Goshen News, Goshen, IN

March 31, 2013

Learning from the courageous women of biblical times


Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah; and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see upon the birth stool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.” So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.

— Exodus 1:15-21, New

American Standard Bible

Have you ever read this? In the Scriptures? Though I often read them, I rarely directly quote the Scriptures — either in writing or in person. It prejudices too many people too quickly. Instead, I try to live by this principle: “Preach the Good News at all times; if necessary, use words.” And then I usually use everyday words rather than speaking in King James’ English, in proverbs or in sound-byte verses.

But this — the story of Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah — is worthy of Scripture quoting. The sentiments in this Bible version — chosen here in honor of my great-grandmother, may she rest peacefully, whose New American Standard I sometimes read — are rich, deep, powerful, telling. Even funny.

What’s this story about? Civil disobedience? Infanticide? Midwifery? Fear? Courage? Blessings?

Oh yes. All that and more.

SO THE KING OF Egypt begins to worry that the Hebrew people will become mighty and numerous and overtake his throne, or something like that. He puts constraints on them — “afflicts” them, the Scriptures read — and guess what? The Hebrew people get stronger.

“Yikes!” I’m guessing the king thinks. “Looks like I’ll have to kill them.”

But he doesn’t go about it outright — yet. He commands the Hebrew midwives — whom, it seems, probably attend Egyptian women as well — to murder the little boys as they’re being born.

Knowing what I know about birth, I can see precisely what the king was commanding.

There is a moment, though brief, when a birth attendant could harm a baby or, at best, not help the baby to breathe if he were not already doing so himself.

At a good number of the 200-plus births I’ve attended, I’ve held my own breath for a few suspended seconds until a baby took his or her first one.

It’s an awful, horrible thought, but a midwife could snuff out the spark right then if one wanted to.

But stupid pharaoh! He clearly doesn’t get midwives, especially not ones who fear their Maker. These Hebrew midwives could no more hurt these babies than a master gardener could pluck his carefully planted sproutlings from the soil and toss them in a trash pile.

Midwives don’t hurt babies; they receive them with joy.

And I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t point out the reference to a birth stool. I guarantee you it did not have stirrups, either. Probably bricks that maneuvered mom into a physiologically sound squat.

NOW I LOVE THE part when the king asks the midwives, “Hey, what’s up? Why aren’t you killing these babies?”

Their answer is clever and funny. Funny! The scriptures! They tell the Pharaoh that the Hebrew women have, essentially, precipitous births — “not as the Egyptian women.” It’s an amusing barb: The Hebrew women birth fast and efficiently, not like those long, whiny, high-maintenance Egyptian births.

(Please don’t be offended if you’re a long, whiny, high-maintenance birther. Most of us are. We love you still. This is just a-couple-millennia-old midwifery sarcasm at its best.)

I don’t know if the midwives actually, technically lied or not. Could be they took a little longer to gather their things before they headed to a laboring mother. Could be they walked in and looked the other way for a minute or two while they counseled, talking over their shoulders, a big sister to catch her brother.

Could be they just did what they always did and flat-out lied to the king. Either way, they inspire me, and if it truly was an act of so-called “civil disobedience,” I can’t think of a better example to follow.

The last little bit of this passage notes the midwives’ — and, ultimately, all of Israel’s — reward for respecting their Creator more than fearing the pharaoh.

“So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.”

The Hebrew people prosper. And the midwives? If I’ve done my scholarship correctly, I see “households” here doesn’t mean five-bedroom mansions. (Darn, because I have thought of putting my order in for one.)

It means families or descendants. One Jewish telling says the two midwives are actually Yacheved and Miryam, the mother and sister to Moses, respectively.

If true, Moses, the Hebrew man chosen to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom, is some descendant to have.

These few Scripture verses make a perfect “Read-me-a-story-Mommy” story for my daughter, who turned 7 yesterday. Maybe one day we’ll be like Shiphrah and Puah — though I shouldn’t suggest I’m encouraging these kinds of scary situations.

In the meantime, we’re happy to learn from these courageous women.

Here’s a post written by Jewish author Sarah Zadok about Shiphrah and Puah, on Zadok’s blog, “The Jewish Woman” — http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/461823/jewish/Midwives.htm

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, doula, midwife’s assistant and student nurse pursuing a minor in complementary health from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”