The rebellion of the midwives

The rebellion of the midwives

Shemot — Exodus 1:1-6:1

Image by Clarissa Hamilton
Image by Clarissa Hamilton

When does liberation begin?

“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, revering God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:15-17) Pharaoh resorts to a new strategy: charging the entire Egyptian population with the obligation to drown at birth all male Israelite infants.

The actions of Shifra and Puah are remarkable for their audacity. Their significance is enhanced when viewed in contrast to Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster, which follows almost immediately upon the actions of Shifra and Puah. When we compare the open rebellion of the midwives with Moses’ behavior, we see some significant differences.

“[Moses saw] an Egyptian beating a Hebrew … he looked this way and that, and seeing that no one was nearby, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting, so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your neighbor?’ He replied, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened, thinking: ‘Then the matter is known.’ When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh.” (2:11-15)

Unlike the midwives whose reverence for God compelled them to defy with impunity the decree of Pharaoh, Moses is pictured as a furtive, nervous, and frightened agent of rebellion. Even the language — “[He] hid him in the sand” — suggests a desire to avoid discovery.

In the act of the midwives, rather than the act of Moses, we see the paradigm by which the freedom of the Israelites will ultimately be won: not through surreptitious slayings, but through actions which defy the very authority of Pharaoh. Pharaoh will be humbled before, then crushed by, the overwhelming power of God; the Egyptians will reap the retribution for their participation in accomplishing what the midwives refused to carry out. As with the midwives, Pharaoh will ultimately be unable to destroy those whom God has protected.

Thus it is not surprising that this week’s Torah portion, in so many ways an overture to the events to come, concludes with the words “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh; he shall let them go because of a greater power…’” (6:1) In the simple but often unobserved escape of the midwives from the wrath of Pharaoh, we discover the key to the story of the Exodus: the liberation of the Israelites, once set in motion, will perhaps be delayed, but it will not be deferred. Pharaoh’s inability, or unwillingness, to take action against Shifra and Puah signals that he will ultimately be unable to resist the Divine defiance of his presumptuous power.

Writing in his commentary on Exodus, Nahum Sarna states: “[The midwives’] defiance of tyranny constitutes history’s first recorded act of civil disobedience in defense of a moral imperative.”

Liberation has begun!

Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Wynnewood, Pa.

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