Taking a Stand for Truth: Biblical Portraits of Faith and Courage

Because the Hebrew midwives respected (“feared”) God, they knew that the preservation of life took precedence over the murderous decrees of the king, even at the risk of their own lives.

Stephen J. Binz, The God of Freedom and Life: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus

Exodus 1:1-22

1:1These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“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.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

(See also Exodus 2:1-10)

Shiphrah and Puah? Not many contestants in a Bible trivia game could identify them! Indeed, the Book of Exodus makes only brief mention of these two women who lived more than three millennia ago. Yet their story is a clarion call to us today to take a stand against sin and wrongdoing, even when the cost of doing so is high.

Exodus tells the story of the deliverance of the “sons of Israel” from their cruel bondage in Egypt. Joseph was the son of the ancient patriarch Jacob. His brothers, who were jealous of him, sold him into slavery, but eventually Joseph rose to great power in Egypt under Pharaoh’s authority. So when Jacob and his sons came to Egypt seeking refuge from famine, they were generously welcomed. But life in Egypt did not remain rosy for the Israelite settlers. When a new Egyptian king who did not remember Joseph rose to power (Exodus 1:8), the Israelites endured the bitter oppression that God had foretold to Abraham many generations earlier (Genesis 15:13).

“Pharaoh” is an Egyptian royal title meaning “great house” or “palace.” The Book of Exodus never refers to the Egyptian king by a given, personal name. With this impersonal designation and namelessness, we can see in Pharaoh a symbol of the human and spiritual forces that oppressed the Israelites in the time before their “exodus,” or departure, from Egypt. It is those same forces that oppress humankind today, but from which Jesus, the Passover lamb, came to deliver us.

Pharaoh was threatened by the growing strength and number of Israelites in his nation. So when harsh servitude failed as a means of population control (Exodus 1:12), Pharaoh turned to infanticide, ordering that their male newborns be killed (1:15-16). Yet why did he think that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, women who were dedicated to bring life into the world, would be willing to obey this heinous command to be purveyors of death?

The original Hebrew text of Exodus 1:15 can be translated as “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews”—both are linguistically possible. Consequently, biblical scholars have debated whether Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrews themselves or Egyptians attending Hebrew women in childbirth. If the midwives were Egyptians, Pharaoh might have assumed that they would be compliant to his plan. However, their names are considered by many linguists to be of Semitic origin, not Egyptian—Shiphrah possibly meaning “beautiful,” “fair,” or “pleasing” and Puah, “splendid.” *

The Hebrew text states that the midwives refused to carry out Pharaoh’s command because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17). This statement doesn’t seem to refer to their regard for the array of Egyptian deities. Throughout the Bible, “fear of the Lord” describes the reverence, respect, and esteem that one has in acknowledgment of and response to God’s goodness and power. It is not dreadful fright but rather awe at God’s greatness and love. The psalmist writes that “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, / and he makes his covenant known to them” (Psalm 25:14; see also Psalm 34:10-14). Those who fear the Lord are in right relationship with him.

Motivated by their reverent fear of God, Shiphrah and Puah had the courage to honor and obey him rather than the Egyptian king. These women played a key role in preserving life, risking their own lives by defying Pharaoh’s order. When Pharaoh questioned why they “allowed the boys to live” (Exodus 1:18), they shrewdly asserted that Hebrew women were so “vigorous” that, unlike the Egyptians, they quickly gave birth before a midwife could arrive to attend them (1:19).

Shiphrah and Puah’s godly refusal to commit infanticide is perhaps the earliest known example in history of civil disobedience to an evil, oppressive regime. The midwives’ stand, perhaps at risk to their own lives, protected the baby boys, allowing the Hebrew people to flourish. God rewarded the women for their righteousness, courage, and “fear” by giving them “families” (Exodus 1:21)—children and descendants to carry on life to future generations.

What are the “take-aways” for us today from this story of Shiphrah and Puah?

• The midwives’ position of service and influence was no accident; rather, it enabled them to defend the lives of the male Hebrew babies. This gives us an assurance that even in a crisis, God is always at work to further his purposes and accomplish his will.

• Shiphrah and Puah didn’t play a passive role in this crisis; they did not become helpless victims. Revering God, they put their trust in him and acted decisively.

• Shiphrah and Puah are surprisingly contemporary models. The conflict presented to them by the Pharaoh’s death-dealing command is still played out today when society confronts us with demands hostile to Christianity. The story of the midwives reminds us that we, too, are threatened by evil, including sin, sickness, war, racism, and death. And like Shiphrah and Puah, we may have to risk, our reputation, our security, or even our lives for the sake of others. We can only do that when we put our trust in God, who will never fail to help us.

Not to be thwarted in his murderous intentions by the midwives’ refusal, Pharaoh commanded “all his people” to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22). Yet there is irony here, as Scripture commentator Stephen J. Binz has noted.

