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Published Date: April 25, 2024

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Shiphrah and Puah: The Egyptian Midwives on the Frontlines of a Spiritual War

If I were to ask you, “Who were Shiphrah and Puah?” there is a good chance you might not even recognize the names. You might not realize that I was speaking of two pivotal women whose fear of God prompted them to take part in one of the most momentous events in the Hebrew Scriptures. These two women stood on the frontlines of the spiritual war we call the Exodus.

We learn of them in Exodus 1:15–22, where they are described as the midwives who serve the Hebrew women. The first thing that should grab our attention is that they are named at all. At this particular juncture in the story, no one else commands such respect. Even Pharaoh is only addressed by his title; Moses’s parents are just referred to as a man and woman from the tribe of Levi; Moses is not named until Pharaoh’s daughter claims him from the river. The writer of Exodus is singling Shiphrah and Puah out as someone readers should notice, distinct from others present in the story up to this point.

Pharaoh has ordered that the midwives kill all male children born to the Hebrew women. It is significant that Pharaoh is giving these women specific instructions. Why would Pharaoh speak directly to the midwives for his slaves? And why would he expect that they would offer obedience or allegiance to him? Here was a king who was so powerful that he put out a royal decree to have children killed in their homes—and he was shocked when it did not happen. From his perspective, he had every right to issue such an order. After all, he was a god himself, and gods had power over life and death.[1] Why wouldn’t these women do as he commanded? Even stranger is that he doesn’t have them executed when they don’t comply.

First, there are hints that these midwives are not Hebrew women. This is significant because the wording in verse 15 can be translated “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews,” so there is a bit of debate. Pharaoh’s caveat of “when you serve as a midwife to the Hebrew women . . .” suggests that there are times they serve other women—as does the fact that he accepts their comparison between the “vigor” of the Egyptian and Hebrew women without argument or further qualification. It is telling that he expects compliance without duplicity or fraud, which is what would be expected from an Egyptian, not a Hebrew (who was already thought to be capable of betrayal, as seen in verse 9). The final bit of evidence is the fact that he does not kill them when they fail to do his bidding. Their services were evidently of a high enough value to the kingdom to provide them with some type of security. 

Giving birth was (and still can be) dangerous. It was war, specifically a war between the gods. Many cultures have a god, goddess, or demon who actively seeks to destroy infants, children, and their mothers.[2] A midwife did not merely assist a woman through a biological process; she was actively engaged in warding off malevolent deities who posed a threat to the mother and child. Archeologists have found numerous amulets and charms designed to keep the dark forces at bay during childbirth. There are multiple nonbiblical manuscripts from various lands with spells, incantations, and prayers that banish evil spirits and request assistance from gods who would defend the mother and child.[3] Archeologists have even found examples of Egyptian birthing bricks that predate any proposed date for the Exodus[4] by at least 300 years; an image of the goddess Hathor guarding against onlooking demons during a birth can still be seen on one early example of these bricks.[5] The use of birthing bricks is hinted at here in the Biblical text, hidden behind the English translation “birth stools”. Robert Alter translates the Hebrew as literally reading “double stones,” and he cites a papyrus that contained a magical incantation to be read over the birthing bricks as support for his translation.[6] The word indicates a structure that allowed the woman to be in an elevated squat in order to allow the midwife room to assist her. (As a side note, the number of male commentators who admitted confusion over this point when I was doing my research for this piece is almost comical, and another reason we need more female Bible scholars!)

It is this background information that makes verse 17 extremely interesting: “But the midwives feared God . . .” I suspect their profession played a part in their fear. Think about it: if your job had you on the frontlines of a supernatural war on a daily basis, how long do you think it would take you to figure out whose side you wanted to be on? If the biggest part of your life revolved around asking the right God for help and banishing the wrong god from the premises, how well would you understand whom to appeal to? In matters of life and death, you would want the God of Israel on your side—which meant you had better to be on his side.

It is this fear of God that emboldens these two women to defy a god—but this wouldn’t have been the first time they did so. Going toe to toe with evil gods to save lives was what they had been uniquely prepared for and actively living their whole lives. They knew how to thwart an attempted genocide because they saved one life at time for years.

They were ready to do the right thing because they had been doing their job well. They could act in this time of crisis because they were used to the daily discipline needed in their calling and profession. Their practice of midwifery had given them all the skills needed for this precise moment: wisdom, discernment, courage, and how to take decisive action at the proper moment to save those they served from physical and spiritual threats. Few other professions could have prepared them any better than this one.

Shiphrah and Puah’s story makes me pause and consider my own life. Am I serving those in my care with excellence? Am I learning from the obligations placed on me in my profession and calling? Am I growing in wisdom and discernment so that I am ready to act should the need arise? Has experience with God emboldened me to defy those who would take life and fear the One who saves? Will I be like Shiphrah and Puah, who aren’t remembered because they stood around waiting for a chance, but rather because they were ready when the chance was presented?

Photo by Wi Farma.

[1] Ellen F. Morris, “The Pharaoh and Pharonic Office,” in A Companion to Ancient Egypt, Vol. I, ed. Alan B. Lloyd (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 201–217.

[2] Heta Björklund, “Protecting against Child-killing Demons: Uterus Amulets in the Late Antique and Byzantine Magical World” (PhD Diss., University of Helsinki , 2017).

[3] Charlotte Rose, “Childbirth Magic: Deciphering Bed Figurines from Ancient Egypt,” Expedition Magazine 58, no. 3 (January, 2017), accessed March 08, 2024. ttps:// See also Miriam Said, “Mesopotamian Magic in the First Millennium B.C.,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–). (December 2018).

[4] John G. Drummond, “Dating the Exodus,” The BAS Library (Biblical Archeology Society, 2021). Last modified 2021. Accessed April 2, 2024.

[5] Josef Wegner, “The Magical Birth Brick,” Expedition Magazine 48, no. 2 (July, 2006), accessed March 08, 2024.

[6] “Exodus 1:16,” in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, ed. Robert Alter, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019) 1:215.

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