My Place Among the Midwives
Exodus 1:8-22 
Brittany Stillwell

8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 

 I’ve never been in the delivery room, much less facilitated the birth of another human, so I can only imagine the weight of it all; the honor of bringing life into the world, of being with a family in their most vulnerable moments, coupled with the responsibility of bringing life into the world, of accepting a family’s trust with their most precious gift. It is a profession that commands both my respect and awe.

 I know midwives and obstetricians are forced to make tough decisions all the time. I know they are used to making quick calls that can be the difference between life and death. But the decision forced upon the midwives in this story was one they could have never anticipated. Their job is to bring life and now they are being asked to intentionally do the opposite. At first glance the answer seems clear, but the systems of power loom large, coloring our vision and clouding our perspectives. What might seem like the right thing from the outside, gets fuzzy and distorted when you are safely cocooned in privilege.

I wonder what this order might have felt like to the midwives in our story and I wonder how their own race might have affected their response. We can’t be entirely sure whether the midwives in this story were Hebrew or Egyptian[1]. Some argue the text is unclear. You’d think this was an important detail worth noting, that it would have a direct impact on how this story turns out, but maybe not. Maybe the ambiguity allows more of us to enter the story. What happens to the story when read from the seat of the privileged, as a descendent of the oppressor, and even as a participant and benefactor of the oppressive systems still in place today? Where would I be in the story? At this risk of reading myself into a place I don’t belong, I wonder what this story has to teach me when read through the lens of an Egyptian woman tasked with the role of midwife for her Hebrew sisters.

 These women, Shiphrah and Puah, find themselves, by nature of their profession, up close and extremely personal with the people they have been taught to look down upon and subjugate their whole lives. I wonder if they were forced into their jobs because it paid the bills or if they felt called to work with this population. I wonder if years of facilitating the birth of Hebrew children changed their perspectives at all or if they used their experiences to perpetuate the stereotypes they inherited. Did they begin to see that these mothers and children weren’t all that different from their own friends and their kids? Did they notice that the pain of childbirth looks the same regardless of race or that the love of a mother is equally as palpable regardless of the color of your skin?

 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to 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 became very strong.

 I think it is safe to say that something was at work deep within Shiphrah and Puah because finally they have had enough. Eventually Pharaoh takes it too far, they can’t excuse his behavior any longer, their eyes are open at last. I can feel their lament deep within my bones, “Why, oh why, did it take me so long to see? God of the Israelites, God of the oppressed, please forgive me!”

 I wonder if they felt stuck. Did they wrestle with what to do about the injustice they now saw all around them? Did they become a nuisance to their friends and an outcast in their own families? Did they wish they could unlearn what they now knew? Were they tempted to stick their heads back in the sand or to wiggle their way out of taking responsibility? “We help Hebrew women; we can’t possibly be part of the problem.” We don’t know what that journey was like or how long it took. All we know is that eventually they resist; they refuse to follow Pharaoh’s orders, they let the boys live.

 Sure enough, they get caught and questioned, and I have to admit, I struggle with this part of the story. On one hand, I am impressed with their response. In one cunning statement, they dodge responsibility and empower the Hebrew women. They shrug their shoulders and say, “What can we do? They are tougher than us. They don’t need us.” It’s a clever answer to Pharaoh’s interrogation and puts him in his place; he does not get control over these women’s bodies. Not even Pharaoh has ultimate control over life and death.

 But I also can’t help but wonder if they took the easy way out. Why didn’t they stand up to him? Why didn’t they tell him explicitly and clearly that what he was doing was wrong? Was this an act of self-preservation or a strategy for change? Were they trying to protect their status and comfortable way of life? Or were they doing what they could to save as many babies as possible; using their creativity and wit to play the long game on the road toward justice for the Hebrew people? Is it even possible to untangle these two motivations when you are sitting safely behind a wall of your own privilege?

 I can’t judge Shiphrah and Puah either way. I wasn’t there and there is so much I don’t know. They were faced with choice and none of their options were good. They found themselves trapped in a powerful and oppressive system with little hope of affecting long-term systemic change, but they resisted anyway. They used the agency they had to disrupt the system. And Pharaoh’s response was swift and harsh. Maybe, in some small way, their act of resistance worked. After all, Pharaoh was clearly threatened.

 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews[a] you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

 I don’t know exactly what Shiphrah and Puah were up against, but I do know what it is like to find myself faced with systemic injustice, unsure of how to effect any actual change. I know how it feels to be surrounded by my privilege, wanting to make things better and yet so very unaware of just exactly how upside down my world actually is. I want to resist the powers that oppress and destroy, but I struggle to know when to speak up regardless of the consequences, and when to use my creativity and wit to subvert the system.

 Maybe my fight for justice as a white woman in 2020 carries echoes of Shiphrah and Puah’s struggle or maybe I am inappropriately inserting myself again and am actually nowhere to be found in this story of resistance. Maybe it is a little of both. Perhaps, though, what matters most is that I labor with this story again and again: the story that set the stage for the birth of the one who would rescue the Israelites and lead them to the Promised Land and the story that is unfolding before us; a story full of the vigor and grit needed to give birth to liberation and hope for the oppressed and maybe even for their oppressors.

[1] Exodus 1:15 refers to them as “Hebrew midwives” but it’s hard to tell whether this is a description of their race or their profession or both.

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