Rebekah and Isaac died leaving the patriarchy in the hands of Jacob and his two wives: Leah and Rachel. Abraham and Sarah had one son. Isaac and Rebekah had only two sons, and one was an unbeliever. Jacob and his wives with their handmaids were blessed with twelve sons and one daughter. The line of the covenant established with Abraham was growing. These sons now became men. One of the youngest of the brothers was a son named Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel. Because Joseph was born of Rachel, Jacob favored him above his brothers. On account of their hatred for Joseph, his brothers sold him as a slave into Egypt. God’s purpose behind this evil deed of Joseph’s brothers was to save Jacob’s family alive. A famine hit the land of Canaan hard, and the sons of Jacob traveled to Egypt to look for food. Joseph had become ruler of Egypt under Pharaoh and therefore was able to provide for his family. He sent for his father, and Jacob with all his family moved to Egypt. Seventy souls moved to Egypt to be protected by Joseph.
Four hundred years now pass. The scene has changed in the land of Egypt. A new Pharaoh now reigned, and this Pharaoh subjected Jacob’s family, now a large nation, to hard bondage. You see, the family of Jacob lived to one side of the kingdom of Egypt proper, and it was growing rapidly. Pharaoh, therefore, attempted to limit the size of this nation by placing Israel under cruel, harsh bondage. Perhaps he thought the men and women of Israel would be too weary to produce children. Yet God continued to bless Israel with rapid growth. The more they were afflicted, the more children were born. After but four or five generations, the family of Jacob had grown from a family of 70 to a multitude of about a million strong. To the king’s mind, this required drastic measures. He commanded that all the baby boys born in Israel should be killed at the moment of birth. In this context we read of two godly women, Shiphrah and Puah, who played an important part in the preservation of the nation of Israel. We read of them in Exodus 1:15-21: “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: 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. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. 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? 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. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.” In this broadcast we examine the faith of these two God-fearing women.
Shiphrah and Puah Fear God
The King’s Command
Shiphrah and Puah are not well known among the women of faith in the Bible, yet they are outstanding figures of women who feared God. They were Hebrew women. The designation “Hebrew” appears only a few times in the Bible prior to this description of the Israelites. The term literally means “passed over.” It referred to Israel as a people who were not native to Canaan or Egypt. They were a people who had passed over the Euphrates River from Mesopotamia and now lived as foreigners in the land. This is an exact description of the Israelite nation ever since Abraham had been called out of Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia and to Canaan.
Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew women. They were not Egyptian women, as some commentators claim. We say this for a couple of reasons. First, their names are Hebrew, not Egyptian. Second, verse 15 of our text does not say that they were midwives to the Hebrew women, but Hebrew midwives. Furthermore, they were married to Hebrew men, as is evident in verse 21 of our text, where we learn that God made them houses, that is, God established their families in Israel.
We also learn that these two women were midwives. Midwives were women who, probably through much practice, were skilled in delivering babies. Further, Shiphrah and Puah belonged to the office of a midwife, as is evident from verse 16. They belonged to a guild or order of women that were midwives to the mothers in Israel. How many belonged to this ‘office’ of midwife we are not told. But Shiphrah and Puah were probably chief among these midwives, and for that reason Pharaoh addressed them in particular. I’m sure they were required to pass down the command of the king to the other women who belonged to this order in Israel. That we learn of these women in the second place.
In the third place, and more importantly, these women feared God. We are told of this in both verses 17 and 21. It was not that these women were deathly afraid of God’s judgment on them if they, in fact, did what the king commanded of them. Perhaps such fear was there too. But these women did not fear God in the sense that they were afraid of Him. The idea of fear here in our text is that of deep reverence, admiration, and veneration of God. These were godly women who had the love of God in their hearts. They were believers who knew God and bowed before Him in deep humility, esteeming him as the most high God. The Bible gives us the names of these two women because the meaning of their names reflected what was in their hearts. The name Shiphrah means “beauty.” The name Puah means “splendid.” These women were beautiful and splendid on the inside in a deeply spiritual sense.
