The Egyptian Midwives Preserve Life - A Bible Study

By Vernon P. Kleinig

Date: August 31, 2000

Category: Abortion, Bioethics

From ancient times certain rulers and governments have considered sections of their population to be expendable, especially those that are more vulnerable. Pseudo-reasons have been concocted to justify such “population control.” Our society, with the legitimacy of government legislation, continues to attack a vulnerable section of its community: pre-born human beings. Those of us opposed to such action ask ourselves: “What is the best way to end such action in our homeland?” Bearing in mind that there exists a strong group of people supporting the end of pre-born human life (abortion), the writer of the paper is convinced that this narrative from the book of Exodus points to a course of action that will not be counterproductive.

A synchronic exposition and interpretation of Exodus 1:6-22 are presented, in its present canonical context. Various commentators recognize a unified quality to the narrative in its present form (B.S. Childs: Exodus, p.7 A Commentary, London: SCM, 1974). Brevard Childs points out that the positive attitude towards the foreigner in this passage is characteristic of the international flavor of wisdom circles.

See Exodus 1:6-7.

God has blessed the descendants of Jacob with prosperity and large families. The terminology is reminiscent of God’s promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. God here fulfills the promise of fertility he first made to them, then repeated to Jacob in Genesis 35:11. Nothing can obstruct the blessing of fertility he bestows on his people.

See Exodus 1:8.

Time passes and Jacob’s descendants can no longer bask in the glory of the time of Joseph.

See Exodus 1:9.

Instead, a new ruler doesn’t see the blessing of God in their lives but feels they are a threat to his future political stability and longevity. The Hebrew words of this verse are highly ambiguous political double-talk. The Egyptian Pharaoh feels he has an acute problem on his hand that needs decisive action. Exaggerating the situation and suggesting that dire consequences will follow if something drastic isn’t done, Pharaoh seeks to arouse emotional support and sympathy for what he will propose.

See Exodus 1:10.

The Hebrew word for “deal shrewdly”(hokmah) usually has the more positive meaning of “deal wisely.” Here it means to deal in a sly or crafty fashion. Acts 7:19 interprets Pharaoh’s action as deceitful. Like Babel, Egypt is concerned with self-preservation. The king seeks to show a sincere wish to serve his country but, at the same time to turn the presence of Hebrews into profit. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Though he finds their growth a political threat, he’d like to exploit their presence as a cheap economic asset.

See Exodus 1:11.

Pharaoh tries to depress the Hebrews and destroy their morale by oppressive labor. They wouldn’t want to bring children into such an environment, he hopes.

See Exodus 1:12.

These measures prove counter-productive and fail to achieve their aim. Pharaoh fails to take into account God’s will for his people to increase in number. The Hebrew word for the “the dread of the Egyptians” contains a mixture of loathing and alarm toward the Hebrew people. Because Pharaoh didn’t take God into account, his attack on God’s people was futile and soon subject to doom.

See Exodus 1:13-14.

Once begun on such a course of action, Egyptian ruthlessness knows no bounds. For the Hebrews it was made as unpleasant as possible.

See Exodus 1:15-16.

Pharaoh could hardly have expected Hebrew midwives to carry out his instructions. A literal translation would read: “those women who help Hebrew women to bring forth.” The midwives named would simply be the head midwives. There is no return from the threats the Hebrews face. The next course of action would culminate in genocide. Killing the newborn sons would in time wipe out the Hebrews. The daughters would be married to Egyptian men and lose their national identity.

See Exodus 1:17.

