Women of the Bible – Shiprah and Puah

What would Moses have done without women? Not a lot as it is thanks to some daring women that he survived and became the man who liberated the Hebrews from bondage, who received Torah on Mount Sinai and led his people to the Promised Land. For the 3rd instalment of our series on biblical women, we will therefore have a look at these women who prove once again that “beyond every great man, there is an even greater woman!”

We start with Shiphrah and Puah, also known as “the Hebrew midwifes” who appear in the first chapter of Exodus around the time of Moses’ birth. While being slaves in Egypt, the Hebrews were “fruitful and prolific, multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7) something which seriously worries Pharaoh: “Look, he says, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. In the event of war, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” So he commands the taskmasters to oppress the Hebrew slaves further to break their spirits and make their conditions of living so harsh that they will stop breeding so successfully, but “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (Ex. 1:12). As Trevor Dennis comments: “As so often happens, oppression ends up working against the oppressor and produces the opposite of what is intended[1]”.

As those violent and ruthless measures do not produce the desired effect, Pharaoh comes up with a second and more drastic plan to quell the Hebrew resilience. This is a familiar pattern as tyrants and dictators respond to resistance with an even greater level of violence: “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, if it is a boy, kill him but if it is a girl, let her live. But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them and they let the boys live” (Ex. 1: 15-17). There are 3 lines of comments worth pursuing in these short verses. First the midwifes are named, a fact which is always significant in the Bible but in this case quite remarkable: In the long narrative (14 chapters) which occupies nearly half the book of Exodus and ends after the crossing of the Red Sea, only 5 other people are named in a cast comprising literally thousands: Moses, Jethro, Zipporah, Gershom and Aaron. Note, by the way, that Pharaoh is NOT named as he represents the archetypal tyrant and the anonymous enemy.

Secondly, some details of the story are highly improbable: no two women could begin to help with all the deliveries of Hebrew babies! Even more improbable is that such two women of low status would never have been allowed “to walk the corridors of power”, as Trevor Dennis aptly remarks, and in any case, Pharaoh would never have stooped to meet them in person. It does not matter of course as the narrator is not interested in historical veracity as he has a much more important purpose: showing that Shiphrah and Puah are real heroines who refuse to be complicit with a state-sanctioned structure of oppression and decide to subvert a corrupt system. Their disobedience not only required great courage, but by their action, they symbolically are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation. They therefore deserve to be named and honoured. It is even more remarkable if, as some commentators think, they are not even Hebrew themselves: Because of ambiguity in the language, the 2 women may not be Hebrew but midwives to the Hebrews. Whatever their ethnicity, their disobedience shows that changing the world is not just the work of great leaders like Moses: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery was the work of countless ordinary people who did something extraordinary. We have seen this often in our times as the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis or the Oscar Romeros of this world do not act alone: As heroes, they inspired people who together, build a movement against injustice.

The third element worth commenting upon is that the Hebrew midwives have their place in the long line of biblical “female tricksters”. Shiphrah and Puah do not defy Pharaoh openly as it would probably have cost them their lives, but they cleverly deceive him: When Pharaoh summoned them a second time to ask why so many boys are still being born to the Hebrews, they explain: “because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Really?!!! Apart from the obvious humour, disguised effrontery and parody in such a response, it also shows that for many women in the Bible, trickery and deception is the only weapon at their disposal. We can find many other examples in the Old Testament: Rebekah helping her son Jacob to deceive Isaac, Tamar showing up Judah, Rachel cleverly lying to Laban about his household idols, Jael killing Sisera, Rahab tricking the men of Jericho, Michal helping David escape from Saul, Esther acting against Haman or Lot’s daughters taking advantage of their father: Trickery is often the most powerful weapon of the powerless.

Let’s now return to Moses’s story: despite his two previous failed attempts, Pharaoh still intends to annihilate the Israelites and so we read in Ex.1:22 “Pharaoh commanded all his people that every boy born to the Hebrews shall be throw into the Nile, but every girl shall live.” (Ex.1:22). As Cheryl Exum reminds us: “Exposure was in ancient times a common means of disposing of unwanted children.”[2] Bad timing for Moses though who is just being born at the time! However, thanks to more women, Moses survives. In fact, from now on, his infancy narrative will be entirely dominated by the courage and resourcefulness of women: his mother who hides him for 3 months and finally places him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter who, discovering the child “takes pity on him” (Ex. 2:6b) and rescues him – meaning that she knows perfectly well that it is a Hebrew baby but decides to defy her father’s orders – and his sister who offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child, who will be none other than Moses’ real mother! It is abundantly clear therefore that without all these women, there would be no Moses. Moses changed the world, but so did these women. We will see next month that there is still another woman without whom Moses would not have been the deliverer and the law giver of Israel: his first wife, Zipporah, the Medianite.

[1] Trevor Dennis, Sarah Laughed: Women’s Voices in the Old Testament”, (SPCK, London), 1994, p.87
[2] Cheryl Exum, You Shall Let Every Daughter Live, in Jonathan Magonet, Bible Lives (SCM Press, London) 1992, p.73