"Before Moses Delivered Israel…

June 13th, 2010 § 0 comments

Shiphra and Puah delivered Moses.” (Yes, I realize that it was God who delivered Israel from their bondage in Egypt—not Moses, who was just the instrument God chose to use. Likewise, Christian midwives recognize that it is truly God who brings forth babies from their mothers’ wombs—we are just the instruments He uses sometimes!)

So says my t-shirt, given to me by a midwife friend. I’ve received many comments on it when I wear it. I have come to realize that most people, however, even Christians, don’t know about Shiphra and Puah—unless they are midwives themselves—so I decided to do a post on them and midwifery in ancient Egypt.

Although its not certain that Shiphra and Puah actually delivered Moses, they were recognized as “the Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews”. Historical sources are not clear on whether they were Hebrews themselves, or whether they were Egyptian midwives assigned to deliver the Hebrews babies. Either way, the Hebrew Scriptures, and Josephus, a Jewish historian, speak highly of them. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote on the history of midwifery, entitled “Created to Give Birth”.

Midwifery in Ancient Egypt
In Hebrew, or biblical culture, children were considered one of the greatest blessings, and an inability to conceive and have children was viewed as a curse. Indeed, “fruitfulness” was a command from Yahweh, the Lord, to the people of God: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”10 (Emphasis mine.) A similar attitude toward children is also seen in the ancient Egyptian culture. A large family was an honor to parents, and especially to the father, the head of the household. Even though the Egyptians were prolific, and childless couples were expected to adopt to make up for their lack, they were not as fruitful as the Hebrews. At this time, the Hebrews were enslaved to the  Egyptians, and the Pharoah was afraid they would rise up against his kingdom, along with an enemy nation, and overthrow him because of their great number. To limit their numbers, Pharaoh ordered Puah and Shiphrah to kill any boy babies when they attended the women in travail and saw them on the birth stools or “stones”. Josephus, Jewish historian, records that Pharaoh’s order was to Egyptian midwives, because Pharaoh would not presume that Hebrew midwives would obey his order. Risking the wrath of Pharaoh, Puah and Shiphrah spared the Hebrew boys because they feared God. When called to account for their disregard of the Pharaoh’s command, Puah and Shiprah said that, unlike the Egyptian women, the Hebrew women birthed quickly, before the midwives could arrive. Because the midwives feared God, He dealt well with them and blessed them with families. These midwives not having families of their own challenges the common assumption that all midwives in ancient times were older women with children of their own, or even beyond childbearing age. Pharaoh’s mention of the “stool” or “stones” is important, because it gives us knowledge about the birth position commonly used by the Hebrews. In her book, Birth Chairs, Midwives and Medicine, Amanda Carson Banks explains, “The first external, material objects used [as birth chairs] were birth stones and stools. Birth stones were two pieces of roughly shaped rock placed slightly apart so as to create a makeshift seat or stool with an opening in the middle on which the mother sat or kneeled.” The birth stool was also an accepted birth position for Egyptian women. The Egyptian hieroglyphic for birth is a depiction of a woman giving birth seated on two stones, or a low birth stool. According to Dr. Wegner, an archeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, Egyptologists have long known that the standard form of childbirth in ancient Egypt was for the woman to give birth squatting on two mud bricks. Squatting has the double benefit of opening the pelvis, and using the force of gravity to bring the baby down. Egyptian women were commonly attended by two midwives—one attending to the mother, and the other to the newborn baby, in accordance with Egyptian religious beliefs.

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