Shemot: Disobedient Midwives

What if someone who should have moral authority orders you to do something immoral?

The Israelites have lived in Egypt for generations when the first Torah portion of Exodus, Shemot (“Names”) begins. But they are still not native Egyptians, and the new pharaoh thinks that in the event of a war, they might join the enemy. And there are too many of them!

Slaves making bricks, detail from tomb of Egyptian vizier Rekmire, c. 1450 C.E.

Pharaoh’s first attempt at population control is to conscript the Israelite men for corvée labor building cities. Assigning this hard labor to a large immigrant population may be popular among native Egyptians. But why does Pharaoh think it will reduce the Israelite population? Ibn Ezra suggested that they were driven ruthlessly so that the semen of the men would dry up. Chizkuni wrote that Pharaoh expected they would be too overworked to engage in marital intercourse.1

Yet the Israelite population keeps on increasing.2

Then the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Ivriyot, of whom the first was named Shifrah and the second was named Puah—he said: “When you deliver [the children of] the Hebrew women, then you must look at the pair of stones. If it is a son, then you must kill him, but if it is a daughter, vachayah.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:15-16)

Ivriyot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = Hebrews. In Genesis through 2 Samuel, Egyptians and Philistines sometimes call an Israelite an Ivri as an ethnic slur implying the person is a foreigner with low social status.

vachayah (וָחָיָה) = and/then she shall live. (A form of the verb chayah, הָיָה = lived.)

Egyptian goddess Isis giving birth on two stones, attended by Hathor figures

Women giving birth in ancient Egypt squatted or kneeled on two parallel stones or bricks. A midwife knelt in front of the woman and caught the baby as it came out between the stones, while two women stationed on either side gave the laboring woman physical and emotional support.

Since only Shifrah and Puah are named in the passage above, some Jewish exegesis imagines only two midwives for hundreds of thousands of Israelite women.3 A more reasonable interpretation is that Shifrah is the foremost midwife, perhaps the head of her guild, and Puah is her second-in-command.

Although Shifrah and Puah are Semetic names,4 it is hard to believe that Pharaoh would give Israelite midwives instructions to kill every male newborn among their own people.5 Furthermore, Pharaoh would not want the Israaelites to know about his order; if they did, they would stop using Egyptian midwives.6 We must assume that midwifery was monopolized by native Egyptians, and Pharoah expects professional Egyptian midwives to obey the king and feel no concern over the deaths of immigrant children.7

But Pharaoh is wrong.

And the midwives feared the gods, and they did not do what the king of Egypt spoke to them. Vatechayeyna the boys. (Exodus 1:17)

vatechayeyna (וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ) = and they kept alive. (Another form of the verb chayah.)

What does it mean that the midwives fear the gods? One meaning of “fearing God” in the Torah is feeling awe and respect for God. The other meaning is being averse to doing an immoral deed.7 Torah assumes that a sincerely religious person is an ethical person. Here “fearing the gods” means that the midwives have strong moral intuitions.

But they also face a moral dilemma. For millennia cultures throughout the world assigned a high moral value to maintaining an orderly society by doing one’s duty, respecting each person’s station in life, and obeying legitimate authorities.8 (This moral value continues in traditional cultures today.) A king’s subjects have a duty to respect his authority and obey his orders. And who could be a more legitimate authority than the pharaoh, who is the sacred mediator between the people and the gods, maintaining the balance of the world?9

On the other hand, two universal moral intuitions are that it is wrong to harm another human being, and that it is wrong to abuse one’s power by oppressing others.10 Killing the baby boys is a case of harming humans without justice. (These infants are innocent, healthy, and wanted by their parents.) The fact that Pharaoh ordered the killings indicates that he is abusing his power and acting as an oppressor.

When people face circumstances in which two or more moral values conflict, we have to either choose the most important  value in that situation, or act for a non-ethical reason. If the midwives were to make a non-ethical choice, they would obey Pharaoh’s orders and avoid any trouble with the government.

Instead, they apparently decide that Pharaoh’s unreasonable order proves that despite his birth and position, he is no longer a legitimate authority. The moral thing to do is to save the lives of the infant boys and disobey the oppressor.

Shifrah and Puah are brave enough to do what they believe is right. Instead of submitting to Pharaoh’s authority, they “fear the gods”—and “the gods” are a higher authority.

Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot, c. 1900

And the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why did you do this thing, vatechayeyna the boys?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriyot are not like the Egyptian women, for they are chayot before the midwife comes to them, and they give birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals. (Same spelling as the infinitive plural form of the verb chayah.)

Shifrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh. They invent a story that calls Israelite women Ivriyot who are wild animals in contrast to civilized Egyptian women. This lie appeals to the king’s anti-Semitic prejudice.  Now the midwives have added lying to disobedience, but both of these actions are in service to a higher morality—and saves their own lives, as well as those of the Israelite boys.

And God was good to the midwives. And the people increased and became very mighty. (Exodus 1:20)

Taking the moral high road is not only dangerous at times, but also confusing when the road forks. May we all become as virtuous as Shifrah and Puah, who confront an ethical contradiction, make an independent decision, and act courageously to do what our inner “gods” know is right.

  1. Commentary to Exodus 1:11 by 12th-century C.E. exegete Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra; and 13th-century C.E. rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, author of Chizkuni.
  2. Traditional midrash on Exodus 1:12 imagines that the women went out to their husbands on their lunch breaks and seduced them with mirrors, bantering over who was more attractive. (This story appears in Midrash Tanchuma, circa 500-800 C.E.)
  3. Ibn Ezra pointed out that Shifrah and Puah can only be the supervisors of many other midwives.
  4. Shifrah is similar to the Hebrew shafrah (שָׁפְרָה) = was pleasing, polished. Puah is similar to a Canaanite name meaning “girl”; alternatively, it might be related to pa-ah (פָּעָה) = groaned (as in childbirth). The Talmud (Sotah 11b) fancifully identifies the two midwives as Yocheved (mother of Moses) and her daughter Miriam, who apparently are using pseudonyms. Although the Torah does include some Egyptian names spelled phonetically, it also sometimes translates foreign names. Examples of foreign names (or titles) translated into Hebrew are Malkitzedek (Genesis 14:18) and Avimelekh (Genesis 20:2).
  5. This point was made by 15th-century C.E. commentator Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and assumed by 1st-century C.E. historian Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Matityahu) in his Antiquties For more detail on the ethnicity of the midwives, see Moshe Lavee and Shana Strauch-Schick, https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-egyptian-midwives.
  6. This point was made by 19th-century commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto.
  7. See Genesis 20:11, Jonah 1:12-16.
  8. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Random House, New York, 2012, p. 165-169.
  9. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, “The Title ‘Pharaoh’”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-title-pharaoh.
  10. Haidt, pp. 153-158, 197-205.

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