Each form of oppression portends the eventual triumph of Israel. The midwives, in saving the sons from death, foreshadow the saving activity of God in the Passover. The drowning of the boys in the Nile anticipates the way Pharaoh and his armies will meet their death. The oppressive actions, finally, prepare the way for the story of Moses’ birth. (The God of Freedom and Life)

Shiphrah and Puah’s story is brief, but it records a significant event at the beginning of the long story of the Israelites’ deliverance. In the chapters that follow, God raises up Moses as a liberator through whom the Israelites gain freedom from their slavery and oppression in Egypt. Ultimately, this “rescue” story told in the Book of Exodus is our story too, for the work of Moses foreshadows the saving work of Christ that sets each one of us free from the bondages of sin ad death.

* In the Bible, the term “Hebrew” is normally used by Israelites when speaking of themselves to foreigners, or is used by foreigners when speaking about Israelites. The Israelites/Hebrews were one of the Semitic peoples of the Middle East, and their language was of Semitic origin.

Shiphrah and Puah’s story is a clarion call to us today to take a stand against sin and wrongdoing, even when the cost of doing so is high.

Understand!

1. What was the new Pharaoh’s attitude toward the Israelites who had earlier found refuge in Egypt and settled there? In what ways did the Egyptians oppress the “foreigners” in the land?

2. Read Matthew 2:1-18. What similarities do you see between Pharaoh’s desire to kill newborn Hebrew males and King Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem? What were the fears and aims behind the actions of these rulers? How did God foil and derail the evil intents and deeds of both Pharaoh and Herod and ultimately accomplish our salvation?

3. What do you think motivated and enabled the Hebrew midwives to act so courageously? What character traits of these women are displayed by their actions?

4. What were the immediate consequences of the midwives’ action? The longer-range outcome? How did God bless Shiphrah and Puah for the stand they took? What does God’s response to the midwives’ actions reveal about his nature?

5. Read Exodus 2:1-10. What roles did Moses’ mother and sister and the daughter of Pharaoh play in God’s further intentions for the Israelites and his plan of salvation for all humankind? In what ways were these women audacious “risk takers” like the midwives?

In the Spotlight

Human Life Is Always a Good

Pope Benedict XVI notes that God’s immense love for each of us means that each person deserves to be loved.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said to the prophet Jeremiah (1:5). And the psalmist recognizes with gratitude: “You did form my inward parts, you did knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for you are fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are your works! You know me right well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

These words acquire their full, rich meaning when one thinks that God intervenes directly in the creation of the soul of every new human being.

God’s love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother’s womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness in each one (Genesis 1: 26). He makes no distinctions because he perceives in all of them a reflection of the face of his Only-begotten Son, whom “he chose . . . before the foundation of the world. . . . He destined us in love to be his sons . . . according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1: 4-6).

This boundless and almost incomprehensible love of God for the human being reveals the degree to which the human person deserves to be loved in himself, independently of any other consideration—intelligence, beauty, health, youth, integrity, and so forth. In short, human life is always a good, for it “is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory” (Evangelium Vitae, 34).

Indeed, the human person has been endowed with a very exalted dignity, which is rooted in the intimate bond that unites him with his Creator: a reflection of God’s own reality shines out in the human person, in every person, whatever the stage or condition of his life.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Pontifical Academy, February 27, 2006

Grow!

1. By their stance against Pharaoh’s command, Shiphrah and Puah risked their lives to defend life. What situations or crises have you faced in which you had to take a courageous stand? What happened? How did your trust in God grow?

2. When has fear prevented you from taking a stand? What were you afraid of? Where those fears reasonable? What are some ways to overcome fear in such situations?

3. Shiphrah and Puah were not passive in the crisis in which they found themselves; instead, the acted decisively. How is passivity in difficult situations a temptation for you? What can lead you to act decisively?

4. In our secular society, we are often called to stand up for gospel values and truth, but it’s important to do so with charity. How often do you find yourself discussing controversial issues with co-workers or family or friends? What are some ways you can be loving and respectful during such discussions even when you don’t agree with someone’s viewpoint?

5. How do you respond to immigrants and refugees? With understanding and acceptance or with fear and apprehension? In what practical ways might you reach out to welcome a newcomer in your neighborhood, at work, or in your parish?

In the Spotlight

Irena Sendler, Woman of Conviction and Courage

Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker who joined the Polish underground and risked her life to rescue hundreds of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. By managing to get a pass that enabled her to enter the ghetto legally, Irena was able to visit daily to establish contacts and to bring in food, medicine, and clothing.

Irena smuggled children out of the ghetto in ambulances, garbage cans, toolboxes, cartloads of goods, potato sacks, and even coffins. Sometimes she took them out through a church with two entrances, one on the ghetto side and the other opening into the Aryan side of Warsaw. With the help of workers at Warsaw’s social welfare department, Irena secured hundreds of false documents with forged signatures, giving the Jewish children temporary identities.

The children were taken to private homes, orphanages, and convents. “I sent most of the children to religious establishments,” Irena recalled. “I knew that I could count on the Sisters. No one ever refused to take a child from me.”

The only record of the children’s true identities was kept by Irena, in a coded form, in glass jars buried beneath an apple tree in her neighbor’s backyard, right across the street from the German barracks. Irena hoped she would be able to locate the children after the war ended and inform them of their past. In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children.

