Fearing God with the Midwives Who Defied a King
I teach ministerial ethics most semesters at Western Seminary. Early on in class we talk about moral dilemmas, which conversation inevitably turns to the question of whether or not it’s every okay to lie. The classic example is from Nazi Germany; most everyone agrees that it’s okay to lie if Nazis come banging on your door and there are Jews hiding in your attic. Rahab also features prominently in our moral dilemma conversation, but her case usually engenders more disagreement. My personal favorite is the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to murder the Hebrew boys.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives—the first, whose name was Shiphrah, and the second, whose name was Puah—“When you help the Hebrew women give birth, observe them as they deliver. If the child is a son, kill him, but if it’s a daughter, she may live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this and let the boys live? ”
The midwives said to Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”
So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exo 1:17–21, CSB)
The midwives 1) disobeyed a direct order from the highest official in the land, and 2) lied about it. We don’t usually struggle much with their defiance because American culture is built on defying tyrants. The lying is what trips us up. After all, God clearly condemns lying in both the Old and New Testaments. It even ranks on the list of things he hates (Prov 6:16–19). In class we interrogate various ethical systems—non-conflicting absolutism, ideal absolutism, and heirarchicalism—to determine whether lying is ever legit.
Jesus’s point is that human life is so valuable that breaking the law to preserve or protect life is not breaking the law.
Jesus confronts a similar question throughout his ministry, namely whether it’s ever okay to break the Sabbath. He really gets under the religious leaders’ skin when he goes around healing people on the Sabbath. Matthew 12:1–14 record two particularly tense episodes. In the first, the Pharisees rebuke Jesus because the disciples “harvest” grain on the Sabbath. In the second, Jesus heals a man’s shriveled hand on the Sabbath. In the first case, Jesus points to two Old Testament example of lawbreaking—David eating the Bread of the Presence, which was reserved only for priests, and the priests themselves doing the work of sacrificing animals on the Sabbath. In the second case, Jesus argues that if it’s right to rescue a distressed animal on the Sabbath, then surely it’s right to heal a man on the Sabbath.
Jesus’s point is not that sometimes breaking the law is permissible. His point is that human life is so valuable that breaking the law to preserve or protect life is not breaking the law. Jesus didn’t break the Sabbath commands by healing, and his disciples didn’t break the law by harvesting grain, and David didn’t break the law by eating sacred bread, and neither did the priests break the law by offering sacrifices on the Sabbath.
To return to the God-fearing midwives Shiphrah and Puah, the answer is that there is no moral dilemma—they didn’t sin by lying. And I would even say that it wasn’t just not a sin—lying was the right(eous) action. It was their fear of God—living in obedience to and right relationship with him—that caused them to defy the king and lie to his face. The Hebrew midwives understood what Jesus was trying to get the Pharisees to see: there is no contradiction between loving God and loving neighbor, and keeping the law is a poor excuse for failing to love our neighbor.
In that ethics class I usually talk about this time I was in a mall shooting. I’m of the Columbine and 9/11 generation, so I’ve had plenty of time to game out mass violence. I didn’t consider myself particularly brave, but I imagined that in such a situation I would, like Shiphrah and Puah, act with courage and boldness.
There is no contradiction between loving God and loving neighbor, and keeping the law is a poor excuse for failing to love our neighbor.
That day I heard firecrackers, saw people running, and then the windows in front of me shattered. It took a few more seconds to realize what was going on, but when I did I ran to nearby restaurant and hid in the back. A few minutes later police ran by, one last shot rang out, and everything was quiet.
I learned that I’m not so brave. Given the choice between saving myself and saving others, I chose myself. Police ran toward gunfire; I ran away from it. Shiphrah and Puah found themselves in a much more dangerous situation, and they certainly could have justified following Pharaoh’s orders. It would have been the prudent thing to do, really. But these two women feared God, and they understood what Jesus was trying to drill into the Pharisees’ minds: rule following is easy enough, but loving their neighbor—even at enormous personal risk, and even when it meant lying—is what God required of them.