Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
A Roman woman giving birth with the help of a midwife, stone relief, circa 4C (image in the public domain)
And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
— Exodus 1:15-17
A midwife facilitates new life. It is a role of service, not one of power, yet the king of Egypt attempts to manipulate the women to abuse their position of trust, attempting to force an utter reversal of their role. They refuse—which is no small thing. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this is in fact,
"the first recorded instance in history of civil disobedience: refusing to obey an order, given by the most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the ancient world, simply because it was immoral, unethical, inhuman."1
The significance of this event is marked by the naming of the two midwives (of course there were likely to have been a few hundred, if not thousands of midwives given what we learn earlier in this chapter of the extraordinary propagation of the Hebrew people). Women are mentioned frequently throughout the Bible, but named women make up less than 8% of all named characters.2 The name Shiphrah suggests beauty, and Puah has its root in the Hebrew term for murmuring or gurgling, the sounds made to sooth a baby. The women are given names to soften the reader's heart, thus emphasising the horror of what they are asked to do.
The two midwives refuse because they feared God. The word fear here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, does not imply terror but reverential awe. Their faith—their sense of love and responsibility towards their people, towards their God—was so strong it overrode their fear of earthly repercussion.
This story of civil disobedience sustained by the awe of God paves the way for many later stories of resistance, from Moses through all the prophets and many supporting characters, men and women, all the way to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. The Bible from hereafter is a history of faithful resistance in the face of injustice. And the movement was started by two midwives. I find that startlingly poetic.