WOMEN OF COURAGE
This is a retelling of the story of two very courage women, Shiphrah and Puah, whom I admire greatly! I especially love the stories of the more obscure characters of the Bible, and Shiphrah and Puah are two of them. Enjoy, and be blesses!)
He surveyed the throngs of Israelites—most of them men—working below his balcony. He watched as they wielded brooms, cleaning the streets of detritus and animal offal. Others pushed wooden carts piled high with sun-baked bricks, heading toward the newest temple being built to one of their many gods. Still others carried baskets of fruits or vegetables. Some were herding goats or pigs or sheep. Everywhere he looked there were Israelites. As far as his eyes could see.
He sighed heavily. “There are so many of them. Too many of them.” They may conspire with the Nubians or Libyans, or the vile Asiatics, and revolt against me to destroy all that I have created. And I will lose my workforce, as well. This cannot be!
His daughter, Thermouthis, who stood next to him, looked at him with alarm. “What is it, Wālid?” Father.
He waved his hand dismissively at her. She turned away, accustomed to his brooding moods.
Then into his field of vision came a woman, a large clay vessel balanced atop her head. Two young children—a boy and a girl—walked behind her. He recognized the woman’s waddle, side to side, as she labored under her burden…and with the burden of her protruding belly. The bump beneath her tunic was obvious: she was with child.
“Another one! Just what I need,” he seethed. “Will they never cease to multiply?”
Pharoah slammed his fist on the balustrade and stormed off into his palace, leaving Thermouthis to watch the woman progress slowly—so slowly—down the street. Her heart went out to the mother, whose time, she realized, must be near.
Jochebed placed her free hand on her swollen abdomen. The child within was moving. She knew he—she was convinced it was a boy—would be here in three months, if her calculations were correct. Then the labor pains would begin, and she be summoning the midwives. Oh, the blessed midwives! How grateful she was for them.
“We’re almost home,” she called over her shoulder to her two children. She said this more for herself than for them. She wanted to relieve herself of the heavy jar filled with water from the town well. And her aching body.
Around her and the children swarmed many workers, coming and going, going and coming. She knew her husband, Amram, was not among them, though. A bricklayer, he was busy at the site of yet another building for Pharoah.
Pharoah seemed to always be expanding the Land of Goshen. All along the Nile and even up into Canaan were monstrous buildings and soaring temples to all the Egyptians’ heathen gods and goddesses. How many there were, she’d lost count. There was Hapi, Orisis, Ra, Neper, Isis, Nut. And on and on.
Would Pharoah never be satisfied? She was glad YWHW did not need such a hideous structure to inhabit, for He inhabited the whole earth, as she’d been taught as a child.
Behind her Miriam whined. The child was tired. Her legs were short, and she was having a difficult time keeping pace with her mother, even as burdened as she was with vessel and child.
“Aaron, carry your sister, please,” Jochebed said. “Just a little farther, now.”
Around another corner and down a long stone-paved street and they arrived at their stuccoed home. Ducking inside, Jochebed set down the jar of water then set herself down heavily into a chair.
“Are you all right, Walida?” Aaron asked, setting Miriam down on the stone floor, and none too gently, either. She gave him an injured look, but he did not see it as he went over to his mother and touched her arm.
“Anā beḫeīr,” Jochebed replied. I am fine. She did not want to worry her ever-responsible oldest child. Aaron, though not yet in his tenth year, seemed to have taken on the role of protector whenever her husband was gone during the day.
Jochebed forced a smile. “Let me rest just a moment. Then I will prepare some food for us.”
“Look,” Pharoah said to his advisors, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.”
His advisors nodded their heads, more to appease Pharoah than to agree with him. Better to be on his good side. Or else.
“Tell the masters to increase their work. Longer days, too,” Pharoah said. “If they’re overworked, they will be too tired to lay with their wives.” He sniggered then. The less copulation, the less babies born to these dratted Hebrews. “I need more store cities. Let them build for me at Pithom and Rameses. Work them ruthlessly in the fields, too. Give them not a moment to rest. And increase their quota of bricks.”
Several of his advisors left to go tell the slave masters Pharoah’s wishes.
