Exodus 1:8-2:10


A sermon preached by Reverend Larry R. Hayward on the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 21, 2005, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Virginia. 


Many of us know the story of Moses being drawn out of the waters of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, who then hires Moses’ mother to nurse him in Pharaoh’s court.[1]

It is a romantic story

·         of quiet heroism on the parts of Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ mother

·         and ironic activity on the part of God

that prepares the way for Moses to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom.

It is a story that embeds itself well in the memory of those of us who attended or teach Sunday School.

Less familiar is the preceding story: the story of Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh’s order to kill all Hebrew boy babies.[2]  It is this less familiar story on which we focus today.

Let us pray:  As we witness courage, Lord, give us courage.  Amen.



A new king – or Pharaoh – arises over Egypt.

·         He does not know Joseph.

·         He does not extend to Joseph’s descendents, the Hebrew slaves, privileges the former pharaoh had extended to Joseph.

In fact, the new king sizes up the situation and concludes that enslaved Hebrews are reproducing at a much faster rate than Egyptians, and that soon, Hebrews could well outnumber Egyptians and threaten their rule and power in the land.[3] 

To control the Jewish population, Pharaoh sets taskmasters over the Hebrews and forces them to build supply cities for his military endeavors.  Pharaoh assumes that both the conditions in which the Hebrews work and the work they do will be oppressive enough to limit their ability to reproduce.[4]

But the more the Hebrews are oppressed, the more they are “fruitful and multiply,” just as God had commissioned the first man and first woman in the Garden of Eden.[5] So numerous are the Hebrews over the face of the earth the Egyptians come to “dread” them.[6]

Pharaoh ups the ante and makes Hebrew lives bitter with hard service:

·         In mortar

·         In brick

·         In every kind of field labor.

His forepersons and field supervisors are “ruthless” in the tasks they impose.[7]

But still the Hebrew people swarm[8] the land, so Pharaoh moves his oppressiveness to the next level.

He calls into his chambers two Hebrew women who are in charge of midwives,[9] those who are present to assist when Hebrew women give birth.

When you act as midwives

to the Hebrew women

[Pharaoh charges],

when you see the infant on the birthstool,

if it is a boy, kill him;

if it is a girl, she shall live.


Pharaoh then dismisses the midwives to carry out his grisly order,[10] presses the unmute button, returns to ESPN.


Pharaoh’s order amounts to genocide; for without males, no future Hebrews will be born, and most Hebrew women will be taken away to become concubines and sex slaves to Egyptian men, giving birth to babies of mixed ancestry, eventually wiping the people of Israel off the face of the earth through assimilation.[11]

As terrifying as Pharaoh’s order is, as absolute is his power, the midwives revere another power even higher than that of Pharaoh. As the narrator points out: “The midwives fear God.”[12]

Now whenever in the Old Testament we come across the word “fear” with reference to God, it is best not to imagine a quaking-in-the-boots fear-of-the-wrath-of-God feeling we may associate with Jonathan Edwards, backwater revivalism, or centuries of guilt loaded onto our backs as if we were pack animals.  Rather, in the Old Testament the word “fear” most often means reverence, respect, honor, awe.  Normally, when I encounter the word “fear” in the Old Testament, as in “fear God,” I translate:  “Stand in awe of God.”

So even though the midwives live with oppressive fear of Pharaoh, they live with liberating reverence for God.  They do not do as Pharaoh commands; rather, when a Hebrew boy is born, they spank its bottom, cut its cord, place it at its mother’s breast…and let it live.[13]

Without having to consult his yellow and black copy of “Absolute Monarchy for Dummies,” Pharaoh notices no population decrease.

So he summons the midwives to his chambers again.

Why have you done this? [he rails].

Why have you allowed the Hebrew boy babies to live?[14]

The midwives are quick of mind and tongue.  They do what any heroic, powerless, and yet righteous people would do: They lie.

The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women

[they say].

These Hebrew women are vigorous,

and they deliver before we have time to get there.[15]

The story ends in two directions:

·         For the first time in the narrative, God appears and gives the midwives families.

·         Pharaoh then orders orders every boy baby born to Hebrew women thrown into the Nile River.

As we know from “the rest of the story,” Pharaoh’s own daughter will rescue Moses from the river and Moses will lead the people of Israel out of slavery under Pharaoh.  And while we never again hear about the midwives, as is the case with so many “almost forgotten” characters in the Bible, the narrator gives us their names: Shiprah, which means “beauty,” and Puah, which means “fragrant blossom.”

These almost unnoticed midwives we remember today.



On one level we remember the midwives for their human courage. Consider all the midwives confront and stand up to:

·         Male power

·         State power

·         The power of absolute monarchy

·         The power of one willing to commit both genocide and infanticide without as much as a backward glance.


Notice the tools the midwives are willing to use:

·         Civil disobedience

·         Physical endangerment

·         Lying to Pharaoh

·         Understanding truth in such a way that transcends facts in favor of saving human life.

Notice the motivation the midwives have: reverence for God even though they have been born and raised in a country where their God is neither publicly acknowledged nor worshipped.

So great is their reverence for God that it springs up and grows within them, leads them so speak and act:

·         Without being passed on through worship, education, fellowship, or service

·         Without God’s voice speaking directly to them

·         Without significant role models concerning how one might stand up for the forces of God when other forces are more powerful.

