was preposterous. As if that weren’t enough, he tells us how to do it. I couldn’t imagine one of us throwing a baby into the Nile or smothering it at birth."

Puah drank deeply before responding. "We had no choice but to hear him, whether we follow his advice is up to each one of us."

"I wonder what he’ll try to do next to shrink the size of our community? Did you catch the end of his remark to his advisor about too many Hebrew men?" Shiprah’s voice was distorted as she rearranged her cushions.

"Who knows what Amenhotep II will try next. He underestimates Hebrew women. Have you heard about Jochebed? She wove a water-tight basket and lid adding a layer of pitch to caulk the seams. After her son was born, she set him adrift in the Nile and sent her ten-year-old daughter, Miriam to keep watch." Puah’s eyes had a determined look.

"That’s the baby that Pharaoh’s daughter found?" Shiprah asked.

"Yes. Miriam arranged it with the princess so that Jochebed ended up being paid to care for her own son in the royal compound. One day Pharaoh may regret his efforts to kill Hebrew babies."

As time passed, midwives were called for deliveries only when problems developed and as a consequence there were more mother and infant deaths. None of the midwives followed Pharaoh’s order.

In general, living conditions in the Hebrew camp deteriorated. The demand to make more bricks for Pharaoh’s projects increased the men’s workload while the food provided to the camp decreased. Since meals were served to the men first, the women and children suffered greatly from the lack of food.

Forty years passed this way, but eventually Pharaoh stopped trying to restrict the births of Hebrew babies and turned to other means of making life difficult for the Hebrews. He increased the required daily output for person whether they worked in the quarry or made bricks while reducing the amount of food allocated for the camp.

Through the years, stories about the two brave midwives had grown. Young midwives still came to Puah for advice about problems they encountered in their work. The discussions always ended with a request to hear firsthand the story about how Puah and Shiprah spoke up to Pharaoh. Of the two midwives who had spoken up to Pharaoh only Puah was still living. Shiprah had died soon after the birth of her first granddaughter.

One day, when Puah had just finished feeding her grandson, she heard laughter and singing somewhere outside. She pulled back the leather flap that served as a door and stepped into the path. At the far end of the lane, Miriam was waving her head scarf and leading a group of people as they danced and sang. Words were hard to make out, but the melody was of a song of praise to God.

As they drew closer, Shiprah’s daughter’s voice rose above the others.

"Puah, come with us. Celebrate." She grabbed Puah’s hand and pulled her into the crowd.

Puah joined in the singing and when there was a pause, asked, "What happened?"

"Remember Moses - the baby in the basket raised in Pharaoh’s household?"

"Sure, he’s Miriam’s brother."

Shiprah’s daughter hugged Puah and said, "He is organizing us to leave Egypt! How wonderful it will be to leave this place."

The women danced around Puah and hailed her and Shiprah’s bravery for being the first Hebrews to speak out to Pharaoh.

Moses had fled Egypt as a young man and returned to claim his identity as a Hebrew in recent years. Many times he confronted Pharaoh over the conditions in the Hebrew camp and demanded freedom for the slaves, and each time, Pharaoh would grant permission for them to leave and then renege on his promise. Plagues and disasters followed each broken promise. The tenth time, Pharaoh finally had had enough and kept his word.

Now brief celebrations followed in the camp as people hurried to gather their few belongings and prepare to leave.

Out of respect for Shiprah’s and Puah’s courage before Pharaoh, Moses himself allocated positions of honor at the head of the entourage for both of their families. Their reputations lived on whenever people talked about the efforts of Pharaoh to eliminate the Hebrews. In the annals of midwifery, these were the first two women held up as models of the profession.

Seated on a donkey, Puah scanned the massive line of Hebrews marching out of Egypt. She shaded her eyes with her hands, but could not find the end of the line. Turning around in her padded saddle, she looked forward to see Moses leading them. A satisfied smile brightened her face as she said to herself, "No one will have to listen to Pharaoh ever again."

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