Shiphrah and Puah
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 ‘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.’ 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
Like most people, my ideas about the Exodus are forever shaped by Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie, The Ten Commandments. The movie was released 1956 and starred Charlton Heston as Moses. Thus, whenever I picture Moses, I tend to see a hazy view of handsome Heston. Your realize that, in reality, Moses was probably olive-skinned, short, with black hair, black eyes and looked nothing like the photogenic Charlton. Actually, my favorite actor in the movie was Edward G. Robinson, who was hilarious as a sneaky bad guy always trying to undermine the godly Moses. However, all of that is an aside because our story today is not about Moses or the Ten commandments. It is before Moses.
The story begins back in 1:8 where we learn that there is a new dynasty in Egypt. A Pharaoh comes to the throne who feels no obligation to the descendants of Joseph. He enslaves the Israelites and puts them to building cities and warehouses. Strangely enough, the Israelites seemed to have thrived in this situation and their numbers increased, but the more they increased, the more Pharaoh feared them and his fear made him even more oppressive.
This seems to be a rule of history. Oppressing people causes the oppressor to fear the oppressed. Many centuries later Rome was a slave society. Rome lived in fear of slave rebellion. Their worst fears came to pass during the rebellion led by Spartacus. In the pre-Civil War South, the greatest fear of the White Plantation owners was again slave rebellion. They saw their worst fears realized when a Black slave rebellion in Haiti massacred the French plantation owners.
The lesson is that every oppressor knows that the oppressed do not like their situation and might kill to change that situation. Pharaoh knew this. So he tightened the chains of slavery. He put the Israelites to hard labor, and then when that did not worked, he attempted genocide, the killing of a whole people.
Initially he tried to do this in a devious, underhanded way. He called before him the Hebrew midwives. There is a little translation problem here. The phrase “Hebrew midwives” can also be translated “midwives of the Hebrews.” If the latter translation is accepted, then the midwives were not necessarily Hebrews themselves. This would make their defiance of Pharaoh even more heroic. If they were Hebrews trying to save Hebrew babies, we applaud them for that, but if they were Egyptians who defied their own government and nation to save babies, then we appreciate their action even more.
There is another thing. By this time, the Hebrews had grown to be a sizable multitude. We cannot imagine them having only two midwives. It seems more likely that Shiphrah and Puah are overseers of midwives. They are midwives themselves and they oversee other midwives. That would make it even more likely that they were Egyptian. Then too Pharaoh would be more likely to approach Egyptian women about killing Hebrew babies than Hebrew women.
There is also a tantalizing little mystery associated with one of these ladies. The name “Shiphrah” is found on a list of slaves in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Sobekhotep III. This list is on Brooklyn 35.1446, a papyrus scroll kept in the Brooklyn Museum. The scroll dates to about 1750 B.C. The question is, is the Shiphrah of the Brooklyn scroll the same person we find in Exodus chapter one. Reluctantly we have to say, probably not. If they were the same that would put the Exodus much further back in history than most scholars would allow, as early as 1690 B.C., which is at least a couple of centuries too early.
However, let us go on with our story. In v16 Pharaoh said to Shiphrah and Puah, when you see the Hebrew women “on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”
Their method of delivering a baby in those days was different from ours. The woman sat on two stones or two bricks and delivered sitting up. I guess you ladies can decide whether you would like that or not.
The midwife helped the child to come out, and Pharaoh’s order was that if she saw it was a boy she should kill him.
In this time, Egypt was arguably the most powerful nation on earth, and Pharaoh was absolute ruler in Egypt. By human standards, he was the most important person in the world. Most people in Egypt regarded him as a god. He gave the order: "Kill the boys." The girls could be kept as slaves, but "kill the boys, and do it in such a way that it does not look like we did it." This was the point of using the midwives. They could make it look like the baby boy was born dead. That was Pharaoh’s plan, but it did not work--because Shiphrah and Puah refused to do it.
Think how easy it would have been for the midwives to justify obeying Pharaoh. They could have said, “This is the law, we have to do it. It is not our fault. It is nothing personal.” That is always the refuge of a bureaucrat. They say, “This is what the rules and regulations are and we have to go by these rules and regulations and there is nothing we can do about that.”
Shiphrah and Puah had just the opposite view. They did not care what the rules and regulations were. This was very personal. The task of the midwife was, and is, to bring life into the world. The women said, “We will not pervert our calling. We will not become agents of death." No matter what government says, no matter what society says, no matter what it costs, we are not going to do it.
That took courage. Where did it come from? Where did they get the courage to defy everything their society held sacred? The scripture tells us that the Puah and Shiphrah “feared God.” We might ask, which God, since Pharaoh himself was regarded as a god. This is not exactly spelled out for us, but Puah and Shiphrah had a fundamental conviction that while there was a Pharaoh, mighty and proud, there was a God over Pharaoh, and while they must give account to human authorities and powers, they must give ultimate account to One over all human authorities and powers.
