The Midwives of Parshat Shemot

“You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast. I became your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb You have been my God”

(Psalm 22:10-11)

The very beginning of the book of Exodus is literally “teeming” with fertility, birth and abundance. In the book’s opening verses, curiously, images of inexplicable procreation go hand in hand with extreme suffering. The Passover Haggadah tells us that the story of the exodus is one that begins in “disgrace” and ends in “praise.” Yet in the beginning of Exodus we see a kind of dialectical back-and-forth between blessing and oppression that is a challenge to comprehend.

Birth as a Motif in Exodus

At the beginning of the book, we read that the original group of Jacob’s offspring who entered Egypt at the invitation of Joseph and Pharaoh have multiplied and proliferated: וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם, “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” Nearly every section of the first two chapters of Exodus includes some reference to birthing or birth. Despite the suffering the Jews endured at the hands of the Egyptians “they increased,” וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ.  Pharaoh enjoins Shifrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives (or midwives to the Hebrews), to suppress this fertile abundance by killing boys that are born. These midwives honorably resist this command and, once again, the text presents the refrain “and the people multiplied and increased greatly,” וַיִּרֶב הָעָם וַיַּעַצְמוּ, מְאֹד. The birth of Moses takes place in this complicated environment of both danger and abundance. When he is saved from the waters of the Nile by the daughter of Pharoah it is in a manner that resembles a kind of rebirth. When Moses later flees Egypt to Midian he straightaway finds himself beside a well, also potentially symbolizing fertility and renewal, where he meets Zipporah his future bride. The text then immediately relates that Moses and Zipporah too are blessed with the birth of a son.

The Overflow of the Nile (Frederick Goodall, 19th Century.)

The Egyptian context in which most of this story takes place evokes fertility and abundance when understood in light of other Biblical passages and regional geography. For example, in Genesis 13, when Lot and Abraham are choosing their respective territories, Lot is drawn to the rich and verdant Jordanian plain because it is “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” The Nile river overflows every year and irrigation is not a challenge as it elsewhere in the Middle East. The Land of Israel is, in contrast, a hilly and harsh landscape that is dependant upon seasonal rains. It is not usually defined by its fertility, but rather by the necessity of its people turning to God for sustenance.

Indeed, a central motif in the book of Genesis is barrenness: Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel all suffer with their inability to have children until God explicitly intervenes. The fertile overabundance at the beginning of Exodus forms a jarring counterpart to the childless longing of the matriarchs in Genesis. Israeli scholar Ilana Pardes, among others, understands Exodus to depict the birth of a nation a manner that is almost tangible from a literary perspective, and the birth images in the book’s opening chapters comport with this reading. The specific language of פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ recalls the blessings of the covenant that God made with Israel in Genesis, and one senses that the opening of Exodus represents the beginning of their fulfillment.

Abundance and Anonymity

At the same time, the fecundity and abundance of the beginning of Exodus is characterized in a way that is somewhat unseemly or even animalistic. Israelite fertility frightens and perhaps sickens the Egyptians. The Israelite population explosion seems somehow related to the Egyptian attempt to dehumanize the former through back-breaking labor. When the midwives Shifrah and Puah explain to Pharaoh why they are unable to clamp down on the Israelite procreation, they explain that Hebrew women’s reproductive powers are unstoppable “כִּי-חָיוֹת הֵנָּה” – usually translated as “because they are vigorous” but technically also meaning “because they are like animals.” The midrash picks up on the motif of abundance in this story, and famously describes the Jewish women as having given birth to six children at a time. Part of what motivates this midrash and others like it is an attempt to explain how a small group of 70 migrants exploded into the nation of 600,000 that received the Torah at Mount of Sinai. In doing so, these readings highlight a certain animalistic quality to the Israelite population boom as well.

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, drawing on the commentary of Seforno, focuses on the nameless quality of the opening chapters of Exodus. As she puts it, “cumulatively, a world is composed where even the heroes have a faceless, unindividuated quality.” While Sefer Shemot is technically translated as “the Book of Names,” the people depicted in its opening passage are strikingly anonymous. The parents of Moses are described as “a certain man from the house of Levi,” and “a Levite woman.” Even Pharaoh’s daughter goes unnamed. Zornberg connects this namelessness to the hyperactive fertility and proliferation of the opening passages. While abundance is a positive thing, it brings with it certain challenges. In their longing for children, the struggling heroines of Genesis were acutely aware of their status as individuals and their place in, or potential marginalization from, a larger religious historical narrative. The landscape of Exodus is a different one that features nameless masses who can’t easily articulate an identity distinct from how they are perceived by the Egyptians.

