Digging in Deeper: Exodus 1:15-16

“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives – the first, whose name was Shiphrah, and the second, whose name was Puah – ‘When you help the Hebrew women give birth, observe them as they deliver. If the child is a son, kill him, but if it’s a daughter, she may live.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

One of the fiercest debates in our culture today is on the issue of the morality and the ensuing legality of abortion. Opinions on it run the gamut from absolutely wrong in all cases to absolutely right and even a positive good to be vigorously defended, and everywhere in between. As followers of Jesus, our position on the matter must be founded on and rooted in the Scriptures. And while there is no blanket prohibition on it, there are plenty of passages that indicate God’s clear position on the matter. We find one here right at the beginning of the story of Exodus. Let’s talk about it.

Let’s start with what’s going on here in the story. As we talked about yesterday, when the descendants of Israel settled in Egypt, they started having babies. Lots of babies. They were faithful to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and soon (soon on the scale of a couple hundred years…a period of time during which my own nation grew from a few tens of thousands to a few tens of millions) they were nation-sized. They were nation-sized and when the political winds around them changed, they found that their host nation had grown tired of them quickly.

The first solution to this “problem” was to enslave them and oppress them horribly. The thought was that an oppressed people wouldn’t have babies because of the hopeless weight of their oppression (for intentionally having a baby is an act of hope if there ever was one). When just the opposite proved the case, the second solution was to start killing Israelite babies. Pharaoh was actively looking for a way to extinguish the spirit of hope in this people so they would simply accept their fate as his slaves who could be used and abused as their only lot in life.

This fact shouldn’t be lost on us. When the pagan Egyptians who were soon going to face God’s terrible judgment for their sins were looking for a way to solve the problem of too many Israelites, their solution was to kill babies. This is presented the way it is to make the reader understand just how morally bankrupt and deserving of judgment the Egyptians were as a people. People who support the intentional killing of the innocent are evil to the core. (I’m going to caveat that in just a bit, so don’t react just yet.)

Specifically, Pharaoh commanded two Hebrew midwives to murder all the Israelite boys they delivered. We know almost nothing about Shiphrah and Puah. There were probably more than two midwives. These were likely the leaders of the midwife guild or something like that. Furthermore, the word “Hebrew” here may not be an adjective, but rather a genitive, resulting in a more literally translation being “the midwives of the Hebrews,” meaning they were Egyptian women, not Hebrew women. This helps makes sense of why the Pharaoh believed they would participate in his evil scheme. Surely no Hebrew woman would allow herself to become complicit in the slaughter of her own people.

And while it may seem notable that Pharaoh commanded the killing of just the Hebrew boys considering how many cultures around the world today – but especially in Asia – practice sex-selective abortions with girls, this is not a reflection of how much the Egyptian culture valued girls over boys. It is just the opposite. Girls were believed to be worthless. They couldn’t contribute meaningfully to the society beyond having babies. They certainly weren’t as valuable when it came to doing the labor the Egyptians were forcing the Israelites to do. By sticking the Israelites with a whole bunch of girls instead boys, Pharaoh believed he was further weakening the people so they could be more easily kept under control.

In other words, everything about this situation was wrong. All of it. But the heart of the wrong here goes back to the intentional killing of nascent life. The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures is a God of life. He is the source of all life. If there is something living, that life came from Him. Period. There is no other source of life other than Him. And He values life. All of it. Death is the result of sin.

With all of this in mind, the taking of a life is a serious matter. And while I do believe there are occasions when the just punishment for sins committed in this life is the forfeiting of the life of the one who committed them, the intentional taking of innocent life (that is, murder) is always wrong in every instance. There is no biblical warrant for it. Anywhere. Anytime we find someone intentionally taking an innocent life, the context clearly indicates God’s fierce opposition and disapproval of it. Furthermore, the biggest moral monsters in the Scriptures are consistently the guys who sanction and participate in the intentional taking of not just innocent life, but nascent life.

When you combine God’s fierce opposition to the intentional taking of nascent life with references to the plans He has for His people that are in place from the moment of their conception onward and even before then, the inescapable conclusion is that the intentional killing of human life that is still in the womb is morally on par with infanticide. In other words, it is wrong. It is morally impermissible. There are no circumstances in which it is the right thing to do.

This could quickly become a full-throated defense of the pro-life (and anti-abortion) position, but for the sake of time, let’s briefly touch on a couple of arguments that can be developed from just these verses and the one response that matters most. First, abortion is wrong because it is the intentional taking of nascent human life, and the intentional taking of nascent human life is always wrong. The context of this passage is the Pharaoh is clearly and entirely in the wrong. There is no sense in which there is anything morally good or necessary about his actions, nor could there be. Any actions that fall in this same vein are greeted with the same judgment. We should oppose abortion because it is morally wrong. And, no, I don’t believe there are exceptions to that statement.

Second, a culture that embraces abortion or even shrugs its shoulders at the act in most circumstances as ours increasingly does is a culture that has lost a sense of hope for the future. Abortion is an act of hopelessness. The fact that the Israelites here continued having lots of babies in spite of the persecution they were facing meant they had not given up their hope of a future that was better than their present. No one brings a child into the world without hope that their baby’s future will be brighter than their present has been. The act of abortion reveals an absence of such a hope. The more fully a culture embraces abortion, the more this hopelessness takes root. A culture without hope is a dying culture. It is a symptom of a sickness that runs very deep. We should oppose abortion because of the harm it does to our culture in the long run.

There is obviously much more to say, and we could explore these things in far more detail than I have here, but let’s shift gears to the response that matters most. That response, in a word, is love. Abortion reflects a lack of love. While our culture often frames it as an act of self-love, just the opposite is the case. Sin and love have no points of overlap. When an abortion happens there is a lack of love at every single level – for the child, for the mother, for the father, for the culture, for the God who gives life. Today it is often an act of base selfishness, but it can also be an act of fear and coercion where a woman has been pressured into such a position by a number of different who do not by any means have her best interests (much less those of her child) at heart.

Driving back the darkness of abortion will most fundamentally require us to shine the light of love more fully than we are right now. We need to better love young men and women so they won’t think so little of themselves as to either seek value they feel they are lacking through sex outside the bounds of marriage, or else so they understand that loving another person well includes not pursue sex with them if they are not married to them. We need to love women who find themselves pregnant and unmarried (the source of the vast majority of abortions) so they see the value both for them and for their baby in carrying that life to full term. We need to love women who have had abortions well, helping them work through and heal from the wound they have been dealt (and even – and especially – if it is genuinely self-inflicted). We need to love the children well enough to advocate for them when they are unable to do so themselves.

So often the Scriptures do not speak clearly where we wish they would. Yet if we will give the stories they tell the attention they deserve, we will find them establishing a view of the world that itself gives us the answers and direction we are seeking. In this case, we find a worldview of life and its value at every point along its continuum of existence. Let us commit to living out the implications of this worldview in all the ways God calls us.

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