The Midwife’s Tale
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
submitted Aug 21, 2014
I usually tend to think about the story of baby Moses from either Jochebed’s or Miriam’s point of view. Occasionally, I’ve wondered what it was like for the princess. But today I think I’ll consider some people I haven’t really thought about before: the midwives.
Possibly the most amazing thing about the account of these women is that they are named. This is a rare honor for any female in the Bible, and particularly rare for one of low caste such as a midwife. No one knows how many midwives served the large Hebrew population; these are clearly only two of many. There is some question in the text as to whether they are Hebrew women, or simply serve Hebrew women, but according to the Jewish Women’s Archive, (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/puah-bible) the names are Semitic, not Egyptian, so it is most likely they were Hebrew. This site also points out that the fact that God honored them by giving them families implies that they had been barren before this, and also that they were still of child-bearing age, which was not always the case with midwives of the ancient world.
From long practice, I can rub sleep out of my eyes, pull on my outer gown, grab my bag of necessities, and run from my hut in about ten seconds flat. It’s always in the middle of the night. I believe babies like to start making difficulties for us as soon as possible. As I breathlessly trot after little Miriam down the darkened alleyway, I hear the slap of sandals from a side street, and Puah joins us, panting even harder than I am. We can neither of us run as Miriam can, dashing along in front of us, turning back to hurry us onward.
“It’s okay,” I try to gasp, “we should still have plenty of time, child!”
We skid to a stop at Amram’s house. Even if we didn’t already know the right one, we’d know it by the man pacing outside distractedly. He sees us and rushes to pull at us. “Hurry! She’s in pain! What took you so long?”
We just smile. We’re used to husbands, too.
We duck into the doorway and find Jochebed pacing, rubbing her belly and looking as if she’s far away in another world. As always, I experience that jab of envy. They always look like that—like something has taken them over, something alien and unknowable. Childbirth is both the most natural thing in the world and the most supernatural.
That’s what I think, anyway, but Puah always says I’m too dreamy.
For the rest of the night, I’m too busy to dream. Little Aaron has been hustled off, still mostly asleep, to a neighbor’s house. Miriam is old enough to be of some help, and the three of us walk with Jochebed, give her water, let her clutch our hands, encourage her, rub her back. I always wonder what it is we actually do, unless something bad happens. Which I pray it won’t. These days, too, we have a different prayer.
Holy One, let it not be a boy!
Who, in a million years, would ever have believed we could ask such a thing? To not want sons? It seems almost blasphemous. But the men have it worst, right now, in any case, quite aside from that appalling decree. We feel, more than see, Amram’s shadow passing the doorway, first one way, then the other. He’s not just pacing in the time-honored childbed wait. He’s on guard. He’ll let us know immediately if any Egyptian comes. Jochebed’s pains are taking her hard, now, and Puah muffles her groans in the front of her skirt. “Shh, shh, mistress, bite down! Don’t scream!”
They mustn’t know. Not till it’s over. I try to be as reassuring as possible, especially seeing the fear in Miriam’s eyes. Hard enough for a girl, when she’s first present at a birth. Lately, every one is even more of a crisis than usual.
When the child finally slides into my waiting hands from between the stones Jochebed crouches on, I can’t help giving a despairing look to Puah. Jochebed intercepts the glance. “It’s a boy?” she gasps.
I nod, rubbing the slippery little body with olive oil and preparing to cut the cord.
“A fine healthy son!” says Puah, too brightly.
In a few minutes, the baby is clean, afterbirth is disposed of, Jochebed is back in her freshly made bed, and we call in Amram. I stand back and watch, as I always do. The weary serenity on a mother’s face is always another pang to me. Again, she is in a world from which I have been excluded. This time, the serenity is troubled, like the surface of a lake before a storm. Miriam huddles at her mother’s shoulder, chin trembling, and I see Jochebed reach for her. “Trust God, my daughter,” she murmurs, but her voice, too, is wobbly, and not entirely from exhaustion.
Amram’s chin seems granite-like as Puah hands him his son. He looks into the tiny face, then holds the baby high in the air and looks up. “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God of Joseph, whom You made as a father to Pharaoh, look down on this Your son. You give him to us; we give him back to you. Put Your mighty wings over him.” Amram brings the baby back down to his chest as a thin wail arises. The little one is discovering hunger. “Blessed be the Name of the Lord,” the father whispers, as he hands the child to Jochebed.
A few weeks later, I can barely walk for the terror that grips me. I clutch Puah’s hand convulsively and try to keep from stumbling as we follow the palace officers who stride along, ignoring us, knowing full well we will be right behind them when they turn to usher us into the presence of the great Pharaoh himself. My heart beats so hard I feel sick. The king has learned that there are baby boys in Goshen, living, kicking, crying baby boys. I am sure we are not the only midwives who are refusing to kill them at birth.
The guards swing to the side at a huge doorway and motion us past them. I catch only a glimpse of a gold-covered throne and harsh, eagle eyes, before dropping my petrified gaze to the mosaic floor beneath my feet.
“You know the command,” growls the voice of power.
We can only nod. I am concentrating on not vomiting on the mosaic.
“Why, then, have you allowed these Hebrew boys to live?”
I want to shout, “What kind of monsters do you think we are? We bring life! We do not destroy it! Who could kill a baby?” But I simply cower in silence.
“Well?” demands the voice angrily.
We are not likely to leave the room alive. I should just go ahead and say it. But then, who would save the boys that are growing in their mothers now? Somehow, we have to keep working! Holy One! my mind gibbers incoherently.
And then Shiphrah takes my breath away. Sounding quite calm (only her death-grip on my hand betrays her), she says reasonably, “Lord, the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are strong, and give birth before the midwives can even get there.”
I hold my breath. He will never accept this answer. It implies that Egyptian women are pampered, weak creatures. But silence falls, and I dare to sneak a glance. He is rubbing his chin thoughtfully. A minister leans in, and I hear part of the whispering. “…not like us…breed like animals…get more use out of them…”
Shiphrah and I hold our breaths and share a sideways look. Are they taking this as a compliment?
“You may go!” comes the order, and we get out as fast as we can. I privately promise an extra sacrifice to the God of our fathers. And mothers.
Three months later, I can hardly stop crying long enough to tell my husband… he is to be a father.
Blessed be the Name of the Lord.