Exodus opens with a list of “the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob,” naming the twelve sons of Jacob (Exodus 1:1). Recalling God’s mercy towards His people through the sons of Jacob, the author of Exodus sets up a contrast between the experience of Israel thus far (Genesis 34-50) and the harrowing era which is to come.

A new king, or Pharaoh, is now reigning over Egypt. But this king does not know Joseph or presumably any of the sons of Jacob (Exodus 1:8). This new king, according to the text, is no respecter of their shared history, but is solely interested in securing power.

This new Pharaoh employs a strategy to maintain his power over the ever-expanding population of the Israelites: burden them under oppressive slavery (Exodus 1:9-12). Yet this oppression did not stop their procreation, as the narrator writes: “as [the Egyptians] abused them, so did they multiply and so did they spread, and they came to loathe the Israelites” (Exodus 1:12).

The failure of “Plan A” leads the king to turn to his “Plan B,” namely to covertly slaughter all the sons of Israel as they are being born. To accomplish this, he recruits two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, instructing them, “When you deliver the Hebrew women and look on the birth stool, if it is a boy, you shall put him to death, and if it is a girl, she may live” (Exodus 1:15).

In the eyes of the Pharaoh, the sons of Israel embodied a grave threat to his power that must be eradicated, however, he underestimated the surprising economy of God which would use the daughters of Israel (the very ones whom the Pharaoh overlooked) as the instruments of his saving mercy.

Knowing their Names

It is hard to overstate how important names are in the biblical text. Identifying people by their name provides historical veracity (i.e. situating the passion narrative under the historically verifiable Pontius Pilate), communicates symbolic meaning (i.e. Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter), or shapes the reader’s imagination to align with God’s upside-down kingdom where the last are first, and the first are last. In the story of Shiphrah and Puah, this latter function is on full display.

Although we employ the word “Pharaoh” in personal terms, this was not a name but a title, meaning simply “king.” Thus, throughout the book of Exodus, the most powerful figure and opponent of the people of God is rendered forever nameless. However, the two Hebrew midwives of little power and no renown are secured in biblical memory with the dignity of their names (Exodus 1:15). The daughters of Israel, who the Pharaoh understood to be inconsequential, are called by name and used by God to bring his salvation.

Fear of God

Shiphrah and Puah are further described as being those who feared God (Exodus 1:17). According to a perceptive commentator, those who feared the Lord were those who not only understood God’s created order, but “also brought their actions and lives into harmony with it.”1 For Shiphrah and Puah, the fear of God was the unwavering conviction that God is the Creator, the God of life; therefore, instead of following the king’s decree of death, they feared God and “let the children live” (Exodus 1:17).

Their faithful resistance grants the midwives another audience with the king who questions them, likely with much anger. They respond by saying, “For not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrew women, for they are lively. Before the midwife comes to them they give birth” (Exodus 1:19). These two daughters of Israel respond so cleverly as to “have convinced not only [the] Pharaoh, but a number of modern commentators who accept its veracity on face value.”2 It was not the efficiency of the Hebrew mothers that thwarted the midwives, but rather their fear of God which led to their faithfulness, as the text clearly states (Exodus 1:17).

God’s Economy vs Pharaoh's Economy

At this point, we cannot help but laugh. The Pharaoh who failed in suppressing the increasing number of Israelites by using the full might of his people, has now turned to two Hebrew midwives to shore up his power. These midwives resist him because of their fear of God. When called to account for their resistance, they explain by first insulting the Egyptian women while celebrating the vitality of the Hebrew women. In short, the Pharaoh sought to turn the first witnesses of life into dealers of death, but instead “the frail resources of two women have succeeded in outdoing the crass power of a tyrant.”3

God seems to place the fate of his people in the most unlikely of hands: here in the hands of two midwives against a mighty king; in the next chapter, in the stream of a river against a national policy of infanticide. Yet this is the difference between God and the Pharaoh (or any worldly leader). The Pharaoh desperately seeks to preserve his power by any means necessary, even a national policy of male infanticide. God does not desperately seek to secure power but rather uses the unexpected, surprising, and impossible to show forth His power in mercy and salvation. In Exodus 1, He uses two midwives to thwart an oppressive tyrant. In Exodus 2, He uses yet another daughter of Israel along with the Pharaoh’s own daughter to preserve a child who will become the instrument of God’s deliverance.

The faithfulness of Shiphrah and Puah in their fear of God proclaims the good news that God’s merciful action cannot be thwarted by even the most formidable of powers. This good news is fully proclaimed in the son of Israel who is also the Son of God, who in his infancy fled from an infanticidal tyrant (Matthew 2:13-23) only to later give himself over to a desperate crowd. His enemy was not a death-dealing tyrant but rather death itself who through the impossible mercy of God, He conquered for our sakes. The impossible is where God shows forth His power, not to secure more of it, but to have mercy on His people in their salvation.


1.   Rita Burns, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, (M. Glazier: 1983), 30 quoted in Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus, (Westminster John Knox Press: 1991).
2.   Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus, (Westminster John Knox Press: 1974), 17.
3.   Childs, The Book of Exodus, 17.