3.4. The Midwives Disobey Pharaoh (1:15-22)

 (15) The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,

(16) 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.”

(17) The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.

(18) So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?”

(19) The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.”

(20) And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly.

(21) And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.

(22) Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

(15) The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives: Some of the commentators understand the expression “Hebrew midwives” to mean that the midwives were themselves Jewish. But if so, it seems strange that Pharaoh is not wary of giving them such an assignment, and that they, even if only in words, would accept it and agree to execute it. The alternate opinion therefore seems more logical – they are Egyptian midwives who were assisting the Jewish women in childbirth (thus, perhaps the translation here should be not “the Hebrew midwives” but “the midwives of the Hebrews”). But since the midwives are themselves Egyptian, not Jewish, we can infer that the growing oppression of the Jews has provoked opposition even among the general Egyptian population, and that a group of pro-Jewish Egyptians is now emerging.

One of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah: As noted earlier, except for the names of the sons of Jacob in the opening passage of the book there are practically no names in the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter of the book of Exodus. The Jews in Egypt are nameless, having lost their identity as individuals, because they are beaten down by slavery. Only the midwives are named, because they proved themselves to be individuals willing to stand by their convictions in rebelling against the system.

(16) 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 Midrash explains that men most typically represent the dominant, active human aspect, while women, as mere subordinates, are the receivers. Pharaoh’s decision to destroy the boys and save the girls means that he wants to preserve the Jews within the Egyptian system, but not to give them their independence. He wants the Jews’ singular qualities that are so beneficial to Egypt (most notably, their skill at performing useful work) to remain there. But the danger posed by Jewish independence, as he sees it, must be eliminated.

(17) The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live: Fear of God is presented here as the basis for countering the systematic evil of the state.

(19-20) The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly: Here the Torah continues its theme of contrasting the physical and spiritual advancement of the Jews with the physical and moral degradation of the Egyptians.

(21) And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them: It would seem that the Almighty now openly intervenes in the goings on in Egypt. Those who side with the Jews and support them are themselves successful. A certain stereotype is forming, which in the future will drive the accession of a sizeable Egyptian element to the Jewish Exodus.

(22) Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live”: Because, Pharaoh’s efforts in acting through the midwives (i.e., through furtive channels) have failed, he makes a public appeal to his people. It is no longer only state power persecuting the Jews; the entire nation is complicit. Thus, the blame for those persecutions now falls not only on the Egyptian authorities, but extends to all the Egyptians.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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