Shiphrah and Puah: Midwives who delivered the children of Israel

Giving birth is hard work.  Just ask anyone who’s done it!  The job of a midwife is one of the oldest professions in society.  The next story in Exodus involves two of them:

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 them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”  Exodus 1:15-16

Baby boys grow up to be men and can pose a threat to the empire.  But baby girls are compliant.  Right?  Not these two women!  Shiphrah and Puah are probably midwives who oversee other midwives.[1]  But THEIR names are mentioned, while Pharaoh’s name is not.  That’s pretty powerful!  Their calling—their profession, is to help bring life into the world, but Pharaoh wants to use them to destroy God’s people.  If he can prevent further generations from being born, then God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to send a deliverer for his people is in jeopardy. 

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 like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”  Exodus 1:17-19

Shiphrah and Puah are more afraid of disobeying God than of disobeying the king. Wow!! When Pharaoh finally realizes that he has been duped, the midwives shrug it off as being a difference between Egyptian and Hebrew women.  Meanwhile, they have probably been telling the women what is going on and helping them keep the baby boys a secret. 

Life is valuable.  We dehumanize people when we lump them together into groups:  The Prisoners, The Immigrants, The Sick, The Poor, The Widows, The Orphans, The Democrats, The Republicans.  THOSE people.  During the pandemic, a group of people have been labeled ‘the elderly’; the ones who are at risk.  Someone in their 20’s was heard to have said: “It’s not a big deal cause the elderly are gonna die anyway.”[2]

As God’s people, we must resist the temptation to lump people into categories so that we can participate in verbal and social genocide.  Life is important.  And God is the creator and restorer of life.  Pharaoh didn’t agree with that concept.  But God used humble servants to do his work, and these women are the first to confront the powerful on behalf of the powerless.  It’s a foreshadowing of God’s coming liberation. Shiphrah and Puah are midwives who delivered the children of Israel. They are heroes!  Without these two women, Shiphrah and Puah—there is no Moses, no exodus, no David, Mary, or Jesus.[3] 

So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty.  And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.  Exodus 1:20-21

It’s possible that the midwives didn’t have children yet or were even infertile.[4]  The blessing of households is usually given to men.[5]  And some scholars think that these midwives were later connected with the leadership of the generation that came out of Egypt, along with the priests and Levites.[6]

Now get this:  God is pictured as a midwife in the Scriptures! When he was on the cross, Jesus quoted the familiar ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ But Psalm 22 also invokes the picture of God as a midwife:

Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb;
You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts.
Upon You I was cast from birth;
You have been my God from my mother’s womb.
Psalm 22:9-10

God is the creator and restorer of life.  Through a woman, Jesus was born into the world, and God raised Jesus from the dead.  God is a midwife who constantly labors to bring life into the world.  He’s committed to life, because it’s who he IS![7]  In our coming stories, Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ sister all continue the work that was started by the midwives, consistently making choices for life and not death.[8]   

Recognizing God’s role as midwife can give us a better perspective on who God is.  A T-shirt reads:  I was born to be a midwife: to hold, to aid, to save, to help, to teach, to inspire.  It’s who I am—my calling, my passion, my life and my world.

Shiphrah and Puah worked with quiet justice as they protected the lives of the innocent; and so can we. We can participate in this world as God’s midwives, remembering those who are powerless, forgotten, or overlooked in our own communities, and resisting dehumanization in all its forms.  We can stand alongside of those who are in difficult situations and assure them that they are valued and loved.

Upon You I have been supported from my birth;
You are He who took me from my mother’s womb;
My praise is continually of You.
Psalm 71:6

see the sermon on Shiphrah and Puah here:

[1] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 76.

[2]  Shai Held, “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly”, The Atlantic, March 12, 2020.

[3] Tony Merida, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014, 11.

[4] James K. Bruckner, Exodus, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008, 23.

[5] 2 Samuel 7:11

[6] Tamar Kadari, Puah_ Midrash and Aggadah _ Jewish Women’s Archive

[7] 1 Tim. 6:13; Job 33:4; 1 John 1:3-4

[8] Claassens, L Juliana M., “Resisting dehumanization- acts of relational care in Exodus 1-2 as image of God’s liberating presence”, Scriptura, 105 2010, 572-580, 576. 

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