Digging in Deeper: Exodus 1:17-21

“The midwives, however, feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this and let the boys live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.’ So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Everyone “knows” lying is wrong. I say it like that because in spite of that so-called knowledge, we still do it. A lot. For followers of Jesus, we know we serve the God of truth. Committing ourselves to something other than what is true, whether in word, deed, or even thought, is out of sync with His character and thus out of bounds for us morally. People generally who countenance any kind of authority to the Scriptures will quickly point to the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on bearing false witness as further proof of the sinfulness of lying. What do we do then, with a story in which some characters actively lie about something and are celebrated and rewarded for it? Let’s explore this together.

We talked yesterday about Pharaoh’s evil plans to kill the Israelite baby boys with these two midwives as his chief accomplices. Thankfully, his plans never went anywhere. They refused to play ball. They didn’t refuse to his face, of course. That would have likely invited an immediate death sentence. The Pharaoh wasn’t someone who took no for an answer, especially with a request like this. Instead, they said something like, “Sure, count us in” (actually, it was probably a whole lot more formal than that, and we don’t really have any idea because the text doesn’t tell us, but one can imagine), and went out with him thinking they were on board.

But they weren’t.

Instead, they effectively ignored his command, and the Israelites just kept multiplying. Sometime later, Pharaoh called them back in to get an update on his evil policy. More specifically, he wanted to know why they were allowing the Israelite baby boys to live. Their response is really interesting. Look at it again: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”

There are several questions that need to be answered before we can really make sense out of this response. First, and as we talked about a little bit yesterday, were these midwives Israelite or Egyptian? The way Moses writes here doesn’t make that clear. Yes, the text identifies them as “the Hebrew midwives,” but this isn’t as clear as it seems in English. The fact that Moses here tells us they “feared God” seems to me to point a little more in the direction of their being Egyptian, not Hebrew. Their fearing God wouldn’t seem like it should be a notable point if they were from among the people of Israel. But if they were Egyptian and expected to be pagan in their outlook, this becomes a much more relevant detail to revealing their character as well as their possible intent in their response to Pharaoh’s question.

Second, the common translation of the text here in English has the midwives describing the Hebrew women as “vigorous.” The implication is that they are strong, hardy women who don’t even need the services of the midwife. This would seem to play into the fears of Pharaoh of this people’s being a potentially strong enemy. Strong women give birth to strong babies who grow up to be strong men and women. The suggestion in this case is that by the time the midwives arrive to help, the babies are already out and in their parents’ arms. There’s no way they could “accidentally” kill the babies at that point.

There’s another translation option here, though, that isn’t so complimentary of the Hebrew women. The word can also be translated to describe them as being “wild.” The implication here is that they are reproducing like wild animals. They are having babies so fast that the midwives can’t keep up with who’s having a baby when. This kind of description is an insult to the Hebrews. It pictures them as a savage, almost sub-human population that is too hard to control. These different translation options come from two different Hebrew words, but they look and sound very similar to one another.

Which option here is correct depends on how we understand the strategy of their ruse. Were they trying to build the people up in order to make it seem like they were even more of a threat than Pharaoh first thought? Or were they playing into the Egyptian stereotypes to make it sound like the people were even less than they imagined them to be? Whichever option we take, though, the midwives were still lying through their teeth. They made the conscious choice to let the boys live. They were in the business of bringing life into the world. They weren’t about to be a party to its being ended far too soon.

We know from a bit later in the text that Pharaoh gave them a new set of instructions when this plan fell through. They were to start throwing the babies into the Nile to drown. But before we get that, Moses tells us that because the midwives feared God, he rewarded them with families. In other words, they lied to Pharaoh, and God blessed them for it. That just brings us back around to our initial question: Why would God bless them for lying?

The short answer is: We don’t know. This is a thorny enough question in fact that some commentators don’t even want to touch it. I have one commentary in my collection that goes on for several pages about chapter 1 and all of the other tricky questions it raises about God’s plans and His apparent absences from our lives, and doesn’t even mention this much more glaring question. How a commentary ostensibly focused on “life application” could be allowed to entirely ignore this question by its editors I’m honestly not sure.