But this still leaves those women who are with child presently, Pharoah mused. Like the one I saw earlier this morning with the vessel atop her head. There must be many more like her now. Hundreds more! What to do about them?
When he expressed this concern an advisor suggested a scheme, of which Pharoah heartily approved.
“I don’t understand,” Puah said. “What does Pharoah want to see us about?”
Shiphrah did not answer, because she did not have an answer. She was curious herself. Pharoah had never summoned her and her daughter to the palace before. What could he possibly want with them, from them?
She hoped the meeting would not take long, either. Several of the Hebrew women were due to deliver anytime. She and Puah would be busy for the next couple of days, if not weeks and months ahead, by the appearance of all the women who were with child right now.
But this only brought a smile to her face. Children are a blessing, a treasure from God. It is a joyous day when another soul is birthed into this world. And she knew Puah felt the same. It is why she had wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a midwife herself. Shiphrah was all too glad to have her help, too.
They came to the servants’ entrance to the palace and stated their reason to the guard. He seemed to know they were expected and ushered them inside immediately, where a servant escorted them down darkened, stone-lined walls, up several sets of stone steps, and finally into a cavernous room. Pharoah was seated at the far end, on a great chair, flanked on both sides by palm-leaf waving servants.
Spotting the two midwives, Pharoah motioned them to approach.
Puah hung back, but Shiphrah moved forward with confidence. This man, who considered himself a god—ha!—did not frighten her. Puah followed reluctantly.
Shiphrah gave the customary bow, but only with her body, not her heart or her allegiance. A charade, indeed.
Pharoah did not waste time getting to the point. “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”
Shiphrah stared unflinchingly at Pharoah. Over my dead body will I do such a thing! I answer to YHWH only, not to you, pathetic man-god! She only bowed again and left the presence of the hideous man. Puah scurried after her.
Shiphrah hurried through the streets to her home, seething with indignation. How insufferable this man is. How he hates the Hebrews, those he enslaves and treats abominably, working them to death. Now he wants every boy babe killed upon birth. I shan’t obey as long as YHWH gives me breath.
“Pharoah asks the unthinkable of us,” Puah said, her own voice tight with indignation. She removed her mitpachat now that they were indoors and out of the presence of men.
“Let him, the fool. But we will defy him,” Shiphrah said.
“Of course, we will defy him!” Puah replied emphatically. “Of course, we will.”
“I must go. I have no choice, wife,” Amram said.
“But Pithom is so far away,” Jochebed cried. “How long will you be away?”
“Months, I am sure. It will take months to build these cities. Maybe longer.” Amram hung his head. He did not want to leave. It was bad timing, what with Jochebed so near her time to deliver. But at least Aaron and Miriam were old enough to be of some help to their mother. Aaron could fetch the daily water, do the marketing. And Miriam could help around the house. But, still, it was a lot to ask of the children.
Yet, he didn’t have a choice. As a bricklayer, he’d been selected to be part of a large crew of laborers to go to Pithom to help build yet another store city for Pharoah.
“If it must be…” Jochebed said with resignation, tears rolling down her face. Oh, how Pharoah made our lives so hard, unbearable. But I will trust YHWH. He will sustain me and give me the strength I need to live each day without my husband.
Shiphrah sliced through the umbilical cord with her knife and handed the lustily crying babe to Puah. Mother and daughter exchanged knowing looks.
“Clean and swaddle the child, daughter.”
Puah did as she was told.
Shiphrah instructed the mother to push one more time, and the afterbirth gushed forth into the waiting clay bowl. Shiphrah covered the bowl with a lid and set it aside while the new mother eased herself off the birthing stool, breathing heavily.
“You did well, Natania,” Shiphrah said, smiling. How fitting that this young mother’s name meant “God has given.” YWHW had indeed given her a beautiful child.
“What…what is the child?” Natania asked, eagerly watching Puah wiping at the still-crying child.
Puah finished and swaddled the child in a clean cloth. She took the now-quiet babe to the woman. “You have a fine son,” Puah said, laying the small bundle in Natania’s waiting arms.
Natania’s face lit up with joy. “A son. Baram will be so pleased! He will be so excited to tell his family.”
Puah glanced at her mother.
