An Example of the Fear of God

May 3, 2022

Exodus 1:15-22

15 The king of Egypt also spoke to the Hebrews' midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah. 16 He said to them, "When you give birth to the Hebrews' wives and see them on the seats, if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. 17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had said to them; they let the children live. 18 Then the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, "Why did you do this and let the children live?" 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the women of the Hebrews are not like the Egyptian women; they are strong and give birth before the midwife comes. 20 God did good to the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very numerous. 21 Because the midwives had feared God, God made their houses prosperous.

22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, "You shall throw every boy that is born into the river, and you shall let every girl live.

Pharoh's edict

Verse 15 presents a strange juxtaposition: on the one hand, the king of Egypt, whose name is not even mentioned; on the other hand, two modest midwives whose names are preserved forever: Shiphra and Puah. Throughout the ordeal of the people of Israel in Egypt, Pharaoh is never named; he is only an instrument in the hand of the Lord for his glory. But these two women are named so that we can remember them forever.

Shiphra and Puah were probably not the only midwives of all the people of Israel. It would have been too much to handle all the births; they were probably two of the chief midwives.

They were ordered by Pharaoh himself, "When you give birth to the women of the Hebrews and see them on the seats, if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live." (1:16) Why kill male babies who would provide the labor to build cities and pyramids? Effective birth control would have led to the killing of the girls instead. But Pharaoh wanted to eliminate potential soldiers first (see 1:10).

It is likely that several years passed between the command in verse 16 and the appearance of the midwives before Pharaoh (1:18). His underground plan to eliminate Israelite boys had turned out to be a failure: many Israelite boys were alive.

An acceptable lie?

So Pharaoh brought Shiphra and Puah back and asked them the question they had perhaps long feared being asked: "Why did you let the boys live?"

The Hebrew of their answer is difficult to translate. They seemed to be saying that Israelite women were more vigorous than Egyptian women, that they were too active so that the midwives did not arrive until after the birth.

This may have been partly true. But it was also certainly a deceptive cover-up, a kind of lie to Pharaoh. This raises the question: were they wrong to lie? The classic example is the Nazis during World War II asking, "Are you hiding Jews?" What was the right answer to give? Preserve their lives by lying? Was it mandatory to tell the Nazi officer the truth? Were Schiphra and Pua obligated to tell the truth? By answering a half-truth (at best), did they commit a sin?

Calvin, like many other commentators, thought that Schiphra and Pua had sinned: "In the answer of the midwives, two vices are to be observed, since they did not confess their piety with candor, and, what is worse, got away with lying." Calvin goes on to say that it was only because of God's fatherly indulgence that he passed over their iniquity and nevertheless rewarded them for their faith.

But I find no indication in the text that they did anything wrong. In fact, what emerges from the text is that they are to be praised for their actions:

- Their names are given, so that they will be remembered as heroines of the history of Israel (1:15).

- It is noted that they feared God (1:17).

- God did them good" (1:20).

- God gave them families (1:21).

Four verses explicitly state that God was pleased.

Theologians distinguish three types of lies:

1. The malicious lie serves one's own interests and harms one's neighbor. It is always evil.

2. Humorous lying is joking or entertaining with lies. It can be good or bad, depending on the context. For example, it is not a sin to throw a surprise birthday party. On the other hand, there may be jokes or practical jokes that, even though they are meant to be fun, are still harmful. Proverbs 26:18-19 warns, "As a furious man that casteth flame and arrows and death, so is a man that deceiveth his neighbor, and saith, Was not this in jest?" The image is clear: a joke can hurt deeply.

3. The third type is the controversial one: the lie of necessity. Is it ever appropriate to lie in order to serve and protect one's neighbor?

I'm not talking about a lie that just makes things better, like the lie of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. Both are afraid that Abimelech will kill them if he knows that the beautiful women with them are their wives. So they pass them off as their sisters so that they will be left alone. This is a bad lie, simply to make things easier for them. Worse, it puts their wives in great danger, through their cowardice.         

I (and many others) would argue, however, that in extreme circumstances it is appropriate to lie, as the midwives did.

The ninth commandment explicitly states, "You shall not bear false witness." (20.16) The implied context is that of a court of law, where, because of your slander and malicious intent, you inflict a punishment on someone else that they may not fully deserve.

Midwives are praised in this passage - just as Rahab, later, is praised as a woman of faith when she hid the spies in Jericho (Heb 11:31). Everything in these verses leads us to the conclusion that what the midwives did was right because they feared the Lord.

God's blessing and difficult circumstances

God blessed Israel: "The people multiplied and became very numerous." (1:20b) Pharaoh doesn't understand:

- First, he wanted to make the Israelites work very hard to eliminate them. But they continued to multiply.