They knew God—not just a god, but the God. The Hebrew language uses here in our text a form of speech that is hard to convey in the English. It would be something like this: “they feared the self-same God,” or, “they feared the God Himself.” The idea is clear: Shiphrah and Puah feared, held in the highest esteem and reverence, the one only true God of heaven and earth. We will come back to this a little later because it was this fear of God that lay behind their disobedience to the king’s command. These were pious women, godly women. They believed in the God who had by His grace revealed Himself to them. They jeopardized their very lives because of their love for God.
Here is how. The king commanded these midwives to keep a close eye on the Israelite women who were about to be delivered of a baby. The Hebrew language can be graphic in its explanation of certain things. Our English translations take the edge off the details, which is a good thing! Our translations read “see upon the stools.” This means that when an Israelite woman went into labor and was giving birth, the midwives had to watch very closely their bottoms. When the baby appeared, they had to see immediately whether the baby was a boy or girl. In those days, there was no predicting what a mother was going to have. One had to wait until the baby was born to determine the sex of the baby. The midwives had to be right there to determine immediately whether it was a boy or girl. The reason for this was that, if the midwives discovered it was a boy, they must immediately kill him. They were not to snatch the little boy away and kill him elsewhere. The midwives had to kill him immediately, before the mother even had a chance to see him.
It is not hard to imagine how this might take place: a quick prick to the heart of the child or by not allowing him to breathe. But it had to be immediate, so as not to call too much attention to the death of that baby boy. Perhaps in this way even the Israelite mothers might be deceived into thinking their son was a stillborn. The king commanded these believing women to murder the infant sons of Israelite women—a horrible genocide of newborn boys. That is as appalling as the millions of abortions today. If the women gave birth to a little girl, on the other hand, the girls could be saved alive.
Now, there was a reason the king of Egypt commanded saving the girls and killing all the boys. The Hebrew women were not the threat to his kingdom. The Hebrew men, on the other hand, might join forces with an enemy and fight against Egypt. The nation of Israel had become an integral part of the economy of Egypt. Pharaoh could not afford to have this nation leave. Kill the boys of Israel and Israel would no longer be a threat. But there was another reason for saving the girls alive. When they grew up they would be forced to marry Egyptian husbands. In this way the Israelite nation would be absorbed into the Egyptian race. In a generation or two the workforce would remain the same and the economy would not falter. The nation of Israel (the Hebrews) would disappear, and the Egyptian race would be none the weaker but all the stronger for it. Even when the plan with the midwives failed, this was still the intent of Pharaoh. But next time he would achieve it by sending his own men around and aggressively removing the baby from his home and drowning him in the Nile River. At this point, with his order to the Hebrew midwives, Pharaoh wanted to kill off the baby boys without creating a big stir. Later he no longer tried to hide it.
That was the purpose of Pharaoh in killing off the baby boys in Israel. However, we may not lose sight of the war of the ages that was taking place here. Satan has attempted since the beginning of time to destroy the kingdom of God and of His Son. It was no different at this time. If Pharaoh would have achieved his plan, the church at that time would have disappeared. The seed of the woman would be destroyed and the seed of the serpent would prevail. So, here we find an attempt of Satan to destroy the church.
But there is more. The covenant that God established with Abraham and his believing children was rooted and grounded in the coming of the Messiah out of Abraham’s children. All the promises of that covenant are yea and amen in Christ alone. Christ had to be born out of Abraham. Here was a deliberate attempt, therefore, on the part of the devil, to devour the Christ child being carried in the womb of the Old Testament church. We must not overlook what lay behind the scenes, so to speak. Satan was out to destroy the church.
The Midwive’s Disobedience
Pharaoh’s plan was clever. He would have achieved what he wanted except for one thing: the midwives did not obey the command of the king. We read in Exodus 1:17, “But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.” You see, there are two ways a person can disobey. An observant parent will be able to detect this in his or her own children. They can actively disobey or passively disobey. Active rebellion is easily and quickly detected because the child will argue against doing what he is told. A child will raise a fuss and perhaps scream and holler and get angry at his parents and stubbornly refuse. This will immediately rouse the anger of parents, and the child will be quickly punished for disobedience. Passive disobedience is more difficult to detect, and parents are more apt to allow a child to continue in his sin because they overlook this type of disobedience. Passive rebellion is when a parent tells a child to do something and the child responds by saying he will, but then he does not do it. Or if he is told not to do something he will act as if he is complying but when he is on his own he will do it anyway. That is passive disobedience. This passive disobedience is what Shiphrah and Puah decided to do. They did not speak out boldly against the king and tell him they would not consort in his sin. This would have brought the ire of the king upon them and it would probably have cost them their heads. Rather, they went out from the presence of the king and simply did not do what he commanded them. This would delay any kind of punishment for a time. It probably was some time, too, before the king noticed all the little boys still running around the Israelite settlements.
