Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite women in the Bible. They are courageous midwives who defy Pharaoh. Their story is recorded in the very first chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh had instructed them to kill every newborn baby boy born to Hebrew women. They not only defy him, but when asked to explain why they weren’t obeying – they use his own prejudices to explain themselves.
Who, but a person blindly prejudiced, would have believed their story? The story about how Hebrew women weren’t made like Egyptian women that he knew and loved. No, they told Pharaoh, the Hebrew women had babies that came so fast the midwives never got to the woman before the baby was born. This was especially true of their boy babies. It must have been hard to hide their laughter as Pharaoh swallowed their story. They were, of course, only telling Pharaoh something he already believed. Those Hebrew were different – not at all like him and his kind.
Life in Egypt had started well for the Israelites after Joseph literally saved the people of Egypt. An earlier Pharaoh was indebted to Joseph. He welcomed Joseph’s family when they arrived in Egypt, making a place for them. With the blessing of Pharaoh these new immigrants quickly became successful and prosperous. But, memories dim with time. New generations don’t recall details of an earlier one. Memories of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt faded, until eventually, a Pharaoh came to power who knew nothing of the story.
Not knowing the story, the new Pharaoh is afraid of the Israelites. Fearful they will join in war against the people, he decides to contain the people he fears. This was the kind of reasoning that sent thousands of Japanese Americans into camps, causing them to lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is what made German Americans suspect during the First World War. The root of all racism is fear – fear of a person not quite like ourselves. We either grow afraid of what we do not understand or seek to understand what we do not know. For the Hebrew people in Egypt, racism takes a sinister form. First the people are enslaved and put to the hard labor of building cities and monuments to Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh devises a form of genocide, that will effectively rid the nation of Hebrews, by eliminating every boy baby born. He assumes he will be able to assimilate females into the Egyptian world.
He tells the midwives: “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” Exodus 1:16. What Pharaoh was not expecting was the defiance of the two midwives, Puah and Shiphrah. They listen instead to a higher authority. Fearing God, they will not harm their patients or break their trust. Their moral code will not conform to the mind set of Pharaoh. Because the women stayed close to God, they were prepared when faced with the words of Pharaoh. Puah and Shiphrah chose to live by a higher law. In the process they checked the power of Pharaoh and saved the lives of the children. William Sloane Coffin, wrote, “Fear distorts truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world . . . but by underestimating our ability to deal with them . . . while love seeks truth, fear seeks safety.” –William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 60
Shiphrah and Puah risk everything. The story could have gone so differently had they followed Pharaoh’s order – the destruction of our ancestors in faith. Instead, these courageous women refuse to violate the trust, faith, hopes and dreams of the people they serve. Throughout history there have been those who have chosen not to follow orders of a Pharaoh – choosing to be true to God instead. Members of the underground railroad helped escaped slaves find freedom. Others joined Ghandi’s long walk to the sea. Some sat at lunch counters in violation of unjust laws, refusing to leave during the Civil right era. Shiphrah and Puah left us a legacy of courage, in checking Pharaoh’s power. They were life givers – giver’s of hope. Women of courage. Women of faith. Examples to follow.
*First Published as “Checking Pharaoh’s Power” on August 25, 2017