“Natania,” Shiphrah said, lowering her voice. “Be careful. Pharoah has instructed us as midwives to kill any boy babes born to the Israelites women.”
Natania clutched her son to her chest. “No! I shan’t let you!”
Shiphrah put her hand on Natania’s arm reassuringly. “We would never think to do such a thing. This babe is from the One above. We would no more kill a babe than ourselves.”
“Just watch yourself, and the babe,” Shiphrah said. She wadded up the soiled cloths she always laid beneath the birthing stool and stuffed them into a sack. She would wash them when they got back to their home.
“Only the boy babes are to be killed?” Natania asked, her eyes searching Shiphrah’s. She was thinking of her sister-in-law, Amariah, due to give birth in a few weeks. “The girl babes are allowed to live?”
Then Natania asked, swallowing hard, “How many boy babes have you let live since Pharoah told you this?”
Both midwives smiled.
“Too many to count,” said Puah, picking up the birthing stool.
This time Shiphrah knew why she and Puah were being summoned to the palace.
The two hurried along the streets until they reached the servants’ entrance. Again, they were led to the cavernous room where Pharoah was seated upon his throne.
Even before they approached, he bellowed, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
They were everywhere. He’d seen so many new boy babes being carried about the city, the mother’s proudly showing them off to everyone. Clearly, the midwives had not done what they were told. And he wanted to know why.
Shiphrah had already prepared an answer. A lie. But she was not ashamed. She knew YHWH would forgive them, for murder was against His nature. He was all about life. Her and Puah’s disobedience to the jealous, murderous man-god would be expected, and approved. Of that, Shiphrah had no doubts.
“The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” she said calmly, coming up to the throne and barely bowing before the man-god. “They are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
Pharoah cursed beneath his breath and waved them away, disgusted.
Before Shiphrah and Puah exited the royal room, however, they heard Pharoah shout at his advisors, “See that every Hebrew boy that is born is thrown into the Nile.” Then his voice softened, but just a bit. “But let every girl live.”
“You must come quickly,” Aaron panted, motioning to Shiphrah and Puah. “It is time.”
Shiphrah and Puah grabbed the birthing accoutrements and followed young Aaron down many streets and around many corners until they arrived at the home of Jochebed. Inside, they heard the familiar moans of childbirth pangs.
Shiphrah entered and saw Jochebed sitting on a chair, bent over, panting and moaning. An even younger child than Aaron stood by Jochebed’s side, her eyes as wide as the Nile.
“Thank you, child, for comforting your mother. My daughter and I will take good care of her. You and your brother wait outside,” Shiphrah instructed, pushing the two out the door.
Aaron and Miriam did not want to go far, though, so they slid down the wall of the house to wait. And pray for their mother.
“Where is your husband?” Shiphrah asked Jochebed, looking around the clean home.
“Pithom,” Jochebed managed between a contraction.
Of course. The infernal city Pharaoh insisted on having built for his precious treasures. As if he didn’t have enough of these store cities. No matter. A husband is of no use in these situations anyway.
Shiphrah and Puah, in a coordinated dance they had done hundreds—nay, thousands!—of times before, busied themselves setting up the cloths for the floor and for cleaning the new babe, the clay bowl for the afterbirth, and positioning the birthing stool in the center of the room, to allow for space on either side so they could help to support the weight of the mother as she pushed.
A sharp cry escaped Jochebed’s lips. “He comes,” she cried. “He is coming now!”
“You know it is a boy babe?” Puah asked, incredulous.
Jochebed nodded. She could not say how she knew; she just did. And she was not wrong. After two hours of labor, a male babe emerged.
The midwives went about their business per usual, and soon the boy was placed in his mother’s arms.
Jochebed looked at the sleeping boy. “He is beautiful,” she breathed, rubbing his red cheek.
Shiphrah then explained the situation to Jochebed, as she had all the mothers who had birthed boys. But Jochebed nodded. She had already heard about Pharoah’s cruel edit.
“But it is worse now,” Shiphrah said. “Pharoah has instructed his own people, the Egyptians, to take whatever newborn boy babes they see and throw them into the Nile.”
“I will hide him, then,” Jochebed declared. “He will be kept indoors so no one will see him.”
