The Heroic Midwives

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16"When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live." 17The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, "Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?"

19The midwives answered Pharaoh, "Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive."

20So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families of their own.

22Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: "Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live."

As we learned in the previous issue, some years after they went to live in Egypt, the children of Israel began to face persecution. The Egyptians resented their growing numbers and prosperity, so the Egyptians enslaved them. The result was not what the Egyptians intended: "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied" (Ex. 1:12). So, in this passage, the Pharaoh takes more drastic measures: "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live’" (vss. 15-16).

During any time of persecution and affliction, there are normally heroes, who go beyond what is expected of them, and who show bravery in the face of danger, in order to aid the afflicted. Shiphrah and Puah are two such heroes. There is no consensus among commentators as to whether they were Hebrew women (as the NIV translation "Hebrew midwives" suggests), or Egyptian women (a reading which would favor a translation of "midwives for the Hebrews"). Their names were Egyptian, and it seems to me that their dialogue with Pharaoh suggests that they were Egyptian. I cannot imagine that Pharaoh would expect Hebrew women to kill Hebrew children. Also, I do not think Pharaoh would have shown such lenience to Hebrew women who failed to carry out his commands.

It seems that these two were in some way in charge of all of the midwives for the Israelites, for they were given the command by Pharaoh, and then they were called to account for the carrying out of the command. The command by Pharaoh was horribly evil. "What blood so guiltless as that of a child new-born?" [Henry, on vs. 15ff]. Apparently, the king wanted the midwives to act secretly, clandestinely killing the defenseless children without the knowledge of the mothers. "Pharaoh’s project was secretly to engage the midwives to stifle the men-children as soon as they were born, and then to lay it upon the difficulty of the birth, or some mischance common in that case" [Henry, vss. 15ff].

The midwives would have none of the Pharaoh’s evil plan: "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’" (vss. 17-19). It took a great amount of courage to defy a direct order from the Pharaoh. The source of their courage and their admirable behavior in this episode was that they "feared God." The fear of God is a good thing. It keeps us from evil.

This is an early and instructive example of ordained civil disobedience, of obeying God rather than man. They refused to obey an evil law of man, because to do so would have caused them to break a law of God. In general, of course, we are to obey the laws of the land, and in fact, we are commanded to do so (see Rom. 13; Matt. 22:21). But when the laws of the land conflict with God’s laws, we are to say, with Peter, "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).

Now, some would fault the midwives a bit for lying to the Pharaoh when they told him that they never arrived in time to kill the babies. Some would say that the midwives should have boldly told Pharaoh that they disobeyed his command. In my opinion, to not lie in that situation would have been exceedingly reckless, and would have bordered on putting God to the test. To tell the Pharaoh that they purposely disobeyed him may have put the lives of other midwives in danger, and would certainly have put their own lives in danger. Someone might say, "Well, they should just tell the truth, and trust that God would save them." But would not doing such a thing be testing God, by expecting some sort of miraculous delivery from the Pharaoh’s wrath? Is not a much more natural way to get out of danger to tell a lie to the evil Pharaoh?

I cannot fault the midwives for their lie. I certainly cannot agree, as some would contend, that there are absolutely no circumstances when it is proper to lie. There are the trivial examples, such as when your wife asks you, "Does this dress make me look fat?" There are also more profound examples. Such as, suppose you are hiding Jews from the Nazis in your attic. If an SS man comes to your door and asks you if you are hiding Jews, should you not lie to him? Or should you turn in the people you are hiding? Of course you should lie. And why? Because to turn in the Jews would be cowardly, and it would be a sin. To turn them in would essentially be aiding in the murder of them. To turn them in would be to gravely disobey the law of love: "Love your neighbor as yourself." This is the crux of the matter. What I would consider to be permissible lying are times when to not lie disobeys the law of love. In such cases, we have conflict between two laws of God. We are not to lie, but at the same time we are to love our neighbor as ourself. When these commandments conflict, the law of love trumps, for it is the second greatest commandment (see Matt. 22:39).

Certainly, there is no evidence that God faulted the midwives for their lies. On the contrary, He blessed them for their courage and obedience: "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" (vss. 20-21). "The services done for God’s Israel are often repaid in full" [Henry, on vs. 15ff]. The midwives saved the children of the Israelites, and so God blessed them with "families of their own."

Pharaoh, frustrated that his plan to destroy Hebrew children by using the midwives failed, gave an order to all the Egyptian: "Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’" (vs. 22). Pharaoh’s order to the midwives was secretive. His plan was that the midwives would kill the children without the mothers even knowing that the children were murdered. Here, Pharaoh goes public with his evil plan and enlists all of the Egyptians to help in the slaughter of God’s people. "The tyrant, finding that his snares and deceit availed nothing, now shakes off fear and flies to open violence… Lest there should be any lack of executioners, he gives this charge to all the Egyptians, whom he knew to be more than ready for the work" [Calvin, on vs. 22].

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