You’ve probably never met a spy (that you know of), but they’re everywhere if you believe all the movies and TV shows about them.
Take, for example, “She Spies,” the inspiration for today’s sermon title. Cassie McBain (played by Natasha Henstridge) is a convicted con woman, paroled from prison along with D.D. Cummings and Shane Phillips to be secret operatives for the U.S. government in the ComCent Division of the ISD. She is skilled in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, and also has a sense of humor. Unfortunately, the series lasted only a few seasons.
In the long-running TV series “NCIS,” Ziva David is a Mossad agent and daughter of the Israeli spy agency’s director. In an arrangement between the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and Mossad, she joins the NCIS team as a liaison officer, replacing the agent who died at the hands of her half-brother, Ari. She has a background in the military, as do all Israeli women, and she trained in a special-ops unit known as Kidon, transforming her into an expert in sabotage, assassinations, and psychological warfare. In her own way, and for her own reasons, she sees herself as a player in the national struggle to save and protect the nation of Israel.
Ziva David is a fictional character who has had an on-and-off role since 2006. She’s not real, although her character in NCIS has counterparts in the real world who are very much alive and no doubt lethal as circumstances might require.
The covert operatives of today’s text are real women, the current debate about the historicity of Moses notwithstanding. Their story is an account of how God saved a nation through their daring and enterprising actions. These two women are she-spies, and they rank right up there with other biblical female spies and warriors such as Deborah, Rahab, Esther and Jael. All of these accounts are stories of incredible courage and daring — tales of how the nation of Israel was saved from certain destruction.
The story of these women of biblical history is every bit as interesting as the female spies of the wars of the last century. In fact, the brave female spy who saves and delivers is a well-known and beloved trope with both fictional and real expressions. For example:
- Virginia Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by OSS chief William Donovan in 1945. But as her exploits in World War II were coming to an end, Hall’s career was just beginning. After the war, she spent an additional 16 years in the CIA.
- Yolande Beekman was also a spy during WWII. She was at first derided by the Nazis as a “nice girl who darned socks.” But she became a wireless operator for a resistance cell. According to sources, “her unit was dedicated to blowing up canals and the railway infrastructure in the area. Codenamed ‘Mariette,’ she was so successful that the Gestapo brought in teams of radio detector vans to track her down. She was arrested in a canal-side café and transported to Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed in 1944. She was 32.”
- Gun-toting Nancy Wake was the deadly “White Mouse of the French Resistance,” perhaps best known for planning and leading a raid on a Gestapo headquarters that left almost 30 Germans dead or wounded.
The Bible says that “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (v. 8). There was a very good reason the new Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) did not know Joseph — whose story is told is the final chapters of Genesis and is itself a story of palace intrigue and shenanigans. The reason? Joseph is history. It has been several hundred years since Joseph’s administration of Egypt’s granaries saved the nation from starvation.
In the intervening years, the Hebrew descendants of Joseph and his brothers had been fruitful and multiplied, and the Pharaoh, fearing that they might rise against them, turned the erstwhile guests of the kingdom into slaves — a condition in which they labored for more than 400 years. Those alive at the time of our story had no memory of anything but captivity. Their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were slaves. It was what it was.
The conditions were bad. The Egyptians “set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (vv. 11-14).
The crowning blow was the edict that all male Hebrew babies were to be killed at birth. Girls could live; but boy babies received a sentence of death. “Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live’” (v. 22).
This is the narrative by which we learn how one particular male child was spared — a child who would grow to become the greatest and foremost leader of the Hebrew people. His name was Moses. And had it not been for a group of female spies, the child would not have survived.
In today’s narrative, we find four major players or cohorts of players. Two are individuals who know each other and act in concert with each other. And two are teams or cells of players who coordinate a strategy to achieve their aims.
First, Jochebed is the mother of baby Moses, and she defied the Pharaoh by keeping the baby hidden for at least three months. Think of the stress she endured making this work. Then, “when she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river” (2:3).
Second, Miriam, Jochebed’s daughter and Moses’ older sister. Miriam’s job was to linger about the Nile River keeping an eye out for her baby brother and report back to her mother. She was the guardian or lookout. She kept watch to make sure the basket didn’t float away, or otherwise be endangered.
