I’ve recently begun reading through the book of Exodus, a chapter a day. And, though I have read and heard their story many times, I’ve found myself encouraged more than ever by the mettle of those two women in Exodus 1, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah – the valiant midwives who took care of pregnant Hebrew ladies and their babies in the days of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.
You may remember the story. After the death of Joseph, the population of Israelites living in Egypt had grown prolifically – “so that the land was filled with them.” And Pharaoh became nervous – fearing that the Israelites might turn against the native Egyptians. So he determined to “deal wisely with them” – first by inflicting “hard labor” upon them, and eventually with a kind of ethnic cleansing program whereby he sought to eliminate all the newborn Hebrew baby boys. And, to aid in his plan, he pressganged these two midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – into his service (or so he thought). He ordered them that “when you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death.”
‘That’ll take care of the Hebrew problem,’ Pharaoh must have thought to himself. Surely these simple, low-ranking midwives would do his bidding, posthaste! After all, who would dare stand against mighty Pharaoh?
“But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” “The midwives feared God”! Isn’t that marvelous? They stood up to the most powerful man in their known world … not because they necessarily had no fear, but because they feared God more than they feared the king!
And I am stirred by their example! Because how often do I compromise, or cower, or just fail to stand and be counted because I fear man? I fear what people will think. I fear criticism. I fear hard conversations, or of being thought fanatical or overzealous. Maybe sometimes I am overzealous! But many times I’m just plain afraid – and often of people a lot less frightening than Pharaoh! But I am encouraged by Shiphrah and Puah! They weren’t in-your-face in their reaction to Pharaoh (and perhaps there’s a lesson in that for some of us, too). But they just kept on quietly doing what they knew was right. And what an example they are to us all!
They are an example especially, it seems to me, to Christians in the medical community today who, like Shiphrah and Puah, may increasingly have to face government pressure to participate in the snuffing out of little human lives. They’re also an example to other Christians who may, in other areas of conscience, find themselves pressured by the government to set aside their beliefs in order to maintain the secular status quo* (when it comes to healthcare coverage, and free speech, and so on).
But these midwives are also an example to those of us who are afraid of people a lot less influential than Pharaoh or modern day law-makers. We can do the right thing, even if it’s unpopular or difficult. We can just quietly go about our business – doing right, speaking for God, loving the least of these, honoring the commandments, and so on – no matter what man may say about us. And, if Sphiphrah and Puah are any indication (Exodus 1.20-21), God will reward our faithfulness!
So let’s be like these two courageous women. “The midwives feared God.”
*Charles Tassell's recent article “In Search of Religious Freedom in Ohio” (in the Ohio Conservative Review) was helpful to me in forming this point of application. In it, he gives an example of the sort of pressure I mention above, and highlights some work going on to protect religious freedom in Ohio.