Badly Behaved Women: The Story of Exodus

Badly Behaved Women: The Story of Exodus

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “Well behaved women rarely make history.[1]” Harriett Tubman, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Wright Edelman, Hillary Clinton; these women all have a mark in history because they refused to bow down to conventional standards of the world and decided instead to stand up for what they believed to be right. Across time women have made their indelible mark in social change; they have stood, or in some cases sat down for “the cause.” Their contributions to liberation are no less potent or powerful than those of men, but they are often given less attention because the traditional spheres of influence for women have not been the same as conventional male spheres. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was considered the voice and face of the movement; he was the preacher, the teacher, and the leader. History records his contributions everywhere, and every January we commemorate him, as we should, for his work. But the same attention is not given to Rosa Parks, whose bold action provided the spark in the movement. There is no day to celebrate her sacrifice. If we do as Kim Elli, et al, suggests, and adopts the Israelite exodus as a liberation movement[2], then the same statements for the contribution of women hold true. There were many who fought, struggled, and died for the liberation, but the story becomes centered on the development and sacrifices of Moses.

In the Exodus text the male experience in considered to be universal. Moses is supposed to speak to and for all of us. Moses is the one chosen by God for the task of saving the Israelites, much as God chooses to embody God’s self in the form of Jesus for the salvation of humanity. If that correlation holds true, then Moses’ mother is no less crucial to the story of the Israelites than Mary, the mother of Jesus, is to the salvific story for humanity; “she is not simply saving her own child. We must understand it as coming from her deep commitment to the urgency of salvation of the oppressed Hebrews.[3]” However, we, as modern readers of the text, have been pre-condition to make minor female characters in the narrative and then to ignore the calling of the “minor” actors in the text in favor of the story and calling of the protagonist in the plot. However, even in the act of preserve the life of her child, Moses’ mother risks everything in order to preserve life. She makes a decision to blatantly ignore the social rule both out of maternal instinct but also out of the persevering spirit of her understanding of this conscious act of rebellion.

In a similar manner, in order for Moses to survive after child birth, in a society that dictated his death, women had to be the ones to ignore and fight the social order. Weems, articulates that “Exodus 1:8-22 offers significant clues concerning the material conditions, the configurations of social forces, and the effect of class rule in Egypt….and to remember the political economic measures that were once taken to interrupt Israel’s unique religious heritage.[4]” In other words, in Exodus we see genocide; we see the struggle of power to disenfranchise and then exterminate a people in order to maintain authority. And yet in the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, we find women who are at the bottom of the social totem pole; and yet they take the authority that Pharaoh gives them, and they exercise it against him. They are willing to stand in the face of power and overcome it because their belief in a higher power. In them we see represented the innate resistance that exists within the human spirit of the oppressed to transcend the pervasive nature of subjugation in order to hold onto their concepts of themselves in relation to the imago dei. In other words to understand oneself to be created in the image of God means to understand ourselves to have responsibility for the care of creation; after all that is why God gave humanity dominion over the Earth. For the Hebrew midwives to make the statement that they could not and would not be agents of the death in the face of God’s gift of life meant that, at least on some subconscious level, they understood themselves not to be absent from being made in the image of God, which is often something inherently thrust upon women in general language around Biblical text.

As Weems says, Exodus “preserves a memory of the struggle at a given time between the powerful and the powerless[5].” However, in the text we find embedded another theme of struggle of which we feel the ramifications of every time we engage this text. The question will always lie for whom the text is written and to whom does it speak. Jacqueline Lapsley argues that in this text if the words and actions of women do not prevail, then their values do. “…Care and nurture of the vulnerable and the subversion of violence, as well as the use of deception and transgression of conventional boundaries in service to these values[6];” this is the legacy of “badly behaved women,” who embodied the liberation. And yet history ignores their voice in the story in favor of those who have historically held the power in society—men. In this way we continue to tell the one-sided and untrue story of the ability of men and men alone to overcome the arrogance of those men who would choose to oppress.

[1] Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel. . Accessed February 22, 2010.

[2] Elli, Kim;  Jung-su, Kim; Yeung-mee, Lee. 125.

[3] Ibid; 130.

[4] Weems, 27.

[5] Weems, p 32.

[6] Lapsley, Jacqueline; 85.