When Joseph was long forgotten, a new pharaoh arose whose desire was to weaken Israel. His treatment of God’s people grew increasingly worse culminating in his gruesome decree that the baby boys in Israel were to be killed upon birth. Who was given this awful task? Two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, whose love and fear of God gave them the strength and courage to defy Pharaoh.
What Does the Biblical Text Say?
Before commencing our study, let’s read the Biblical record, Exodus 1:8-22.
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. 15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”Exodus 1:8-22 (ESV)
Why Did Pharaoh Want to Kill the Male Newborns?
If Pharaoh wanted to destroy the Hebrew population, why didn’t he just exterminate them all? Because the people of Israel provided needed labor for the pharaoh’s building projects (See verse 11).
His desire was not to completely exterminate the entire population, but rather to weaken them as a potential military force.
Come let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.Exodus 1:10 (ESV)
Men were the ones conscripted into battles. In this long term plan, he was, therefore, maximizing his present labor force, but limiting the future military potential of the people of Israel.
Ironically, in his belief that the strength of the Hebrews was rooted in their men, he failed to account for the courage, wit, and resourcefulness of its women. Two of those women were Shiphrah and Puah.Ironically, in Pharaoh's belief that the strength of the Hebrews was rooted in their men, he failed to account for the courage, wit, and resourcefulness of its women. Two of those women were Shiphrah and Puah (midwives in the Exodus… Click To Tweet
Who Were Shiphrah and Puah?
On the surface, the way verse 15 is translated, it appears that the midwives were Hebrew women. However, in the ancient manuscripts, the phrase as it appears in Hebrew could also be translated as “midwives to the Hebrew women.” This has led to disagreement among biblical scholars on whether Puah and Shiphrah were Hebrew or Egyptian midwives.
Scholars who believe that these were Egyptian women, find it difficult to see how a pharaoh, who was considered to be a god, would entrust such an important task (albeit evil) to two Hebrew women. How could they be trusted to accomplish it? For Pharaoh to entrust two individuals with his order implies a certain level of trust and confidence that they would accomplish his will. If they were Egyptian, it is easier to explain why Pharaoh would trust them. A good case is made for it here and that is the position that the well-regarded historian Josephus also took.
Others argue that they were indeed Hebrew women. The complex relationships between nations and their slave populations make that a very real possibility. For example, consider Daniel, a Hebrew man, who served in a powerful position within the court of a foreign nation. Could it be possible that the midwives were Hebrew women holding positions of influence within Egypt? Yes, but not in a Daniel-like fashion. Rosalind Johnson argues here that the midwives could have been part of the royal harem. If that was the case, Pharaoh could have known them personally and might have even favored them.
Regardless of whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew, their courage is exceptional. As Egyptian women, they would have adopted a foreign God and rejected their own god (pharaoh). As Hebrew women, they would have been defying the very entity who wanted to destroy their people.
The Midwives Stand Before Pharaoh
Shiphrah and Puah stand among a history of brave and courageous individuals, such as Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust and Harriet Tubman during the American slavery period, who defied governments and institutions to save people from torture and extermination. But courage is not the absence of fear.
When Shiphrah and Puah chose to disobey Pharaoh and chose not to kill the baby boys, they did so knowing full well the risk upon their own lives. Those moments before being summoned to stand before Pharaoh and give an account of their actions must have been absolutely terrifying. Once questioned by Pharaoh, they give this response:
“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”Exodus 1:19
Pharaoh seemed satisfied enough with the answer and it does not appear that he took any reprisals against them. It is difficult to ascertain why their answer was satisfactory.
Was there something particular in the response that culturally made sense to Pharaoh? Where the women faithful servants to Pharaoh in all other matters and he, therefore, chose to ignore their transgression? Or did God intervene on the women’s behalf? We won’t know the answer on this side of eternity. However, despite Pharaoh’s choice to overlook the midwives’ failure, he was still committed to his end goal. He, therefore, elevated his decree by commanding his own people to cast the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile.
How did God Reward Shiphrah and Puah?
The ESV translates the reward as “he gave them families” and the KJV as “he made them houses.” Most translations follow the path of the ESV, but a few such as the NASB and NET use the word “household.” (Follow this link to see all the translations). However, I believe that the popular translation of “families,” does not exactly convey what God gave these women.
Children and families are a blessing and that in itself would have been a great reward, but there is more going in the text than what we see on the surface of most of the translations. The key lies in the Hebrew word transliterated as “bayith”
Although the word could be used to mean “a house” or a “dwelling,” it is also used to refer to an entire household or progeny (aka descendant or line of descendants). For example, when you hear the term “the house of David,” it refers to not just the people within his household at the time–but his whole line of descendants.