Third, the midwives. They were told by the Pharoah that male babies were to be killed. But this cohort of women (two of them are mentioned by name — Shiphrah and Puah) “feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them” (v. 17). They deliberately disobeyed an order. And when they were called to explain their disobedience, their excuse was flimsy: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (v. 22).
Finally, the princess and her attendants. A royal princess of the court of Rameses II discovers the baby, and finding him adorable beyond belief, disobeys her father’s command. “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said” (2:4-6).
Now, Miriam, who is watching this happen, comes up with an ingenious plan. Risking her life, she intervenes and interrupts the Pharaoh’s daughter and her entourage. She says that she knows of a woman who could nurse the baby. Would her highness want her to fetch this woman? The princess thinks this is an excellent idea, and Miriam runs off to fetch the wetnurse who, of course, is Moses’ mother Jochebed.
It was this princess who gave the boy his name. When the lad “grew up,” Jochebed took him to the Pharaoh’s daughter, and “she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (2:10). Moses was raised by his Egyptian mother, received an education in the court of the Pharaoh and lived the life of a royal. Moses’ mother and her attendants were able to deceive the Pharaoh for years.
And this, then, is the story of how four she-spies changed the course of history.
Each of these women had different roles in the drama surrounding the birth of Moses, and each role was vital. They all shared some common characteristics, and one might even be tempted to think all four of the spies suffered from oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
But maybe we can look at that from a different angle and say that they were all highly defiant — in defense of their objective. Or perhaps courageous in their conviction to do what was right and resist their authoritarian ruler. Although defying the political regime, the head of state and countless functionaries lower on the food chain, they were themselves united by the integrity of their aims. They had no knowledge or foresight that revealed to them the far-ranging consequences of their actions. They simply had a plan conceived for a good reason, and they executed the plan — but had to defy authorities every step of the way.
Is this a biblical authorization for resisting oppressors and persecutors?
Yes, it is, certain Bible verses notwithstanding (see Hebrews 13:17, Romans 13:1).
None of us truly want to do serious jail time. But what would have happened to the Civil Rights movement if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus to the white man who asked for it? Check out other courageous women who fought for civil rights and were not afraid to resist and speak out — women like Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates and Septima Poinsette Clark, known as the “Mother of the American Civil Rights Movement.”
Think about how the absence of defiant women would have altered the abolitionist movement or the quest to secure voting rights for women — a list that includes women such as Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Jeannette Rankin and many others. These women were successful because they didn’t believe or behave in the manner expected of them.
But, granted, most of us are not called to the vocation of full-time defiance.
So how can we have a part in saving the world?
Have we forgotten another form of defiance that doesn’t involve protest marches, shouting, carrying banners or any other type of oppositional behavior?
The defiance of love and kindness is counterintuitive. Yet each little act of love and kindness is a rebellion against tyranny, bitterness and unkindness. It is a way of saying, “We do not agree with the aggressive, evil, back-stabbing, back-talking, hostile and oppressive methodologies in play in our culture today. We stand against these. We will openly and subversively sow love and kindness regardless of any perceived outcome. We are united in pursuit of a common objective.”
Each act of kindness rebuffs the haters among us.
Each unexpected demonstration of love helps to restore faith in humanity and perhaps in God — one never knows.
So, what can we expect from our defiant love?
The first thing is not to have expectations. Surely the mother of Moses did not know whether her defiance would have a good outcome. His sister, likewise, could only do her job: watch the baby in the river. The midwives could only fear God and do what was right. The Pharaoh’s daughter could only obey her maternal instinct and defy her father to save the child. Their actions were grounded in hope, not expectations.
We, too, cannot and should not expect someone to hang a medal around our necks for doing the right thing. We should not expect to see the fruit of our labors. But we must also not underestimate the importance of the little things we do in God’s service.
Let’s remember the advice of the apostle Paul: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NIV).
If there is one thing we can expect, it is that someday, when accounts are settled, we might hear our Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23, NIV).