Watch a woman give-birth, a mother stand-up for her child, a widow quietly undergo hardship, and you will see a strength, dignity and endurance of a different type to men. Not better, just different. On average, men can bench-press more, fight wars for national protection, and engage in riskier professions, but women are the survivors.
Post-modern history teachers tend to obscure this plain truth. In almost every society, in any age, the same story rings true. When under intense threat men may carry the weapons, but, with greater urgency, women will carry the babies from the spears, scimitars or the attack-helicopters of the invaders. Evolutionists and biblicists hold the same truth, externally communities depend on men for protection, but on women to be knit-together and to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of that society. In families and churches, some men stand-up as leaders, but almost all women pass-on traditions, maintain healthy patterns, and keep things going.
In the pre-Exodus days, Pharaoh might have been scared of the Hebrew male, but little did he know, that the female of the species would be his undoing. These women outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the king of Egypt three times. First, with the full cooperation of men, and then twice entirely without male help at all.
Moses might have been the saviour, but the Hebrew women were the survivors and preservers. These women frustrated the supreme Egyptian monarch’s three strategies of destruction: labour camps, forced terminations, and the final solution. Let their works receive praise at the city gate, Christian home and history books (Prov. 31:31). And let men join in that praise.
1. Outlast: the fertility response to harsh slavery and labour camps
When a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph and his family’s nett blessings, he only saw their size and power and tried to subdue them, “lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (Ex 1:10). Heavy forced labour and bitter ruthless slavery only had the opposite effect.
… the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. (Ex. 1:12)
The Creation mandate and Abrahamic promises are brought together in a way reminiscent of the story of Jacob whose promised seed would increase and spread abroad (Gen. 1:28; 16:10; 28:3,14). Oppression was intended to control the numbers, but instead it increased them. Even this mistreatment was in God’s plan (Gen. 15:13). Whether we read this increased fertility as active obedience or a passive blessing received, women and their creation role are front and centre. The Egyptians tried to bring an even greater curse on the work on the Israelites, and God brought greater blessing in their childbearing.
2. Outwit: health professionals lie to prevent government-forced terminations
Midwives were meant to help women in their most vulnerable state. Pharaoh ordered them to betray both their vocation and the creation-inclination of their sex. These medical professionals broke the law of the land rather than perform postpartum gender-based terminations.
“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. (Ex. 1:16-17)
Two midwives, in particular, were singled-out. Like the much later sisters, Betsy and Corrie ten Boom, who hid Jews in WW2 from Nazis, Shiphrah and Puah lied to save the lives of those under their care.
So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children 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.” (Ex. 1:18-19)
Most Bible discussions flounder about in an ethical minefield created in the passage. But this minefield is only one created from the comfort of a cosy office computer or comfortable lounge-room discussion. These women feared God; and God approved of their actions. They were not baby-killers.
“So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (Ex 1:20-21)
These are real heroes in the story. For the next eighty years, they would be the only named people who could stand up against Pharaoh, survivors waiting for a saviour. They certainly out-wit him. Unlike Moses they did not doubt their ability to speak to great king. I, for one, am looking forward to meeting these great ones in the kingdom of heaven.
Shiphrah and Puah when they tricked Pharaoh and saved the babies, didn’t have children, wealth or freedom, but they were Proverbs 31 women nonetheless.
“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” (Proverbs. 31:30)
3. Outplay: Moses’ Ark made, protected and opened by women
What the king feared did not happen. He had targeted the wrong sex. There was no male uprising, neither after the harsh labour, nor after the order given to the midwives.
Even in the final solution when Pharaoh commanded his whole people to kill Hebrew boys, no men rose against him (Ex. 1:22). The only ones standing up to him were women, and great ones at that, a mother, a sister and the daughter of Hitler too.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. (Ex. 2:1-4)
The word translated here twice as “basket” is used twenty-five other times in the Hebrew Bible, only ever referring to Noah’s ark, which was was also covered in water-proofing pitch (Gen. 6:14). The parallel is very strong. The hopes and fears of all their years was placed in this little box that day. In a sense they were literally keeping Pharaoh’s order that all boys be thrown into the Nile, but they gave him a life-raft.
