The Hebrew midwives during the time that Moses was born are credited with saving many lives in their defiance of the king of Egypt and his order to kill all male Hebrew babies. The midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15), kept the babies alive. When brought before the king to explain their actions, the midwives said, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (verse 19). This statement, in itself, seems to be a lie. What’s often debated is whether or not it was a necessary or justified lie.
The lie of the midwives takes place within the context of slavery. Many years after Joseph’s death, a new Pharaoh rose to power. This new king knew nothing of Joseph. All the new king could see is that the Israelite population was growing stronger every day. Fearing an uprising, Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters to oppress the Hebrews with hard physical labor. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exodus 1:12).
Pharaoh decided to make life even harder for the Hebrews and “worked them ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:13). Even worse, Pharaoh decreed to the Hebrew midwives, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (verse 16).
But the Hebrew midwives “feared God” and allowed the male infants to live (Exodus 1:17). To their credit, they valued God’s law above Pharaoh’s laws and refused to commit the act of infanticide. Pharaoh found out about their disobedience and summoned Shiphrah and Puah. When questioned why the boys were being allowed to live, the midwives responded with what we assume to be a lie (verse 19). The Israelites continued to grow in number and strength (verse 20). Also, the Lord rewarded the midwives well by giving them families of their own (verse 20).
God, who is Truth, desires His people to speak truth (Leviticus 19:11; 1 John 2:21), and surely the midwives knew that honesty is God’s will. Yet Shiphrah and Puah lied anyway. The New Testament gives an example of people killed on the spot for lying to God (Acts 5:1–11). So why do the Hebrew midwives seem to get a pass? A key difference between these two instances is motivation. The midwives lied to the Egyptian tyrant to cover their disobedience of his ungodly edict. The couple in Acts 5 lied for selfish reasons. Also, Shiphrah and Puah lied to an evil, murderous king; Ananias and Sapphira lied to God.
We must also note that the Bible does not say that God commended the Hebrew midwives specifically for their lie. The Bible’s stated reason for God’s blessing is that “the midwives feared God” (Exodus 1:21), not that they lied, per se. Of course, their falsehood came as part of their effort to save lives, so perhaps God overlooked the lie and commended their godly motivation. Perhaps they received God’s forgiveness for the act of lying and were blessed for their act of mercy toward the newborn sons of Israel.
Another consideration is that the midwives may have been telling at least a half-truth. It is possible that, generally speaking, the Hebrew women gave birth quickly, and that some births did occur before the midwives were on the scene. The midwives may only have been guilty of withholding the fact that, when they managed to arrive before the moment of birth, they did not kill the males. Either way, they were rewarded not for their words but for their works.
Similar cases such as the one faced by the Hebrew midwives can be found throughout biblical history and into our own time. Although rare, some situations seem to call for an obscuring of truth in the face of evil. Rahab’s falsehood when hiding the Israelite spies from the king of Jericho (Joshua 2; James 2:25–26) is one example. Those who hid Jews from the Nazis in World War II are another. It seems that, when innocent human lives are at stake, choosing the lesser of two evils is appropriate.
Another important principle is illustrated in the story of the Hebrew midwives. We need not obey mankind’s authorities if they require us to do something that goes against God’s higher law. As Peter and the other apostles said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). The Hebrew midwives obeyed God’s will before Pharaoh’s will, and God rewarded them richly.