Poole on Exodus 1:20-22: Midwives' Reward

Verse 20:[1] (Prov. 11:18; Eccles. 8:12; Is. 3:10; Heb. 6:10) Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.


Therefore, because they feared God, and spared the children, verse 17, whereby they exposed themselves to the king’s displeasure; because they would not offend God by murdering the children, which they might have done many times secretly, and therefore it was only the fear of God which restrained them from it.


Verse 21:[2] And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, (see 1 Sam. 2:35; 2 Sam. 7:11, 13, 27, 29; 1 Kings 2:24; 11:38; Ps. 127:1) that he made them houses.



[He built for them houses, וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃] And he made for them houses (Montanus, most interpreters). Here is a threefold difficulty. 1. Who made? 2. For whom? 3. What? 1. Who made for them houses? Some refer it to the Israelites, as if they (on account of gratitude [Rivet]) built for them fortified houses, where they would be able to be secure against an incursion from the Egyptians (Fagius, Vatablus). Others refer it to Pharaoh, who built for them their own private houses, whence it was not permitted for them to leave, and where they were compelled to await the laboring Hebrew women, who were brought up to that place by reason of the King’s command, so that the Egyptians together with them might know whether a son or daughter was born (thus Fagius, Vatablus). [Others relate it somewhat otherwise:] Having some suspicion concerning the trustworthiness of the Hebrew midwives, he assigned to them certain houses, whence they would not be able to leave, but that the Egyptians that attended them when they went to assist in childbirth would perceive, etc. (Muis). [Others thus:] Since the midwives, fearing God more than the king, had saved the males, he set watchmen over the Israelites, and he also willed that the two be one house among the Israelites, lest they should be able to conceal the males (Rabbi Bechai[3] in Muis). Others (and especially the more learned) refer it to God [namely, that God had built for them houses]. 2. For whom were the houses made? And this is the second difficulty. Some refer it to the Israelites (thus Fagius, Calvin in Rivet), because לָהֶם, for them, is masculine. Thus Junius, who translates it, and He was setting up house for those born, namely, the Israelites (Junius). The sense is, As a result of the fear of the midwives, etc., it came to pass that the houses, that is, the families, of the Hebrews were increased unto immensity, in accordance with verse 12. This reading appears to be the simplest of all (Fagius). Others refer it to the midwives (thus Targum Jerusalem and the Hebrews in Vatablus, Muis, Rivet, Grotius). Objections: But לָהֶם is masculine. Response: It can be an enallage of gender, in the place of the feminine לָהֶן (as in Exodus 15:21[4] [Malvenda]), as contrariwise, in Ruth 1:13, לָהֶן is in the place of לָהֶם[5] (Drusius). Thus Ruth 1:8; Naomi uses עִמָּכֶם, with you, in the masculine, of her daughters-in-law (Rivet). Thus in Exodus 2:17, וַיְגָרְשׁוּם is they drove them[6] away, and immediately again, צֹאנָם, their sheep (Muis). Thus לָהֶם, 1 Kings 22:17, is in the place of לָהֶן, 2 Chronicles 18:16.[7] Thus in 1 Chronicles 10:7 compared with 1 Samuel 31:7[8] (Ainsworth). There is a similar enallage in Genesis 2:15;[9] Exodus 11:6;[10] 22:26;[11] 29:41;[12] Judges 19:24;[13] Zechariah 8:9[14] (Quistorpius[15]). Furthermore, Rabbi Bechai says that the masculine is here used for the command’s reward, to which they had given themselves by saving the males (Muis). Or the masculine is used so that he might acknowledge that they were fruitful because of their husbands, from whom families take their name (Vatablus): that is to say, He made houses by the husbands of the midwives (Drusius). Or, to indicate their manly and noble spirit, by which they resisted the cruel edict of the king (Malvenda, Ainsworth). Thus we see concerning whom this is said. [There is a third difficulty: What did he make? Again they vary.] 1. He made for them houses, that is, He protected them, sheltered them; just as it is said of Jeremiah and Baruch, Jeremiah 36:26 (thus Kimchi in Fagius). He gave to them families populous, eminent, enduring, wealthy (thus Menochius, Tirinus, similarly Grotius). He increased their offspring, because they had spared the offspring of the Hebrews: thus Ambrose[16] rightly. Thus בָּנָה, to build, is taken in Genesis 16:2;[17] 30:3,[18] where the Greeks have τεκνοποιεῖν, to get children (Grotius). Thus Deuteronomy 25:9, him that will not build up the house of his brother,[19] that is, that will be unwilling to enlarge it with offspring. Thus Ruth 4:11, which two did build the house of Israel,[20] that is, brought forth many sons (Rivet). House often occurs in the place of family. Thus the house of Aaron, of Judah, of David is the family of Aaron, of Judah, of David (Estius[21]). And it is not strange that offspring should be called a house, since בֵּן/son is from בָּנָה, to build (Menochius). He made for them houses, that is, He made them so fertile that many households arose from them. There is another instance of to make a house, 2 Samuel 7:27.[22] Thus the Scholiast, ἐξ αὐτῶν γένος ἐπλήθυνεν, offspring multiplied from them. An explication no less precious than gold. Thus elsewhere, He gathers the solitary in a house.[23] For no one alone constitutes a house or family (Drusius). 3. Others thus: He built houses, that is, He increased their property. Thus Genesis 30:30, When shall I make my house? that is, when shall I provide for myself the things necessary for a family? (Fagius, Vatablus). Thus Psalm 127:1 is to be taken, Except Jehovah build the house, etc. (Rivet). 4. Jerome explains houses as mansions in heaven[24] (Estius). Question: Does God, therefore, approve of the deceit of the midwives? Response 1: The deed issues forth unto their praise; the lie, unto their pardon: Augustine, Seven Books of Questions on the Heptateuch.[25] The deceit was not rewarded, but the benevolence; the benignity of the intention, not the iniquity of the one lying: Augustine, On Lying[26] 2:15. Gregory[27] also agrees, Moralia[28] 18:4 (Estius, thus Lapide, Bonfrerius). Response 2: Those words of the midwives were so far from lying that they were a glorious confession of their faith in God: that is to say, We see the extraordinary assistance of God in their birth, which we do not wish to resist (Lightfoot’s[29] Gleanings from Exodus).


