One of my favourite TV shows to watch when my husband is out (he’s not so keen) is BBC’s Call the Midwife. I love the drama of it. The Sisters are just fabulous and they balance the stark reality of daily life with a deep faith so well. I love the way the programme focuses on the every day details of each family, and the mix of pain, struggle and endurance that leads to new life.
Sometimes it’s pretty gruesome, but birth is like that.
I’ve always admired midwives. Having given birth three times I know it’s a messy business and these women (I know, I know, there are of course male midwives) are willing to be at the gritty end. Midwives are the kind of people you want in a crisis: unflustered, clear thinking, plain talking, patient and encouraging, even willing to be shouted and sworn at in the course of their work!
There must have been many midwives in the Bible but only two are mentioned by name: Shiprah and Puah. (Exodus 1.15).
We have come to the end of our readings from Genesis. The Israelites were now living in Egypt having settled there during the time of Joseph. A new Pharaoh had taken the throne who didn’t remember Joseph and his economic success, and he began to oppress them, forcing them into hard labour. Despite this the Israelites had grown in number and Pharoah was afraid they would rise up against him and so he brought Shiprah and Puah to him and made a terrible demand of them:
When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.Exodus 1.16
In what is no doubt the first act of civil disobedience in recorded history, the midwives refused to follow this murderous edict: [i]
But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but they let the boys live.Exodus 1.17
They knew that they could not openly disobey the order of their King, and so they were clever about it: they made up a racially charged explanation!
The Hebrew women are not like other women (they told the king) for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.Exodus 1.19
Ingenious. It seems that Pharoah fell for this explanation, and because of the cunning bravery of these women the Israelites continued to procreate, the boy babies lived, and Moses, who would later lead them into freedom, was born.
The two psalms below use imagery of the midwife to describe God.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
“For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.”
(Psalm 71: 5-6)
How beautiful to think of the midwives, doctors, nurses and doulas who attend to women and babies at birth as being God-like in their work, bringing forth new life into the world.
Apparently 2020 has been designated ‘Year of the Nurse and the Midwife’ and Pope Francis said that “midwives carry out perhaps the noblest of the professions”.
Let us remember them today and pray for them in their work.
Mother God, as a midwife brings forth new life into the world, You long to nurture new life in us today. Help us to trust in your love and protection, knowing that we are safe in your loving arms. Amen
For more stories of incredible women see our book Unveiled: women of the Old Testament and the choices they made’ – https://www.brfonline.org.uk/products/unveiled
Francine Klagsbrun said that the refusal of Shiphrah and Puah to follow the Pharaoh’s genocidal instructions “may be the first known incident of civil disobedience in history” (Voices of Wisdom, ISBN 0-394-40159-X).