Without benefit of sacrament or music, sermon or Sunday School, these two midwives know deep down inside both to do the right thing and what the right thing is to do.  And they risk their lives to do it.


Even though I grew up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, I did not grow up in a racist household.

·         My father’s family was from Illinois.

·         My mother’s family was from Mississippi.

·         They treated every human being with respect and dignity.

But many if not most of the people who graced the culture around me were racist. I could see it in the signs in the city in which I lived:

·         Drinking fountains marked “Colored” and public restrooms marked “For Whites Only.”

·         White signs with red letters next to cash registers in restaurants marked “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

The signs of racism were all around me. But somehow, from somewhere, I remember an inarticulate voice, a feeling deep down inside, that whispered to me: “This is all wrong.  There’s got to be a better way.”

I later found the full expression of that voice in the Presbyterian Church, but I believe that the voice, the feeling, the discomfort, originated from God, was planted deep within me by the Spirit without human mediation.

I cannot help but think this is what happened to the midwives. Something deep within them said, “This is all wrong.”  They listened to that voice. They acted on that voice. Because of their willingness to act, these foreign midwives helped advance God’s promise that the people of Israel would enter the Promised Land.



In addition to listening to the voice within, I believe the midwives drew strength from another source. This source is only implied in the story, but nonetheless, I want to hold it before our eyes.

I surmise that when taking their courageous action of defying Pharaoh, the midwives draw strength from one another.  Just as POWs often survive by tapping secret codes on their walls, their dinner plates, their cell bars, so these two women stood together and drew strength from one another in their time of trial and courage.


Let me digress for a minute here.

Last week, many of you will recall, I spoke about Jesus being angry with a Canaanite woman.[16]  In looking at Jesus’ anger, we saw his humanity more than we normally see, more than we may have wanted to see. But this week, the story of the midwives leads me in a roundabout way to affirm a divine side of Jesus, something he has that most of us find it difficult to have – namely, the capacity to act alone.

Think about it:

·         In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faces imminent death, and while disciples sleep, he prays, alone, “Let this cup pass from me.”[17]

·         When on trial, his leading disciple stands outside the courtroom and three times denies that he even knows who Jesus is.[18]

·         In John’s Gospel, when Jesus carries his cross, he carries it “by himself.”[19]

·         In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus dies, he dies abandoned by disciples.[20]

·         Among his final words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”[21]

A Lenten hymn captures the divine loneliness of Christ:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley,

He had to walk it by Himself;

O, nobody else could walk it for Him,

He had to walk it by himself.[22]

Jesus was able to act with courage and face death alone, because he was divine. But most of us do better acting with courage if we act with someone else.  Unless it is absolutely necessary for us to act alone, which sometimes it is, most of us do better when someone else en-courages us.

Shiprah and Puah stand near the front of a long line of Biblical characters who act with courage and commitment in conjunction with someone else. 

·         Abraham and Sarah

·         Moses, Aaron, and Miriam

·         Ruth and Naomi

·         Samuel and Eli

·         Jonathan and David

·         Esther and Mordecai

·         Mary and Elizabeth

·         Paul and Silas and Timothy

When Jesus called and sent out his disciples; he often did so in pairs.

·         James and John

·         Simon and Andrew.

Across the pages of the Old and New Testaments travel a range of characters who, when acting with courage, draw not only on their own faith, but draw on the faith of someone else, another human being with whom they are close.  Sometimes it is a spouse; sometimes, a sibling or cousin; sometimes an in-law or friend.  As Proverbs says: “In an abundance of counselors there is victory.”[23]


As we say goodbye to these almost unnoticed midwives,

·         Let us salute their courage for doing the right thing against all odds and let us pray for similar courage ourselves.

·         Let us thank God for instilling faith within them even when there was little or no outward environment in which faith could grow or develop.

·         And let us consider who might be that one person in our life who draws from us the best acts of faith and courage that lie within us and who supports us as we seek to do the right thing against all odds.  Let us consider that person, give thanks to God for that person, do all we need to do to cultivate the relationship between us.

In memory of two courageous midwives,

Shiprah and Puah.

To God be the glory.




[1] Exodus 2:1-10.

[2] Exodus 1:15-22.

[3] Exodus 1:8-14.

[4] Exodus 1:12.

[5] Genesis 1:28.

[6] Exodus 1:12.

[7] Exodus 1:13-14.

[8] Robert Alter sees the word “swarm” as a better translation for “prolific” in 1:7 as a subtle comparison with “creeping things” that “swarm” at creation (Genesis 1:20).  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 308.

[9] Alter 310.

[10] Exodus 1:16.

[11] Alter 311.

[12] Exodus 1:17.

[13] Exodus 1:18.

[14] Exodus 1:18-19.

[15] Exodus 1:19-20.

[16] See “Bid Envy, Strife, and Discord Cease,” a sermon by Larry R. Hayward, Westminster Presbyterian Church, August 21, 2005, based on Matthew 15:21-28.

[17] Matthew 26:30-56.

[18] Matthew 26:69-75.

[19] John 19:17.

[20] Mark 14:50.

[21] Mark 15:34.

[22] “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” in The Presbyterian Hymnal: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), #80.

[23] Proverbs 24:6.