Providentially the matter was now in the hands of the God-fearing midwives. Their fear of God inspired them to such courage as to risk their lives. They possessed moral scruples and refused to do what they believed was wrong. Fear of God involves respect for his management of the world, for the righteous order that is inherent in creation. The Bible makes no distinction between the natural and the moral order. The two realms are inseparably linked and intertwined. The Pentateuch delineates the three levels of fear of God:

  1. Respect for nature and life on the basis of creation;

  2. The will of God after the flood; and

  3. Obedience to God’s will as revealed in the covenant at Mount Sinai.

The opposite of fear of God is where man sets himself up as god, and God’s command is violated (Genesis 3:17). God governs the world in order to maintain a viable environment for the life of all that he has created. It is the responsibility of human governments to preserve life justly and fairly. Where this is not done, those who fear God obey him, rather than carrying out the unjust commands of the rulers of this world. Pharaoh’s plans were frustrated by the civil disobedience of his midwives who assisted in the childbearing of the Hebrews.

Similarly, Jonathan disobeyed King Saul’s evil command and rebuked his father’s evil intention (1 Samuel 19:1-5). Azariah and eighty other courageous priests opposed the sinful act of King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Mordecai disobeyed his king, an action recorded to his credit (Esther 3:2). In Daniel 3:16-30 the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is recorded to their credit and blessing. Daniel himself disobeyed his ruler (Daniel 6:1-23). Here the humanity of the midwives took precedence over national prejudice and personal safety. God can work anywhere and through anyone to preserve his creation of life, since all people are created by him.

See Exodus 1:18-19.

Pharaoh’s cunning is surpassed by the artful remarks of the midwives. Their fear of God proves to be a real factor in the course of history. God supports those who do his will in the face of political pressure. Their moral principles and convictions were something Pharaoh didn’t reckon with. In truth, their fear of God involved them in refraining from an evil action. Fast delivery at birth was considered a sign of racial vigor.

See Exodus 1:20-21.

God deals well with those who respect him (Psalm 127:3). “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:25). It is encouraging to notice what unexpected agents God uses to defeat human evil, but God promises to use those who do not violate the moral order for the triumph of his will. This is an omen of God’s triumph over Pharaoh in freeing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. In the long term, the chief result of Pharaoh’s action here was one never contemplated by him; the rescue and royal education of Moses. God endorses the actions of the midwives and blesses them with prosperous households and bestows on them the joy of family life.

See Exodus 1:22.

Since Pharaoh cannot rely on the midwives to carry out his decrees, he orders every Egyptian to drown Hebrew baby boys. The most perverse aspect of evil is that it always begets more evil (Friedrich von Schiller).

Preserving Life - Then and Now
Here we see how no evil is committed without some human justification. By exaggerating hypothetical consequences the legitimacy of evil actions is proposed and supported. An alleged threat is used as an occasion to excuse individual wickedness by the ruler of Egypt. He seeks to secure his well being and peace of mind at the expense of other people’s lives. But the ingenuity of the mother of Moses (Exodus 2:1-10), and the sympathy of Pharaoh’s own daughter, frustrates the evil of the Egyptian king. God nowhere intervenes directly to rescue the boy babies. A natural cause is stated and assumed into the providence of God. God blesses those who refuse to comply with an unjust decree. Rulers come and go, but God’s moral order stands for all time. The midwives didn’t just exhibit a reverence for life; they feared God. The moral order obligates people of all racial groups to obey it.

Today’s equivalents of the Hebrew midwives: doctors, nurses, lecturers in nursing and other medical staff, are not infrequently caught in a moral dilemma. They may ask themselves, “Will my failure to support abortion or participate in an abortion risk my career advancement?” God promises to bless, though maybe often in unexpected ways, those who refuse to take part in what they know is wrong.

This writer would be thrilled to see every nurse and doctor say “No” to all the totally unjustified abortions being committed in our country. He hopes that a hundred years from now, people will be amazed that abortion could once have had such wide acceptance and support. Slavery is an issue which, for a hundred and fifty years had wide acceptance, but now is universally abhorrent. It is to be hoped that one day soon, the unjustified taking of vulnerable, pre-born human lives will meet a similar fate and be universally rejected. God alone knows if our society has aborted people with the ability to find cures for the terminal diseases that today exist in our world.

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