Most Biblical uses of the word “bayith” are in reference to the “bayith” belonging to men. For example, “father’s house,” “Abraham’s house,” “the house of Jacob” are all ways this word is used. This is not surprising for patriarchal societies, but that the term is used in reference to Puah and Shiphrah should give us pause.
The Bible does mention in various places that God blessed women with children and hence families. Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Hannah are some of the most prominent examples. But what is the terminology that is used in reference to these five women?
God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.Genesis 17:19 (ESV)
When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.Genesis 29: 31 (ESV)
Genesis 30: 22 (ESV)
And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.Genesis 25:21 (ESV)
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.”1 Samuel 1:19-20 (ESV)
The same terminology is not used for Shiphrah and Puah. It doesn’t say that God opened their wombs, nor that they conceived, nor that they bore a son or daughter–words usually used in reference to women as bearers of children. It says that God made them “bayith,” a term usually used in reference to men owning or being the heads of their household or lineage.
What God granted Shiphrah and Puah went beyond bearing children and having little ones running around. He gave them a line of descendants. This interpretation of the text would be consistent with the reward God gave another woman who through her courageous act saved the people of Israel, Rahab. Or the reward God gave Ruth, who left her gods and own family behind to follow the God of Israel.
Four Lessons Learned from Shiphrah and Puah
What can we take away from the account of Shiphrah and Puah? I identified four main lessons, but like many other biblical accounts, there may be others I have not considered.
Lesson 1: Choosing the Fear of God vs the Fear of Man
Why did the midwives choose to disobey Pharaoh? The text states their motivation in verse 17. They feared God. It is as simple as that. Shiphrah and Puah teach us that the fear of God should always prevail. When stuck between a stone and a hard place, we must choose God and do the right thing.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28 (ESV)
Thankfully, our God is good and gracious and we don’t serve a distant God’s whose desire is to strike us with lightning bolts any chance He gets. We serve a God who seeks relationship, who sees us, and who loves us, but we must not forget who He is. He is the almighty, all-powerful God. God loves us deeply, but the security of that love must be intertwined with the knowledge that He is the creator of all.
Evil men and women may seek to destroy us and they may succeed in destroying our physical bodies, but they can never separate us from the love of God. And we rest in the hope that one day our mind and bodies will be perfectly restored and we will forever be with the Lord.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39 (ESV)
Modern-Day Application: Let’s think about ways how this can affect our every day lives. Do we fear writing about Jesus on social media because we are afraid of what people may say? If our friends have strayed from what is right, do we keep silent in fear of losing the friendship? Do we fear to take a stance for God in our businesses because of the economic fallout? And if we are in a place where preaching the gospel is illegal, do we fear imprisonment, torture, or even death?
In every decision, we must be wise and use wisdom (read my blog on Abigail, Wise as a Serpents, Innocent as Doves on how to use wisdom in our every-day decisions). We can’t be like bulls in a china shop and blurt things out, even if it is truth. There are times to be silent, but we must be honest with ourselves whether wisdom or fear is constraining us. If it is the latter, then we must reconsider our decision.
Relevant Article: Abigail, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves
Lesson 2: When Civil Disobedience is Necessary
Civil disobedience is the act of disobeying an order or law in a non-violent way. Shiphrah and Puah experimented with civil disobedience when they refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders.
For the most part, we Americans find ourselves in a country where we can still practice our faith and voice our opinions openly. But even here, there will be times when social disobedience is necessary, especially when we are standing up for a group of people who are being treated unfairly. Martin Luther King, Jr is a modern example of what it looks like for a Christian man or woman to disobey a government authority. His actions led to radical change in-laws and regulations regarding African Americans and he gave his life for that cause.
But civil disobedience must always be coupled with God’s instructions in Romans 13:1-2. We walk a fine line when we choose to participate in civil disobedience. Biblically, it is justified when laws and regulations run contrary to God’s word such as when Pharaoh wanted to kill the baby boys. Shiphrah and Puah were biblically justified in their actions and confirmed by God when He rewarded them. However, it is a decision that we must make in prayer, in humility, and we must use God’s word as our measuring stick.
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.Romans 13:1-2 (ESV)
Modern-Day Application: We are living in a time when Christians are considering civil disobedience due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Is civil disobedience justified in this case? We must ask ourselves, are government authorities running contrary to God’s word? Did not God use quarantines (laws regarding lepers for example) in the Old Testament to protect infectious diseases from spreading? Is the government trying to harm a group of people intentionally? Is the overall economic well-being of the nation enough to justify it?
