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Published Date: August 1, 2022

Published Date: August 1, 2022

Women in Scripture and Mission: Shiphrah and Puah

Portrait courtesy of Cara Quinn from knowyourmothers.com.

Women in Scripture and Mission: Shiphrah and Puah

Published Date: August 1, 2022

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Shiphrah and Puah
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Sifra y Fua

Genesis ends with the Hebrews flourishing in Egypt under the protection of Joseph as second in command. The book of Exodus opens hundreds of years later. The Hebrews are settled in the strategic location of Goshen on fertile ground along the Nile and at the crossroads of international trade. They have so increased, “filling the land,” that the Egyptians begin to worry about their numbers and the possibility of an uprising. So, Pharoah orders them into hard labor, a time-honored method of reducing a people’s lifespan and increasing mother and infant mortality rates.1 However, Exodus tells us that “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (Ex. 1:12 NRSV), an indicator of God’s blessing, especially upon the pregnant mothers.

Exodus then centers on two women responsible for multiplying healthy babies, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Interestingly the text does not cite Pharoah’s name but remembers these two women personally signifying their importance to the Israelites, “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah” (Ex 1:15).2 Pharoah ordered them to initiate a genocide by killing the newly delivered boys, but to preserve the newborn girls’ lives, “but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Ex. 1:16). There are two reasons that Pharoah may have preserved the life of the girls. In a male-dominated society, Pharoah likely underestimated the power of women.3 As the first three chapters of Exodus develop, the reader learns that Pharoah’s blindness to the power of women sets the stage for his own demise.4 Motivated by power and economics, the Egyptians raped the girls to ensure the rejection of their children by both Hebrews and Egyptians, thus forcing them into a perpetual slave population.5 Miriam’s name alludes to this expectation as it means “one who endures much suffering.”6

The question arises, what then will these midwives do? Afterall , midwives were honored throughout the Ancient Near East for their medical skill in bringing new life and were often referred to as “wise women.”7 Like traditional healers through the ages, their wisdom embodied their very being. They recognized the smells of the earth and the herbs that brought healing; their skilled hands delivered hundreds of babies; their sight evaluated weakness and strength; and their intuition knew the best methods of healing.8 As life-givers and preservers, they naturally feared the God who created and gave life (Ex 1:17a). Pharoah’s order undermined their very profession and faith. Therefore, the midwives refused to comply and “let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17b).

Exodus highlights their leadership that defied Pharoah’s order to kill baby boys. Womanist Wilda Gafney makes the logical leap that Puah and Shiphrah must be the leaders of the midwives since the text says, the Hebrews filled the land in Exodus 1:7. It would have been impossible for only two women to care for so many, apparently fertile, women. Thus, Puah and Shiphrah, were likely leaders of the midwives and their instructions to the other midwives were crucial.9 They “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded, but they let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17b).

Pharoah calls them in a second time, demanding to know, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” (Ex. 1:18). This time the midwives cleverly used his prejudice and bias against him with an ethnic slur and wordplay. Though most English translations state that the Hebrew women are too “lively” or “vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Ex 1:19b), this is incorrect for three reasons. First, the accepted translation compliments the Hebrew women compared to the Egyptian women, something that would not have been politically astute. Second, the translation of the Hebrew word “chayah” into “lively” or “vigorous” only occurs in this one verse. Otherwise, it means undomesticated, wild animals, or beast-like creatures.10 Thus, many Old Testament scholars now translate it to mean “animal.” Richard Elliott Freedman’s translation reads:

“And the midwives said to Pharoah, “Because the Hebrews aren’t like the Egyptian women, because they’re animals! Before the midwives come to them, they’ve given birth!” (Ex 1:19).11

And third, people who are part of the “other” or “oppressed” group recognize the age-old technique of survival, where humor, irony, and wit are used against the oppressor to blind him to their very techniques of survival.12 For Tykva Frymer-Kensky, “Pharoah sees Israel as ‘other,’ they make an ethnic slur belittling these others. In this way, they demonstrate to Pharoah they are not in favor of Hebrews. Not seeing the power of these women to defy him, Pharoah is all too willing to hear something negative about Hebrews and falls for their trick.”13 The midwives use a racial slur, and Pharoah is deceived.14

Lastly, God not only blesses the midwives’ leadership in peaceful civil disobedience. God also preserves the Abrahamic covenant and honors the life-giving work of their midwifery, “So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong,” (Ex. 1:20).15 Astonishingly, God made the women heads of households. “And because the midwives feared God, he gave to them houses,” (Ex. 1:21). Again, our English Bibles usually translate this as “family.” But the Hebrew meaning is “house” and uses the same language within a covenant context when God promised David that his house would endure, 2 Samuel 7:11 . God honors the midwives’ leadership by establishing them as heads of households, with no mention or concern regarding men or husbands in their lives.

The author of Exodus recognized that these powerful women initiated an uprising against Pharoah that “birthed resistance in the other [women]” who followed their leadership.17 Their holy defiance was complete when God freed the Hebrews from slavery and defeated Egypt (Ex. 15:1-20).

Read More on Shiphrah and Puah in:

Rational and Emotional Faith” by Megan Greulich in Mutuality.

Who’s Who? Biblical Models of Women in Leadership” by Gracy Ying May in Priscilla Papers

Black is Blessed: A Study of Black/African Women and Men in Scripture” by Catherine Clark Kroeger in Priscilla Papers

Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach us about Freedom” by Mary Lou Wiley a Book Review on Defiant

Notes

  1. Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 58-59.
     
  2. Scholars believe the defeated Pharoah was not important to the Israelite story. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 69.
     
  3. This is a common conclusion among scholars. Tykva Frymer Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Testament of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 25; Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith, 59.
     
  4. Tykva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 25; Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith, 59.
     
  5. Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality 26, no. 4 (December 13, 2019).
     
  6. Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible.”
     
  7. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 40.
     
  8. Kat Armas highlights the embodied wisdom of women traditional healers over the ages, which she also recognizes in Puah and Shiphrah. While Christian tradition has tended to demonize these women, Biblical tradition honors them. See Aubelita Faith, 60-61.
     
  9. Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 89.
     
  10. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2000), 310.
     
  11. Friedman, The Exodus, 220; Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 91; Armas, Abuelita Faith, 61.
     
  12. Meyers, Exodus, 37-38.
     
  13. Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 25-26.
     
  14. Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 90; Armas, Abuelita Faith, 61.
     
  15. CBE International’s on staff Biblical language adviser, Amber Burgess argues” dealt well” is often used “in conjunction with wording related to the Abrahamic Covenant or is used in relation to the preservation of the Abrahamic Covenant.” While the verb ”yatab” can have many uses, Exodus 1:20 is using it in relation to the preservation of the Abrahamic Covenant.” Amber Burgess, Personal E-mail, May 26, 2022.
     
  16. Meyers, Exodus, 37. Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 91.
     
  17. Armas, Abuelita Faith, 62.