Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shemot 5760/2000

"The wisest of women builds her house" (Prov.14:1)

Heroism, Lies and Saving Life: The Hebrew Midwives in Egypt

Dr. Yael Shemesh

Department of Bible

and the Center for the Study of Women in Judaism

Chapter 1 of the book of Exodus tells about three attempts made by Pharaoh to cope with the demographic problem which threatened the Egyptian people -- the exceptional increase in number of the Israelites dwelling in Egypt. First, he enslaved the Israelites so that their physical exhaustion would prevent them from breeding (8-14).[1] Second, he secretly instructed the Hebrew midwives[2] to put to death by devious hidden means all the males born to their fellow Hebrew women (15-21). Third, he issued a comprehensive order to "all his people" to throw into the Nile all the males born to the Hebrews, making no attempt at concealing this crime (22). Clearly, each attempt was more drastic than the preceding one, yet none of these tactics succeeded: "But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out" (12); "and the people multiplied and increased greatly" (20).

In the latter two attempts, aimed at destroying the soul as well and not only at enslaving the body, women figure prominently in their disregard for Pharaoh's orders. They schemed to save lives and thus to hasten Israel's redemption. First, there were the midwives, who kept alive all the male newborns, and later Moses' mother, sister, and even Pharaoh's daughter, conspired together to save a single life -- Moses, who would grow up to be the one who delivered Israel (Ex. 2:2-10).[3]

The initiative and resourcefulness shown by women in all that has to do with saving life is consonant with the larger picture that emerges from the Bible as a whole: since women are entrusted with producing offspring to maintain the human species, in Scripture one frequently finds that in time of danger "the Holy One, blessed be He, gave women more understanding than men" (Niddah 45b), and that women's resourcefulness is what leads to life being saved. For example, a woman from Thebez saved the people of her city from burning by killing Abimelech (Jud. 9:53), and a wise woman from Abel of Beth-Maacah negotiated with Joab, saving her city from destruction (II Sam. 20:15-22).[4] One should add that the motivation of the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh's orders and save lives stemmed not only from their being women, but also from the fact that their profession is intrinsically associated with bringing new life into the world, not destroying it.

Pharaoh ordered the midwives to establish the sex of the newborn at the earliest possible stage of birth so that they could carry out his hideous order: "if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live" (v. 16). The midrash comments on this decree: "This was a wise decree that they made against us. If they had said to kill the daughters and let the sons live, the Israelite population would have decreased immediately. For it is the way of men to take ten wives and have many sons circumcised, but it is not the way of women to marry even two men."[5] Similarly, Abarbanel raises the following difficulty (his sixth question): "The possibility of increasing progeny depends more on women than on men, therefore it would have been better for them to put to death every newborn, whether male or female, or to put to death the females and not the males." His response, like that of other commentators and scholars, is two-fold: first, Pharoah wanted to create a shortage of men, so that "The women would marry Egyptians and be drawn after them," and thus be assimilated to the Egyptian people; second, Pharaoh only saw the men as posing a military threat, since men are usually the fighters, not women. To this we must respond that had he known that Jewish women would play such an important role in the deliverance of their people, he probably would not have let them live.

The midwives refused to carry out Pharaoh's command, which today we would call a "manifestly illegal order" which contravenes natural morality, and they let the sons live. When Pharaoh called them in irately and demanded an explanation, they were forced to lie to him: "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth" (v. 19). The question arises whether it was in bad taste for the midwives to utter something untrue? How does Scripture relate to this white lie, intended to save life, and to other white lies?

