Old Testament thoughts is a weekly post where we’ll be looking at some interesting aspects of some Scripture from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). Right now, we are looking at the first two chapters of Exodus
One thing I love about ancient Jewish readers of the Hebrew Bible (OT) is that they paid attention to the smallest details of a text. So our two examples today, about the midwives of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:15-21), will take their cue from ancient midrash.
First, I suggested in the last post that the midwives might have actually been Egyptian and not Hebrew (see below). Well, there is an ancient Jewish interpretation that suggests that they were Jewish. Not only were the midwives Jewish but they were none other than Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses! Now, there a few good reasons to think that it probably wasn’t Jochebed and Miriam, including the fact that they are actually given other names in the text, but it’s interesting to see how these interpreters filled in the “gaps” in the Bible. They took the names given for the midwives in the text to be “nicknames” or “descriptors” (like Jacob being called “heel-grabber”) rather than their given names. Jewish interpreters loved doing this sort of thing (see Paul’s use of Jannes & Jambres in II Timothy 3:8). Here is the passage in Jewish literature that relates the two:
“The Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) were Yocheved and [her daughter] Miriam. Miriam, who was only five years old then, went with Yocheved to assist her. She was quick to honor her mother and to serve God (Eitz Yosef), for when a child is little, its traits are already evident. The name of the second (i.e., Miriam) was Puah (ibid.) for she gave the newborns wine and restored the babies to life when they appeared to be dead, she lit up Israel before God by teaching the women, she presented her face before Pharaoh, stuck up her nose at him, and said, “Woe is to the man (i.e., Pharaoh) when God punishes him!” Pharaoh was filled with wrath and would have killed her, but Yocheved appeased him, saying, “Will you pay attention to her? She is only a child, she has no understanding” (Shemot Rabbah 1:13)
Secondly, several Jewish interpreters noticed how improbable it was that there were only two midwives for all of the Jewish women (who were, if you remember, “increasing greatly”). So some suggest that these were simply the heads of the group of women who served as midwives. So they weren’t the only ones, just the ones in charge. Of course, there are other explanations as well, although I think this is a pretty good one.