Civil Disobedience in Egypt (Exod. 1:15-21)

by Jillian L. Ross

Sometimes when I read a very familiar passage in Scripture—one that I’ve read dozens of times—God still shows me something new. Perhaps you can relate. Maybe because of the national debate going on with civil disobedience of barbers and business owners; maybe for some other reason, God showed me the first recorded act of civil disobedience in my Bible reading this week. I had never really considered the topic aside from the Apostles (Acts 5:28-29; cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13), but there it was in Exodus 1.

Now, I have no intention of discussing the American debate over Covid-19 related civil disobedience. My aim is much simpler: to share what I found exciting from God’s word so we can celebrate together the simple gift of the Spirit’s illumination in the midst of the daily monotony that Covid-19 has brought. Let’s consider civil disobedience in Egypt some 35000 years ago and what it reveals about God’s love.

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exod 1:15-21 ESV)

In the context, a new pharaoh over Egypt had misguided fear that the Israelites would overthrow their government due to their high population. As a result, the pharaoh imposed a law to murder all the Israelite newborn males. He appointed two (head) midwives to exact his law. Based on their names, these women weren’t Egyptian but middle Eastern. Despite the injunction by the pharaoh, the midwives chose to disobey “and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them” (Exod 1:17) Why? Humanly speaking, it would certainly be easier for them to obey the order. After all, the Egyptians could kill them or severely punish them for such civil disobedience. Still they disobeyed. The passage gives the reason twice: “the midwives feared God.” The midwives recognized a higher ethical and moral law. “Fear of God” carries the idea that God Himself makes moral demands on humanity. Fear of God can restrain evil and becomes the motivation for good, as is the case with Shiphrah and Puah.

The moral law these two brave (non-Israelite) women obeyed was God’s law about “shedding man’s blood” (Gen 9:6). The Lord blesses these women for preserving the life of His chosen people. This harkens back to a promise God made to Abram over 500 hundred years before this event. God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curse you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Because the midwives blessed Abraham’s descendants, God preserved their lives and allowed them to bear children (lit. made households for them). What is more, “the names of the midwives are recorded but not those of the reigning pharaohs. In the biblical scale of values these lowly champions of morality assume greater historic importance than do the all-powerful tyrants who ruled Egypt” (Sarna, Exodus, 7).

So what can we take away from this? (1) God keeps His promises even in uncertain and tumultuous times. (2) God loves His people and protects them from annulation, sometimes by tugging on the hearts of others. Life is precious even when there is a crisis, whether oppression in Egypt or a pandemic now in America. (3) God blesses and honors those who obey Him. (4) God’s love and character remain the same despite any difference in locality, Canaan, Egypt, or the US. This we can celebrate whether in a household in Egypt or in America.


Prayer Prompts by Laverne Smith