The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and set them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" The 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." So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. Exodus 1:15–20
Strong soldiers' hands gripped and bruised the two Hebrew midwives' arms, wrenched the women from their domestic chores and hauled them to the royal palace of Pharaoh, the most powerful man on earth. The terrified slaves were pushed and prodded through corridors of power, then hurled before the great throne of one believed to be the son of an Egyptian god. Bowing low and seized with fear, the servants from humanity's lowest rung encountered the very apex of the status pyramid: Pharaoh, King of Egypt.
"Hebrew," from the word "Apiru," meant "transient," "nomadic." The Hebrews were bucolic tribesmen from the Palestine hills who wandered down for grain in times of drought. The culturally elite Egyptians considered Hebrews simple, unsophisticated – and enslaved them to erect ambitious monuments to the Egyptian dead. A Hebrew slave woman's value was just above a goat's.
Pharaoh's word reached these "barely humans" in searing edict: "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and set them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." The ancient practice echoed other tyrants of recent years: make your slaves kill their own. Hebrew midwives, then, were to carry out Pharaoh's genocide.
With the pronouncement still ringing, the two slaves were hurried out of Pharaoh's presence to do his devilish deed, but they refused. Imagine for a moment enough courage to resist the most powerful force on earth because you believe in a higher power, a greater Will, the Giver of Life and Love. Their disobedience would bring obvious political and social repercussions—but they served God and put his will above Pharaoh's.
Now, I have never seen a St. Puah Presbyterian Church or a St. Shiphrah Episcopal Church. I have never seen stained glass windows commemorating their bravery. Never have I heard of anyone wearing a Puah Medal. But these two simple women are models of saying no to tyranny—in whatever form—to put God first.
As it happens, tyrants are not always as obvious as Hitler and Stalin. Whatever in life leans toward tyranny must be kept in check. Within the world's strong forces—culture, or unfair expectations, for instance—we must look for the courage of Puah and Shiphrah to put God's will above would-be gods.