Clever Women Prevail! - Reflections on Exodus 1:8-2:10

by Dr. John Holbert on Friday, August 18, 2023

Clever Women Prevail!

Exodus 1:8-2:10

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          The passage chosen for today’s lectionary is so rich, so filled with nuggets of insight, any of which could serve as a veritable fountain of inspiration for any preacher, that it becomes necessary to focus reflections on smaller parts of the textual array. I am most attracted today to the confrontation between the mighty pharaoh, at the time the world’s grandest, most powerful ruler, and the two Hebrew midwives, women designated as guides and helpers for the onerous and too often deadly task of childbirth. Because the time of the tale is set over 3000 years ago, one may only imagine how many women and children died at the birth stool, surely as high as 50% in those long ago, primitive days. Thus, the work of the midwives was vital, and deeply prized, by any struggling cultural group, hoping for survival from one generation to the next. However important the midwife role clearly was, when compared to pharaoh they were pathetically infinitesimal in comparison to the world’s mightiest monarch. All the more reason to savor the wonderful humor of the meeting of the pharaoh with these two wily women. 

          Shiphrah is a recognizable Semitic name, perhaps meaning “to be fair” or “to shine”. Puah is also certainly Northwest Semitic in origin and is cognate to a Ugaritic (the written language of the Canaanites) word meaning “young girl.” Thus, their youth and beauty are maximized in their names. By contrast, the pharaoh is not named; he is thus merely an archetypal villain. The exhaustive search for just which pharaoh this may have been historically is ultimately a scholarly waste of energy, however, many doctoral dissertations have been written on the subject. The biblical scene pits malevolent monarch against insignificant female youths, a common enough literatary type scene, repeated in cultures across the world.

          Pharaoh has a dilemma. He has among his slaves a group of people with a unique ability to propagate in great numbers. Ex.1:7 states this gift plainly, borrowing language from the opening chapters of the book of Genesis: “The children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed and grew. They multiplied and grew so powerful that the land was filled with them.” Any Bible reader will hear in these sentences clear echoes of Gen.1:22 and 1:28 where Elohim charges first the animals and then the humans to “be fruitful, multiply (“swarm”), and fill the land.” Without a mention of Elohim in the Exodus story until 1:17, the reader knows all too well that God remains active in that familiar blessing. What these Israelites are especially good at is multiplication, and the author does not mean by that that they are good at math.

          Pharaoh is worried about these rabbit-like peoples and devises two successive plans to cut their multiplication off. He fears that if they continue to grow they will finally join any invading armies, fight against the Egyptians, and escape from their work, the labor pharaoh needs to build his cities. He first tries to work them to death, “setting taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Ex.1:11). The assumption is that after a long day of back-breaking work, the last thing on their minds when they get home is multiplication if you get my drift. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and swarmed, so that the Egyptians were terrified” (Ex.1:12). Something is plainly not right here; harsh oppression should not lead to expansion of the people, but so it happens. So, in horror of these magical people, “the Egyptians became ruthless,” demanding hours upon hours in the brick kiln and the fields, all designed to stop the ceaseless Israelite population explosion. Both plans fail miserably, so pharaoh now turns to a more direct genocidal scheme.

          Enter Shiphrah and Puah. Pharoah commands the two women with clarity and force: “When you play the role of midwives with these Hebrew women, and see them at the birth stool (presumably birthstones that the women grab as they labor), if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (Ex.1:16). On the face of it, the plan is deeply misguided. After all, is it not the women who give birth, while it takes only one man to impregnate them. Why not kill the girls? Well, males first in all things, even murder, I suppose! 

          But the two girls pay no attention to the explicit command of the pharaoh and they allow the boys to live, because, we are told, “they feared Elohim” (Ex.1:17). And when the enraged pharaoh calls them back to the throneroom, and demands to know why they have not done what he demanded, they not only concoct a delightful lie, but at the same time make fun of Egyptian women in the bargain. “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women,” they say; “They (unlike your weak and pathetic Egyptian women) are vigorous (lit: “full of life”), and give birth before we arrive at the stones.” The implication is that the Israelite women give birth on their own and head right back to work, their newborns strapped to their backs.        

          But instead of questioning the midwives further, or trying to defend the honor of his Egyptian women they have just maligned, he makes a fateful and terrible command to “all his people: every boy that is born (the Hebrew text does not add “to the Hebrews;” that is an addition from later translations) you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let the girls live” (Ex.1:22). And, of course, one boy is indeed thrown into the Nile, but hardly to die, but to live and become the savior of his people. His name is Moses. 

          Pharaoh has been bested by these two lowly midwives, a prefiguring of the eventual and certain defeat of the pharaoh and his people by the former Israelite slaves under the protection of their God, YHWH. The fun of this tale does not cover the powerful truth that it enshrines: the real power of the world is not to be found in pharaohs or kings or prime ministers or presidents, but in God alone, a God who is forever on the side of the oppressed, working against those who would claim power over those deemed lesser than or weaker than they. Despite what appearances may say, the pharaoh is not in control of the world, but only and always God.         

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