Poole on Exodus 1:15-17: The Heroic Disobedience of the Hebrew Midwives

Verse 15:[1] 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…

[To the midwives of the Hebrews, לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת] To the Hebrew midwives (thus Onkelos, Targum Jerusalem, Muis). For, the emphatic ה is included in the Pathach (ַ) under the ל; now, names, and participles used like names,[2] in governing, refuse the emphatic ה. Those that know Hebrew understand (Muis). Question: Were these midwives Hebrews or Egyptians? Response: 1. Some say that they were Hebrews (Lyra, thus the Hebrews in Lyra, Rivet out of Augustine, Muis). The reasons are: 1. Hebrew women were used before that day: Certainly those that were experience in that art were not wanting among them (Muis). And Egyptian women would not now be substituted in their place, for it would be suspicious. But all agree that they were called secretly by the king, who wanted to conceal his cruelty with cunning. 2. They are said to fear God, that is, the true God. 3. They are expressly distinguished from the midwives of the Egyptians: otherwise, if they had been Egyptian women, they would have been common to the Hebrew and Egyptian women (Rivet). 2. Others suppose that they were Egyptian women (thus Lyra, Menochius, Oleaster, Abarbanel in Muis, Josephus and most interpreters in Rivet). (And hence their piety was more praiseworthy [Menochius].) The reasons are: 1. Pharaoh was not going to entrust this business to Hebrew women, neither would he hope that Hebrew women would be cruel in this way (thus Abarbanel in Muis, Oleaster). But the king was able, even if they were Hebrew women, to promove them either by promises or threats (Rivet). 2. Because they say, The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women (Lyra, Menochius, Oleaster). Nevertheless, Hebrew women were able to respond in this way, supposing that it was generally happening thus, especially after the increase in labors (Rivet).

The Hebrew midwives; such as not only were employed about the Hebrew women, but were Hebrews themselves, not Egyptians, as some suppose; as may appear, 1. Because they are expressly called, not the midwives of the Hebrews, but the Hebrew midwives. 2. The Egyptian midwives would not willingly employ their time and pains among the meanest and poorest of servants, as these were. And if they were sent in design by the king, he had lost his end, which was to cover his cruelty with cunning, and to persuade the people that their death was not from his intention, but from the chances and dangers of child-bearing. 3. The Hebrew women, as they had doubtless midwives of their own, so they would never have admitted others. 4. They are said to fear God, Exodus 1:17, 21.

[Shiphrah, Puah] Question: How would two midwives be sufficient? Indeed, a hundred would not suffice (Rivet). Responses: 1. It is not to be understood of two midwives only, but of all; whose offices were two. Two midwives were wont to attend a laboring woman; of whom one would be called שִׁפְרָה/Shiphrah (from שָׁפַר, to be beautiful, because she would help the offspring and adjust its members and body), the other פּוּעָה/Puah (from פָּעָה, to cry out, because she would help with words, voice, and prayers) (thus Abarbanel). But this is more subtle than solid (Muis). 2. These midwives were of the well-born Hebrews. But the Egyptians made no distinction between noble and ignoble Hebrews (Rivet). 3. These were leaders of the midwives, who would pay out to the king tribute from the rent (thus Ibn Ezra in Muis). It is as if the entirety of midwifery was in their hands, as Plutarch[3] relates it to have been done in Athens (Rivet). They were leaders among the midwives (Vatablus, Lapide, Bonfrerius). [To others this does not satisfy.] 1. For then they would have been called the leaders of the midwives, just like in Genesis 40:2, the leader of the butlers (Muis). 2. Because a presidency among midwives is not usual (Pererius). 4. It is very probable that they were more distinguished, by whose effort it was possible to lure the others (Rivet); and through whom the commandment of the king was to be related to the others (Pererius). Or, 5. he approached the two, so that, if he should succeed, he might proceed further, and command all indiscriminately; which immediately from the beginning decency was prohibiting him to do (Rivet).

