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The Midwives

Pharaoh’s growing problem

Pharaoh was anxious. The increasing size of the Israelite presence in Egypt’s Delta region was worrisome, and in spite of his imposition of harsh servitude, they just continued to multiply. These people were a strong, valuable workforce, and he knew they couldn’t arm themselves and turn against Egypt. After all, they were in bondage and dependent on Egypt for food. However, if his slaves ever aligned with an enemy, that would pose a significant threat. Three million slaves lived in Goshen and 600,000 of them were men—potential warriors. Something must be done.

A depiction of the Hebrews' bondage in Egypt, ...

A depiction of the Hebrews’ bondage in Egypt, during which they were forced to make bricks without straw. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pharaoh had to deal with the number of slaves without destroying slavery. His solution was to decrease the number of Hebrew males. Harsh servitude hadn’t worked. Perhaps a systematic elimination of baby boys would lower the slave birthrate, and the forcing of the females to marry Egyptian men or become household slaves in Egyptian homes would produce children loyal to Egypt. So he devised a plan.

He would require midwives to do the extermination. They assisted at Hebrew deliveries and could quickly drown the babies before suspicions were raised.[1] They could report that the infants had been stillborn.

Who were these midwives?

Scripture does not say if Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian or Hebrew midwives. Likely they were Hebrew because of their Semitic names and their fear of God (Ex.1:17). The two women probably represented of a guild of midwives, and that may have been why Pharaoh singled them out. He explained the procedure they were to follow at the birth of a Hebrew boy and expected them to pass on the order.

When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools,[2] if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.

Looking back over 3500 years, it’s hard to imagine what happened when Shiphrah and Puah stood before Pharaoh. Did they say anything in his presence? Did they remain silent and feign compliance? Did they tell the other midwives to secretly disobey? How did they evade his order? Scripture doesn’t say. But they were successful for some length of time because “the people multiplied and grew very mighty” (Ex.1:20).

Amazing Intervention

Eventually Pharaoh realized that the Hebrew baby boys were being saved, and he asked the midwives for an explanation.

Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?

Shiphrah and Puah came up with what seems like a barely credible excuse for all the live baby boys.

The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before a midwife can get to them.

As Pharaoh listened, God must have endowed their words with believable-ness, creating a reasonable delusion in his mind—His plan wasn’t working because Hebrew women had faster rates of delivery than Egyptian women.

God blessed the midwives in additional ways: Pharaoh didn’t execute them for disobedience; the Egyptian king shifted the responsibility for killing babies to the Egyptian people; and God provided households for the midwives (Ex. 1:20).

Legacy

The names of Shiphrah and Puah[3] were recorded in Exodus for succeeding generations to understand that their courage mattered to God. It made a difference in history.[4]

I wonder if they ever knew that one of the baby boys who lived was Moses—the one destined to become the deliverer of Israel.—Mary Hendren

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[1] According to John J. Davis, in his book Moses and the Gods of Egypt (1971), p. 50, midwives aided at childbirth by “taking the newborn child, cutting its umbilical cord, washing the baby with water, salting, and wrapping it.” Some propose that babies were to be drowned under the guise of washing them immediately after their birth.

[2] Egyptian women were often delivered while squatting on two large bricks. There is some evidence that, at least in the New Kingdom, birth took place, if possible, in a specially built structure erected perhaps in the garden or on the roof of the house. (See Women in Ancient Egypt, Gay Robins, 1993, p. 83.)

[3] It is interesting that the specific names of the midwives are given, but the pharaoh of the Israelite oppression remains anonymous and a subject of continuing debate and discussion. (See Exploring Exodus (1971), Nahum Sarna, pp 24-5.)

[4] The Nelson’s StudyBible, NKJV, 2007, p. 91, note on v. 15.

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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