- Then he asked the midwives to help him eliminate them. But they continued to multiply. God blessed them in spite of Pharaoh's plans, for he had promised, "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you." (Gen 12:3)

Pharaoh finds out the hard way that God keeps his promises.

The blessing does not only multiply for Israel. It also multiplies for the midwives. Most of them were elderly women who had never had a family. Now they have their own offspring.

The blessings increase, but so do the difficult circumstances. Pharaoh moves on to the third phase of his plan, "You shall throw every boy that is born into the river." (1.22)

It is surely no coincidence that the first plague on Egypt was to turn the Nile into blood: "Do you want a river of blood?" the Lord asks. "I will give it to you." God has a way of giving his enemies what they want in a way they don't want.

Who do you fear?

On both sides there is fear: the midwives fear God. Pharaoh fears the people.

Our lives are marked by fear: of being sick, of being alone, of losing a loved one, of disappointment... You may fear strangers, crowds, the unknown, death... Yet the Bible says that the smartest way to live your life is to fear God. This is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9.10).

What does it mean to fear God? Here are some examples:

Just before laying hands on Isaac, the angel of the Lord said to Abraham, "Now I know that you fear God, and that you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Gen 22:12) In other words, God said to him, "You have considered obedience to God more important than your own sense of security and well-being."

When Joseph wanted to convince his brothers that he was telling the truth and that they should leave one of their brothers behind, he reassured them by saying, "Do this, and you will live. I fear God." (Gen 42:18) In other words, "You can trust me, for I know that I will have to give an account to God."

Jethro (Moses' father-in-law) would later advise him, "Choose able, God-fearing men from among all the people, men of integrity, enemies of greed." (Ex 18:21)

To fear God is to be honest and upright, because you know that God is watching you, even if there is no one else. It is believing that there is a God, and that he is very interested in what you are doing. When we fear God, God's presence and plans weigh on us more than the world, the flesh and the devil.

The fear of God is not a slavish fear, as if God could hate and condemn us, even though we are his children and have put our faith in Christ. This kind of fear can only be cast out by faith in Jesus (1 John 4:18). But for those who follow Christ, there is a healthy fear of a holy God. Many so-called Christians live in practice as atheists, going about their business as if God did not exist, as if he had made no promises to them, and as if they had nothing to fear from his judgment or discipline.

Do you live your life as if God really exists? The midwives did. They might have feared the majority, because even though the Israelites multiplied, they were still a foreign people in a foreign land - a minority people within the majority Egyptian culture. As believers, we are part of a cognitive minority. Because we believe in the Bible, love Jesus, and are his followers, we will believe certain things that the rest of the world finds absolutely crazy.

These women could have feared for their lives and livelihoods. They had a lot to lose: their jobs, their families, their security - even their heads! In the ancient world, only the Jewish people prohibited abortion and infanticide. Infanticide was only definitively outlawed when Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire, 1500 to 2000 years later. Christians and people of the Judeo-Christian tradition have always opposed the killing of children, whether outside or inside the womb. The constitution of the Church in the first century said: "You shall not kill children by abortion or after birth".

Let verse 17 sink into our hearts, "But the midwives feared God." On the one hand, there was their work, security, prestige and life itself. On the other hand, there was uncertainty, probable suffering and potential death. Which would you have chosen? Healthy fear tipped the scales.

What has influence over you? The cover of a magazine? What everyone around you seems to be saying? For Schiphra and Pua, it was the fear of God and reverence for His holy name. To get people to fear him, God sometimes has to use the hard way.

In one of the most influential books I have read, David Wells writes, "The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God's presence in the church is inconsequential. His truth is too remote, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benevolent, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common."

What is your God like? Anyone who has had a truly good and godly father understands this. The father's authority was not taken lightly. If you did wrong, you were afraid he would come home because there was discipline to come. Yet, at the same time, you knew you could run into his arms, because he was your father and he loved you. These two sides - the love of God and the fear of God - must be foremost in our hearts, minds and affections, or we will have a God whose presence in the church is of no consequence.

Should we fear God? Or have we recreated a god in our own image - a god of unconditional approval, who simply pats us on the back and says, "Good for you, well done!" This god does not look like the God that Pharaoh will meet in all his sovereign power. This God led Shiphra and Puah to say no to the most powerful man in the world.

What you believe and how you live is largely shaped by who you fear. God is a far better teacher than Pharaoh. His service is far better than the slavery the world can offer. You don't have to marry the spirit of the age. You can stop being self-centered. You can adopt a moral code that is based on divine authority instead of just being authentic.

The good news is that the God we fear is the God who will cast out fear. The God of a holy presence is also the God we want at our side. The God who is strong enough to judge is also gentle enough to forgive if you come, bow, submit and fear. The story of the Exodus is the story of your life: there is no lasting freedom without the fear of God.

This article was produced for the TGC Conference Evangile 21 Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

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