Shiphrah…Puah: You are not to think that these were the only midwives to so many thousands of Hebrew women, but they were the most eminent among them; and it may be, for their excellency in that profession called to the service of some Egyptian ladies, and by them known to Pharaoh, who might therefore think by their own interest, and by the promise of great rewards, or by severe threatenings, to oblige them to comply with his desires; and if he met with the desired success by them, he meant to proceed further, and to engage the rest in like manner.

Verse 16:[4] 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.

[And the time of birth has come; Hebrew, and ye shall see themעַל־הָאָבְנָיִם ] They render it in a variety of ways. Near birth (Septuagint); in birth (Tigurinus); near the sitting room (Syriac); on, or upon, stools (Samaritan Text, Montanus, Munster, Junius and Tremellius, Oleaster, Ainsworth). על מתברא, upon the stool (Chaldean in Rivet); upon the seat (Pagnine). They understand either, 1. a seat on which the bearing woman sits; or, 2. a seat on which the infant is received (Fagius, Vatablus). It is the place on which the infant drops from the womb of the mother; who must be outside of the womb, for the king says, When ye see (Rivet). To others it is the vagina, which they call מִשְׁבָר (thus Kimchi in Fagius, Vatablus) (from breaking,[5] for, when the offspring reaches that place, the end points of the vagina of the one bearing are torn [Vatablus]). הָאָבְנָיִם[6] appear to be the double doors of the womb, מִשְׁבָר (Grotius). It signifies the two end points of the vagina (Oleaster). The word is derived from בָּנִים, the offspring or sons thence springing forth. The number is dual, on account of the two end points of the vagina (Kimchi in Fagius). Others thus: When ye see that the fetus is in readiness. אֶבֶן, they say, signifies a stone, or a weight, or a balance. The sense is, When the time of birth has come, that is, when it is near at hand, that is, hanging down, like it is done in balancing; as it might be expected since both the child is compelled to go forth, and the woman to bring forth (Vatablus).

The stools; a seat used by women when ready to be delivered, conveniently framed for the midwife’s better discharge of her office.

[If male, kill] 1. Because on account of these they feared for themselves, not on account of the women (Bonfrerius). 2. Because they understood from a certain soothsayer, that a certain one was going to be born among the Israelites that would gravely afflict the Egyptians (Josephus in Bonfrerius, thus Targum Jonathan[7]).

[If female, spare] That is, let her be preserved (Vatablus), for they are not suited for war, and they were desiring to abuse them unto their own lust (Rivet).

Ye shall kill him, which it was not difficult for them to do without much observation. If it be a daughter, then she shall live; either, 1. Because he feared not them, but the males only; and some add, that he was advised by one of their magicians, that a male child should be born of the Israelites, who should be a dreadful scourge to the Egyptians. Or, 2. They reserved them for their lust, or for service, or for the increase of their people, and the raising of a fairer breed by them.

[c. 1635 BC] Verse 17:[8] But the midwives (Prov. 16:6) feared God, and did not (Dan. 3:16, 18; 6:13; Acts 5:29) as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.

They feared God more than the king, and therefore chose to obey God rather than the king, their commands being contrary each to other.

[And they saved, וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ] And they were causing to live[9] (Septuagint, Montanus), that is, they kept them alive. For in Latin one is said to give life, that does not take it away (Rivet).

[1] Hebrew: וַ֙יֹּאמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֙ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃

[2] מְיַלְּדֹת is a Piel, feminine, plural participle, meaning women helping to bring forth, or, as a substantive, midwives.

[3] Mestrius Plutarchus (c. 46-127) was a Greek historian.

[4] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃

[5] The verbal root of מִשְׁבָר is שָׁבַר, to break.

[6] Note the dual ending (ָיִם-).

[7] Jonathan ben Uzziel (first century) was one of the great pupils of Hillel. It is a matter of some doubt whether Jonathan ben Uzziel is actually responsible for the translation of the Former and Latter Prophets of the Chaldean Version. For the most part, Targum Jonathan tends to be more paraphrastic and expansive than Targum Onkelos.

[8] Hebrew: וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

[9] חָיָה in the Piel conjugation conveys a causative sense.

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