The Hebrew Midwives: The Power of the Powerless (Exodus1)

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Sometimes you read a passage in the Bible and you’re struck with how unexpectedly relevant it seems. Take, for instance, the story of the two Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.

The context: the Israelites have been living in Israel for about 200 years now, after Joseph helped saved the country from starvation at the end of Genesis. However, that was a long time ago, and the Israelites have gone from being honoured guests to, well, unappreciated immigrants. Even though they’ve been there for decades, the surrounding population, including the Pharaoh, has started to distrust them – they’re having too many kids, sooner or later they’ll be taking over, and you know we can’t trust them, because they’re not really like us and we can’t trust them to be on our side in a war and…

It all sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Replace ‘Israelites’ with ‘Muslims’ or ‘Mexicans’ or, well, ‘Jews’ and we’re not a million miles away from the sort of thing that can easily be found in the press or on the internet today. About the only thing the Israelites aren’t accused of is stealing the jobs of Egyptians, but that’s because they’re pressed into slavery.

Looks like this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years. Sometimes it’s so engrained we don’t even notice how insidious it is. That’s why, when we encounter the immigration debate (whatever form it takes in whatever country you happen to live in) we need to take a step back and see if we’re really reflecting the love of Christ when we’re reflecting – or complaining – about it.

But it’s not just an example of anti-immigration rhetoric; there’s something else going on. Look at Exodus 1:7: “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land as filled with them.” This echoes Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1 (the creation of humanity and the aftermath of the Flood respectively) and does so using the language of childbirth, which makes it interesting when we’re introduced to the heroes of this particular passage.

There’s a bit of controversy about this story – did God reward the midwives for lying? Some have said that lying was the lesser of two evils and necessary to prevent genocide; others have claimed that they were actually telling the truth and the babies were born before the midwives arrived. I’m not even going to pretend to have an answer for this (although to me, the passage implies that the midwives were present for the births, which means they’re giving Pharaoh a false alibi rather than a straight-forward explanation) but it’s worth looking at the wider context.

Effectively Shiphrah and Puah save children from ethnic cleansing. Whether or not they lied, and the ethics of that, is a secondary discussion – they’re the undoubted heroines of this chapter, and I suspect they’re able to get away with it precisely because they’re women. After all, they’re midwives – they’re the ones with access to the newborn children – and they know about childbirth. It’s this knowledge that allows them to muddy the waters with Pharaoh; I suspect he had little experience or even interest in the ins and outs of childbirth, or went to many antenatal classes. No, this is a rescue that could only be carried out by women, and results in more babies being born. Pharaoh’s ignorance of the Hebrews allows the most powerful man in the kingdom to be outwitted by two people significantly further down the social ladder. That’s what happens when you dehumanise people.

But not only are Shiphrah and Puah two of the earliest biblical women who actually prove more faithful and heroic than many of the men around them (note that the Bible never tells us the name of this particular Pharaoh, but we know the names of two midwives – God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours), but they’re also emblematic of those who make the right decision in the face of genocide; they join the ranks of all those ordinary people who spoke out against injustice and who saved innocent lives when history clouded over. They deserve to be remembered alongside iconic names like Oskar Schindler and my local hero Frank Foley. After all, while they may not have been the most powerful people in the kingdom, they were able to take what they had – their knowledge, their jobs, their faith – and use it to show love for others and love for God. In doing so they become a pattern for you and me – let’s pray that, next time we’re faced with a decision for good or evil, we’re able to follow their example and use the power of the powerless to make a difference in the world.

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3 thoughts on “The Hebrew Midwives: The Power of the Powerless (Exodus1)

  1. I’ve heard people have real struggles with the lying. Personally, I think they totally lied. That makes me like them more. I would guess that most people who have trouble understanding how God doesn’t mind them lying have never been anywhere near a situation like the one they were in. Not that I have either, for the record. It’s the same reason God punishes Pharaoh for taking Sarah in genesis. Abraham lied, but pharaoh had a system set up where he could take whatever woman he wanted. Which is worse? Plus, God hadn’t told them not to lie yet.

    • Oh, totally. Personally I think they lied through their teeth when they realised that Pharaoh didn’t know much about childbirth! Besides… Jacob is Israel’s eponymous hero and he was a total hustler – I think we can give the midwives a break compared to him…

  2. Pingback: Noticing Injustice and an Unburning Bush (Exodus 3:1-4) | The Left Hand of Ehud: Matt's Bible Blog

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