Christian LivingDoctrine

Outwit, outplay and outlast! Hebrew women are survivors

Watch a woman give birth, a mother stand-up for her child, a widow quietly undergo hardship, and you will see a strength, dignity and endurance of a different type to men. Not better, just different. On average, men can bench-press more, fight wars for national protection and engage in riskier professions, but women are the survivors.

Post-modern history teachers tend to obscure this plain truth. But in almost every society, in any age, the same story rings true. When under intense threat men may carry the weapons, yet, with greater urgency, women will carry the babies from the spears, scimitars or the attack-helicopters of the invaders. Evolutionists and biblicists hold the same truth: externally communities depend on men for protection, but on women to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of that society. 

In the pre-Exodus days, Pharaoh might have been scared of the Hebrew males, but little did he know that the females of the species would be his undoing. The Hebrew women outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the supreme Egyptian monarch’s three strategies of destruction: labour camps, forced terminations, and the final solution. Let their works receive praise at the city gate, Christian home and history books (Prov 31:31). And let men join in that praise.

1. Outlast: the fertility response to harsh slavery and labour camps

When a new king arose in Egypt, he only saw the size and power of the Hebrews, and tried to subdue them “lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (Exod 1:10). Yet heavy forced labour and bitter ruthless slavery only had the opposite effect:

…the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. (Exod 1:12)

Oppression was intended to control the numbers, but instead it increased them. Whether we read this increased fertility as active obedience or a passive blessing received, women and their creation role are front and centre. The Egyptians tried to bring an even greater curse on the work of the Israelites, and God brought greater blessing in their childbearing.

2. Outwit: health professionals lie to prevent government-forced terminations

Midwives were meant to help women in their most vulnerable state. Pharaoh ordered them to betray both their vocation and the creation-inclination of their sex when he ordered them to kill every baby boy they delivered (Exod 1:16). These medical professionals broke the law of the land rather than perform postpartum gender-based terminations: we are told that “the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exod 1:16-17).

Two midwives in particular, Shiphrah and Puah, were singled-out. Much like Betsy and Corrie ten Boom, the much later sisters who hid Jews from Nazis in the Second World War, these women lied to save the lives of those under their care. When Pharaohdemanded of the midwives why they had let the male children live, they answered:

“…the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Exod 1:18-19)

Most discussions flounder about in an ethical minefield. But this minefield is only one created from the comfort of a cosy office computer or comfortable lounge-room. These women feared God, and God approved of their actions. They were not baby-killers.

God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exod 1:20-21)

These are real heroes in the story. For the next 80 years, they would be the only named people who could stand up against Pharaoh—survivors waiting for a saviour. They certainly outwitted him. Unlike Moses, they did not doubt their ability to speak to great king. I, for one, am looking forward to meeting these great ones in the kingdom of heaven.

Shiphrah and Puah didn’t have children, wealth or freedom when they tricked Pharaoh, but they were Proverbs 31 women nonetheless:

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Prov 31:30)

3. Outplay: Moses’ ark made, protected and opened by women

What the king feared did not happen. He had targeted the wrong sex. There was no male uprising. Even in the final solution when Pharaoh commanded all his people to kill Hebrew boys, no men rose against him (Exod 1:22). The only ones standing up to him were women, and great ones at that: a mother, a sister and even the daughter of Pharaoh himself.

Firstly, when we read of Moses’ birth, we learn that his mother hid him for three months, lest he be killed in the genocide.

When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. (Exod 2:1-4)

The mother was the principle human-agent in hiding the baby, protecting him and building the basket. She could have been killed for doing it. And Moses’ big sister was so brave, so wonderful and so quick-witted to complete the circle, and bring the boy back to his mother, who would act as his wet-nurse (Exod 2:7-10). I have seen big sisters do really special things for little brothers. Yesterday, my little girl on her own initiative covered her little brother in a blanket when all the other males in the room didn’t even notice that he’d fallen asleep on the couch. 

The surprise in the story is the Princess of Egypt. She defies the king—her father—when she found the basket, opened it and saw the baby crying. She took pity on him and said,“This is one of the Hebrews’ children”(Exod 2:6).

The Sydney Jewish Museum has many rooms outlining the Holocaust and one of those rooms is in honour of the thousands of “Righteous Gentiles” who helped them escape or survive. At its roots, the original “Righteous Gentile” would be this woman.

God’s plan for an Exodus would take another 80 years to accomplish—80 years before a man would stand up for God against Pharaoh. It was these women who made it all possible—one who put him safely in the river, one who walked beside and another who drew him out.

Here are a few reflections in light of this.

1. Don’t stand between women and children

Even in the animal realm, a mother will do anything to protect her own. From bears to Hebrew mothers, such care is proverbial—for example see 2 Samuel 17:8 or Hosea 13:8.

The best defenders of children have often been women. Many more women than men are drawn to jobs and industries that teach and protect the youngest human beings. This is not a social wrong that needs to be fixed, but perhaps a biological inclination that is created and blessed by God.