The king’s reaction to this passive disobedience was, “why have you done this thing and have saved the men children alive?” The midwives gave a rather lame excuse: “Hebrew women are lively and are delivered before the midwives come in unto them.” The excuse seemed to suffice for Pharaoh. Indeed, it was probably true that the Israelite women attempted to bear their children without the assistance of a midwife. God indeed blessed them in this way, too, by giving them easy labor and causing the children to be born healthy despite the fact they would have their babies on their own. But God’s Word tells us in our text that the midwives “did not as the king commanded.” They did not themselves kill any of the baby boys that they helped deliver.
What we have here, then, is a lie to the king. Was this wrong? Well, God commands us that we may not lie. God is Himself a God of truth. Every lie contradicts the very nature of God therefore. This leads me to conclude that this lie of Shiphrah and Puah was a sin. This does not detract, however, from the praise the Word of God gives these two women in that they feared God. They acted boldly and courageously in the face of real and present danger and for that reason, as Calvin says, “God endured in them the sin which He would have deservedly condemned.”
God dealt mercifully with these women and rewarded them for two reasons. First, they obeyed God rather than men. It was not a sin to disobey Pharaoh. Shiphrah and Puah did not violate the fifth commandment. Scripture clearly teaches us that if a person in authority commands us to disobey God’s commandments, then we must not obey that person. That, then, was one reason these midwives disobeyed the commandment of the king to them. But, in the second place, the Word of God before us clearly states they did not obey Pharaoh because they feared God! These women clung to the covenant and its promises that God had given their fathers. They knew that this God was the God of His covenant who dwelt with Israel. They were His people and He was their God. These women knew that their salvation from sin would come forth out of the sons born to Israel. Which son, no one knew, but the Christ, the Messiah, would be born out of the generations of Israel. It was in that faith that they acted. This is why they refused to obey the king.
But, once again, God had His purpose in all of this. As sovereign King of all the earth who from eternity planned out the way of salvation and the bringing of glory to His name, God would not allow Satan even the slightest victory. In His providence, God guided the actions of these women to preserve alive His people and church. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ—not even the church that at that time was carrying the Christ child in her womb. Christ would be born. The salvation of God’s people would take place—not despite the events that were taking place, but by means of them. God uses all things for the salvation of His church. When the wicked rise up to destroy the church of Christ; when Satan moves men to act against the church in anger and hatred—whether that be through persecution or false doctrine—we need not fear. God is our refuge and our strength. God will preserve His church today even as He preserved His church under bondage and affliction then. Such was God’s purpose behind all that had now taken place. God’s covenant is sure. He will fulfill His promises through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scripture now records for us the blessing of God that rested on Shiphrah and Puah for their faithfulness. God dealt well with the midwives, and because they feared him, God made them houses. God’s blessing was rooted in their fear of God, of course. By means of their efforts the people of Israel continued to multiply and become even stronger as a nation. The king’s plan was foiled. It failed because of the faithfulness of these women to the God whom they served. Though His people were under hard bondage and under the threat of death, God not only preserved His church but caused her to flourish. For this, God dealt well with the midwives. It was not simply for their own kindness they were rewarded. It was for the sake of the work of Christ in their hearts that God rewarded them. The reward was that of grace.
We are told that God built them houses. This does not mean that for their labor God gave them big beautiful houses to live in. Rather, it means that God established their families in Israel. God blessed Shiphrah and Puah by establishing for them a posterity in Israel. In these two saintly women we find a witness. With such witnesses compassing us about, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us and run with patience the race that God has set before us.