“This is for the best,” Shiphrah said. “And we will pray. He is a fine child, indeed. God has seen fit to give him life, and we will pray it goes well for you and him.”
Three months Jochebed was able to keep the presence of the boy babe a secret. But it was getting so hard to keep him hidden. Soon people would notice and wonder how he had survived when so many—so, so many!—boy babes had met their deaths by drowning.
Jochebed shuddered remembering the cries of the mothers as their babes were wrenched from their arms, and the screams of the babes as they flew through the air. Then silence.
She was not sure what to do. Amram was still in Pithom. She wished he were here to advise her, to comfort her anxiety. But he wasn’t, and now she must decide what to do herself.
“Miriam, bring me that basket there,” Jochebed said.
Miriam carried the large papyrus basket to her mother. “Walid, what do you need this for?” the child asked.
Jochebed touched her daughter’s cheek. Oh, how the child had been a help to her these past three months, holding the babe to keep him from crying and rocking him where her own arms were tired.
“I must do what I can to save this babe,” said Jochebed.
She heated up a pot of tar and pitch and coated the underside of the basket. Miriam watched her mother with interest. Then gasped when Jochebed placed her sleeping brother inside it. She picked up the basket and walked out of the house toward the river.
“Walida!” Miriam cried, running after her mother.
“Hush, child. Do not draw attention,” Jochebed said, fast walking and looking to the right and left, making sure no one was following.
“What will you do with him?” Miriam asked anxiously catching up to her mother.
“It will go well. I have prayed. YWHW will provide,” Jochebed said.
Jochebed found a secluded area along the banks of the Nile. She placed the basket into the water. Miriam remained silent, standing beside her mother.
Jochebed gave the basket a push, sending it out into the current. Then she turned and ran back to her home, too afraid to see what would happen to her babe.
But Miriam remained behind. She watched the basket bop on the ripples. She kept pace with it by running along the bank. Then, unfortunately, it caught in a thicket of reeds on the opposite bank. Miriam compressed her lips, scared. She could do nothing. The basket was stuck fast.
She remained rooted to her spot, wanting to see what would happen to her baby brother.
The sun overhead was blazing hot. Egyptian summers were infernal.
“Come, I want to bathe,” Thermouthis said to her female attendant, Anat. “Let us go down to the river.”
The two young women left the palace and walked slowly down the Nile, to the secluded spot Pharaoh had deemed suitable for female bathing. Anat helped Thermouthis to begin undressing.
Then Thermouthis put out a hand to stop Anat. “Look there,” she said, pointing to the reeds. “It is a basket caught in the reeds. Go, fetch it to me.”
Anat waded into the water and pushed through the reeds. Indeed, a basket was caught among them. The basket was heavy, likely water-logged, Anat thought, as she carried it back to her mistress.
Thermouthis opened the basket and gasped. Inside lay a naked babe, with tears shining in his eyes. His small body convulsed with hiccups from his crying.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, noting the boy’s circumcision. “This is one of the Hebrew babies.”
Suddenly, a high-pitched voice reached Thermouthis’ ears. She looked up and saw a young girl waving an arm from across the river. Thermouthis waved back.
“Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” the young girl called across to her.
“Yes, go,” Thermouthis replied.
The girl ran off then.
How fortuitous, Thermouthis thought, that that Hebrew girl was here just now. Now this sweet babe will be taken well care of by one of its own.
The girl soon returned with a Hebrew woman. Both were panting heavily from having run all the way from their home and across the long bridge that crossed the Nile and then to the place where Thermouthis still stood with the babe in the basket.
Thermouthis handed the basket to the Hebrew woman. “Take this baby and nurse him for me,” she said. “I have named him Moses, for I drew him out of the water.”
Jochebed blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over. Here was her precious son, safe and sound, found by none other than Pharaoh’s beautiful daughter. And she was going to be able to nurse her own son…and be paid for it.
And Thermouthis could name him whatever she wanted. It did not matter to Jochebed, as she fairly skipped back to her home, her own babe in her arms.
YHWH was so, so good. And she mused as she entered her home, He has an ironic sense of humor!
She laughed as she whirled around the room with Moses, who own giggles joined hers.