On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. She was severely tortured but refused to betray any of her associates, the children in hiding, or those sheltering them. Irena was sentenced to death, but while she awaited execution, a German soldier took her to an “additional interrogation.” Once they were outside the prison, he shouted in Polish, “Run!” The next day Irena found her name on the list of the executed Poles. Underground members had managed to stop her execution by bribing the Germans, and Irena continued her work under a false identity.

When the war ended, Irena dug up the jars and used the coded notes to reunite the children she had placed in adoptive families with their relatives scattered across Europe. Most of the children, however, had lost their families in Nazi concentration camps. After the war, she helped establish orphanages as well as homes for the elderly.

In 1965 the Yad Vashem organization in Jerusalem awarded Irena with the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” and she was made an honorary citizen of Israel. She received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, and in 2007 Israel and Poland supported her as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Irena Sendler died in Warsaw in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.

Reflect!

1. God put Shiphrah and Puah as well as the mother of Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter in their particular positions in life in order to carry out his purposes for the salvation of the Israelites—and ultimately, our salvation, too. Like these women, we are where we are not by accident but by God’s design.

     Reflect on possible reasons why God has put you where you are right now. Consider the present season of your life, your role in your family, your financial resources, your talents, skills, and abilities, your important relationships, your sphere of influence, and your profession. Is there something in particular that God may be asking you to do in your present circumstances to further his purposes?

2. Reflect on the following Scripture passages to guide and strengthen you in keeping the commands of the Lord and living uprightly:

Do not enter the path of the wicked,

     and do not walk in the way of evildoers.

Avoid it; do not go on it;

     turn away from it and pass on. . . .

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,

     which shines brighter and brighter until full day.  (Proverbs 4:14-15, 18)

The fear of the Lord is glory and exultation,

     and gladness and a crown of rejoicing.

The fear of the Lord delights the heart,

     and gives gladness and joy and long life.

Those who fear the Lord will have a happy end;

     on the day of their death they will be blessed.

Deuterocanonical book of Sirach 1:11-13

[Paul to Timothy:] God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. (2 Timothy 1:7-9)

In the Spotlight

Staying Seated to Take a Stand

On December 1, 1955, a bus driver ordered Rosa Parks to give up her seat in the “colored” section of the bus to a white passenger after the “white” section was filled. She refused. As Parks later explained, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’”

On Sunday, December 4, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches in the area. The following day Rosa was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and for violating a segregation ordinance of the Montgomery City code, even though she technically had not taken a “white-only” seat—she had been in the “colored” section. Rosa was found guilty in a trial that lasted thirty minutes; she was fined ten dollars, plus four dollars in court costs. She appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation.

During the yearlong bus boycott, thousands of blacks walked to work rather than ride segregated buses. The protest continued until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the city ordinance requiring segregation on public buses. Parks’ act of civil disobedience and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became iconic symbols in the civil rights movement in America and fostered efforts against racial segregation in other countries as well.

Rosa Parks suffered for the bold stance she had taken in refusing to give up her seat on the bus: she was fired from her job as a seamstress and received death threats for years afterwards. Not long after the boycott ended, she moved to Detroit, where she briefly found similar work. Later she worked for Democratic congressman John Conyers and cofounded a nonprofit institute to help youths in Detroit. She also traveled around the country to lecture on civil rights. In 1996 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Parks died in October 2005 at the age of ninety-two. She was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda. On December 1, 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of Parks’ arrest, President George W. Bush directed that a statue of Parks be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, stating, “By placing her statue in the heart of the nation’s Capitol, we commemorate her work for a more perfect union, and we commit ourselves to continue to struggle for justice for every American.”

Act!

Is there an important moral or ethical issue facing you at work or in your community, or a social justice issue being considered by your state legislature or in the US Congress? If you sense God calling you to do something, ask him for the courage to be bold as well as for the grace to be kind and loving to those with whom you disagree.

Pray these Intercessory Prayers for Pro-Life Advocates prepared by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB):

For those who long for the equality of all persons: that their dedication to the unborn, the old, the condemned, and the forgotten, may grow every day

We pray to the Lord.

For all who work for an end to abortion: that they might be strengthened by prayer, and that God might reward them for their goodness;

We pray to the Lord.

For all those who work to promote the Gospel of Life: that God might reward them for their goodness;

We pray to the Lord.

For those who work to defend the lives of the unborn, the sick, the infirm, and the aged; those who defend humanity’s inalienable right to life;

We pray to the Lord.

For all who work for an end to the culture of death, and especially for our brothers and sisters
 from other churches, ecclesial communions, and religions, that love for the Gospel of Life might draw us closer in Christ;

We pray to the Lord.

In the Spotlight

Called to Be “Protectors”

In his inaugural homily, Pope Francis called us to be “protectors” of people and of creation.

How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus, and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. . . . Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

The vocation of being a “protector,” however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!

Pope Francis, Inaugural Homily, March 19, 2013

This article is adapted from Biblical Women in Crisis: Portraits of Faith and Trust, by Jeanne Kun, © 2017 The Word Among Us, Used with permission.

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