Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
The end of the book of Genesis focuses on the men – on Jacob and his sons. The Exodus from Egypt, in contrast, begins with five courageous women: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter.
A new pharaoh has risen in Egypt and enslaved the Hebrew people. Even more he attempts the world’s first holocaust against the Jews, commanding that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth by the two midwives who delivered them. However, Shiphrah and Puah ignored the order and lied to Pharaoh saying that the Hebrew women were too quick, and the babies were already born and hidden away by the time they arrived. Amazingly, Pharaoh believed the midwives, and did not punish them.
Who were Shiphrah and Puah, and why did they defy Pharaoh?
In Hebrew they are referred to as m’yaldot ha’ivriot. This can mean either “the Hebrew midwives” (meaning they were Hebrews themselves) or “midwives to the Hebrews” (which suggests they were not). If they were Israelites, then it is easy to understand why they defied Pharaoh, but what if they weren’t?
The names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” are not Hebrew, but more likely Canaanite or Ugaritic in origin. Still that does not mean that they were “other.” While the tradition generally refers to them as Israelites, there is some disagreement, and in truth, we will never know. Rabbi Azriel Fellner asks:
“If they were Egyptian, from where did they get the spiritual and moral strength to counter an edict from Pharaoh? If they were of Hebrew origin, why would Pharaoh trust them to follow through on an order that would have them murder one of their own? … What’s more, why is this story told at all? Is it just to share with us an act of civil disobedience?”
It’s quite a conundrum, and it gets even murkier when we look at the Hebrew which describes their act of civil disobedience:
“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the King of Egypt told them; vat’chayena et ha’yeladim – they let the boys live.” [Ex. 1:15-17]
While vat’chayena et ha’yeladim is usually translated as “they let the boys live,” it could also mean “they caused the boys to live.” In the Midrashic tradition, they not only delivered the babies, but helped to look after them.
I think that the Hebrew here is intentionally fuzzy. We are not supposed to know whether Shiphrah and Puah were Israelites or the world’s first righteous gentiles. Nor can we be sure of what exactly they did. We can be sure, however, of two things. First, they were motivated by yirat HaShem (fear or awe of God). The late Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said, “To say ‘no’ to evil is the deepest affirmation of the existence of God.” This is true for Jews and gentiles alike. Second, Shiphrah and Puah demonstrated extraordinary courage in choosing to disobey immoral commands from Pharaoh. At the Nuremburg trials following World War II, defendants of genocidal crimes argued “loyalty to the state,” saying that they could not be held guilty for following the orders of their government leaders. The court, properly, rejected that defense.
It takes resolute courage to refuse immoral orders from those in power. The European Holocaust happened because too many people were afraid or unwilling to defy the commands of the Nazis. The Egyptian Holocaust never happened because of the courage and faith of two women, righteous regardless of their nationality or religion. This is not just a lesson for history, but a lesson for today. In the Israeli military, soldiers are required to question orders which seem immoral. However, in much of the world challenging immoral orders and laws remains a dangerous proposition. Enshrined in Torah, Shiphrah and Puah are among our greatest role models.
And what of Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter? They too demonstrated deep courage, but their stories will have to wait for another column.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras