The Wisdom of Shiphrah and Puah - Reservoir Church
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Lives That Work

The Wisdom of Shiphrah and Puah

Ivy Anthony

May 19, 2024

We are coming to the end of our “Wisdom” series – with one more week to come.  Where we’ve been dipping into some of the wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms — to mine these books for wisdom – to line the pathways of our real lives. In hopes of helping our lives “work.” 

When we started this series — I didn’t realize we’d be finishing up right around the end of the academic year.  It’s when the energy in this Cambridge/greater Boston area shifts -*relaxes*- a little bit. With finals, and dissertations being submitted, with graduations — and celebrations — marking of another year complete. 

More drops of wisdom in the wisdom bucket.

I was talking with my college student, Elle — who is home for a bit — and I was like,

“Can you believe you’re officially a Junior?”

And she was like

“shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh — don’t say that too loud –it might be real…”

And between the shushing — was the tenor of things I’ve felt before – that I feel now – the expectation of being wise/er. The realization that with advancement (whether study, or years in a job, or age ) —  there should be a parallel “up and to the right” trajectory of wisdom.

And we give plenty of accompanying questions that set up that tenor over a span of a life — like: 

  • “What are you going to do with your life?” 

  • “What are you doing with your life?”

  • “What have you done with your life?”

I like to imagine how Wisdom herself would respond to those questions? Likely very directly.
“My life?” — well, I plan on living it. Or I’m currently living it, or I have lived it.  

And to offer those answers not smugly, but with clarity, with a deep immovable knowing.

Wisdom as we’ve been talking about these last few weeks is to live our very life as it comes to us, and as we come to it…. with the spirit of God alongside.

Wisdom is a nurturer, a cultivator of all life. Wisdom isn’t choosy or selective — it asks us to partner with her in ALL THAT IS this “wild and precious life” — and to take on courage as we do. Because “wild” doesn’t mean linear and predictable and “precious” doesn’t mean we get to choose what is “precious.” A life that “works” is to believe that we can and we will live ALL of this life (as many as the days we have), —  with all of who we are and with all of who God is — and it will matter to all who we encounter. This is wisdom.

I want to offer a story from the Bible today that I revisit again and again in my own life — especially when I feel void of wisdom. It’s a story where courage and wisdom kind of go hand in hand (so you’ll hear me mention both sometimes interchangeably throughout the sermon)  — because it is almost always courageous to embody wisdom. 

This story is found in Exodus and it is of these two women. 

Two midwives.

Whose names are Shiphrah and Puah. 

They break open a whole host of helpful ways to think about wisdom – anchored to their utter belief and embodiment of the way they live their lives WITH God. 


Thank you God for this new morning – – for your love that embraces us just as we are. Thank you for gathering us here — promising us that you have something in store for us — whether we recognize it, can name it — or not… could you help us to feel your presence. .. your comfort today, your rest, your joy, your peace — could you nestle it deep in our hearts, in our bones — and remind us that no one can take away such love. In the strength, the courage, the resistance, the creativity and the wisdom you give, Amen.


A couple of weeks ago a few of us from the staff went over to Wilson’s Farm and picked our own tulips. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and the rows and rows of these flowers blooming in every possible color was stunning. So much beauty, so much budding life. 

And oddly – kind of right in the middle of all these rows was a square area roped off that said “bird nesting here”. As a couple of us drew closer to inspect — there she was this small bird, called a killdeer standing over three speckled eggs.

In the past I apprenticed on a farm for a few years and I knew this bird immediately. Killdeer love to lay their eggs in fields, Actually they aren’t picky at all they lay their eggs in patches of gravel wherever they can find it – sides of tennis courts, corners of driveways, parking lots (they prefer the ground) – and it often coincides with where there is a lot of human activity.

I don’t know about you — but this seems pretty unwise, not wise – without wisdom.

There’s so much potential for danger. So much potential life at stake.

Seemingly a consistent source of fear and threat.

And yet I stood there watching this bird – — standing so still — with three of us looming over her nest, her eggs, casting huge shadows.

And she was so Calm. Steadfast. Unflappable. 

So convinced she seemed of her role to be with her eggs, to stay… to stay so close. 

I said out loud:

“Good job momma.” 

It was kind of moving to me — this immovable tiny bird.


We often enter the story of Shiphrah and Puah through a more well known story  — the story of Moses.  Many of you probably have heard the epic story of Moses – this Hebrew baby that was drawn from the water and raised in Pharaoh’s courts and becomes not a prince, but a liberator of his people.  These people, the Israelites,  who have been enslaved and considered less than human by the Egyptians – it’s the story of the great exodus from Egypt into the promised land.

This story of Moses is the one we know… But we don’t as often visit the story of  Shiphrah and Puah –  the story that sets the stage for baby Moses to grow up and live, and a story that in some ways determines the fate of an entire people. 

So let’s read the story together:

Exodus 1

8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.

9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are.

10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”

11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named
Pithom (Pye-thahm) and Rameses for Pharaoh.

12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread.

13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites.

14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.

15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah:

16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.”

17 Now the two midwives feared God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.

18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”

19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.”

