|15 And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah; 16 and he said: “When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, you shall look upon the birthstool: if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the boys live. 18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them: “Why have you done this thing, and have let the boys live?” 19 And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered before the midwife comes to them.” 20 And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. 21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses. 22 And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall let live.”||טו ויאמר מלך מצרים, למילדת העברית, אשר שם האחת שפרה, ושם השנית פועה. טז ויאמר, בילדכן את-העבריות, וראיתן, על-האבנים: אם-בן הוא והמתן אתו, ואם-בת הוא וחיה. יז ותיראן המילדת, את-האלהים, ולא עשו, כאשר דבר אליהן מלך מצרים; ותחיין, את-הילדים. יח ויקרא מלך-מצרים, למילדת, ויאמר להן, מדוע עשיתן הדבר הזה; ותחיין, את-הילדים. יט ותאמרן המילדת אל-פרעה, כי לא כנשים המצרית העברית: כי-חיות הנה, בטרם תבוא אלהן המילדת וילדו. כ וייטב אלהים, למילדת; וירב העם ויעצמו, מאד. כא ויהי, כי-יראו המילדת את-האלהים; ויעש להם, בתים. כב ויצו פרעה, לכל-עמו לאמר: כל-הבן הילוד, היארה תשליכהו, וכל-הבת, תחיון.|
1:15–22 The Midwives
Failing to curtail the Israelite birthrate through hard labor, Pharaoh tries to actively kill Israelite newborns. Like the previous, this section has three stages. First Pharaoh talks to the midwives. Then the first phase of Pharaoh's plan is that the Israelite be killed by midwives and the second phase is that all newborn sons be thrown into the river (Hakham 17). This section parallels the prior in a number of ways. As in the previous two sections, this one also has a key word that is repeated seven times – midwives.
This section is structured as a chiasm as follows:
A: Pharaoh’s directive to the midwives (vv. 15-16)
B: The midwives’ fear of God (v. 17)
C: Pharaoh’s plan fails and God’s plan succeeds (vv. 18-20)
B’: The midwives’ fear of God (v. 21)
A’: Pharaoh’s command to all his people (v. 22)
(based on Wicke 101).
15 And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives
Commentators debate whether these were Hebrew midwives or Egyptian midwives of the Hebrews (Leibowitz 31-38). If they were Egyptians, this parallels the previous section in which Egyptian taskmasters were given the job of persecuting the Israelites (Samet 164-165). It also explains why the text is surprised that these women feared God (Childs 16).
It is unlikely that there were only two midwives for the entire Israelite people. These two were probably the head midwives (Ibn Ezra).
the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah
Shiphrah is a Semitic name from the root meaning "to be beautiful." Puah is from Ugaritic and originally meant a fragrant blossom but came to mean "a girl" (Sarna). The non-Egyptian origins of these names lends support to the view that the midwives were Israelites (Jacob).
It is interesting to note that Pharaoh is here called “the king of Egypt” while the midwives are named, thus underscoring the irony in that the king of all Egypt rests his plan on lowly midwives (Fretheim 31-32). Mentioning only the two head midwives serves to emphasize this.
16 if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live
There is a parallel here to Abraham's fear upon entering Egypt that "they will kill me, but they will let you live" (Gen. 12:12). His concern over a plan to murder the male and take the female was later fulfilled (Cassuto).
This plan of Pharaoh is on an individual level. He tells specific midwives how to deal with each child. Compare with v. 22 (Wicke 102).
17 But the midwives feared God
The word in Hebrew for fear is very similar to the word for seeing. Instead of seeing, the midwives feared (Cassuto). The name for God used here – Elokim – refers to an all-powerful God, in contrast to the highly limited king of Egypt (Hakham). On fear of God, cf. Gen. 20:11, 22:12. It is noteworthy that the Egyptian’s fear of the Israelites led to their failure while the midwives’ fear of God led to their success (Fretheim 31-32).
Pharaoh commanded, and presumably threatened, the midwives to follow his orders. The midwives, dedicated to the bearing of life, would naturally oppose this command. Neither of these concerns are mentioned by the text in order to emphasize the single overriding value in this episode – fear of God (Childs 17).
but let the boys live
They refrained from killing the boys. Cf. Num. 31:15 (Hakham).
18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives
In v. 16, Pharaoh “spoke” to the midwives. Here he “called” for them. His anger was displayed in this more assertive tone (Hakham).
Why have you done this thing
The midwives did not technically act against the king, but rather they refrained from following his command (Cassuto). However, disobedience of a monarch is tantamount to rebellion.
19 And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women
This answer to Pharaoh is a blatant and implausible lie yet Pharaoh was deceived by it, once again underscoring the irony of his desiring to “deal wisely with them” but in the end acting foolishly (Childs 17).
20 And the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty
Just like Pharaoh’s previous initial attempt to destroy the Israelites ended with them growing in number (v. 12), so does this plan (Samet 162).
21 He made them houses
Families (cf. v. 1), measure for measure. The midwives helped Israelite women have children and grow their families, so God rewarded them with families of their own (Cassuto). Alternatively, God protected them from retaliation by Pharaoh (Saadia, Rashbam).
22 And Pharaoh charged all his people
Pharaoh’s first command was to individuals – the midwives – and only later to the Egyptian people. This parallels the earlier effort which was initially given to individuals – the taskmasters – and only later to the entire people (Samet 162, Wicke 101-102).
Like the second part of the previous attempt to destroy the Israelites (v. 13), there is no indication given whether this second part of this effort succeeded. However, from the subsequent passage it seems that it did not (Samet 162).