There is something amazing in the Exodus story. It is not just the mothers who save children. Two are midwives, one a sister and one the daughter of the enemy. Pharaoh tried to do the unnatural and turn women against children, and I’m sure many were weak and played their part in his evil plan. But others did not. I’m searching for a word that means ‘manly’ for women. There should be one. Their strength, determination and compassion were womanly.

Yet where Pharaoh failed to place an evil wedge between women and their offspring, it seems that modern ideology has succeeded. And we weep.

Aggressive modern feminism elevates the right for a mother to throw her child into the Nile as a core undeniable axiom. Many women do oppose this. Rather than being treated as traitors of their sex, they should be praised.

2. The eternal struggle between the woman and the serpent is played out in history

In Genesis 3, God said to the serpent: 

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (v. 15)

While we see this ultimately fulfilled in Christ and his people, the warfare reaches its first crescendo in the story of the Exodus. Satan rages against the children of the women; and the women defend their offspring.

The king of Egypt stood in the line of Satan’s seed, doing his father’s bidding. Egypt and Pharaoh are likened to serpents in the Old Testament (Isa 51:9, Ezek 29:3). These kings of Egypt were murderers and destroyers, just like their father, the devil.

It would be the seed of the woman—Moses—who would deliver them from this monstrous foe, but in the fight the women do anything to protect their children.

In the great apocalyptic vision of the apostle John, we see a picture of this eternal struggle, painted with the colours of the Exodus and applied to Jesus:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Rev 12:1-6)

The agony of childbirth, the fear and terror, the murderous breath of the dragon trying to kill the son will all be transformed into glorious memories and scars that shine to the praise of God’s grace, when the Saviour finishes his work. This is true in Christ and in Moses. Mary had to flee from Herod wanting to kill her baby and had to see the Romans bastardise him on the cross. Moses’ mother had to make a hiding place and, if she’d lived long enough, see him flee as an exile himself. 

Though he rages so much against the woman and her offspring, the serpent’s head will be crushed.

3. In this struggle, godly women are often the preservers of society, especially when waiting for a saviour

Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (2 Tim 2:15)

This is one of the most controversial verses in the whole New Testament, made more so because of a shift in culture that tries to avoid distinctions between the sexes. Whatever this verse means to us, and to women today, this resonates profoundly with the Old Testament narrative arc.

The people were saved through procreation, from Eve to Sarah, and from Hannah to Bathsheba. In the Exodus, their only hope was for future generations. When oppressed by the new Pharaoh, it was their procreation that gave them a future. Shiphrah and Puah, who didn’t have their own children at the time, were saved through child-bearing. Moses’ mother, sister and all the women and men of Israel were saved through a son who was born.

It is a New Testament truth too that the world was saved through the birth of Mary’s baby.

However, it is also a way of life. It’s a pattern that many godly women of the past and present have done, being unashamedly women. Continuing in childbearing with faith, love, holiness and self-control describes so much of Old Testament female spirituality.

When God is delivering his people and raising up a saviour, it is often the women who are doing their part: ready, waiting, protecting and preserving—raising families be they spiritual or biological. 

We’ve seen this already in the story of the Exodus, and I’ve noticed it in Judges. Go through and list all the men and their accompanying flaws; and then do the same with the women. I only found one or two men whom I’d like to emulate, but I could not find fault with a single one of the Hebrew women (I don’t think Delilah was one of God’s people). While the men often seemed to do what was right in their own sight, many of the women keep serving the Lord.

I speak anecdotally here, but many agree and have seen the same in their own churches: it is the prayers of grandmothers, the witness of female Scripture teachers, the consistent service of godly widows and the daily Bible reading of mothers that has had kept the churches alive, even in the periods of greatest spiritual droughts. For every new Timothy to stand in leadership, there is a Lois and Eunice behind the scenes. For Moses, there was a mother, a sister, a princess and perhaps even a midwife who didn’t obey the government’s instruction to have him killed.

4. Godly women deserve their praise

Not all women should be praised. Horrific women have been involved in terrible crimes. And it’s all the more tragic when it involves attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable.

However, godly women deserve their praise. The women of Israel, and in particular the midwives and mother and sister of Moses should be praised. When the serpent was out to destroy, they preserved the people—even in the midst of slavery—by having more children, by fearing the Lord and by protecting the special gift God entrusted to their care. When we tell the story of Moses, we mustn’t forget the women.

I, for one, love to sing the praises of my wife, mother and mother-in-law. Even in the last year, I have delighted in the stories of Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward who saved children from horrific temple prostitution, starvation and invading armies. Who knows what stories the next generation will retell about the women of our time?

Remember, men, that Proverbs 31 was written for you, telling you what to do and value.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Prov 31:29-31)

A longer version of this article was originally published on Andrew’s blog The Bible A-Z.