20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong.

21 And because the midwives FEARED GOD, God gave them households of their own.

A little context to where we pick up here – The Israelites had moved to Egypt during a time of famine and starvation. Joseph – had been sold into slavery in Egypt as a result of his jealous brother’s action – had helped the Israelites land here. Joseph’s time in Egypt was blessed by God – and he worked his way into high standing in Egypt – and the Israelites fared well. And for a while the Israelites and Egyptians coexisted without (that much) trouble.

Soon though, a new King came into Egypt – and it says “He did not know Joseph”. This means he didn’t know Joseph’s people or his God – and therefore he looked out at the Israelites with fear and suspicion and saw them as a threat, as the “other.”   

He attempts to limit the growth of the Hebrews – who only seem to grow in number, by dehumanizing them in systemic ways – by slavery, and forced labor and oppression.  These attempts however don’t seem to make a difference.

So Pharoah enacts a fear campaign, 

“What if we were attacked by our enemies and these growing number of Israelites –  join sides with our enemies?”

“We would be crushed!” 

And this fear messaging –  starts to shift the opinion of his people – and there’s more of a widespread buy in – to oppress and segregate.

Pharaoh’s xenophobia pushes him to take drastic measures to ensure these “outsiders” do not one day take over the land – and his latest attempt as we see here – is calling forth these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Under government sanctions Shiphrah and Puah are enlisted to participate in the extermination of Hebrew baby boys. To bring death to the world around them. 

Now the text reads that these women were Hebrew midwives… and yet there’s a lot of conversation among scholars that suggests that these women were in fact Egyptian – but attended the birth of Hebrew women. So they were midwives TO Hebrew women.

I’m inclined to agree with this take – it makes sense to me that Pharaoh would want his own “people” to carry out this decree… 

This means Shiphrah and Puah likely attended both Hebrew and Egyptian births. And midwives were often thought to be women who couldn’t have children themselves, so they were often pushed to the edges of society. Shiphrah and Puah, are thought to possibly be Nubian midwives, from now Northern Sudan — meaning that their relationships, throughout their vocational lives – spanned cultural and geographical lines.

A midwife’s primary role is to usher in life, regardless of status, race or any other defining division… To stay close, to assist, guide and protect life.

So Pharoah’s quite strategic with his newest attempt to limit the growth of the Hebrews. He knows that these midwives are the touchpoint to life or death.. And he decrees, “choose death.”

I can imagine Shiphrah and Puah wondered what wisdom would say here —-  Because the options seem so stark — EITHER we are courageous and 1) we refuse to follow Pharoah’s orders and we likely die and likely our friends and families also die.


We aren’t courageous and 2) we follow Pharoah’s orders  –  and we promote the sovereignty of our state – and by the work of our own hands, bring death to the next generation of Hebrew males.

Thankfully wisdom’s favorite spot seems to be in these perceived “either/or” scenarios… it seems to be the very spot that wisdom cries out! Right in the middle of this gritty life — with threats all around wisdom surfaces in their path — in an unimagined way.

The text here says that Shiphrah and Puah

“fear God.” 

They revere and love and trust God.  Their belief in God – seems to be a way of harnessing wisdom and courage… and it seems as though it isn’t only found in this one high-stakes moment with Pharaoh – but it’s been built and developed over their WHOLE lives… 

Fearing God – helps them imagine beyond the binary – to reframe wisdom beyond having to have a “right” choice – a  “yes or  no” to Pharoah  – it’s instead about saying “yes” to LIFE with God. *And here opens the field of new possibility — right? — the birthing ground of wisdom*

These midwives – are courageous!  They are divinely defiant! And they are wise. They’re heroically brave in their refusal to kill baby boys, they’re clever in their explanation to Pharaoh of why baby boys keep being born,

“these Hebrew women are so strong and vigorous that they birth their babies before we can arrive!”

… the wisdom in that response – isn’t just an excuse to buy them time – it’s a subversive move to uphold the strength and dignity of the Hebrew people to Pharoah.

As I mentioned, Shiphrah and Puah were likely midwives who attended their own people’s births- -but also the births of their “perceived enemies.” 

These midwives were involved deeply… deeply at the center of women and their  community and family stories. To just go in and assist at a birth – is not the way of the midwife. A midwife is one who sits and STAYS steadfast with people in pain and confronts spirits that are full of despair and want to give up. 

Day after day – birth after birth they came along-side the “other” – these Hebrew women, who they should hate … and they take their hands and rub their backs… And they say  again and again … there’s a way here… “God is here”….  This breaks open a deep belief that courage and wisdom well up from inside of us…. That it’s not only found in taking on a piece of armor for a moment of courage or a moment of wisdom at a crossroads. Their God is one who sits alongside of them too – is in their reality – A God who doesn’t just go to the margins to serve someone else – but ONE who LIVES at the margins.”

These midwives do this, they live at the margins…. And in their vocation, take on a calling, an oath to “in all ways attend to all of life”… And the courage they dip into – is God’s, because they believe that God is truly with them. And they greet pain – the pain of childbirth and the pain of injustice and the pain of not being seen… with these virtues of God. A living God.

