October - 2016. Shiphrah and Puah

Shiphrah and Puah, Exodus 1 15-22


'Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world' (Talmond)

In the Mystery Plays, one of the scenes which always shocks me, however often I see it, is the massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem, as Herod tries to eliminate the baby who might be his possible rival as king.

But this is not the first occasion in the Bible when there is an attempt to kill Jewish baby boys.  This story of attempted genocide goes back to the time after the death of Joseph, when the Jews, or Hebrews as they were known then, who had been invited to live in Egypt by Pharaoh, found that they were no longer in favour.

A new king came to the throne of Egypt, and he was fearful of the Israelites as they had grown greatly in number and they were strong.  So he forced the Israelites into hard labour, under cruel taskmasters, to do the heavy work of building and working in the fields.

But that was not enough to let Pharaoh feel safe.  And so he called Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who attended Hebrew births.  Midwives were respected members of society and the fact that their names are known suggest their centrality in that community.  They seem to have attended both Hebrew and Egyptian women.  Pharaoh told them at this meeting that when they attended a birth they were to kill any boy that was born at once.

We are not given their response, but we may be sure it would have been dangerous to have argued with Pharaoh.  However, for women in the profession of bringing life into the world we can imagine the horror of being asked to kill helpless children.  And we read: 'the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.'

They seem to have quietly continued their everyday lives, helping new lives to be born and protecting them, despite the risk to themselves in disobeying Pharaoh's orders.

Eventually the Pharaoh summoned them back and demanded to know why they were allowing the boys to live.  Their reply is clever, knowing that men would never be around at a birth and also knowing of the prejudice that the Hebrews are somehow different.  They tell him that the Hebrew women are stronger and more vigorous, so the birth always happened before they arrived.

This must have been accepted for a while as we are told that the Hebrew people multiplied and became strong.  It would seem that many babies were spared because of their bravery in doing the right thing, in trusting God and the skills he had given them, and in their commitment to the mothers and their children, before the demands of authority and unjust laws.

We are also told that God dealt well with the midwives and that they were given their own families.  This is particularly significant as there is a tradition that midwives were often barren women, who were given this respected role in a society where family was so important.

Of course that was not the end.  Pharaoh then told all the people, not just the midwives, that they should throw every baby boy into the Nile.

It was into this dangerous world that the boy Moses was born.  Puah and Shiphrah may have been the ones who attended his birth.  And it took another three brave women to ensure his survival.  But that is another story.


Dianne Cox

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