Standing Against Gendercide

April 22, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Two Tuesdays a month, I have the honor of welcoming a bunch of nine- to ten-year-old girls from our church into my home to do various activities. Tomorrow we’ll be playing badminton in my backyard. Last time we did a get-to-know-you game. One of the questions in the game was, “What is your favorite scripture story?”

Of course I love the Nativity story and the Easter story and a lot of other stories. But the story I wrote down for my answer was “Puah and Shiphrah.” The girls didn’t recognize those names, so I was happy to tell them about two of my favorite people in the Bible. Whether you’re religious or not, I think there is so much we can learn from the story of Puah and Shiphrah.

Here is their story as told in the Bible, starting in verse 7 of the first chapter of Exodus (KJV):

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land. 

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.

And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses [i.e. households, posterity].

Next month I will be hosting a small house-party screening of the documentary “It’s a Girl,” the three deadliest words in the world. At present, over 100 million babies have been aborted, killed, or abandoned in certain regions of the world simply because they were female. I can’t help but think of those countless lost sisters when I read in Exodus of Pharoah’s command to exterminate the Hebrew male infants. This practice is called by some “gendercide,” and it makes my heart hurt.

But Puah and Shiphrah give me hope. We need more Puahs and Shiphrahs in this world.

"Stand," by Cody Miller

Although the KJV translation of the Bible calls Puah and Shiphrah “Hebrew midwives,” some scholars believe it should actually read “Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews” or “midwives of the Hebrew women” (Source). It does seem illogical for Pharoah to expect Hebrew midwives to destroy their own people. Author of Biblical Commentary, E.M. Zerr, explained:

These midwives were not Hebrew women but Egyptian according to Josephus. But they are here called Hebrew midwives because they had the special assignment of that work for the Hebrew women. This is apparent also from their names, which are not Hebrew in form. Also, in verse 22 it says his people when charging those on duty at the time of birth of the children. (Source)

Other scholars believe Puah and Shiphrah were, in fact, Hebrew women, and “none other than Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of the yet to be born Moses” and that “the Midrash tells us that they prayed to God to preserve even the babies who were to die of natural causes, in order to avoid giving Pharoah the impression that they were in fact abiding by his decree” (Source). Rock on, girls.

I don’t know which interpretation is the right one. I don’t know whether these courageous midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew, but either way they inspire me.

Puah and Shiphrah were not afraid of Pharoah. These brave midwives refused to be complicit in the mass extermination of a people. They refused to let their political leader dictate how many children was “too many” or at what size a people were “too numerous.” And they were savvy about it. Instead of outright refusing his orders (assuring their own deaths and necessitating that someone else who would fulfill them would be called on to take their place), they used their heads to find a way to successfully circumvent Pharoah’s plan. Puah and Shiphrah feared (as in, to reverence; to have a reverential awe; to venerate) their Creator and Life-giver above all else, and because of their love for their Life-giver, they chose to protect all the lives sent to Earth from that Source, regardless of race or gender.

Because of their brave act, countless lives were spared, perhaps even the life of Moses himself. As my friend/co-author, Heather, has beautifully written:

It may appear that it is always the men in the scriptures who always do the delivering out of bondage, the saving, and the rescuing, but the truth is that God’s plans usually start with women. For example, without the courage and dedication of Puah, Shiphrah, and other midwives like them who chose to ignore the commands of the Pharaoh and do what they knew was right, Moses would not have survived to lead the children of Israel out of bondage. In fact, one could say that these women were the “first delivers” of Israel because they delivered the deliverer.

I love Puah and Shiphrah.

If you continue into the next chapter of Exodus, you’re also in for a treat. I love how the young Miriam finds a creative way to enable her mother to continue caring for and breastfeeding her infant brother, Moses, while also sparing his life from Pharoah’s infanticide.

You can help bring an end to gendercide:

After I get this posted, I’ll be adding “Miriam Shiphrah” to my hypothetical-future-baby-name spreadsheet. :-)