The Midwives

The midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.

Exodus 1:17

Labor Day. Among American holidays, it often feels like the short straw drawn.

Communities usually don’t line Main Street for Labor Day parades. No leprechauns, bearded elves, or giant bunnies serve as mascots for the day. And as far as I know, Russell Stovers and Nestle don’t produce special Labor Day candy.*

The first Monday in September also lacks an obvious religious connection. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Easter celebrates his resurrection. Even Memorial Day invites Christians to consider sacrifice, death, and eternal life.

Not Labor Day. It’s not directly connected to the life of Christ, remembers no pivotal national moment, and honors no particular saint.

But maybe that’s why believers need to consider it more carefully. Labor Day isn’t about a discreet event or transcendent individual; it is a recognition of the beauty and significance of regular time.

That God appointed only one day for rest in a week of seven should point us to something: We are to be people at work. We are commissioned by God to steward the planet, to honor each others’ efforts, to and compensate labor justly.

The Old Testament story of Shiphrah and Puah serves as a compelling illustration of the way that God uses our daily labor for lasting impact. Many readers race through Exodus 1 to the better-known miracle stories in the Bible’s second book, but scrolling past the opening chapter means missing a beautiful account of daily faithfulness and bravery in the lives of two remarkable women.

Shiphrah and Puah were midwives residing as foreigners and slaves in the Kingdom of Egypt. Their daily work: safeguarding the lives of Israelite women through the dangers of childbirth and protecting their vulnerable newborns through those crucial APGAR moments.

In the best of times, it was tough work. Birthing rooms were known to be noisy and chaotic: often, an expectant mother invited other women from the community to wail and cry with her as a show of solidarity. Shiphrah and Puah had to keep their wits about them.

They also had to possess savvy medical minds. As the Ebers papyrus and other ancient manuscripts demonstrate, midwifery required expertise in both science and strategy. Shiphrah and Puah would have had to know how to calculate due dates, manage labor pains, and prepare salts and lotions for the newborn infants’ skin.

But Shiphrah and Puah didn’t work in the best of times. Their careers came in an era of added stress and danger.

In their days of service, there were a lot of babies being born. A lot. Scripture’s census data indicates that during the 430 years that the Israelites were in Egypt, they increased from a clan of seventy to a nation numbering in the hundreds of thousands or more. These ladies’ beepers and pagers rarely fell silent.

The corresponding concern stemmed from this extraordinary birth rate. The Egyptian king, nervous at the multiplication of the Hebrews in his land, actually instructed the midwives to kill the male children of the Israelites in the delivery rooms. In order to preserve his power, he decreed that Shiphrah and Puah leverage their work to commit state-ordered infanticide.

That’s where the story of these women gets intense. Exodus 1:17: Shiphrah and Puah defy the order. Driven by love, kindness, and their fear of God, they kept assisting, kept coaching, kept delivering.

The work went on.

Called into the king’s court some time later, the women offered their explanation – “We’re doing what we can, Pharaoh, but the Hebrew women are vigorous in childbirth. Before we can get to there, they’ve already delivered their sons.”

Can you see them there in the great hall of the king, exchanging those little half-smiles? We’re so sorry, your majesty! By the time we get to the door, these kids are already sitting in their high chairs, eating cheerios and watching Baby Einstein! I love it.

Want one more reason to admire these exceptional women? Exodus 1:21 seems to confirm what many scholars believe about ancient midwives – that they were given this work because they weren’t able to have children of their own. Let that sink in for a moment. A day on the job for Shiphrah and Puah meant working to ensure that woman after woman and family after family were able to share in a joy that they could not themselves possess.

These were special women who demonstrated courage, tenderness, and compassion in their daily work. And their faith and gentleness totaled up to something.

Busy at their stools and salves, they probably never thought about it.  But history reveals that these midwives were saving a generation. Almost surely, some of the children held in Shiphrah’s arms and cleaned with Puah’s ointments eventually became leaders at the head of Passover’s freedom train. How many of God’s people would never have crossed the Red Sea if the midwives had called it quits?

Shiphrah and Puah weren’t just delivering babies, they were delivering a nation.

Daily labor matters to God. In Responsive LaborA Theology of Work, David Jensen writes:

Our ordinary labors—cleaning, cooking, caring for children, teaching, writing, investing, sculpting, trading, and building—are responses to the life God gives to the world…Human work is not incidental to faith, but bound up with its chief movements. The basic topics of Christian theology, after all, can be described in terms of God’s work for the world: creation, covenant, incarnation, justification, sanctification, and consummation.

Tired of your work? Think that your labors have no lasting effect? You aren’t seeing what God sees. Our daily endeavors aren’t interludes from the sacred. As Shiphrah and Puah’s story shows, even our seemingly menial jobs are central to God’s grand redemptive plan.

*If I’m wrong about this – and I hope I am – tweet me directly @tsbreen!

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