Part 1: Women at Work…

Have you ever taken a stand that might have resulted in you being demoted, fired, or even killed? Have you ever had a directive from the top that would have torn at your conscience had you carried it out?

That’s what it was like for midwives Shiprah and Puah, working at the time Moses was born. First in the Bible to exercise civil disobedience, they risked their lives to save the babies in their care, born and unborn. Generally believed to be Egyptians, they bravely crossed a cultural and racial divide to save the children of Hebrew slaves–and in the process, defied Pharaoh and his administration.

Picture yourself standing beside them…

Exodus brings a new era, for the bones of Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Rebekah, and Tamar have turned to dust under the hot Mediterranean sun and soil. No longer is there a descendant of Sarah and Abraham in a position of authority, as was Joseph. Instead the Hebrew people are forced to toil daily as slaves, roasting in the hot sun, building temples, roads and tombs year after year.

In typical Egyptian-ruler 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 were 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: the slaughter of all male Hebrew babies under two years old to both destabilize and demoralize the people.

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 Puah are called before Pharaoh and told they must destroy new life, they are horrified. Chances are they would have been killed on the spot had they resisted. Somehow they managed to stay alive and return home.

Back at work, exercising their vocation, they know they cannot kill; the power to do so is just not within their souls. They are healers, life-givers, not murderers. Continuing to help babies draw their first breaths, they simply go about their jobs, their holy calling.

Soon they are hauled back to face the king. “Why have you allowed the boys to live?”

Dodging the truth is less evil than killing children. They find their answer: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Exodus 1:19)

Ah, a solution, albeit temporary. Raising the stakes, Pharaoh orders all newborn Hebrew boys to be thrown into the Nile River, for death would be certain there. But that is the story for another day.

We don’t know if Shiprah and Puah were the ones who delivered little Moses; the Bible does not say. We do know that the story takes place about the time of Moses’ birth. And we do know that because of the protective arms of a series of women (Pharaoh’s daughter; Jochobed, Moses’ mother; Miriam, his sister, etc.), Moses grew to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery.

Bravo, Shiprah and Puah! You stepped out and did the right thing. You found a way around the evil powers of your day. You stayed true to your calling: healers and givers of life, not agents of destruction.

Consider this

Shiphrah and Puah they took the right path, the moral path, instead of following an unjust mandate.

Fighting unjust laws often begins with small steps. Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Think of Mulala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for simply seeking an education. Think of Saudi Arabian women slipping behind the wheel and driving, even though they do not have the legal right to do so.

What might we learn from them?

That there are principles worth fighting and dying for.
That our vocations, whether at home, at the office or on the battlefield, are worthy of all we can give.
That our actions may reverberate for generations.

For reflection

There were many midwives in biblical times, but only Shiphrah and Puah are remembered by name. How did their act of civil disobedience set the tone for Moses’ accomplishments?

If asked to kill a newborn, how might you react?

Have you ever acted on the principal of civil disobedience? To what extent did your faith help you with the process and what was the result?


Photo: Scott Gunn, Australian collection