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Shiphrah and Puah

Exodus 1:15-21, CEV

15Finally, the king called in Shiphrah and Puah, the two women who helped the Hebrew mothers when they gave birth. 16He told them, “If a Hebrew woman gives birth to a girl, let the child live. If the baby is a boy, kill him!”

17But the two women were faithful to God and did not kill the boys, even though the king had told them to. 18The king called them in again and asked, “Why are you letting those baby boys live?”

19They answered, “Hebrew women have their babies much quicker than Egyptian women. By the time we arrive, their babies are already born.” 20-21God was good to the two women because they truly respected him, and he blessed them with children of their own.


Shiphrah and Puah

Jews, Muslims and Christians all agree that he’s important. He’s the great freedom-fighter of the Hebrews; he leads an enslaved people out of Egypt, into the Sinai desert; he presents them with the Ten Commandments. And he is one of the main characters in four out of the five original books of the Bible. He’s Moses and he’s kind of a big deal. But it turns out he wouldn’t even have been there if it weren’t for two women – Shiphrah and Puah – who get a passing mention in the very first chapter of Exodus.

A Little Background

The Hebrew people are living in Egypt. They’ve been there for about 400 years. They have grown ‘numerous’ and as such, they’ve become the ‘worrying foreigners’. So the king decides to try to ‘wear them down with hard work’. He turns them into slaves, but the people continue to grow in number.

It’s at this point that the king calls for Shiphrah and Puah. Scholars disagree about who these women are. Some say they are Hebrew. Others say they’re converts. Still others say they are actually Egyptian women. Some suggest their names are pseudonyms for Miriam (Moses’ sister) and her mother. Others argue that they are simply two stand-ins for the presumably hundreds of midwives a population of their size would have needed to tend adequately to the women of their community. Whoever they are, they are the ones who help the Hebrew women give birth. They are the life-bringers and joy-declarers who also know a lot about death and suffering and pain. Though they bring life into their community they are likely barren themselves.

Then one day these midwives are asked by the king to do something that flies in the face of all of their training, and perhaps rips open their own grief around being childless. That’s because they are instructed to murder any Hebrew baby boys who are born.

How Did We Get Here?

Does this sound far-fetched? A ruler, convinced that a people are going to rise up and pose a threat from within? A ‘majority’ worried that a ‘minority’ will take over so much of their land that there is nothing left for themselves? Exploitative powers worried that their charges will retaliate for the way that they’re being treated if they are allowed to gain power?

Perhaps not so far-fetched as we might have thought.

In response to this perceived threat, a series of coordinated, intentionally escalating attacks are launched on the Hebrew people. And when nothing else works, the king goes for the most precious thing a Hebrew has: their new-born baby boy.

What a person might not do for themselves, they might do for their child. What won’t stop an individual in their tracks might stop a parent. A threat against a lone adult pales in comparison compared to a threat levelled at their child.

The king knows exactly what he’s doing and ropes in the midwives – the very life-bringers themselves – to act out his edicts. And – knowing all of the potential risk they are taking – they find a way out of this impossible bind.

A Courageous Response

“The women give birth so quickly we can never get there in time.” That’s the explanation they give. Maybe it’s true. If the women deliberately wait to call for care out of fear for their children’s lives, than that would be possible. Or maybe they just hope no one will ask too many questions. Hope that no one will check up to see about the details of these ‘female things’. Either way, it’s an enormous risk to go against such a powerful person.

How many lives are saved because of their bravery? We don’t know the answer, but we do know two things. The first is that God sees these two, previously barren and ‘worthless’ women and blesses them with the children they long for because of their courage. And we know that it is because of their tenacity that a little babe named Moses is allowed to live long enough to end up in a basket in the reeds, to grow up in the palace of the very king who wanted to kill him, only to eventually come back and lead the Hebrew people to freedom. All because of the bravery of Shiphrah and Puah.

Reflection Questions:

  1. When was the last time you were asked to do something that went against your values?
  2. Or the last time you were expected to do something at work that you simply knew wasn’t right?
  3. Or the last time you saw something happening around you that made you feel deeply uncomfortable?
  4. What would bravery and courage and tenacity look like in that situation?
  5. How would respect for God and for the way God has called us to care for one another shape or change your response in these moments?
  6. What will you take from the story of Shiphrah and Puah?

This summer we are looking at ‘stories you missed’ in the Bible. Feel free to check out the other stories in the series here.



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