After a dearth of women in the last sidra, the beginning of the book of Exodus simply teems with them. Many are unnamed and described only in their relationship to men : We meet the daughter of the tribe of Levi who marries a man of Levi at the beginning of Chapter 2. In the dangerous world of a Pharaoh determined to suppress the Israelite population by killing every male child not only has a baby but hides him for three months, before making a vessel of bulrushes and placing the child in it to be caught in the reeds at the river’s edge.
We meet the sister of this child who watches to see what will happen. She observes the daughter of Pharaoh who comes with her maids to bathe in the river. Seeing the little vessel she sends one maid to fetch it and on finding the baby expresses compassion for him. The sister comes from her hiding place and suggests to the Pharaoh’s daughter that she can find a wet-nurse. On gaining approval for this suggestion the sister calls the child’s mother who agrees to nurse the child in exchange for money from the Pharaoh’s daughter.
The baby is the centre of the story here, but there are three women who contrive to save his life, two of whom we will later learn are Yocheved his mother and Miriam his sister. The daughter of Pharaoh remains anonymous.
Once the baby is grown, he is brought back to the daughter of Pharaoh who names him Moses, because, bible reports, “ I drew him out of the water”. While we may know that the blood relatives of the baby are present, at this moment there is a formal adoption of the child into the Egyptian fold.
The next thing we know is that Moses, having killed an Egyptian taskmaster for hurting an Israelite man, is fleeing for his life from the anger of Pharaoh, and now we meet seven more unidentified women – the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian.
One of these women will shortly be named as she is given to Moses for a wife – Zipporah. And Zipporah gives birth to a boy, Gershom, named for Moses’ alienation: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.‘ It seems that Moses does not circumcise his son or bring him into the brit/covenant of Abraham, either because this is unknown to him or because his alienation extends to his relationship with the Israelites. When, after his meeting with God in the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, his life is once again in danger, it is Zipporah who saves him. In an obscure passage “God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his feet, and she said ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. So God let him alone, and she said “A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision”
Two more figures make up the set of women in this passage who surround and support Moses – the midwives Shifra and Puah.
Shifra and Puah are midwives in Egypt. They are therefore at the cutting-edge of the Royal decree to ensure that all the Hebrew baby boys are murdered at birth. The survival of the Israelite people is dependent on their actions. Shifra and Puah disobey the Royal decree, because , the text tells us, they feared/revered God. When called to account by Pharaoh this is not what they tell him, instead they say the Hebrew women are like animals (חָיוֹת) and before the midwives can get to them they have already delivered their babies. The narrator then tells us that “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made households בָּתִּים for them” – a reference to both material goods and to children.
The story (and the chapter) ends with Pharoah’s decree repeated, but this time he broadens his audience from the midwives to the whole people: “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (1:22). While he does not challenge the midwives’ version of the story he extends the diktat to all of the people.
So who are these women who pivot our history so decisively and so bravely?
While the Masoretic tradition assumes that they are themselves Hebrew women, this is by no means clear. Their names are understood as more likely to be Semitic than Egyptian. Shifra (from the root שפר) means something along the lines of beauty/clarity but the root also gives us the noun “shofar” the horn that is blown to call to attention. The name Puah is likely also to mean to shine/beauty but neither of these names is easy to translate or to mine meaning from – or even identity – from.
The Talmud tells us “Rav and Shmuel [interpreted the verse העבריות למילדות ] One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: they were Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a women and her mother in law: they were Yocheved and Elisheva.” (BT Sotah 11b)
From this interpretation emerged all the midrashim and commentary (and Masoretic vocalisation) that Shifra and Puah were both Hebrew women and of the family of Moses.
But the interpretation conflicts both with what the text tells us and with the emotional ‘sense’ of the piece. Would Pharaoh really ask Hebrew women to murder the baby boys of their fellow women? Surely this is a task he would entrust to women from another ethnic identity? And when the midwives explain to Pharaoh why they are not fulfilling his order, they talk about the Hebrew women as being unlike Egyptian women, saying they are ‘as animals’. There is no sense that either they or Pharaoh are doing anything other than seeing the Hebrew women as ‘other’ than, and less than them – the Egyptians.
And what about the information that God dealt well with the midwives and rewarded them [with households]? From everything else we know about Miriam and Yocheved, they were not rewarded materially, nor did they become the heads of households. The correlation simply does not ring true.
So why does the tradition speak of Shifra and Puah as being not only not Egyptian women who revered God, but also tries to identify them with the Hebrew women who protected Moses’ life?
From a modern perspective we need to ask why the tradition chooses to narrow down how the text is read so that named and autonomous Egyptian women become Hebrew women whose introduction to us is only in relation to the men. And also we need to question the erasure of the real identity of Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women who revere God and who choose to serve God and rebel against the Pharaoh from their own belief systems and through their own agency.
The text of the Hebrew bible – at least the consonants of the Hebrew bible, was agreed upon by the second century CE. But the vowels of that text – which could dramatically alter meaning – were not agreed upon at that time. It took the work of the ba’alei ha’mesorah, groups of scholarly scribes working from about the 7th to the 10th century CE to finally standardise the grammar of the text – its vowels, the breaks (verses and paragraphs), the accenting/cantillation marks.
This is important because the identity of the women as either Hebrew or Egyptian relies on the vocalisation of the letters of the two words למילדות. העבריות Depending on the vowels we can either read the words as “to the Hebrew midwives” or as “to the midwives of the Hebrew women” (grammatical point – whether there is a patach under the lamed and a dagesh in the mem or a chirik under the lamed and no dagesh)
There are other texts which operate on the vocalisation of the text as “midwives of the Hebrew women” – ie that understand Shifra and Puah to be Egyptian. The Septuagint, for example, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek which was completed in the 3rd Century understands the text this way. Josephus in his “Antiquities” (1st Century) describes the women as Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women. Some other biblical commentators also understand the text to mean that the women were Egyptian (eg Abarbanel, Judah heHasid). Most interestingly there are fragments of texts which specifically name Shifra and Puah as Egyptian “righteous women who converted to Judaism” (Yalkut Shimoni does so (@13th Century), and there is a fragment from the Cairo genizah (@10th Century) which also lists Shifra and Puah as righteous gentile women who helped the Israelite people and who revered God.
Since the Masoretes vocalised the text to make the midwives Hebrew women, and Rashi follows the tradition from BT Sotah we find ourselves corralled to seeing them not as brave Egyptian women who followed their consciences and put their faith in God, but as Hebrew women doing exactly what we would expect them to do, and indeed see them as the sister and mother of Moses whose function was entirely about protecting him as an infant.
Shifra and Puah, two brave women who stood up against the powers in their country, who saw human beings where the Pharaoh saw a population of migrants threatening his country, who revered God and acted both morally and with compassion, remind us that we are not alone as Jews. Through them and through others like them we see that God is not just ‘ours’, but is a universal God with whom we Jews have a particular relationship (as other have a particular, and different relationship). Shifra and Puah, whose names describe beauty, are also women who radiate morality and who call us to arms, to fight for what is right.
So why was the agency of two righteous gentile women erased in this way? Because they were foreign? Because they were women? Because they were necessary to Moses’ survival and pivotal in the narrative arc? Because they took risks and made their own decisions against the power of the Pharaoh?
Is the erasure of their identities and their active choices that changed our history forever down to conspiracy or to accident? I leave the reader to decide.