Personally, I believe that civil disobedience, in this case, is not justified. I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where a system of government or the economic well-being of a nation is a God-given right. These are times for the Church to be radical in prayer and in the way it helps the poor and sick. And Christians can still be innovative and creative in the way they influence government, media, and businesses, but civil disobedience is not one of them.
Lesson 3: God Looks at the Heart
The response that Shiphrah and Puah gave Pharaoh when he questioned them seems to be the most difficult passage for commentators. Let’s review the midwives’ response.
“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”Exodus 1:19 (ESV)
Shiphrah and Puah lied and biblical commentators have a hard time reconciling why in the immediate verse afterward it says, “so God dealt well with the midwives.” If the women lied, why would God reward them?
One commentator went as far as to say that the women didn’t lie and the Hebrew women were indeed able to give birth on their own. Hebrew women were likely stronger than Egyptian women as a result of the difficult circumstances they had been forced to endure. However, it is unreasonable to believe that the midwives did not assist in any births of a male Hebrew child. There was clear deception on their part, even if it was just a half-truth.
There are various Bible verses about how much God dislikes liars. This verse in Proverbs stands out.
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.Proverbs 12:22 (ESV)
So why then would God reward them?
The reason we all have a hard time answering that question is that we let religion permeate our thinking. That is exactly how the Pharisees operated. They looked at every rule and law and took love out of the equation, but that is not who our God is.
God was not rewarding their lying, he was rewarding their faithfulness, even if lying was a part of it. Shiphrah and Puah were not perpetual liars who used lying for their own personal gain. They were women stuck between a stone and a hard place trying to do their best to be faithful to the one true God. God was looking at their hearts!
No one in their right mind would take the heroes of the Holocaust and negate the risks they took to save thousands of Jews from torture and execution because they lied to achieve that end. All those heroes lied. They had to use deception for a much greater good.
God understands that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world who sometimes operate in grey areas. And just as God would condemn a Pharisee who follows every rule and law without an ounce of love in his heart, he would reward a person who stumbles through life making mistakes left and right but whose heart is unselfish and full of love.
Modern-Day Application: On most occasions when we have lied, selfishness, or pride were at the heart of our decision. Think about those times when you have lied and the reasons behind it? Were you trying to save yourself from embarrassment? Were you trying to make yourself out to be better than someone else?
Now think of some areas in your life where you can begin to operate from a place of love. Can you think of circumstances where you can begin to take risks out of faithfulness to God? For example, do you need to be perfect to begin working on that ministry God put in your heart so long ago? Is it better to stumble through it but accomplish something great for God’s glory than to never start at all because you are waiting to reach spiritual perfection?
Lesson 4: Learning to be Ezer Women
Shiphrah and Puah were true “ezer” women. Ezer is the Hebrew word behind the English translation of “helper” in Genesis 2:18. God said he created the woman to be an “ezer” for the man. This word “ezer” is the same word God uses to describe himself when He rescued Israel and its people from various wars and difficulties. (For a complete discussion and Biblical references on the word “ezer,” please see my article: Biblical Womanhood: A New Look at Help-Meet.)
To be a rescuer is to be a help-meet, an “ezer” woman. That is the essence of what Shiphrah and Puah did. Through their act of defiance, Shiphrah and Puah rescued the baby boys. They also paved the way for two other help-meets, Miriam and Jochebed who would rescue Moses. These four women laid the foundation so that Moses could become the leader God designed him to be. But Moses’ journey began with four strong “ezer” women behind him.
Modern-Day Application: Often, when we think about the characteristics of who we are as women, “good mother,” “loving wife,” “patient friend,” may all come to mind. But how often do we think of ourselves as rescuers? Taking it a step further, how often do we train our daughters to be a rescuer?
Not all of us will be in a situation where we have the opportunity to save an entire people from execution, but there are other ways that we can rescue those around us. Here are just few examples:
- You can rescue your family from financial ruin, by starting your own business.
- You can rescue women caught in sex-trafficking by leading or volunteering in organizations dedicated to that cause.
- You can rescue a child from rejection and loneliness by fostering or adopting.
- You can rescue fellow co-workers by filling in for them during a hard time.
Shiphrah and Puah are little known heroes who are not often mentioned in discussions of great women of the Bible. And yet, the example they leave us is remarkable. May we all seek to be “ezer” women like the two midwivse who feared God more than a pharaoh.
Relevant Article: Biblical Womanhood: A New Look at Help-Meet