The mother was the principle human-agent in hiding the baby, protecting him, and building the basket. She could have been killed for doing it. And Moses’ big sister was so brave, so wonderful and so quick-witted to complete the circle, and bring the boy back to his mother, who would act as his wet-nurse (Ex. 2:7-10). I have seen big sisters do really special things for little brothers. Yesterday, my little girl, on her own initiative covered her little brother in a blanket when all the other males in the room didn’t notice that he’d even fallen asleep on the couch. If this sister is indeed Miriam (and we are never told), then it does provide depth to our understanding of her later character.
The surprise in the story is the Princess of Egypt. She defies the king, her father when she found the basket. Knowing full-well his ethnicity, this is the first use of the verb ‘to pity’ in the Bible.
When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” (Ex. 2:6)
The Sydney Jewish Museum has many rooms outlining the Holocaust and one of those rooms is in honour of the thousands of “Righteous Gentiles” who helped them escape or survive. At its roots, the original “Righteous Gentile” would be this woman.
God’s plan would take another 80 years to accomplish and a man would stand up for God against another man, but it was women who made it all possible. One to put him safely in the river, one to walk beside and another to draw him out.
Here are a few reflections:
A. Don’t stand between women and children
Even in the animal realm, a mother will do anything to protect her own. From bears to Hebrew mothers, such care is proverbial.
- … they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field (2 Sam. 17:8)
- I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs (Hos. 13:8)
The best defenders of children have often been women. Many more women than men are drawn to jobs and industries that teach and protect the youngest human beings. This is not a social-wrong that needs to be fixed, but perhaps a biological inclination that is created and blessed by God.
There is something amazing in the Exodus story. It is not just the mothers who save children. Two are midwives, one a sister and one the daughter of the enemy. Pharaoh tried to do the unnatural and turn women against children, and I’m sure many were weak and played their part in his evil plan. But others did not. I’m searching for a word that means ‘manly’ for women. There should be one. Their strength, determination and compassion was womanly.
Pharaoh placed an evil wedge between women and their male offspring. Where he failed, it seems that modern ideology has succeeded. And we weep.
Aggressive modern feminism elevates the right for a mother to throw her child into the nile river as a core undeniable axiom. Many women do oppose this. Rather than being treated as traitors of their sex, they should be praised.
B. Sight matters
They lived by faith and sight. Their decisions were all based on sight. There is something beautiful about a baby’s face, his little body, her toes and those adorable rolls of fatty thighs.
In Moses’s case there was something else amazing. We see the artists drawings of him looking wise, impressive, an old man slightly balding with a beard that would make Abraham Lincoln proud. We have no idea what he looked like, but as a child we are told that there was something about him that made his mother risk her life and the princess love him as her own. Notice how much sight mattered.
- (Of Moses’ mother) when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. (Ex 2:2)
- (Of the Egyptian Princess) she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him. (Ex. 2:6)
Moses didn’t just have a face that only his mother (and step-mother) could love. The New Testament shows the affect he had on his earthly father and heavenly one too.
- By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. (Heb. 11:23)
- At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. (Acts. 7:20-21)
I wonder whether the increase in ultra-sound technology will turn the tide. Women see their baby, not a generic baby, but one with its own beautiful feet, hands and heart. Some medical professionals may grow numb to this, but many see and know. Even imperfections can be beautiful. I have wept when I have seen my own children for the first time – both on the screen and with my own eyes.
When we say we live by faith, we mean faith in God above, but we certainly live by what we see in front of us too. Maybe we could borrow a prayer from Elisha when we pray for our medical fraternity and governments who hold the power of life and death, and families who struggle to love their babies. “O Lord, please open their eyes so that they can see?” (2 Kings 6:17)
C. The eternal struggle between the woman and the serpent is played out in history
[God, to the serpent] “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
While we see this ultimately fulfilled in Christ and his people, the warfare reaches its first crescendo in the story of the Exodus. Satan rages against the children of the women; and the women defend their offspring.