They feared God; they did not kill any babies. We do not know how long they got away with this defiance. We suspect not long. Pharaoh had spies everywhere. They would soon report that no boy babies were turning up dead.
So Pharaoh summoned Shiphrah and Puah to answer for their failure. He said, “Why did you not do what I told you to do?”
And the women answered, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” which was a lie.
Now we might ask, if they were brave enough to disobey Pharaoh, why not be brave enough to tell him to his face that his policy was wicked and that they were not going to obey it? But we all know the answer to that. They did not want to die.
But look what happened after they lied. Pharaoh believed them, and God blessed them (vs. 20-21).
Do a little experiment for me. Tomorrow, ask anyone you meet, “Does the Bible teach that it is all right to lie?” Of course, they will say no. The Bible does not condone lying. God does not reward falsehood and deception. But is that so?
Let us think about another incident in the Bible. In the book of Joshua chapter 2, Joshua sent two spies into the city of Jericho. They took refuge with a prostitute named Rahab. The city was on alert and suspected the presence of spies. The authorities came to Rahab and asked where they were, and she lied. She told them that the spies had already left the city. Because of her lie, the spies escaped, her family was spared when Joshua’s army stormed Jericho, and she eventually became part of the genealogy of Christ.
God blessed Rahab because of what she did, because she lied. The author of Hebrews says, “By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and did not perish with those who disobeyed” (Heb 11:31). So, not only is she blessed because of her lying, but also the Bible says that her actions were done “by faith.”
How are we to understand these odd accounts where it plainly says God blessed liars? Are there actually times and situations where it is not only permissible, but in fact, mandatory that Christians lie? If so, then how can we determine what these situations are?
Many people have written about this ethical problem. Some have said you should never lie, but the rebuttal to that is what about Puah, Shiphrah, and Rahab. Others say that you may lie to the bad guys, but then we are all the bad guys. Still others say that you should only lie when it will create the greatest good for the greatest number, whatever that means.
The NT gives a better answer. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied Love God and Love your neighbor. Immediately following this declaration Jesus added, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt 22:40). What he means is that if we follow these two commandments, then we will not have to worry about the Law, we will, in fact, be keeping the Law. For instance, in our wonderful state of SC, laws say that parents have to provide for their children. If, however, I love my children, I do not need a law to tell me to do that. I will feed them, clothe them, shelter them, protect them, educate them, discipline them, and so on. And I do not need another law, save my own love for them, to tell me to do so. Likewise, if I love God I will worship only God, I will not worship idols. I will not use His Name improperly; I will honor the Sabbath. If I love my neighbor, I will not murder her, steal from her, commit adultery with her, bear false witness against her. So, all the Law and the Prophets are summarized in the Law of Love, and I will keep every law if I keep that Law. Rahab of Jericho lied not only to save her family, but, as Hebrews states, because she believed God. The midwives lied because they loved the innocent children and knew that God would never approve of murder.
But you might say, Exodus chapter one does not say Shiphrah and Puah loved God. It says they feared God. The term “fear of God” is found in many places in the OT. It describes not just dread but a combination of love and hope and respect and reverence. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” Isaiah 11:3, speaking of the messiah says, “His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” What does that mean? The messiah will delight in a reverent worship of God. Jesus certainly loved to worship God. He loved to pray and be in God’s presence. He lived as if he were always in God’s presence.
So we see that the OT term “fear of God” comes down to be much the same as the NT command to love God with all our heart and mind and soul.
But let us get back to our question. If we are totally devoted to God, does that mean that it is sometimes acceptable to lie?
Back in the 1960’s an Episcopal Priest named Joseph Fletcher developed a Christian ethical theory called “Situation Ethics.” Situation Ethics got a bad name because Fletcher later on dropped out the church and became an atheist, but his original ethical theory was just a restatement of what Jesus said. Love is the only law. This means that all the other laws are only guidelines as to how to achieve this love, and thus all other laws may be broken if they conflict with what love requires.
Therefore, Rahab was right to lie to save the spies.
Shiphrah and Puah were right to lie to save their own lives. Note here that they did not lie to save the babies. They defied Pharaoh to save the babes, and then they lied to save themselves. And God accepted that.
So we see that the law of love is practical and adaptable. It does not apply the other laws like a straightjacket. It does not say, never lie. In most cases, in the large majority of cases, the law of love requires us to tell the truth. Usually love demands honesty and dishonesty is destructive, but on a very few occasions, in extreme circumstances, we might be required to lie in love. However, in every case, the absolute law is love. We do what love requires.
So let us go back to Shiphrah and Puah. These two women had a deep conviction that there was a God to whom we give an account, a God that honors us when we love and obey him, a God who means good for people and will work his way into the world. So, they acted in courage and they acted rightly.
God honored them, and God challenges us to act like them to have faith and courage, to be obedient in our own lives.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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Last Modified: 05/02/13