Another commentary acknowledges that they lie and that God blesses them for it, but doesn’t wrestle with the question at all. That author merely notes the irony and moves on. He does take a moment to suggest that the midwives were perhaps rewarded because of the honesty of their deception. They weren’t trying to curry favor with Israel’s God. They were simply acting in faithfulness to His prohibition against taking innocent life in the best way they knew how without costing them their own lives in the process. Indeed, if they had stood there and told Pharaoh the truth, they would have likely been put to death on the spot. As it is, they preserved the lives of the Hebrews and their own lives as well. He also notes the irony of God’s blessing. They were to be complicit in the reduction of the Hebrew family, yet because they thwarted those efforts, God increased their own families.

A third commentator does finally address the issue, and he does it with the argument that most Christian ethicists have developed in response to this and other similar moral dilemmas Christians have faced over the centuries. (Another common framing of the question is whether Christians who lied by helping Jews to the Nazis during World War II were committing a moral wrong by their intentional deception.) For people who have been raised with the mindset that the ninth commandment is a blanket and absolute prohibition against all forms of deception and lying (I don’t think it is, but that’s a conversation we’ll have when we get to the Ten Commandments in a few weeks), this answer to the dilemma here is pretty uncomfortable to consider. The response is worth quoting at length:

The Old Testament sees truth telling as part of a broader truthful relationship. Where there is a truthful relationship between people, telling the truth is part of that relationship. Where there is no truthful relationship, it does not isolate truth telling as an obligation. Where powerful people are oppressing powerless people, the powerless are not obliged to tell the truth to their oppressors.

Exodus & Leviticus for Everyone, John Goldingay (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY, 2010), 9.

In other words: Yes, they lied. Yes, this was the morally right thing for them to do. Yes, God was right in rewarding them for it. It was morally right, Goldingay argues, because Pharaoh was not someone who was deserving of the truth. He was a powerful person oppressing a powerless people and working to undermine his efforts with lies designed to prevent him from committing great evils was a good and right thing to do.

The trouble with this argument is that a people whose hearts are sinful in their orientation will see it through that lens and think, “Oh, so lying is okay after all.” They (we) will take an exceptional situation and seek to write a rule from it. Exceptions don’t give us permission to ignore the rules, they help define and enforce them. In this case, Pharaoh wasn’t someone who deserved the truth and so he didn’t get it. But the fact that this behavior was allowed and even honored by God doesn’t give us leave to seek out situations in which we can successfully follow suit. It gives us leave to mourn the fact that sin has created situations in which telling the truth will bring more harm than good, and in which intentional deception is the right path to take forward toward bringing honor and glory to the God of truth.

Here’s the thing: If we take this situation and try to find other places where it applies in our lives, the great likelihood is that we are looking to justify lies of convenience. God is still a God of truth. He wants us to live in the truth and tell the truth. While there may indeed be a tiny segment of circumstances in which willful deception is the most morally correct path to take, in the vast, vast majority of the situations we find ourselves in, creating or contributing to dishonest and deceptive words and actions are a direct violation of God’s character and sovereignty. In other words, it’s still morally wrong to lie in almost every single situation we will ever face. For most of us, it will be wrong to lie in all of them.

In this particular case, God honored the faithfulness of two women who had not been raised to follow Him, but who were attempting to do so honestly and from out of the only context they knew. When someone steeped in sin begins to follow Jesus, but initially does so using sinful means but without being aware of the sinfulness of those means, Jesus is still going to receive them and their efforts even as He works in their hearts through the Spirit to recognize the importance and necessity of walking away from sin in service to Him. Or to put that another way, God meets us where we are in all of our sinfulness and takes us to where He wants us to be. In this, what we are seeing here is a pattern of God’s receiving people as they come to Him, using the gifts they are able and willing to give to Him, and accomplishing incredible acts of kingdom advancement through them. More than being an example of why lying isn’t always morally wrong, this is an example of the graciousness of our God to take our meager and imperfect offerings and empower them by His holiness to become far more than they were before.

God is absolutely only and ever deserving of our best. But He also receives us as we are. When we are willing to go to Him humbly and honestly, He is waiting to receive us and make us more than we ever thought we could be. That is very good news indeed. You don’t have to make yourself right before going to God. Go to Him just as you are through Christ, and He will make you more than enough. That’s the kind of God who was in the process of rescuing the Israelites from slavery some 3500 years ago, that’s still the God we serve today.

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