Exodus 1:15-22 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Devotion: Faithful Disobedience
The Bible is ever ancient, ever modern. Pharaoh had tried to curb the Israelite population by making them slaves. When that does not work, he resorts to genocide in the form of male infanticide. In most forms of infanticide or sex-selection abortions, it is the female who is most at risk. There are millions of girls missing in China and India today for that reason. But here in ancient Egypt, it is the males who might pose a threat so they are to be put to death. The issue is not sexism – it never is – but the brutality and selfishness of the human heart.
Obey God, not the state.
We do not know the name of the Pharaoh, but we are given the names of the two midwives – perhaps the two chief midwives – Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh is a typical tyrant, rather like Herod at the birth of Christ (Matt.2:16-18). When the U.S. Supreme Court voted in 1973 by 7-2 to allow abortion on demand, Justice Harry Blackmun stated that ‘the cancer of poverty will continue to grow if abortion can’t be applied as a cure for the social problems of the poor.’ Like Pharaoh of old, Blackmun simply thought that there are too many inconvenient people on the face of this earth.
Herod’s soldiers carried out his orders but these two midwives refused to carry out what Calvin calls ‘this dreadful barbarity’. God created us and will judge and has declared that murder is wrong. Pharaoh, on the other hand, says that murder is all right when convenience dictates. Today freedoms are being eroded, and as is respect for conscience. The Christian medical worker faces pressure to take part in abortions; the journalist is expected to slant the news in one direction; and the teacher has to kowtow to the dictates of the Education Department on issues which are ironically put under the category of ‘Diversity’.
The midwives no doubt feared Pharaoh, but they feared God more (Matt.10:28). When there is a clash between God and the civil state, God wins (Acts 5:28-29). This may cost us our comfort, our jobs, our standing in the community, even our freedom, maybe our lives. Such a choice pressed itself upon the hearts and consciences of these two women, and they feared God.
The need to act.
It seems that the Hebrew mid-wives, like Rahab in Joshua 2:1-7, lied in order to protect life. Christians become uneasy at this, and in dealing with Psalm 5 Augustine of Hippo said that one ‘ought to be willing to conceal the truth, but not to tell a lie.’
One hesitates to disagree with the great man, but we are not obliged to tell the truth to someone who is going to misuse it. When Corrie ten Boom’s family decided to protect Dutch Jews from the Nazis in World War II, all members had to be committed to saving life, not appearing as good citizens under the Nazi authorities.
The midwives feared God, and loved the little Hebrew baby boys. They did not choose their circumstances – we do not always get that luxury – so they had to respond what they faced not what they wanted to face. To fear God and love the Hebrew babies, they had to deceive Pharaoh. They did well, as did Rahab (Heb.11:23; James 2:25). We must do all we can in trying circumstances. In Prestons in Sydney, for example, Hope House has been set up to save infant lives and help struggling mothers (see www.hopehouse.com.au)
God blesses His people.
Pharaoh was frustrated and wanted his people, even the Hebrew people, to do his dirty work for him. But God blessed the midwives and the Israelites. Be strong and courageous: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Rom.8:31) What is our obligation today? To fear God and obey Him. What will be the result of that? Blessing upon blessing.
Our most holy yet gracious God, in turning from You, we have turned from light to darkness, from strength to weakness, from life to death. We turn now to You, and seek that You would pour out Your lovingkindness on a needy and wayward people. We pray against the scourge of abortion and euthanasia, and the general culture which promotes suicide and premature death. Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. We pray that here in this fallen world, we might yet see more of such grace and mercy. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
- Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and president of Hope House