He made them houses, that is, God greatly increased their families both in children and posterity, and in wealth, and other outward blessings. So this phrase is used Genesis 30:30; Deuteronomy 25:9; 1 Samuel 2:35; 1 Kings 2:24; 11:38; Psalm 127:1. As houses are commonly put for families, so building is put for procreating of children, Genesis 16:2; 30:3.


[c. 1573 BC] Verse 22:[30] And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, (Acts 7:19) Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.



[Whoever might be born] Namely, of the Hebrews (Ainsworth, thus the Chaldean and Septuagint in Ainsworth). Vestiges of this edict remain among the nearby Arabs, who call any murder THAGRIK,[31] that is, sinking, because formerly the midwives sunk the infants in water so that they might kill them. Thus Alcamus[32] (Bochart’s A Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:2:34:341).

[1] Hebrew: וַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃


[2] Hebrew: וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃


[3] Bahya ben Asher was a thirteen century Spanish Rabbi and scholar. He produced a commentary on the Torah, which takes into account the literal meaning of the text, its logical and philosophical implications, traditional Rabbinic interpretation, and a Kabbalistic/mystical interpretation of text, following Nahmanides.


[4] Exodus 15:20, 21a: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them (לָהֶם, to them, formally masculine), Sing ye to the Lord…”


[5] Ruth 1:13a: “Would ye for them (הֲלָהֵן, formally feminine) tarry till they were grown? would ye for them (הֲלָהֵן, formally feminine) stay from having husbands?...”


[6] The ם object suffix is masculine.


[7] 1 Kings 22:17a: “And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that there is not to them (לָהֶם; לָהֶן, in 2 Chronicles 18:16) a shepherd…”


[8] 1 Chronicles 10:7b: “…they forsook their cities, and fled: and the Philistines came and dwelt in them (בָּהֶם; בָּהֶן, in 1 Samuel 31:7).”


[9] Genesis 2:15: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden (בְגַן, masculine) of Eden to dress it (לְעָבְדָהּ, with a feminine object suffix) and to keep it (וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ, with a feminine object suffix).”


