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By Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F.

The Bible: Light to My Path

Four persons who've studied the Bible in depth will contribute to this column in 2002. Each month, one author will choose a passage that comforts, challenges or seems neglected. He or she will explain how to apply this passage and connect it to everyday life. This month's guide:

Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F., is an Oldenburg Franciscan with an M.A. in Scripture from Catholic Theological Union and a Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from Graduate Theological Union. She is a regular contributor to St. Anthony Messenger Press's Homily Helps.

Our panel also includes: Roland Murphy, O.Carm., Maurice Nutt, C.SS.R., and Virginia Smith.



Biblical Background

The midwives, however, feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt had ordered them, but let the boys live.

—Exodus 1:17

If asked for a biblical model of strength, probably few people would name the midwives Shiprah and Puah. We might be more apt to remember the tenacity of Moses, the leadership of Deborah or the might of David.

The story of these two women is not frequently lifted up for our reflection. Yet here we have people who risk everything by refusing to be a part of the death-dealing plan of a political ruler.

Although their story is told in seven brief verses (Exodus 1:15-21), they remain powerful examples of faith and courage. The text specifically cites their awareness of God as the reason for their selfless act of defiance.

The very image of the midwife offers us ample reflection. A midwife is someone who facilitates birth, who recognizes the signs of new life and encourages women through the pain and struggle of birth-giving.

Shiprah and Puah are two women who were trained to reverence, facilitate and celebrate life, but are then expected to be instruments of death. They represent the privilege and the challenge that we all share—that of recognizing and encouraging the unique gift of life present in each person.

Every parent, grandparent and teacher who helps children know their own goodness and develop their own gifts is a contemporary Shiprah. Every therapist or counselor who refuses to give up on the person hidden beneath grief, anger or fear is a modern-day Puah. People who risk their jobs by daring to speak about unjust practices or labor laws are midwives for the oppressed. Those who cross over barriers of prejudice of any kind are helping give birth to something new. Being a midwife is not easy!

Several years ago, a friend of mine was approaching her 50th birthday. She wanted to mark this moment with a ritual. She felt within herself that she was on the verge of something new, that she was about to enter into a new and deeper part of her life. Having a particular gift for symbolizing both her history and her desire for growth, she was able to surround herself with reminders of who she was and where she was going.

One part of the ritual I shall never forget was what she called her "wall of midwives." Hanging on the wall where we gathered was a large cloth on which she had written names. These names represented people whose encouragement or wisdom had somehow helped "bring her to birth" at significant junctures.

That wall of midwives served as a sign of gratitude for friends and mentors she had known. It was also a statement of faith that, as she moved forward, God would continue to grace her life with the people she needed in order to be birthed, again and again, into the fullness of who she could be.

The story of Shiprah and Puah invites each of us to recall the midwives in our lives. It also invites us to move more deeply into our own prayer, asking ourselves where the gospel challenges us to midwife others.


Biblical Background

The first chapters of Exodus tell of three unsuccessful attempts by the new pharaoh to control the growing number of Hebrews, whose power he fears. Women play a central role of defiance in two of these attempts. First, the pharaoh appoints taskmasters to make the Israelites work harder. They comply, but the Israelites continue to flourish. The pharaoh's second edict is to the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. They are to kill all the Hebrew boys at birth. Unlike the taskmasters, however, these women refuse. Finally, the pharaoh commands that the Hebrew boys are to be thrown into the river. This time it is Moses' mother, his sister and the pharaoh's own daughter who dare to act in opposition to the command. The very fact that only Shiprah and Puah are mentioned by name underscores their importance.

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