A Study by Scott Sperling
Exodus 1:15-22 -
The Heroic Midwives
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah
“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.”
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
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
And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families
of their own.
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.”
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.
© 1994-2017, Scott Sperling