"Work for children should begin before they are born. … These are the formative years, whether for their bodies, their minds, or their loving hearts."
- Mary Breckinridge, American nurse-midwife, credited with bringing midwifery to the U.S. and drastically reducing mortality rates of mothers and infants in rural settings.
Perhaps more than the titles of many other medical professions, the etymology of the term "midwife" — with woman — captures well the hallmarks of their care. Indeed, midwives' philosophy of care centers around a model that puts compassionate partnership at its center, acknowledging the life experience and knowledge that patients bring to their own treatment. Notably, while midwives use appropriate interventions and technology when necessary, midwifery is known for honoring and trusting in the body's natural processes — specifically, labor and birthing. Put bluntly, amid what is simultaneously one of the most painful and beautiful experiences of a woman's life, midwives accompany, helping a woman trust the process of ushering life into the world.
Call to Prayer
In the Exodus story of the Old Testament, midwives play a vital role in the salvation of the Israelites, demonstrating faith and courage in the face of manipulation and cruelty. Listen now to the story of Shiphrah and Puah. Consider where in your life are you being called to respond courageously?
A reading from the book of Exodus
Then a new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, rose to power in Egypt. He said to his people, "See! The Israelite people have multiplied and become more numerous than we are! Come, let us deal shrewdly with them to stop their increase; otherwise, in time of war, they too may join our enemies to fight against us, and so leave the land."
Accordingly, they set supervisors over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. Thus they had to build for Pharaoh the garrison cities of Pithom and Raamses. Yet the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread so that the Egyptians began to loathe the Israelites. So the Egyptians reduced the Israelites to cruel slavery, making life bitter for them with hard labor, at mortar* and brick and all kinds of fieldwork—cruelly oppressed in all their labor.
The king of Egypt told the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was called Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives for the Hebrew women, look on the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she may live." The midwives, however, feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt had ordered them, but let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, "Why have you done this, allowing the boys to live?" The midwives answered Pharaoh, "The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are robust and give birth before the midwife arrives."
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very numerous. And because the midwives feared God, God built up families for them.
The Word of the Lord.
"The midwives, however, fear God; […] they let the boys live." In the face of a cruel ruler with an even more cruel decree, the midwives concretely demonstrate in whom their faith lies by neglecting the Pharaoh’s instructions. Had they been found out, surely, they would have been sentenced to a painful death. Not only this, but Jewish midrash (the rabbinic tradition of interpreting the words of scripture) indicates that in addition to Shiphrah and Puah letting the boys live, they also actively aided in their survival, collecting food and water from the homes of wealthy women and giving it to mothers in need.
Consider for a moment the courage required for such action. Consider the depth of faith necessary to move one to such defiance. The midwives' trust and confidence in the Almighty is such that nothing else matters and scripture tells us they are rewarded.
How are you called to be a compassionate partner in the birth of new life?
Where in your life are you called to be courageous for the sake of justice?
How might you better accompany those who, like the Israelites, are oppressed?
God of Shiphrah,
God of Puah,
We know that you walk with us in our day to day, you are a compassionate partner as we work to build your Kingdom.
Grant that we may channel the faith and trust of the midwives, demonstrating it in the name of justice.
Let us accompany the oppressed, aid in their survival and honor the experience they bring to our relationship with them.
We ask this in your holy name,