The Midwives of Exodus

Parting the waters of the Red Sea is the central theme in the Book of Exodus, and Moses gets considerable attention for doing it — and for freeing the Hebrew people from tyranny under Pharaoh. But without at least five women, there wouldn’t have been any Moses; he wouldn’t have lived. And those five are the very ones whose words were recorded in the book of Exodus.

They are Jochobed, his mother (who floated his little basket in the Nile River); Miriam, his sister, who watched and suggested a win/win deal; Pharaoh’s daughter, who fell in love with him while bathing in the Nile; and two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.

Today: Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1), the 10th and 11th women to speak in scripture. Their action was the first act of civil disobedience in the Bible…and that is something to celebrate.

Here’s what happened: in the ancient days of Egypt (traditional biblical history points to about 1300 BCE), the Hebrew people were in captivity to Egyptian people under a king “who did not know Joseph.” Lots of long physical back-breaking work. Yet that work didn’t break their backs; it made them stronger. In typical biblical fashion, Pharaoh (like Herod, around the time Jesus was born) is threatened by both their numbers and their muscle. And he’s not the only one. The Bible says “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…and the Egyptians became ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them…” (Exodus 1:12-14)

Worried that the Hebrew people will overthrow the country, Pharaoh decrees a horrible edict: to slaugher all male Hebrew babies so as to weaken the strength of future generations. Worse yet, he tells the midwives to do it.

Midwives, however, are in the business of facilitating birth, bringing children into the world — not destroying them. And on that fateful day, when Shiphrah and Pual are called before Pharaoh and told they must destroy life, they are quiet. No doubt they could have been killed on the spot had they resisted.

They go away. But in their work, they find they cannot kill; the power to do so is just not within their souls. They are healers, life-givers. The children under their care draw their first breath and live to draw many more; apparently the mothers prosper as well.

This move, however, does not help their careers, at least in Pharaoh’s eyes. And it threatens their very lives, for they are brought back to the throne.

“Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” he asks.

And the midwives respond: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

Civil disobedience — and a little deceit. Clever in their response, they find a way around the system.

We don’t know if they were the midwives who delivered Moses into the world. But they set the stage that allowed him to live. Perhaps they were the ones who saved his life; perhaps they encouraged others to make the same brave decision they did. Either way, they were heroes.

Pharaoh, of course, does not give up. He then orders his people to throw all baby boys into the Nile River. But that is a story for another day.

I’d rather go with the midwives’ way of looking at things: “L’chaim!” — in Hebrew, “To life!”

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