Shiphrah and Puah are two of the most minor characters in the Bible, and their story consists of only a few verses. I enjoy their story, though—not only because their actions profoundly influenced the scriptural story of liberation but also because of how they managed to succeed. Exodus tells us that Pharaoh had become uneasy at the population of Hebrews in Egypt, so he instructed the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah included, to kill any Hebrew boys at birth. Rather than refusing outright, a refusal that would probably have just lea to their own deaths, these two midwives took advantage of Pharaoh’s ignorance and told him a tale that no woman would have believed. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” they said, “for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
This story reminds me of another short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell. In this story, the men overlook evidence that the women are able to interpret. The men, those who possess much more public power than the women do, simply don’t recognize that sloppy embroidery or a dead parakeet is significant. They also don’t realize that they ought to ask the women what they’ve noticed. The men and the women see the same things, but only the women are able to ascribe meaning to what they see. The women save their friend from a possible conviction for murder simply by keeping quiet.
People who possess little authority can seldom overcome their opponents through sheer force. They have to rely on other means—by understanding their oppressors better than they understand themselves, by outwitting those too arrogant to question their own limitations. Exodus doesn’t tell us what the midwives think of Pharaoh, whether they consider him simply naïve or an outright fool, whether they’re just taking advantage of his understandable limitations. He doesn’t question their presentation of the Hebrew women’s character. Why would he? He doesn’t know anything about childbirth. Why would he know? Why would he care to know?
This story offers a lesson in justice, but it also offers a lesson in humility. However much any of us knows, we probably don’t know enough. We’ve probably each stared right at something and overlooked its meaning. And the story suggests that God approves of wiliness, of tricking our opponents when that’s the option we have. Someday, perhaps, we might all live in the peaceable kingdom, none of us grasping after power or so enraged with greed that we accept the harm we cause to get what we want. My faith teaches me that such a thing could happen, though my experience tells me that it won’t likely happen soon. Until then, let’s use these two often overlooked women as our models; when we can’t eradicate evil, let’s try to outwit it.