The Bible includes several mentions of midwives including Rachel’s midwife, Tamar’s midwife, and Shiphrah and Puah, the Egyptian midwives.
Did you know that March is Women’s History Month? This month we’re also counting down to the All God’s Women one-year anniversary. To celebrate both events, we’re winding down our days in the Old Testament by featuring three different groups of Unsung Heroes among the Old Testament women. We begin this week with the midwives.
The first mention of a midwife is in Genesis 35:16. The Bible doesn’t provide the name of Rachel’s midwife, but it does record her words. “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.”
In order to understand the significance of these words, let’s step back and take a look at what led to this moment. All Rachel wanted was to provide sons for her husband, but for most of her married life, she was unable to conceive. She watched helplessly as Jacob produced children through her sister Leah and their two maidservants. When Rachel finally bore her first son, she named him Joseph and immediately said, “The LORD shall add to me another son.” Before she’d had time to bond with the son she had, she was already planning for the next one.
After Joseph’s birth, Jacob proceeded to break with Laban, Rachel’s father, and take his family and household to his homeland. It was during those days of transition and travel that Rachel conceived and then went into labor.
Since the midwife was with them in the wilderness, it’s obvious that she was a part of the household, in fact, she would have been a vital part of the household. With all the women bearing children, she would have kept busy trying to take care of them during their pregnancies and then guiding them through their labor and recovery.
In this situation, she could tell that Rachel was dying, so she tried to encourage her by giving her the words she wanted to hear. “Don’t worry. You have another son.” But it was too late. In her last moments Rachel named the child Ben-oni, which means, “the son of my distress”. After she died, however, Jacob renamed him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.”
The next mentioned midwife is Tamar’s midwife in Genesis 38:27-30. Now, while Rachel was a beloved wife, Tamar was an unwed mother, so her pregnancy and birth would be a completely different experience.
As you’ll recall, Tamar was married to Er, the son of Judah. We’re told in Genesis 38:6 that Judah was the one who arranged the marriage. But then we’re told in verse 7 that Er was wicked so God put him to death. Now, according to the Levirate law, it was the duty of the next surviving brother to marry his brother’s widow if she was childless. Instead of Onan, the younger brother marrying Tamar, Judah merely told Onan to sleep with her so she could bear a child to be an heir for Er. Onan wasn’t interested in that, so he insured that she’d not get pregnant. As a result of his actions, God put him to death as well.
Judah had one other son, but he was young, so Judah told Tamar to go home and wait for the younger son to get old enough to marry. Only, after he sent Tamar away, he forgot about his promise.
When Tamar realized that Judah hadn’t kept his word, she devised a plan to have a child via Judah. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. She was still, though, an unwed mother, and we have no indication that Judah was there for Tamar during her pregnancy.
What I find fascinating about Tamar’s birth experience and the wisdom of her midwife is that the midwife knew Tamar was having twins. How did she know? It wasn’t like she had the modern medical equipment we have now. She didn’t have a stethoscope to hear two heartbeats. She certainly didn’t have an ultrasound machine. The Bible doesn’t tell us that God said anything to Tamar about having twins. And yet, the midwife knew that there were two babies and it would be important to know which one came first. So when a tiny hand reached out, the midwife grabbed it and tied a scarlet thread around the wrist. But the hand drew back, and the other twin came out first. What an unexpected turn of events.
Not only was this unnamed midwife wise, but she had a sense of humor as well. I love her response to Perez, the first of the twins. “How did you break through?”
It’s interesting her use of a scarlet thread as Perez was part of the lineage of Jesus. The scarlet thread is used again with Rahab, another woman in the lineage of Jesus.
Shiphrah and Puah
The last mention of midwives in the Bible is Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in Egypt. We’ve already devoted a full episode to them, but let’s focus right now just on their work as midwives.
First, it’s important to understand that they weren’t the only Hebrew midwives. Considering there were hundreds of thousands of Hebrews in Egypt, it would have been impossible for two women to handle all those births. So more than likely, they were the overseers or spokeswomen speaking on behalf of all the other midwives.
What we know about midwives. They were trained to assist women through their pregnancy and safely deliver their babies. Their job was all about bringing new lives into the world. But then the king tells them they need to start killing all boy babies. This would go against everything they’ve been trained to do. These women loved babies and the women who bore them. They were life givers not life takers. How could they possibly deliver a healthy baby and then kill it? They couldn’t.
When confronted by the king when they failed to obey his orders, Shiphrah and Push responded by saying the Hebrew women had short labors and had the babies before the midwives got there. Their response frustrated Pharaoh, but pleased God. Exodus 1:20-21 tells us that because of what they did, God was kind to the midwives, multiplied the Hebrews even more, and gave the midwives their own families.
What Can We Learn From the Midwives in the Bible?
What can we learn from these midwives?
These Bible midwives show how much we as women need other women.
Rachel spent her life competing with the women around her. She probably felt she didn’t need other women. And yet, when it came time to deliver her babies, she couldn’t do it on her own. She needed a female support system to guide her through her difficult labor and keep her focused on what was ahead.
Tamar was alone, not completely by choice, but by circumstances. She was so desperate to have a child that she was willing to do whatever it took to conceive. And yet, that decision led to isolation and rejection. No baby showers or words of congratulations for Tamar. The only one there for her was her midwife. Fortunately, her midwife was wise and caring, doing her job with compassion despite Tamar’s standing in the community.
We, too, can feel at odds with the female population. We may be rejected by those we thought we could depend on, so we decide we can make it on our own without female friends or mentors. Then trials hit, and we need someone who’s been there and done that to walk us through and encourage us along the way. When we’re ready to give up, we need women who can focus our attention on the task ahead. We need godly women watching out for us when we’re unable to take care of ourselves. We need women who are strong when we are weak.
Like those midwives, we need to provide support systems to our fellow womenkind. When we see someone struggling, whether it’s by their own choices or not, we need to be willing to reach out and help them. It’s easy to judge. It’s a lot harder to love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the important message found in the story of Shiphrah and Puah. Their story of choosing life in the face of death is a powerful reminder of how vital it is that we be willing to stand firm in our convictions. May we always choose to please God rather than man.
Lord God, thank You for including these midwife stories in the Bible. Thank You for showing the important role these women played in the lives of the Hebrew women. Grant us the courage to stand strong just as they did. Help us to be willing to risk rejection and even persecution in order to do the right thing. Forgive us those times we stumble and fail to stand strong. Thank You for being willing to pick us up and dust us off, and helping us move on to better things. We love You. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
That concludes today’s episode of All God’s Women. Next week we continue with our Women’s History Month Unsung Heroes series by looking at Maidservants in the Old Testament.
Midwives Bible Study
Bible Study Review
- How did Rachel’s midwife try to calm her?
- Why did Tamar’s midwife put a scarlet thread on a baby’s foot?
- What excuse did Shiphrah and Puah give Pharaoh?
Thoughts to Ponder
- How did Rachel respond to the birth of her second son?
- How might Tamar’s midwife have known there were twins?
- How might Shiphah and Puah’s lives been different had they obeyed the king’s orders?
- How can you encourage someone who’s dying?
- How do you treat those who are rejected or shunned by society?
- Who do you try to please – God or man?
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