Women of the Bible Series: Shiphrah and Puah
The story of Shiphrah and Puah takes place during the violent Hebrew enslavement in first chapter of the book of Exodus. The Israelites had settled in Egypt, and a Pharaoh arose who “did not know Joseph” (v.7) and became increasingly concerned that there were too many Hebrews, and that they would eventually exceed the Egyptians in number and take over the land. In an attempt to maintain Egyptian superiority, Pharaoh first enslaved the Hebrews (v.11-14). Then, in an attempt to curb the population and eliminate the patriarchal lineage (and thus the claim to authority) of the Hebrews, he ordered midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth. From Exodus Chapter 1 we read:
15. And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:
16. And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
17. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
18. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?
19. And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.
20. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.
21. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.
Who were these midwives, Shiphrah and Puah? Some scholars speculate that Shiphrah was midwife to Moses’ mother Jochebed, and that Puah was her daughter. Additionally, many Rabbinic traditions assert that Shiphrah actually *was* Jochebed, and that Puah was her daughter, Miriam, and that when verse 21 talks of them being given houses from God as a reward for their faithfulness and bravery, this is referring to the priesthood lineages of Moses and Aaron (sons of Jochebed, brothers to Miriam). Either way, the text seems to suggest a close connection to the story of Moses, despite Shiphrah and Puah never being mentioned by name in the Bible again, outside of these seven verses.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein asserts in her book, “ReVisions: Seeing Torah through a Feminist Lens,” that Shiphrah and Puah weren’t just midwives, but overseers of the guild of midwives in the area, and that being sought out by Pharaoh and having direct contact with him suggests positions of high esteem. Midwifery was a profession that required many years of apprenticeship and technical training, even anciently, and was part of the religious establishment. This suggests that Shiphrah and Puah weren’t just midwives in a village, but had influence over many midwives and the practice of midwifery generally during their time in Ancient Egypt. In the above verses, Pharaoh directs these midwives (and presumably all midwives in the guild) to kill all male babies either during or directly after labor (“on the stools” refers to birthing stools commonly used in the second/pushing stage of childbirth).
It’s worth noting that Pharaoh wasn’t just the political leader of the time: he claimed both political and religious authority. To oppose his edict was not just an act of opposing a king; they were also opposing a demigod. By opposing him, they were undermining his authority in both realms, and they risked being stripped of their position, enslaved, and/or killed. Yet rather than murder the male infants as ordered, they let them live. They must have known that they would be called to account for their actions (and they were, in verse 18), but they feared God and did as their moral conscience dictated. In fact, many scholars mark this as the first recorded instance of civil disobedience, and that their rejection of this governmental decree was not just personal, but overtly political. According to Hebrew Bible scholar James Ackerman in his essay, “The Literary Context of the Moses Birth Story (Exodus 1-2),”
Rather than cower before the most powerful man on earth they defend themselves with straight faces against Pharaoh’s charge of insubordination. Their lives are at stake, and yet their sly comparison between the vigorous Hebrew women and the pampered Egyptians comes through as totally credible to the ‘wise’ king: ‘Oh yes, of course, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?’ There is a great relish in this uneven conflict between the effete elite and the crude, but shrewd, vital, and resourceful, oppressed. The king fails to realize that not only is he being deceived, but he is also being mocked.
I love that not only did Shiphrah and Puah save the male Hebrew babies, but they also subversively declared the strength of the Hebrew women in defending their actions. To appear in front of Pharaoh, then admit to not following through on his order, and then declare that the Hebrew women were just too “lively,” too strong, too good at breeding for the midwives to defeat, and thus inferring the strength of the Hebrew people as a whole? That takes guts! I love the way that these women played the cards they were dealt, and used them to subversively defy and betray the heinous acts of Pharaoh.
Another thing I find fascinating about this story is that the original text is ambiguous as to whether Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian or Hebrew. Again, quoting James Ackerman,
The consonantal Hebrew text, which is the form in which the story was preserved until vowels were added in the 7th century A.D., contains a description of the midwives which can be rendered either ‘to the Hebrew midwives’ or ‘to those midwiving the Hebrew women.’ Those who put the vowels into the text opted for the former interpretation, but many scholars argue that the story makes better sense if the midwives are Egyptians. How could Pharaoh trust Hebrew midwives to carry out such a commission against their own people…?
I think it can be instructive to view Shiphrah and Puah through the lens of social justice work and allyship. What can we learn from this story if we assume Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew? How does it change what we learn if we assume they were Egyptian? To whom much is given, much is required, right? How can we emulate Shiphrah and Puah and be willing to sacrifice our own privilege/resources/power for the benefit of the oppressed, whether we are also oppressed or not?
It’s worth noting that Pharaoh eventually went around the midwives in verse 22, decreeing that all male children be drowned in the river, setting up the story of Moses being born, set adrift in the Nile, and eventually adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. So while Shiphrah and Puah are heroines in their own right, they don’t ultimately save generations of male children. Yet they bond together to fight against an oppressive system, and in doing so, they provide a model of pastoral care that is based in caring for their fellow sisters. In her chapter entitled “Midwives and Holy Subversives” from her book “Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care,” Karen Montagno says,
This story is rich with themes that inform my approach to pastoral care. In this reading, women working as a team are models of pastoral care. The agency of women, teamwork, and collective resources are important themes. The women “act” against the powers of the world (the king) because of their fear (or taking seriously the call) of God. There are other themes: oppression, solidarity, resistance, transformation, liberation, and blessing. The context is one of urgency, peril, challenge, and promise. The function of the midwife is seemingly simple and practical, to attend to birth. In reality it is quite challenging and complex. Trained in practical knowledge, collective wisdom, and experience, the midwife is a mentor who offers strategy to empower and bring about the birth. The midwife seeks to preserve health and ensure safety: attending, listening, witnessing to the process and what is emerging. The midwife honors what is being birthed by encouraging and urging the one giving birth to use collective resources necessary for birth. There is attention to forces not seen, but at work. This is much the role of pastoral caregivers. Any birth is transformative and the work of the pastoral caregiver is to attend that transformation. One aspect of this story that makes it particularly relevant to my context and community is that the midwives take “subversive,” risky, and strategic steps to interrupt and dismantle oppression and to ensure the wholeness and future of their community.
I love the idea that pastoral care must not only include individual fellowship and ministry, but also go further to substantively address the structural inequities that affect our sisters. What does it mean for us, as Mormon women, to emulate Shiphrah and Puah? What do we do if our moral compass compels us to defy our political and/or our religious leaders? How do we take “subversive, risky, and strategic steps to interrupt and dismantle oppression and ensure the wholeness and future” of our community? How does the model of pastoral care set by Shiphrah and Puah affect how we minister to each other, how we visit teach one another, how we interact with church leadership, and how we act?