The first chapter of Exodus relates that, as the Israelites in Egypt begin to proliferate following the death of Joseph, the Egyptian king seeks to curb the Israelite population lest its numbers threaten the security of Egypt in time of war. When enslavement of the Israelites fails to achieve Pharaoh’s goal, he commands the Hebrew midwives, of whom only two are known by name—Shiphrah and Puah—to kill at birth all the male Hebrews, but to permit the females to live. Since, however, the midwives stand in awe of God, they violate Pharaoh’s command and permit the boys to live.
Called to account for failing to carry out Pharaoh’s order, they report that the Hebrew women are more “vigorous” than Egyptian women and tend to deliver their babies before the arrival of the midwife. Convinced by the midwives’ explanation, Pharaoh does not punish them. Their explanation is probably accepted because of a universal human tendency to dehumanize victims—especially women—as a prelude to depriving them of basic civil rights, their reproductive freedom, their progeny, and ultimately their very lives.
The identity of the midwives is somewhat ambiguous. The Hebrew text of Exod 1:15 supports either the view that Puah and Shiphrah were “Hebrew midwives” or the view that they were “midwives to the Hebrews.” The former is more likely because both names are Semitic, not Egyptian. Ancient Jewish commentators vary widely in their understanding of who these women were; some even propose that Puah was Moses’ sister Miriam, and others suggest they were proselytes.
Whatever their identity, the fact that they are rewarded with progeny indicates that they may have been barren and especially that they were young enough to begin a family. The latter piece of information contests the supposition by some that midwives were typically older, perhaps post-menopausal, women. Such was indeed the case in ancient Greece—Athenian law specified that a midwife had to have herself given birth and be past childbearing age—but not everywhere in the ancient world.
Modern commentators have wondered how two midwives could have served a whole community, even if the figure of 600,000 people (given in Num 1:46) is not taken literally. The obvious answer is that the text does not claim that Shiphrah and Puah were the only midwives to serve the Hebrews, but rather were two among many. Why then were they singled out? The tale implies that they are mentioned because of their virtue in fearing God more than they feared Pharaoh. In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “fear God” can mean “obey God’s ethical imperatives” (see Lev 19:14 Job 28:28). It is noteworthy that Exod 1:1–2 in its highly schematic survey of Hebrew history from the descent of Jacob into Egypt until the birth of Moses, mentions by name only the midwives Shiphrah and Puah. The crucial role of the midwives in subverting Pharaoh’s decree is, perhaps, reflected in the Talmudic attribution of the redemption from Egypt to the merit of the virtuous women of that generation.
It is not clear whether Shiphrah and Puah worked together or alone. Ancient Egyptian pictorial art depicts midwives working in teams. Yet the other explicit biblical references to members of this profession (Gen 35:17; 38:28) each mention a single midwife.
The Hebrew term for “birth stool” in Exod 1:16, obnayim, means literally “two stones.” It refers to the primitive form of the birth stool, which was simply two bricks (or stones) placed under each of the buttocks of the woman in labor. Such birth stools are depicted in the later forms of the hieroglyphic symbol for “birth” and are referred to in ancient Egyptian folk sayings, such as “He left me like a woman on the bricks.” Ancient Egyptian pictorial art shows that the two bricks were replaced by a chair with an opening in the middle (like a toilet seat) through which, with the help of gravity, the mother could push out her baby into the deft hands of the midwives.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Second Thoughts about Secondary Characters: Women in Exodus 1:8–2:10.” In A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, edited by Athalya Brenner, 75–87. Sheffield: 1994.
Ibid. “‘You Shall Let Every Daughter Live’. A Study of Exodus 1:8–2:10.” Semeia 28 (1993): 62–82.
Ghaliounghi, Paul. The House of Life: Per Ankh: Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt, second edition. Amsterdam: 1973.
Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.
Paul, Shalom M. “Exodus 1:21: ‘To Found a Family,’ a Biblical and Akkadian Idiom.” Maarav 8 (1992): 139–142.