The Warrior God as Midwife

April 1, 2011
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Jane Kanarek

A midrashic passage in the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, (Sotah 11b) explains that Israel was delivered from Egypt as a reward for the righteous women of that generation. Utilizing verses from Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, and Psalms, the Bavli weaves its tale. When the Israelite women go to draw water, God makes sure that their water pitchers fill with small fish. In defiance of Pharaoh, the women cook the fish, bring it to their husbands working in the fields, wash their husbands, feed them, and have sexual intercourse with them. The women conceive, and when the time comes to give birth, they return to the field and deliver their babies under apple trees. God sends a heavenly emissary to act as midwife, washing and straightening the limbs of these newborn babies. Taking over from the divine emissary, God also becomes a midwife and provides food to the new mothers — an oil cake and a honey cake. The Egyptians try to kill these mothers and children. But a miracle takes place and the ground swallows the women and children, protecting them from Egyptian wrath. Once the Egyptians leave, the women and babies — again miraculously — burst forth from the land and eventually return to their homes. Liberated from Egyptian slavery, they stand at the Sea of Reeds after the drowning of Pharaoh and his army and recognize God. Having seen God at the place of birth and having then been rescued by God, the women and children now point to God and proclaim, “This is my God and I will praise Him.” (Exodus 15:2)

This midrash imagines God as a savior — a divine midwife who encourages conception, helps with delivery, and protects mother and child after birth. The entire story is striking — perhaps most so for its final ingredient, a quote from the “Song at the Sea.” These biblical verses, Exodus 15:1-21, are Israel’s victory hymn to God after the Egyptian army drowns. The verses overwhelmingly use the metaphor of God as a warrior. “The Lord is a man of war,” (Exodus 15:3); “Your right hand, O Lord, in glorious power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe.” (Exodus 15:6) When the poem proclaims, “This is my God and I will praise him,” the Israelites are lauding God for the havoc God has wreaked on the Egyptians. The God of the “Song at the Sea” deals death to Israel’s enemies, and for this God is praised.

Despite the seemingly opposed trajectories of these two texts — the talmudic midrash in which God aids in birth and the verses in Exodus about death — the Bavli’s midrash on Exodus 15:2 is actually grounded in the words of the biblical text itself. For while the “Song at the Sea” portrays God as a warrior, it also describes God as guiding Israel in love, bringing the people into the Promised Land, and even to the Temple — in other words, as a caregiver. In Exodus 15, the earth swallows and buries the Egyptians; in the Bavli, the ground swallows and protects the women and babies. By choosing these images over the predominant ones of warrior and war, the Bavli presents us with an alternative metaphor of savior. Instead of saving Israel by killing the enemy, God saves Israel by aiding in birth and preventing the enemy from killing.

Even more, the Bavli has provided us with a new narrative surrounding the “Song at the Sea.” In its biblical context, Exodus 15 is a song that gives thanks for an immediate rescue of all Israel from the pursuing Egyptians. In its talmudic context, Exodus 15 is a song that also gives thanks for a past rescue of mothers and babies from the Egyptians. When the women and children sing at the Sea, they not only see God directly, but see, and remember, a God who saved them once before. Knowing the Bavli’s narrative, as readers of Exodus 15:2, we can hear this story of the righteous women within the biblical song. The talmudic image of God becomes a counter text to that of Exodus 15, an alternative narrative of what and who God can be.

Anchoring itself in sacred scripture, the Talmud presents us with the transformative power of midrash and rabbinic reading. In the world of midrash, no scriptural image is static. By drawing on less-noted images in Exodus 15 and weaving them together with other scriptural verses, the Bavli provides us with another metaphor for God. Midrash teaches us that the divine is limitless. For if the warrior God can become a midwife, what else might be possible for us to imagine?

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Rabbi Jane Kanarek, PhD, is assistant professor of rabbinics in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College where she teaches Talmud, midrash, and halakhah. She is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

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