What we can learn from two women who stood up to Pharaoh
By Joanna Felts
As we travel through the Bible and find examples of how we are to live today, we find an inconspicuous little narrative (Exod. 1:1-21) that helps us think clearly about how much God values human life.
Joseph was at one time the most powerful man in Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself. Had God not placed Joseph in a caravan of traders headed to Egypt and brought him to Pharaoh’s attention, the Israelites and Egyptians would have starved when a severe famine came to “all the world” (Gen. 41:56). Joseph is famous but not royal—he is not in the line of the Pharaohs—and so his fame passes. The King James Version states, “There came a king who knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8).
Too many Israelites
The Israelite nation took its mandate to become as sands of the sea literally. Exodus 1 notest hat after Joseph’s generation dies, there are lots and lots of Hebrew babies that grow into adults that reproduce babies that grow into adults that reproduce babies…. This new Pharaoh sees the great congregation of the Hebrews as a force to dread. He fears that this large assembly of people will take over Egypt, and so he tries to annihilate the Israelites.
First, he makes them his slaves. They work hard in the burning heat of the sun to build the palaces and great storage chambers of the Egyptian cities. They work in the quarries, they make blocks, and they build the great cities of ancient Egypt by the sweat of their brow.
But the more they are oppressed the more they multiply. Pharaoh adds to their tasks, but still the babies come. And so Pharaoh devises another scheme more horrible than the others—the genocide of the babies.
For many years in our own culture, doctors have sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. This pledge challenges doctors to put the needs of the patient first and to do his or her best to care for the patient. Pharaoh has no such compulsion.
Ordered to kill
Shiphrah and Puah are midwives to the Hebrew women and because of Pharaoh’s murderous quest against the Hebrews, he orders the two women to kill the baby boys—the girls are of no consequence—as they are born. “…If it is a boy, kill him,” says Pharaoh (Exod. 1:16). And thus, the Israelites will cease to multiply.
Not only is Pharaoh asking these two women to destroy life, which had already been established as precious to God (Gen. 1:31; 9:6). Not only is he asking them to go against the very nature of their vocation—being a midwife is to help bring life into the world, not to take life. Pharaoh is asking them to disobey Elohim, the creator of all life.
It seems unlikely that these are the only two midwives among the great numbers of Israelites, so some have assumed that these were the “charge nurses” among the midwives. This would mean that Pharaoh intends for Shiphrah and Puah to pass these instructions on to the other midwives: Kill all the baby boys, even as the mothers are birthing these children.
But Pharaoh reckoned without the backbone that infuses those who serve the living God. These two women feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. The word “fear” for 21st century Americans means primarily “to be afraid of; terror; or worry.” And in many instances, the biblical rendering of fear conforms to this definition. That is why there is a comfort phrase that often follows the account of humans seeing angels or other messengers of God: “Do not fear.”
However, there is another meaning of the word that we often forget when reading the Old Testament. That meaning of fear is “reverence; stand in awe of.” Whether these two women were reverencing Yahweh, were afraid of him, or both, the result was that the baby boys lived.
The two midwives experience direct consequences to their actions from two sources. Pharaoh does not appreciate their refusal to obey him. When Pharaoh finds out that the baby boys are alive and well, he summons Shiphrah and Puah for testimony. To his questions about why the baby boys were alive, the midwives respond, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (Exod. 1:19).
Some scholars regard these women as liars because of this statement. However, there doesn’t seem to be a real reason to second-guess their honesty. Women who are used to daily, demanding labor, especially those who work hard in the fields, generally give birth more easily than women who are not physically strong. Maybe the midwives simply responded slowly to the calls for help in birthing the babies because of their fear of God, which meant the Israelite women had time to give birth before the midwives arrived.
There is another possibility. We serve a God who is capable of speeding up the birth of a child when necessary, just as he is capable of growing a plant or building a mountain. He is the author of the birth process, and so there is the distinct possibility that while the midwives were on notice to kill the baby boys, God intervened miraculously and gave swift birthing processes to the Hebrew women.
The second direct consequence these women face comes from God himself. God accepts their sacrifice and in turn gives them “houses of their own” according to Exodus 1:21 in the New King James Version or “families of their own” according to the New International Version. This wording suggests that up until then, they had not had houses or families of their own. Maybe they, like many others, wished for and longed for their very own place and their very own children. And in this instance God immediately granted the longings of their heart.
Sometimes God’s promises and rewards are given long after we have accomplished the tasks he sets for us. But sometimes he gives his rewards immediately. In this case, God gives the reward without delay and establishes the two midwives so that everyone, perhaps even including Pharaoh, could see that obeying God rather than men is a most important ambition.
In our societytoday, little value is placed upon life—either that of children or adults.While the story of Shiphrah and Puah does not deal specifically with abortion or assisted suicide, it does deal with infanticide, a practice in many societies even in the 21st century. Life, as created by God, is to be valued and not extinguished at our own whims and for our own convenience. Pharaoh was looking to annihilate a nation; others today are simply looking to annihilate an inconvenience.
God is looking for those among his people who will step out and take the consequences for obedience to him and his Word. There may be earthly consequences, including derision from those we regard as friends. But the heavenly consequences for valuing life as God values it—now that is of incomparable worth.
In Malachi 3:10 God says we should test him and see if he is able to pour out blessings upon those who obey him. This principle still holds true. God blesses those who follow his precepts, as Shiphrah and Puah did. And when we find and uphold those in our communities who work to sustain life, God will bless our efforts.
Joanna Felts is a freelance writer in Fresno, Calif. She serves beside her husband in their home church – he as the pastor and she as the ministries coordinator. She is a 2004 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary and was the interim editor of Witness, MBMS International’s mission’s magazine. She writes the online discussion questions for each issue of the Christian Leader
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