Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10
In his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” While Dickens described chaos in London around the time of the French Revolution, chaos exists today. All around us, people are living in chaos. People are operating in what appears to be a state of being disturbed in mind or purpose. Within the narrative detailed in Exodus 1:8-2:10, readers encounter two women living amid chaos.
Chaos—when your community is riddled with death and funerals, but the essence of your livelihood as a midwife is all about life and living.
Chaos—when you live in a country where your people, who are fruitful and prolific and built the place, are enslaved.
Chaos—when you live in a community where, more often than not, the folk who look like you work under harsh, inhumane, oppressive conditions primarily because they are not part of the dominant culture.
Chaos—when your country’s highest-ranking official comes into power and decides to “deal shrewdly” with those he perceives to be a threat to those he is closest to. The evidence of this “threat”—whether civil unrest, the official declaration of war, or weapons of mass destruction—is immaterial. It is about the perception of threat to those the leader values.
Chaos—when your country’s leadership establishes policies that disproportionately negatively impact “the least of these” or a mandate that calls for the murder of male children. Chaos.
This first chapter of Exodus is very familiar. Canonically, this chapter serves as a transition from the narratives of the ancestors of the faith, concluding with the story of Joseph and introducing the oppression of the ancient Israelites by Pharaoh. This first chapter sets up the birth of the boy-child Moses and foreshadows the eventual deliverance of God’s people from pharaonic subjugation.
Amid the chaos associated with the Egyptians fearing the Israelites would increase and fight against them, ruthlessly imposing tasks upon the Israelites, and making their lives bitter with hard labor, the king of Egypt instructs the two midwives to kill all sons born to Israelite women (Exodus 1.16). As our text opens, Pharaoh tells Shiphrah and Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” What’s he talking about? That request is void of logic and meaning. Pharaoh asks the two people invested in bringing life into the world to take life. That proclamation is disordered—mixed up. Pharaoh commands the two who wake up every morning prepared to craft birth announcements to write obituaries. That command is full of emptiness. That directive must disturb their understanding of their purpose. That edict is confusing. The whole situation is chaotic. That day, Shiphrah and Puah found themselves in the middle of chaos.
If Shiphrah and Puah were unsure before, they are sure now: they are firmly rooted in chaos. I wonder if they each woke up that morning and said to themselves, “I’d better eat a hearty breakfast. It looks like I’m gonna have to deal with chaos today.” Somehow midwives are uniquely built for chaos. Perhaps God formed them—created them differently—to deal with chaos. What could have equipped Shiphrah and Puah for the chaos of their encounter with a Pharaoh who had already demonstrated his willingness to destroy an entire nation of people “just because”? What equipped Shiphrah and Puah for that chaotic experience? What lesson can we learn that helps us live through our chaos?
Returning to the text, the writer(s) of verse 17 report, “but the midwives feared God. John Durham notes, “the midwives’ belief in God, whose will was for them thus far more important than any orders a Pharaoh could give.”¹ Beyond belief, in this context, “fear” is not the “shaking in your boots” Freddie Kruger or “Fear Factor” fear, but a reverence. The midwives reverenced God. These women respect God and are in relationship with God. And that relationship seems to make all the difference.
And what a difference the fear of God can make! I have always been energized by how Shiphrah and Puah did a brave thing and “stuck it to da man,” but it occurs to me that if the edict was to kill all the Hebrew boys born during that time, it is reasonable that the midwives’ choices impacted more than just Moses. It strikes me that all the boys born during that time may have been saved because of the choices made by Shiphrah and Puah and their like-minded midwife colleagues. It is reasonable that many who fled Egypt with Moses could do so because of midwives like Shiphrah and Puah. Those Hebrews who will live through the wilderness journey, those who—along with their children—will settle in the land of promise, may owe their survival and existence to midwives like Shiphrah and Puah. Think for a minute about how far-reaching the acts of the midwives may have been! … Now consider how important it is to be in relationship with God—especially in times of chaos.
If it has not happened already, at some point each of us will be called on the proverbial carpet by some “ruler,” and on our own, we will not be prepared for the chaos. Not unless we have a relationship with God. Indeed, on our own, we are not equipped for the chaos in our lives. Our circumstances are overwhelming, and living through our mixed-up and messed-up situations is difficult. Seek out the power-filled relationship with God we now understand Shiphrah and Puah had. Then you are equipped for the chaos.
- John I Durham, Exodus, Word Bible Commentary 3; (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 11.