Word for the Week
Short reflections on Bible passages, with a frontline focus...
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?’
The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.
So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
The story of the great salvation event of the Old Testament – the exodus – begins with two women at work, celebrated for doing their job in a godly way. A foolish, xenophobic king rules in Egypt, and this king is proposing, firstly, to make the Hebrews’ lives a misery to them and then, when that doesn’t work, to kill baby boys after they’ve been born.
To be a midwife is, like all medical professions, to work with people at their most vulnerable. And surely no one is more defenceless and in need of protection than a newborn child. The God who gives life is the same God whose eye is always on the vulnerable (Exodus 22:21–27). So, when the king asks the midwives to kill all baby boys after delivering them, he is really asking them to do the opposite of what God does.
But the midwives have a sense of their calling, a sense of its importance, and a sense of how it matters to God. The primary reason why they refused to kill the children is that they ‘feared God’. Later in the story, Pharaoh’s own daughter will show the same sense of what is right when she comes upon a baby crying and does not follow her own father’s commands.
In two senses, this is a challenging frontline to work in: first, it is work in a delicate, and in those days often dangerous, time in people’s lives. Second, when confronted by evil, the midwives must find a way to do what they know to be right. So, they have to find an answer when the king asks them why they’re letting the baby boys be born, and it’s an amusing excuse!
God expresses his approval of the midwives’ choice to protect the baby boys by giving them families: offering them the very blessing that they have so often assisted in bringing to others. The midwives’ obedience to God saves many children, one of whom will go on to be chosen by the Lord to free his people from slavery. The names of Shiphrah and Puah have come down to us as part of the salvation story of God’s people.
Sometimes, as Christians, we may be called to follow Shiphrah and Puah’s example by refusing to collude in something such as workplace bullying or the abuse of vulnerable people. It’s not easy, but we too are called to be active in God’s salvation story.
Revd Dr Jenni Williams
Vicar of St Matthew with St Luke, Oxford, and former Tutor in Old Testament at Wycliffe Hall.