The king of Egypt stood in the line of Satan’s seed, doing his father’s bidding. Egypt and Pharaoh are likened to serpents in the Old Testament. Isaiah calls Egypt the sea-monster, Rahab. “Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” (Is. 51:9) God also names a later Pharaoh, “the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams (Ez. 29:3). These kings of Egypt were murderers and destroyers, just like their father, the devil.
It would be the seed of the woman, Moses, who would deliver them from this monstrous foe, but in the fight the women do anything to protect their children.
In the great apocalyptic vision of the apostle John, we see a picture of this eternal struggle, painted with the colours of the Exodus and applied to Jesus.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Rev. 12:1-6)
The agony of childbirth, the fear and terror, the murderous breath of the dragon trying to kill the son will all be transformed into glorious memories and scars that shine to the praise of God’s grace, when the saviour finishes his work. This is true in Christ and in Moses. Mary had to flee from Herod wanting to kill her baby and had to see the Romans bastardise him on the cross. Moses’ mother had to make a hiding place and, if she’d lived long enough, seen him flee as an exile himself. But in this struggle, the serpent’s head will be crushed, even though he rages so much against the woman and her offspring.
D. In this struggle, godly women are often the preservers of society, especially when waiting for a saviour
Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (2 Tim. 2:15)
This is one of the most controversial verses in the whole New Testament, made more so because of a shift in culture that tries to avoid distinctions between the sexes. Whatever this verse means to us, and to women today, this resonates profoundly with the Old Testament narrative arc.
The people were saved through procreation, from Eve to Sarah, and from Hannah to Bathsheba. In the Exodus, the future generations were their only hope. When oppressed by the new Pharaoh, it was their procreation that gave them a future. Shiphrah and Puah, who didn’t have their own children at the time, were saved through child-bearing. Moses’s mother, sister and all the women and men of Israel were saved through a son who was born.
It is a New Testament truth too that the world was saved through the birth of Mary’s baby.
However it is also a way of life. A pattern that many godly women of the past and present have done, being unashamedly women. The curse was in the blessing; and they were enduring the curse and redeeming the original blessing. Continuing in childbearing with faith, love, holiness and self-control describes so much of Old Testament female spirituality.
When God is delivering his people and raising up a saviour, it is often the women who are doing their part, ready, waiting, protecting and preserving – raising families whether their own biologically or spiritually.
We’ve seen this already in the story of the Exodus, and I’ve noticed it in Judges. Go through and list all the men and their accompanying flaws; and then do the same with the women. I only found one or two men whom I’d like to emulate, but I could not find fault with a single one of the Hebrew women (I don’t think that Delilah was one of God’s people). The Israelites were meant to enter the land physically, but the land entered them spiritually. While the men often seemed to do what was right in their own sight many of the women keep serving the Lord.
I speak anecdotally here, but many agree, and have seen the same in churches. It is the prayers of grandmothers, the witness of female scripture teachers, the consistent service of godly widows and the daily Bible reading of mothers that has had kept the churches alive, even in the periods of greatest spiritual droughts. For every new Timothy to stand in leadership, there is a Lois and Eunice behind the scenes. For Moses, there was a mother, a sister, a princess and perhaps even a midwife who didn’t obey the government’s instruction to have him killed.
E. Godly women deserve their praise
Not all women should be praised. Horrific women have been involved in terrible crimes. And it’s all the more tragic when it involves attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable.
However, godly women deserve their praise. The women of Israel, and in particular the midwives, mother and sister of Moses should be praised. When the serpent was out to destroy, they preserved the people even in the midst of slavery by having more children, against murder by their own fear of the Lord, and against genocide by protecting the special gift God entrusted to their care. When we tell the story of Moses, do not forget the women.
I, for one, love to sing the praises of my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law. Even in the last year, I have delighted in the stories of Amy Carmichael’s and Gladys Aylward who saved children from horrific temple prostitution, starvation and invading armies. Who knows what stories the next generation will retell about the women of our time?
Remember men, that Proverbs 31 was written for you, telling you what do to do and value.
Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:29-31)