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Shemot/Exodus 1:17 But the midwives feared G-d and did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them
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The first word of the verse - , the Qal 3fp prefix form of the root , to fear or be in awe of (Davidson), with a vav-conversive to render a sequential narrative past tense: "and they feared" - sets up a word-play with the instruction the midwives are given in the previous verse - the Qal 2pf affix form of the root , to look or see (Davidson), with a vav-reversive to give a future tense: "and you shall look" - as verbs from the two roots often (though not in this case) sound almost identical. The midwives are instructed to see and then kill the male babies, but refuse - in action, rather than in word - because they fear G-d.Targum Onkelos changes the plural Hebrew verb , implying that all the midwives separately feared G-d, to a singular Aramaic verb , implying that the midwives were united in their fear of G-d.
Will the midwives "conform to the command of Pharaoh and act upon what they 'see', namely the birth of Hebrew male babies condemned to death by the state," Thomas Dozeman asks, "or will they follow their conscience and act because they 'fear' G-d? The midwives act on their fear of G-d. Their actions provide guidelines for civil disobedience."1 After considering a number of other options, Brevard Childs agrees, concluding, "the author offers the real reason which was to thwart [Pharaoh's] plan. It was not because they boldly defied the king, nor because of their loyalty to the Hebrews, but because they 'feared G-d', that they refused to obey the command."2 Umberto Cassuto summarises: "Pharaoh's new plan failed. The midwives feared the King of the Universe, not the human monarch."3 So much so, RabbiHirsch adds, that "everything the King tried, turned out the very contrary of what he had wished. His demand to the midwives made them extra zealous in the opposite direction, so that no breath of suspicion should be attached to them, that, obeying the King's orders, they had done something, or omitted to do something, by which a child's life could be endangered."
Whilst some scholars debate whether the midwives were Israelites or Egyptians,Nechama Leibowitz is quite sure of both their ethnicity and their religious preferences: "The midwives belonged to that noble galaxy of Hebrew heroines who risked their lives to save their people. Crimes against humanity are more likely to be perpetrated in the names of false gods. On the other hand, whoever resists temptation and risks his life for his principles may be regarded as a worshipper of G-d - the true G-d." Nahum Sarna too deduces at least knowledge of and sympathy with HaShem, the G-d of Israel, and makes a second mention of the idea of civil disobedience: "Faced with a conflict between the laws of G-d and those of the Pharaoh, the midwives followed the dictates of conscience. Their defiance of tyranny constitutes history's first recorded act of civil disobedience in defense of a moral imperative. 'Fear of G-d' connotes a conception of G-d as One who makes moral demands on humankind."
G-d is able to make moral demands upon the created order because He is the One who has created it, whose ongoing acts of creation maintain it and has given mankind instructions to fill the earth and take mastery over it. Pharaoh can thus be seen opposing G-d as well as as His people. According to Peter Enns, "Pharaoh is opposed to the [Israelite] fulfillment of the creation mandate to be fruitful and increase. In this respect, Pharaoh represents not only a hostile force to G-d's people by enslaving them, but a hostile force to G-d Himself, who wills that His people multiply."4
The function of midwives is to enable and facilitate birth, as G-d brought forth creation and birthed man from the dust of the ground. Terence Fretheim explains that, "G-d is on the side of life. His creative work enables life to abound. The midwives' ethic of defenseless resistance is grounded in such an understanding of G-d's creative work. God's creativity is paralleled by the midwives' creative disobedience. They take this action because of their trust in the Creator G-d, the G-d of life."5 The midwives' action not to 'see' and therefore not to destroy G-d's newest creations of life comes from recognising their part as nurturers and enablers helping or working alongside G-d rather than trying to frustrate and destroy G-d's acts of creative grace, giving new life and creating a people from a family. They 'fear' or are in awe of what G-d is doing - creating and blessing in the face of persecution and oppression.
Contemporary believers, aware of the tension between the civil disobedience undertaken by the midwives in Egypt and Rav Sha'ul's passionate urging of believers to be good and obedient citizens of the Roman Empire, sometimes struggle to hear the mandate for challenge and confrontation of those who conspire against G-d's people and the kingdom of G-d that is laid upon the Body of Messiah. After centuries of being successively co-opted into fulfilling the desire of the state rather than the will of G-d, believers are now somewhat on the back foot, unable to determine exactly when it is time to call it a day. Modern society has learned how to express its desires and expectations in a way that makes the church feel obliged to do society's bidding even as we sometimes find ourselves wondering whose agenda we are serving.
Here's Rav Shaul writing to the Romans: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment" (Romans 13:1-2, ESV). By this rubric, the midwives would have been condemned and - as John Calvin taught - punished for their sin. They would not have been allowed to resist the authority of Pharaoh and survive to be blessed by HaShem with their own families (Shemot 1:21). Sha'ul moves on: "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is G-d's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of G-d, an avenger who carries out G-d's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 1:3-5, ESV). This presupposes that the 'authority' is doing good, but what if it is doing bad, if it is acting against God's clearly expressed laws and standards? What happens if the 'good' that you are commanded by G-d is bad in its sight. What happens if its 'good' is defined by G-d as 'bad'? Would we not protest if the state ordered the killing of children, or the sexual exploitation of women, the abandonment of widows and orphans? These are the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised members of our communities, the very ones that G-d's word consistently warns us against exploiting or neglecting.
Several countries in the world have legalised euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Others are in the process of doing so and are enacting legislation requiring doctors and other medical staff to carry out such procedures even if their conscience would otherwise forbid it. Abortion - the deliberate murder of unborn children - is not only legal but considered a 'right' in many western countries. Should we not protest? Should we refuse to be co-opted by those societies into providing care for the victims of these behaviours without at the same time being given a place and a real voice at the table to bring about change for good? Are we simply being used to feed and support such practices, doing society's dirty work for it and so allowing or even encouraging it to to continue? Clearly there is a line to be drawn, since none of us would want to deny a shoulder to those who need to cry or practical help in Yeshua's name to those who have genuine needs.
The Hebrew midwives took a stand and took the risk of disobeying Pharaoh because they feared G-d. Can we do less? There are going to be more occasions as the days in which we are living draw to a close when we will have to stand up and be counted for the kingdom of G-d rather than for political correctness, tolerance or whatever the current vogue happens to want because they are simply wrong in G-d's sight and word. Let us be ready and prepared to serve the King of kings rather than the prince of this age.
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus Eerdmans Critical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), page 73.
2. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 17.
3. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 14.
4. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 43.
5. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 33.
Further Study: Daniel 3:6-18; Acts 5:27-29; Titus 3:1-2
Application: Are you facing challenges that require you to defy the powers of this world for the sake of the kingdom? Take courage for "greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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