Enter Moses, whose first recorded acts are to recognize the suffering of a Hebrew who is being tormented by an Egyptian master and to chastise two Hebrews who are fighting among themselves. In both of these episodes, Moses recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of the people he encounters, a fact that the Egyptians don’t recognize, and that even somehow bothers the Hebrews whose feud he tries to break up. While the burgeoning fertility of Exodus is describing as being uncontained and even beyond human control, Moses emerges from this landscape defined by his conscious choices and his actions.


The Midwives

Maude Callen, a rural South Carolina midwife (from the 1951 Time Magazine photo essay by W. Eugene Smith)

Even more than Moses, the midwives Shifrah and Puah straddle the line between unbridled nature and conscious human choice and control. By profession, they are human intermediaries in the realm of teeming and unfettered nature. Pharaoh asks them to disrupt these natural processes by killing every boy that is born, but they resist by pointing to the uncontainable fecundity of the Hebrew women, “כִּי-חָיוֹת הֵנָּה.” In fact, their act of resistance is not a relinquishing of human responsibility in the face of nature run amok. Their standing up to Pharaoh represents precisely the opposite – it is a refusal to see human procreation in purely naturalistic, amoral terms. This is why the midwives are explicitly described as “fearing God.” For the midwives, an awareness of God is a bulwark against undifferentiated masses and human anonymity.

Virginia Held on Birth and Death

In an essay called “Birth and Death,” the moral philosopher Virginia Held contrasts the ways in which society views death as opposed to birth. While both are of course natural processes, the notion of dying a “good death” is idealized in Western culture. Human beings are defined by the values they are willing to die for – they can die out of loyalty to a cause, out of duty, for themselves or for others. This level of awareness can distinguish a human death from an animal death. Human birth on the other hand, is usually represented in Western culture as a natural biological event rather than something that is distinctly human. In Held’s words, “that women give birth is said to make them ‘essentially’ close to nature, resembling other mammals in this important and possibly dominant aspect of their lives. Human mothering is seen as an extension of the ‘natural,’ biological event of childbirth.” Pregnancy and motherhood, according to Held, are usually seen as things that “happen” to women, they are not the results of conscious choice and volition. This is the kind of fertility that is described in the opening passages of Exodus, independent and animal-like, a force of nature rather than the product of distinctly human choices.

Held believes that this naturalistic view of human birth and motherhood is deeply mistaken. The problem, she surmises, is that men tend to think of birth in terms of their own experience of it, as unconscious newborns. Yet if one considers birth from the perspective of the mother, the question of “what to give birth for?” is just as crucial as a question of “what to die for?”:

“Any woman can ask herself: Why should I give birth? What should I create a child for? To what end should I give birth? In giving birth, to what shall I be giving human expression? The compendium of reasons for which men (and women) have wondered what to die or live for can be matched by a new and even richer compendium of reasons for which women can give birth. Men (and women) can die out of loyalty, out of duty, out of commitment, and they can die for a better future. Women can give birth, or refuse to give birth, for all these motives and others. They can give birth so that a new human being can experience joy, so that humankind can continue to exist, so that the family of which they are a member can maintain itself, so that the social movement that gives them hope may have another potential adherent, so that the love they share with another can be potentially shared with yet another. They can give birth to express their conceptions of themselves, of humanity, and of life. And so on endlessly. That women can give birth for reasons should make it clear how very unlike a natural biological event a human birth is.”

(Held, “Birth and Death,” Ethics, January 1989. p.366)

The Birth of a Nation

At times, our parsha suggests that the rapid procreation of the Hebrews has an uninhibited, uncontrollable quality. However, the text ultimately reframes this natural phenomenon as one in which human awareness and human agency are crucial. For the midwives, an awareness and “fear” of God is an essential part of their work. The importance of naming in the Bible also reflects this notion of a conscious, choice-driven birth. When a parent names a child in the Bible the reader understands what this child means to the parent. Once Moses is named, and once he in turn names his son Gershom, we understand that the anonymous proliferation of the earlier sections of the parshah has been reversed or redirected.

If one reads the opening verses of Exodus as framing the concern of the book as a whole – the birth of the nation of Israel – this birth should be understood through the lens of human agency and human responsibility. Once the narrative progresses beyond its initial birth pangs and develops into the plagues, the blood on the doorway, the parting of the sea, etc., it may seem that, like birth itself, everything is in God’s hands and beyond human control. Yet, throughout the book the Israelites, and Moses in particular, actively interact with and carry out their divine missions. Perhaps a fitting metaphor for God’s role in all of this is as a midwife, facilitating and enabling a natural process, but nevertheless allowing agency to rest with the mothers and the fathers of the nation of Israel.

Moses’ Mother (Aleksei Tyranov, 19th Century)

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