The unscrupulous Pharaoh, determining to act shrewdly (NRSV, ESV) with God’s people, planned to kill their infants through the Hebrews’ own midwives. The chief midwives, however, prove shrewder than he, delaying Pharaoh’s extermination policy and so in the meantime saving the lives of many babies.
That Exodus names the midwives but leaves the Pharaoh anonymous (much to the chagrin of modern critics wanting to date the exodus) may say something about God’s priorities. Indeed, women, who usually lacked political power (though there were exceptions in Egypt), subvert Pharaoh’s purposes at every turn. As the Jewish Exodus commentator Nahum Sarna observes, God works through the female characters in the narrative, most of them seemingly in the background of the main action, to preserve the future deliverer: the midwives; Moses’s mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter; and finally the Midianite priest’s daughters who provide Moses’s connection with a place of refuge.
Because of the posture in which women gave birth on the “stones” that functioned as birth stools, the midwives could have killed some of the babies and pretended that they were simply stillborn. Midwives were positioned beneath the birthing mother to catch the baby when it emerged; they would immediately see the gender and could twist the neck without the mother seeing the action (although this would be impossible when other women were present, and a pattern of male “stillbirths” would quickly arouse suspicion).
Because Hebrew men could practice polygamy, killing male babies was not so much a long-term population deterrent as it was meant to prevent the Israelites from being strong enough to strike the Egyptians in battle in the rising generation (Exod 1:10). Pharaoh may have been concerned with a particular external threat on the horizon at that time. Using Hebrews to kill Hebrews (1:15-16) also minimizes potential repercussions for Pharaoh at this point (just like the later Roman and British empires often ruled through local elites).
Given Pharaoh’s power and his obvious willingness to exercise deadly force, the midwives were courageous to disobey Pharaoh’s decree. They disobeyed because they feared God (1:17)—a valuable deterrent against wrongdoing, and sometimes the only deterrent against wrongdoing in which one cannot get humanly caught.
Yet they were also not suicidal; they were cunning enough to offer Pharaoh a plausible explanation as to why they failed to execute his orders. Physically strong women could sometimes give birth quickly. For example, although it was surely very difficult on them physically, we read of some African-American slave women who gave birth in the field where they were working and then went back to work. Given the large number of Israelites (however we interpret the exact numbers), it is not hard to imagine that the midwives would have trouble reaching many women giving birth in Goshen if they gave birth quickly.
How could Pharaoh respond to them? He had already claimed that the Israelites were stronger than the Egyptians (1:9, though he meant this more numerically). If Hebrew women were especially strong, it was probably because Pharaoh himself was working the Israelites so hard (either all of them, or the men who therefore left more work at home for the women). Pharaoh may have suspected that they were lying, but if he chose to execute and replace the midwives, this would openly reveal his complicity in any subsequent infant deaths at the hands of new midwives. This means that if he wants to do away with Hebrew babies, he is going to have to do the dirty work himself and not expect Hebrews to do it for him (1:22). Ironically, the midwives’ claim that the Hebrew women differed from Egyptian women may portend the coming difference that God will make between Israel and the Egyptians (9:4; 11:7).
Yet the midwives are plainly lying. Exodus declares that they did not obey Pharaoh (1:17). God blessed the midwives not for lying but for refusing to kill the children; yet they would not have been alive to bless had they defied Pharaoh more openly instead of lying. God did not punish them for lying under these circumstances. Because the midwives acted from the fear of God rather than Pharaoh, God blessed them with families (1:21); they refused to harm others’ children, so God gave them their own.
(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)