I can wonder if those questions —

“So what are you planning to do with your life? Or what are you doing with your life?”

grate on us sometimes because we wrestle with deeper ones already —  does what I do matter?  Does it touch real life? Has it brought forth anything new or wise into the world?

These midwives seem to encourage us that “yes” – wherever we are – whatever we do, whoever we talk to – matters. That if we do it with kindness and generosity and equity, backed by a God that is real… It all matters.

These 1,000’s of moments where they offer their laboring and birthing mother’s – cool washcloths to their foreheads… where they gently turn babies inside of wombs – where they listen closely for heartbeats … where they root for life! With their encouraging words, “yes push”, “you are almost there”… “life is coming”…

These times of being so intimately close to life – and so close to God –  rewire our pathways to see  the movement of GOD AND the movement of all of our LIFE as one… beyond political/authoritative decrees OR external circumstances or opinions or power – that try to inject fear.

For Shiphrah and Puah – these moments compile and develop a courageous heart – and whether Egyptian or Hebrew – male or female …the passion for justice and care for all of humanity – becomes a non-negotiable with a real, good, and living God close to us, who stands with us in the threats, the war zones of this wild life.

Omid Safi (a Duke University professor of Islamic studies) said recently that this closeness (to God),  is what allows us to see that the

love we recognize in other people — people who love their babies and their community —  is the same love that we love our babies and our community with… AND when we recognize this same love in one another, we will not stand for having something happen to other people’s babies and community that we wouldn’t want to have happen to ours. That is simply what we call justice — and this work of justice is BIRTHED out of a heart wrapped in wisdom, courage and love. (Onbeing reference).

The courage and wisdom to say “justice and love” must go hand and hand.

This is the powerful picture of wisdom that Shiphrah and Puah give us today, one that they still invite us to!

Story killdeer

It turns out when killdeer feel as though their nest is truly threatened they put on what’s called a “broken wing act.” If a human gets too close to their nest, a killdeer will splay its wing out awkwardly and appear hurt, dragging themselves across the ground — moving away from their nests. It’s a subversive / distraction tactic that often lures humans away from stepping on their nests. Humans of course thinking they could help a tiny bird follow the killdeer — until they are a safe margin away from the nest — and then magically the killdeer flies away.

Their dedication to nurturing life is full of wisdom after all. 

Perhaps it’s bird instincts, primal — perhaps it’s this specific species genetic make-up — it’s been in their design, in their DNA — for centuries.

So is true for us my friends. The wisdom of Shiphrah and Puah and the spirit of God lives in our bodies — in our DNA — too.

I’m slowly beginning to realize that the question at hand isn’t either

“Am I with wisdom?”


“Am I without wisdom?”

Because likely on any given day – I am both Wise and really not wise. The question is,

“can I harness the wisdom of a God that is always with me?” 

That’s a helpful reframe for me because life is hard… 

And otherwise – I think the threat of disparaging thoughts can take over –  Am I only destined to be a prisoner to the pharaohs of my day? Will I ever witness something other than pain and heartache?

But the words of Paul in Ephesians, fill out my truncated thoughts – with the power and realness of Jesus…

He reminds me that, 

I am not a prisoner of anyone else  – but of JESUS who wraps me in humility and gentleness and patience – who gives me the wisdom to continue to lean toward people with love – with an eagerness of heart that seeks to maintain the unity of the Spirit – this powerful Jesus who makes a way –   for the bonding posture of peace. … This is the power of Jesus.

Jesus makes way for wisdom that is ever- present, running through our veins,  on the tips of our tongues, in the palms of our hands as we touch life around us – and in our feet as we roam this earth.

We are all called to be wise and courageous. And to believe that our everyday posture of heralding life – in spaces where only death looks apparent – will produce change – somewhere down .. the line…

The outcome that Shiphrah and Puah witness after making their courageous move to not kill these Hebrew baby boys – could have felt disappointing to them….  Because Pharoah just keeps marching on with his plans to wipe out these babies – demanding that all his people throw them into the Nile River.  

BUT they did *briefly* prevent a genocide of children! AND what Shiphrah and Puah wouldn’t have seen at the time – is that their story – their WHOLE story of being women who courageously live at the margins, and who so wisely stood against power and oppression –  would and IS continued to be told. That their names will be kept alive – and whispered among the Hebrew women – that their names will be yelled out in the pains of labor, as sign-posts of resistance and hope, (when their land is vacant of it) – and that their courage to say “we fear God”, would give Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ sister and Moses’ mother the courage to protect & hide and find and nurse him to life. 

These names of Shiphrah and Puah – are recorded! We get to see them written down in the text that we read today! This shows us that a lifetime of wisdom, empowered with the Divine – is worth 3,000 years of remembrance and legacy – and still worth talking about today….While Pharaoh’s fearful acts of dominating power and authority – leaves him nameless and less than 300 years of fame… 

Perhaps our role is akin to the role of a midwife – to cherish other life as our own – to regard it as “precious” – to stand right where we are in our jobs and roles and play and live – and reclaim these paths, these places as fields and gardens of abundant wisdom.  

Revised from 2017 sermon