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Taking a Stand

What can we learn from the courage and faith of the Hebrew midwives?

By: Jeanne Kun

Taking a Stand: What can we learn from the courage and faith of the Hebrew midwives? by Jeanne Kun

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy.

Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 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.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then 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.” Exodus 1:1-22

Shiphrah and Puah? Not many contestants in a Bible trivia game could identify them! Indeed, the Book of Exodus makes only brief mention of these two women who lived more than three millennia ago. Yet their story is a clarion call to us today to take a stand against sin and wrongdoing, even when the cost of doing so is high.

Exodus tells the story of the deliverance of the “sons of Israel” from their cruel bondage in Egypt. Joseph was the son of the ancient patriarch Jacob. His brothers, who were jealous of him, sold him into slavery, but eventually Joseph rose to great power in Egypt under Pharaoh’s authority. So when Jacob and his sons came to Egypt seeking refuge from famine, they were generously welcomed. But life in Egypt did not remain rosy for the Israelite settlers. When a new Egyptian king who did not remember Joseph rose to power (Exodus 1:8), the Israelites endured the bitter oppression that God had foretold to Abraham many generations earlier (Genesis 15:13).

“Pharaoh” is an Egyptian royal title meaning “great house” or “palace.” The Book of Exodus never refers to the Egyptian king by a given, personal name. With this impersonal designation and namelessness, we can see in Pharaoh a symbol of the human and spiritual forces that oppressed the Israelites in the time before their “exodus,” or departure, from Egypt. It is those same forces that oppress humankind today, but from which Jesus, the Passover lamb, came to deliver us.

Pharaoh was threatened by the growing strength and number of Israelites in his nation. So when harsh servitude failed as a means of population control (Exodus 1:12), Pharaoh turned to infanticide, ordering that their male newborns be killed (1:15-16). Yet why did he think that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, women who were dedicated to bring life into the world, would be willing to obey this heinous command to be purveyors of death?

The original Hebrew text of Exodus 1:15 can be translated as “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews”—both are linguistically possible. Consequently, biblical scholars have debated whether Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrews themselves or Egyptians attending Hebrew women in childbirth. If the midwives were Egyptians, Pharaoh might have assumed that they would be compliant to his plan. However, their names are considered by many linguists to be of Semitic origin, not Egyptian—Shiphrah possibly meaning “beautiful,” “fair,” or “pleasing” and Puah, “splendid.”

The Hebrew text states that the midwives refused to carry out Pharaoh’s command because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17). This statement doesn’t seem to refer to their regard for the array of Egyptian deities. Throughout the Bible, “fear of the Lord” describes the reverence, respect, and esteem that one has in acknowledgment of and response to God’s goodness and power. It is not dreadful fright but rather awe at God’s greatness and love. The psalmist writes that “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, / and he makes his covenant known to them” (Psalm 25:14; see also Psalm 34:10-14). Those who fear the Lord are in right relationship with him.

Motivated by their reverent fear of God, Shiphrah and Puah had the courage to honor and obey him rather than the Egyptian king. These women played a key role in preserving life, risking their own lives by defying Pharaoh’s order. When Pharaoh questioned why they “allowed the boys to live” (Exodus 1:18), they shrewdly asserted that Hebrew women were so “vigorous” that, unlike the Egyptians, they quickly gave birth before a midwife could arrive to attend them (1:19).

Shiphrah and Puah’s godly refusal to commit infanticide is perhaps the earliest known example in history of civil disobedience to an evil, oppressive regime. The midwives’ stand, perhaps at risk to their own lives, protected the baby boys, allowing the Hebrew people to flourish. God rewarded the women for their righteousness, courage, and “fear” by giving them “families” (Exodus 1:21)—children and descendants to carry on life to future generations.

What are the “take-aways” for us today from this story of Shiphrah and Puah?

  • The midwives’ position of service and influence was no accident; rather, it enabled them to defend the lives of the male Hebrew babies. This gives us an assurance that even in a crisis, God is always at work to further his purposes and accomplish his will.
  • Shiphrah and Puah didn’t play a passive role in this crisis; they did not become helpless victims. Revering God, they put their trust in him and acted decisively.
  • Shiphrah and Puah are surprisingly contemporary models. The conflict presented to them by the Pharaoh’s death-dealing command is still played out today when society confronts us with demands hostile to Christianity. The story of the midwives reminds us that we, too, are threatened by evil, including sin, sickness, war, racism, and death. And like Shiphrah and Puah, we may have to risk, our reputation, our security, or even our lives for the sake of others. We can only do that when we put our trust in God, who will never fail to help us.

Not to be thwarted in his murderous intentions by the midwives’ refusal, Pharaoh commanded “all his people” to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22). Yet there is irony here, as Scripture commentator Stephen J. Binz has noted.

Each form of oppression portends the eventual triumph of Israel. The midwives, in saving the sons from death, foreshadow the saving activity of God in the Passover. The drowning of the boys in the Nile anticipates the way Pharaoh and his armies will meet their death. The oppressive actions, finally, prepare the way for the story of Moses’ birth. (The God of Freedom and Life)

Shiphrah and Puah’s story is brief, but it records a significant event at the beginning of the long story of the Israelites’ deliverance. In the chapters that follow, God raises up Moses as a liberator through whom the Israelites gain freedom from their slavery and oppression in Egypt. Ultimately, this “rescue” story told in the Book of Exodus is our story too, for the work of Moses foreshadows the saving work of Christ that sets each one of us free from the bondages of sin and death.

An excerpt from Biblical Women in Crisis: Portraits of Faith and Trust by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). This and Keys to the Bible study guides by Jeanne are available at wau.org/books

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