Today, we are leaving behind the Matriarchs and jumping forward several centuries and meeting some of the women in Moses life. We will be talking about some women with whom you are probably very familiar. Women like Moses mother Jochabed who made a little reed basket and placed him in the Nile or Pharaoh’s daughter who scooped him up out of the same river. But I bet you probably have never really met Shiphrah and Puah.
In Exodus 1:15, we are introduced to these two women who were midwives. To be honest, I’m rather glad these names aren’t still in vogue, especially Puah.
The name Shiphrah means “fair one,” and the name Puah means simply “girl.” (Apparently, Puah’s parents weren’t very creative) We can pull out two facts from this verse about these two women. The first fact is that they were Hebrew midwives, and the second is that they were on speaking terms with the Pharaoh.
To really understand all this, we have to go back to the Egyptian culture of that time. Midwives, unlike today, were held in very high regard. Fertility and childbirth in that time were very important and large families were prized. Midwives had high standing in society which may explain why the Pharaoh talked to them personally, and why they felt comfortable responding back to him.
There were three levels of midwives with the most basic level having technical proficiency, the middle level having read texts on childbirth and the highest level being highly trained and considered medical specialists. These were women who had an important place in their society, and they needed to be strong, smart and skilled.
The level of medicinal practice in Egypt was quite advanced, especially compared to some other ancient cultures. Women gave birth on a birthing stool. The baby passed through the opening in the stool into the midwife’s hand. The midwife was the one who helped a woman give birth and then tended the baby once it was born before the mother saw her little one.
In verse 16, we find out why the Pharaoh called in Shiphrah and Puah. Scared by the population rate among the Hebrews, he came up with a plan. He told the midwives that if a Hebrew woman gave birth to a boy, they were to kill it. His plan was sinister in its simplicity – without boys, eventually the Hebrew population explosion would slow down and the Pharaoh wouldn’t be losing any of his adult workers now.
In Egyptian religion, infanticide or the killing of an infant was strictly forbidden. So how did the Pharaoh get around this not so minor complication in his devious plan? Well, while infanticide was forbidden, allowing a newborn to die wasn’t. The midwife was the one who made the crucial call of whether a newborn was healthy and fit. If the baby was deemed unhealthy or unfit for some reason, the midwife could “expose” the baby. This simply means the child was left out in the elements to die. The sad truth is the devaluation of life is not a new thing at all.
I’m not sure what the midwives replied to the Pharaoh after they were given this outrageous command, but in verse 17, we find out not only what they did but why they did it: “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” The first five words of that verse tell the story here. They feared God rather than man, even if that man was the Pharaoh.
It is so easy for us, in our democratic society where the worst that can happen to you for speaking out or doing the right thing is being ridiculed or perhaps being dismissed from a job, to miss the significance of what these women did. Not only did they defy the most powerful person in the known world, but they also did it with a subtle insult thrown in for good measure. You’ve gotta love these two women! The fact that they were skilled midwives helped their positions somewhat, but the hard truth was that the Pharaoh could have had them killed with a snap of his fingers and nobody would have blinked an eye.
Some time passes between verses 17 and 18, and the Pharaoh notices that baby boys were still being born right and left, so he calls in Shiphrah and Puah to find out what is going on. The Pharaoh doesn’t beat around the bush and directly asks them in verse 18 why they are allowing the baby boys to live instead of getting rid of them.
Their answer to him is priceless. It’s one of those places in Scripture where I always chuckle to myself. The midwives tell Pharaoh in verse 19, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”
On the surface, we can get a bit of a laugh from this verse because it basically sounds like the midwives were calling all the Egyptian women wimps. However, in Egyptian culture, fragility was prized, so the midwives response was wily. Yes, they had said the Hebrew women were stronger or more “vigorous,” but what could the Pharaoh take offense at when delicate, fragile women were prized? Still I’m sure the Pharaoh was left scratching his head and thinking that somehow, he hadn’t come out on top with his encounter with the midwives.
There is some argument as to whether the midwives lied to the Pharaoh or not, but it is just as plausible that the midwives may have truly encountered quick labors among the Hebrew women since God was blessing the women and children born to them.
It’s interesting that there is no more mention of the Pharaoh trying to make the midwives kill baby boys. Instead, in verse 22, he gives the order directly to the people. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, ‘Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive’.”
Meanwhile, God took notice of the faithfulness of Shiphrah and Puah. In fact, God did two things for them. He increased their business and He established households for them. In verse 20, it says, “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very mighty.” In other words, business was brisk.
In verse 21, God rewards the midwives and gives the reason for it. “Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.”
In the end, the midwives who had preserved the households of the Hebrews at great peril to themselves were rewarded by God establishing households for them.
There are several lessons in this passage that we need to look at. In the few verses that tell the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the words, “because they feared the Lord” are used two times and answer the question “why?” both times. The first time, the words explain why the midwives didn’t do as the Pharaoh commanded, and the second time they answer why God rewarded them. In our culture, the idea of truly “fearing” God doesn’t sit very well. Somehow, the idea that God could strike fear in anyone’s heart doesn’t line up with our warm, fuzzy idea of the God of love.
However, the Hebrew word used in these verses is yare which means “to fear, to revere, to be afraid.” In the Old Testament this word is used 402 times in 373 verses and in the vast majority, the word fear means just that – fear.
The Bible tells us in Proverbs 1:7a, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” Throughout Scripture over and over it says that wisdom and knowledge come from the fear of the Lord.
In fact, there is a whole list of benefits to fearing the Lord besides wisdom and knowledge. In Psalms 34:7, 9 it says God’s angels camp around those who fear Him and that they have no want. In Proverbs 1:7 it says fearing the Lord gives you strong confidence.
The second thing we can learn is that God uses people in all kinds of jobs and environments. So many times, it seems Christians look at those in “holy” work and those who aren’t. In other words, if you are in “full time ministry,” it can seem your job is more spiritual than someone who, say, teaches school or works in an office. But the truth is God can use you right where you are as the story of Shiphrah and Puah demonstrates.
Personally, I believe that we compartmentalize our relationship with God – He belongs at church but not the office; He shows up at prayer group, but not while sitting up with a sick child. The truth is the Holy Spirit dwells within us making us a portable temple. God’s presence should permeate our lives – not be designated to certain spaces.
Jean Fleming has this great quote in her book Focus in the Whirlwind. “To add Christ to an already busy life is to complicate living; to allow Christ to absorb all the elements of our life is to simplify it.”
How is God using you right where you are at? I’d love to hear about it!