ShePonders: Midwives

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“Everything in me screams, ‘Let the girls live!’’ I know that’s what Shiphra and Puah, advocates of beautiful childbirth, would do.”

There’s an old Exodus story about some mighty women who defied a king and discovered the power in their hands. Today I honor their memory and sing their praises with a simple retelling. I also want to reclaim their story–which might prove much more challenging, but deeply worthwhile for the sake of our world.

***

The Hebrews moved into Egypt many years ago when food was scarce and Pharaoh’s granaries were full. They lived a good life–until a new Pharaoh came to power, a man who did not know them or have any connection to them. He surveyed their double strength (“more numerous and more powerful”) as a potential threat to his people, his throne and his power. So he enslaved them.

But the Hebrews still grew in number and strength despite the hard labor.

So Pharaoh approached the Hebrew midwives and forced them into a covert operation. His instructions were clear enough–when delivering babies, look to see the gender. If it’s a boy, kill him. If it’s a girl, she can live. He commanded infanticide and expected the midwives to do it secretly, under the noses of the laboring mothers.

What he demanded went against everything in the midwife code–which is all about healthy, live births complete with wiggling, wet babies and weepy mothers.

These two midwives were named otherwise. Shiphra for beauty; Puah for the essence of childbirth–they were meant to be bearers of beautiful childbirth, as the Hebrew language reveals.

So they conspired. They decided to subvert the power of Pharaoh with their own two hands. When the Hebrew women labored and babies crowned, the midwives refused to look at the babies’ gender. Boy or girl, they delivered healthy infants into the hands of waiting mothers. The story says, “(T)hey let the boys live!” In the end, deliverance was in the hands of two women.

Pharaoh was enraged. When he questioned Shiphra and Puah, they simply reminded him of the strength of the Hebrew women – “They push out these babies before we can even arrive to look,” they said.

These mighty midwives would not be strong-armed into suppressing their people. Instead they devised a subversive strategy: devoted to God they defied Pharaoh; they didn’t distinguish between genders but delivered baby after baby after baby. The power was in their hands and they wielded it for life.

The storyteller, in poetic fashion, renders a verdict. These midwives are mentioned seven times in the Hebrew narrative, a signal of their importance. But seven mentions also demonstrated something more about their work–the midwives performed perfectly. They completed their task well, building homes with each delivery and ensuring the future of Israel. In this story, deliverance comes when the midwife arrives.

This story says much about the strength of women giving birth amid hardship and much about the strength of midwives delivering babies against imperial order. There’s not a hint of the weaker sex in this tale.

***

The baby boys in the Exodus story were delivered by Hebrew hands. (Exodus 1:20) Generations later we’d hear about the Israelites who were delivered from Egypt by the Hebrew God. (Hosea 11:1) Hundreds of year later and deliverance would come to the world in the form of a baby boy, and he would come as if out of Egypt to deliver us from Pharaonic powers once and for all. (Matt.2:15) This is the movement of the grand story we’ve been given this Christmas.

***

But I keep drifting back to the midwives who were the deliverers of their day, the heroines of their story. They remained loyal to the Lord of Life and to their midwife code. They delivered all the babies–even the boys.

Today I can’t read the story without thinking of the baby girls born in China and India. Female infanticide is a normal practice in these countries, and I’m sure that women and midwives alike struggle each time they look and see a baby girl pushed into their hands. When they discern the gender, they must decide what to do. Once again women are called to such bravery–to deliver little girls from death sentences.

Everything in me screams, “Let the girls live!’” I know that’s what Shiphra and Puah, advocates of beautiful childbirth, would do.

These mighty women challenge us even today with their story of deliverance. They remind us that we have it in our hands to save lives–to defy death orders and deliver life.

I want to see midwives rise in places like China and India. I want to know they are on the frontlines fighting for each life, championing each birth and rescuing girls.

Our story says midwives have saved babies before, I pray for midwives to deliver once again. So, I sing a song of deliverance this Christmas in honor of Shiphra and Puah and midwives the world over–may they be brave enough to deliver us again.

___________________

Photo credit: MeanestIndian on flickr

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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Kelley Nikondeha
  • Kelley, thanks so much for sharing this powerful story. I don’t think I had ever heard of Shiphra and Puah before. Blessings to you this Christmas season.

  • This is probably my favourite story since I heard it shortly after my daughter was born. I love the subversiveness of it. They just kept doing their jobs. I can just picture them, full of wisdom shrugging and saying the hebrew women push too fast. We need more subversiveness, people to quietly go about their business, while at the same time majorly going about Gods.

  • Musu

    Love that the scripture says “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do;” Only a holy-fear of God can keep us from agreeing to evil and drive us to protect the innocent like the girls in danger today.

  • More midwives, yes, please!

  • Holly

    As a former apprenticing midwife I am singing “Glory!” over this story and your beautiful retelling of it.

    This was the line that did it for me:
    “The power was in their hands and they wielded it for life.”

    What a perfect image for this month’s theme as midwife means “with woman.”
    Let us all join together, standing together, for beautiful life.

  • pastordt

    LOVELY. This is a favorite story of mine, for all the reasons you list. Reminds me of a post put up at Scot McKnight’s a few months ago with no commentary or fanfare – a news article about girls in India who had been abandoned and given a name that meant something like ‘no one’ or ‘no hope’ who were welcomed by a Christian organization that officially changed their names. But the sad thing to me was that hardly a soul commented on this powerful, small story. Instead, they were racking up major arguments on a theological issue one channel over. May more and more of us sing this song of hope – that ALL the children are worthy of life and hope!

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