[10] Exodus 11:6: “And there shall be a great cry (צְעָקָה, feminine) throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it (כָּמֹהוּ, with a masculine object suffix), nor shall be like it (וְכָמֹהוּ, with a masculine object suffix) any more.”


[11] Exodus 22:26: “If thou at all take thy neighbour’s raiment (שַׂלְמַת, feminine) to pledge, thou shalt deliver it (תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ, with a masculine object suffix) unto him by that the sun goeth down…”


[12] Exodus 29:41b: “…and shalt do thereto according to the meat offering of the morning (הַבֹּקֶר, masculine), and according to the drink offering thereof (וּכְנִסְכָּהּ, with a feminine object suffix)…”


[13] Judges 19:24a: “Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them (אוֹתָם, formally masculine) I will bring out now, and humble ye them (אוֹתָם, formally masculine), and do with them (לָהֶם, formally maculine) what seemeth good unto you…”


[14] Zechariah 8:9a: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Let your hands (יְדֵיכֶם, masculine subject) be strong (תֶּחֱזַקְנָה, feminine verb) . . .”


[15] Johannes Quistorpius was a Lutheran minister and Professor of Divinity at Rostock. He attended Hugo Grotius at his deathbed. He composed annotations upon all the books of Scripture, and also Dissertatio Historica de Tempore Antediluviano, and Disputatio Theologica De Fide Infantum.


[16] Ambrose (340-397), Bishop of Milan, was a man of great influence, ecclesiastically and politically, and was instrumental in the conversion of Augustine.


[17] Genesis 16:2b: “…I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her (אִבָּנֶ֖ה מִמֶּ֑נָּה, that I may be built up of her; ἵνα τεκνοποιήσῃς ἐξ αὐτῆς, in the Septuagint)….”


[18] Genesis 30:3b: “…and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her (וְאִבָּנֶ֥ה גַם־אָנֹכִ֖י מִמֶּֽנָּה׃, that I may also be built up of her; καὶ τεκνοποιήσομαι κἀγὼ ἐξ αὐτῆς, in the Septuagint).”


[19] Deuteronomy 25:9: “Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house (לָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יִבְנֶ֖ה אֶת־בֵּ֥ית אָחִֽיו׃).”


[20] Ruth 4:11b: “…The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israelאֲשֶׁ֙ר בָּנ֤וּ שְׁתֵּיהֶם֙ אֶת־בֵּ֣ית) יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל): and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-lehem…”


[21] William Estius (1542-1613) labored first as a lecturer on Divinity, then as the Chancellor at Doway. Theologically, he bears the imprint of the modified Augustinianism of Michael Baius. In his commentary writing, as exemplified in his Commentarii in Sacram Scripturam and Commentarii in Epistolas Apostolicas, he focuses on the literal meaning of the text; and he is widely regarded for his exegetical skill and judgment.


[22] 2 Samuel 7:27: “For thou, O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, hast revealed to thy servant, saying, I will build thee an house (בַּ֖יִת אֶבְנֶה־לָּ֑ךְ): therefore hath thy servant found in his heart to pray this prayer unto thee.”


[23] Psalm 68:6a: “God setteth the solitary in families (בַּיְתָה, in a house)…”


[24] See John 14:2.


[25] Quæstionum in Heptateuchum Libri Septem.


[26] De Mendacio.


[27] Gregory the Great (c. 550-604) was elected Pope in 590. He was a monk, scholar, prolific author, and, having been made pope, instrumental in reinvigorating the missionary work of the Church.


[28] Moralia, sive Expositio in Job.


[29] John Lightfoot (1602-1675) was a minister and divine of such distinction and learning that he was invited to sit as a member of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster. He specialized in Rabbinic learning and lore. He brought that learning to bear in his defense of Erastianism in the Assembly and in his comments upon Holy Scripture.


[30] Hebrew: וַיְצַ֣ו פַּרְעֹ֔ה לְכָל־עַמּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹ֑ר כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלּ֗וֹד הַיְאֹ֙רָה֙ תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן׃


[31] Exodus 1:22b: “Every son that is born ye shall cast (תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ, the root of the verb being שָׁלַךְ/SHALAK) into the river…”


[32] Alcamus (The Ocean) is an Arabic lexicon; it appears to have been composed in roughly the fourteenth century by an anonymous Persian grammarian.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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