Indeed, various passages in Scripture condemn lying (e.g.: Ps. 101:7; Prov. 6:17), but since the Torah is Book of Life, biblical law does not contain any comprehensive law against lying. The commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:13, and the parallel verse in Deut. 5:17), pertains only to legal matters, prohibiting false testimony; the same holds for the injunction, "Keep from a false charge" (Ex. 23:7). Whereas the verse, ""You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another" (Lev. 19:11), concerns defrauding of money, and its continuation (v. 12) prohibits swearing falsely in the name of the Lord, but it does not prohibit uttering a falsehood itself. If we examine lies that come into play in stories of the Bible, it turns out that the Bible acknowledges that sometimes a lie is a condonable necessity to those who use it, especially when it serves as a weapon for protecting the weak. This category obviously includes lies designed to save life, such as that told by the midwives. Interestingly, often the lies are told by women.[6] For example, Rahab lied to her townsmen and saved the spies because she understood that Jericho was destined to fall to the Israelites. She made her assistance to the spies contingent on saving her own life and the lives of her family (Josh. 2:1-21). Michal daughter of Saul lied to her father's messengers, who came to take David away, by saying that he was ill in bed, when in fact she had let him out through the window earlier (I Sam. 19:11-15). She did so to save her husband's life, and later (v.17) lied to her father as well, to escape his wrath. A woman from Bahurim told Absalom's servants that Ahimaaz and Jonathan "had crossed a bit beyond the water" (Ibid., 17:20) when in fact she had concealed them in her well in the courtyard (II Sam. 17:18-20).

Proof that the Bible acknowledges the legitimacy of white lies is provided by our story at hand. The Lord recompensed the midwives, who lied to Pharaoh, measure for measure:[7] since they had kept alive the Hebrews' sons, "He established households for them," (v. 21), i.e., gave them offspring.[8] Samuel David Luzzatto's commentary on verse 21 surmises that "it was customary that only women who had no children and did not have to care for their own household were midwives. The Lord blessed these midwives, giving them sons so that they were fruitful and multiplied and established households."[9] Whether or not his surmise is correct, the story teaches us that the brave midwives, who went against the Pharaoh and lied to him, in so doing became active partners in delivering the House of Israel and therefore were rewarded by G-d establishing them households of their own.

[1] Samuel David Luzzatto's commentary on Exodus 1:11: "'To oppress them with forced labor' -- by being forced to work so hard, their strength would be diminished and they would not multiply so much, and the children that were born to them would not be so healthy and strong."

[2] Josephus (Antiquities 2.9.2), Abarbanel, Luzzatto and others interpret that the midwives were Egyptian women and that the word "Hebrew" is not an adjective describing the midwives, but the object: midwives to the Hebrews. It seems to me, however, that one should accept the prevailing interpretation, that the midwives were Hebrews, as is indicated, as well, by their semitic names: Shiphrah and Puah.

[3] On the central role of women in the early chapters of Exodus, cf. J. Cheryl Exum, "'You shall let every daughter live': A study of Exodus 1:8-2:10," Semeia 28 (), pp. 63-82; Ilana Pardes, "Zippora ve-Hatan ha-Damim: Nashim ke-Meyaldot Am be-Sefer Shemot," Theoria u-Vikoret 7 (1995), pp. 89-98.

[4] Other examples of women's initiative saving life will be presented later, in our discussion of the Bible's attitude to what we call "white lies."

[5] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 8, Ish Shalom ed., Jerusalem 1969, p. 43.

[6] Cf. Toni Craven, "Women who lied for the faith," Justice and the Holy, Essays in Honor of Walter Harrelson, ed. by D. A. Knight & P. J. Paris, Atlanta, Georgia 1989, pp. 35-49.

[7] Pharaoh, in contrast, was dealt retribution measure for measure: he killed the Israelite children, and G-d punished him with the plague of the first-born (Ex. 12:29); by Pharaoh's command all the sons that were born were thrown into the Nile (Ex. 1:22), and by the Lord's decree Pharaoh's forces drowned in the Red Sea (Ex. 14:23-28).

[8] The word bayit, "household," in the sense of offspring also occurs in Ex. 1:1; Josh. 24:15; I Sam. 2:33, and elsewhere.

[9] A similar view is held by J. P. Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus (NCB), London 1971, p. 61.

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