Painting of Shiphrah and Puah
This blog post is about two brave women who literally changed the world. You may have never heard of them, but they are worth knowing. Here’s how the story of the women begins.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exodus 1:8-14)
The Hebrew people had immigrated to Egypt because of life-threatening conditions in their homeland. They thrived in the new land and their population grew. For many years, they lived peacefully in Egypt, and made great contributions to its well-being.
Then a new king arose, a king who began to spread fear about the immigrants. They were multiplying, becoming powerful. “Soon this new race will outnumber and overpower our own! So we must close ranks in fear,” he said.
Sadly, we are hearing a similar message from our president. But we won’t expound on that today. This is a story about courage.
We constantly hear leaders talking to us through our televisions — experts on various topics, members of congress, politicians, pundits. One thing shines clearly about most of them: they exhibit not an ounce of courage and conviction. For many of them, maybe most of them, the rhetoric is about their own interests, never about taking a stand against evil or injustice, never about the cost of doing what is right.
So may I tell you a story about two courageous women you may not know? Thousands of years ago two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, said “NO.” Shiphrah and Puah served Hebrew women who were anticipating childbirth. The Pharoah commanded the midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Hebrew women in Egypt. An ancient method of power and control!
There are only six verses in the whole Bible about these women, but their actions led to the salvation of the entire nation of Israel. Shiphrah and Puah were in charge of all the Hebrew midwives in Egypt while Israel was enslaved in Egypt. One day, Pharaoh called Puah and Shiphrah to him and told them,
“When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”
At this point in history, Egypt was the largest kingdom and the Egyptian Pharaoh was considered the most powerful ruler in the world. In fact, the Egyptian people regarded Pharaoh as a leader appointed by their gods. Imagine all the leaders in the world today. Now imagine that all of their power was all given to one single leader and that’s approximately how powerful Pharaoh was — and this particular Pharaoh wasn’t very nice.
Now, the most powerful ruler in the world has just ordered Puah and Shiphrah to kill every baby boy born to a Hebrew woman. What happened next is one of the most courageous things we could imagine. Let’s look at the whole story recorded in Exodus 1:15-22, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
These two midwives had spent their lives bringing new life into the world, and now they were asked to snuff out that new life as it was about to draw its first breath. “Not a chance!” they declared with courage welling up inside them.
No! Shiphrah and Puah said “No.” Because they were called to choose life, not to end it. They acted swiftly and shrewdly. They lied, in fact, and said this to Pharoah. “What can we do? The Hebrew women are giving birth so fast that the babies are born before we can get to the birthing tents.”
All the while, they were coaching these immigrant Hebrew women, holding their hands and catching their babies as they made their way into their complicated, inhospitable world.
Shiphrah and Puah said “No!” And among the children they saved was the baby Moses. You know the one. He was chosen and anointed by God to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression and lead them back to their beloved homeland.
Today we have the opportunity to say “No” to all that is unjust. What does that mean for us? What does it mean to summon the courage to help bear life into this complicated time?
Perhaps it means not buying in to the fear some want us to feel about the caravan of refugees who are approaching our borders. Perhaps it means advocating for their well-being in every way we can, declaring that we refuse to demonize them, and understanding the heart of parents who feel they must flee from the dangers of their homeland.
Perhaps it means supporting efforts to reunite the immigrant children that are still separated from their parents.
Perhaps it means that you and I must find ways to choose life instead of death, and hope instead of fear.
I don’t know if the story of Shiphrah and Puah story speaks to you, but I hope you will ponder it and hear its truth.
There will always be new kings who arise among us and decide to deal harshly with certain groups of people. But we do not have to go along with their plans. In fact, we must not go along with their plans and instead follow the courageous path of creating justice for all people.
May God help us to make it so. Amen.