The account of Shiphrah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1, is only seven verses but it packs a great deal of thought. For one, their tale sits on the very edge of Israel’s start as a nation. When we pass from Genesis into Exodus, we find that the people—Adam and Eve’s people, Abraham and Sarah’s people, Isaac and Rebekah’s people, Jacob, Rachel and Leah’s people, the people of Joseph, Judah and Tamar—have multiplied from a group of hundreds into a vast nation (Genesis 46:8-27; Exodus 1:1-7).
Seventy men with their families crossed Canaan into Egypt to escape the great famine (Genesis 46:1-27). Generations later, the group is large, prosperous and ever increasing. By Exodus 1:8, the reigning Pharaoh is looking at a nation, strong in number, strong in might yet distinct in culture. They are thriving in Egypt, yet they are a people onto themselves; what would keep them from joining Egypt’s enemies in a time of war? Alarm bells sound and in fear, the Pharaoh subjugates the people in an attempt to reduce their numbers. (Exodus 1:10-11).
“But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12). Seeing that Plan A fails, the Pharaoh devices a Plan B and interestingly, it includes two ordinary women—Hebrew midwives. Thus in the midst of a grand drama involving a powerful Pharaoh and a booming nation, two seemingly lowly women are introduced to the scene.
The success of Pharaoh’s new plot now rests on the shoulders of these two women—Shiphrah and Puah. His command to them is this: “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live” (Exodus 1:16).
Now let’s examine the situation with a wider lens: here are two women, presumably unmarried or perhaps barren—for later we read that the LORD gives them families (Exodus 1:21)—enslaved, and assigned to the service of other enslaved women. While the mothers they assisted would have undoubtedly appreciated them, who else would have taught much of them? They were small fries within the larger scheme of things.
Yet these “small fries” emerge suddenly as key agents in Pharaoh’s national security plan. Had Shiphrah and Puah desired power, recognition or a sense of importance, what a tremendous opportunity this would have presented! No mother (or father for that matter) would have dared to offend these two—not the king’s "Authorized Representatives in the Infanticide of Hebrew Boys." No, they were Pharaoh’s very hands waiting at the end of the birth-stool!
“But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exodus 1:17). The exact nature of their defiance is not explained in detail. Did they attend each birth, boldly catching, cleaning and warmly wrapping the baby boys, as well as the girls? Or did they intentionally delay their services, perhaps rushing in with some care after the Hebrew children were already born (Exodus 1:18-19)?
Whatever their actions, it pleased God for He “dealt well with the midwives…God gave them families” (Exodus 1:20-21). These childless women who assisted others in building up their families were themselves blessed with children. “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly” (Psalm 138:6). And if we were to stretch our lenses even further, we would see the LORD Himself as the supreme figure in the drama. While Pharaoh scrambles about using enslavement, infanticide and the power of Egypt against the Hebrews, the LORD rescues His people through the simple obedience of two humble women—unlikely saviors! But isn't that how God works?
Just consider the following: The barren woman becomes the mother of a great nation (Genesis 17:15-17); the inarticulate fugitive becomes the law-giving deliverer of his people (Exodus 4:10); Jesse’s youngest son becomes the giant killing king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:5-13); and a poor virgin girl the mother of Christ, the LORD (Luke 1:30-35); who Himself comes as a humble carpenter to rescue His people—not by the might of the sword but—through His active obedience and death on their behalf (Romans 5:19).
“God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29). Indeed, power belongs to God!
*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!