A Tale of Two Women

There is a little-known story of two women in the beginning of the book of Exodus; two little-known women named Shiphrah and Puah who are midwives for the King of Egypt. Their role takes a little-known and very dark turn when they are commanded to kill the very children they bring into the world: all sons born to Hebrew mothers.

Before going further, note two easily passed-over details: 1) This text of women is actually recorded. 2) The women are named. 

The Bible is no stranger to patriarchy. It was written mostly if not entirely by men. It was edited by men. It describes a succession of societies over a period of roughly 1200 years whose public life was dominated by men…It talks almost only about men. In the Hebrew Bible as a whole, only 111 of the 1426 people who are given names are women. (Cullen Murphy, “Women and the Bible,” Atlantic Monthly, 8/93)

Two of the 111 are Shiphrah and Puah.

This is stunning. And this is the Sacred Feminine – showing up boldly, provocatively, undeniably.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dwelt well with the midwives, and the people multipled and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, [God] gave them families. (Exodus 1:15-21)

This tale of two women offers us a wise and winsome template for all womens’ capacity, courage, and profound beauty.  The Sacred Feminine – showing up boldly, provocatively, undeniably. 

They support one another.

Shiphrah and Puah are not understood separate from one another in this text. Their actions are as one in defiance. Their voices are as one before the king. Their courage, resolve, and ability to act are strengthened because of one another.

This is evidence of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst: our passionate collaboration with and support of one another.

They defy predominant culture and its leading voices of power.

Shiprah and Puah, both Egyptians, are described as “fearing God” (a completely counter-cultural act) which only heightens the level of risk inherent in their actions – as if disobeying the king weren’t enough. In doing so, they name and defy the existing and dangerous system of power.

This is evidence of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst: our passionate voices rising in unity to speak out against injustice.

They say and live their truth.

Truth-telling is a life-or-death matter: their own and those of all Hebrew sons. When confronted they cunningly save their own skin while simultaneously saving that of others as well. Their actions shout the truth about an existing system of power that is violent and out-of-control; they have the capacity to stand up to it and effect change.

This is evidence of the Sacred Feminine’s presence in our midst: our passionate telling of the truth – rife with consequence and risk but compelling our capacity to effect change.

This is the way it has always been with women throughout history. No matter the era or context we find these same truths. And in them all, the Sacred Feminine – showing up boldly, provocatively, undeniably.

May it be so – with Shiprah and Puah by our side.

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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    Angie Cox April 27, 2010 at

    The power of two is what has captured my attention in this post, and not just two people, but two women. I’ve never been much for having a strong powerful female ally, probably because of a less than fulfilling history with other females that goes back to grade school, and the religiously-induced submissiveness that rendered most of the females in my environment “unrelate-able” for me. I have always much preferred hanging out with the guys.

    And yet, I have begun to see them….strong like-minded women with whom I enjoy spending time, sharing stories, and relating struggles and passions. They appear from around the globe, popping into my life, and occasionally coming to my rescue from a thousand miles away via a well-worded blog post, an encouraging email, or some other bit of reassurance that lets me know we’re in this together.

    Two women defying societal norms. In the latter example, one was too old, and one was too young, and yet together, in both examples, they delivered the “goods” in spite of the disapproval of others by encouraging one another and resting in the safety of each other’s strengths. In doing so, they forever changed the world.

    May each of us always be blessed with another female with whom and in whom we can rest in the trying times and hold/rock in our strong times.


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    I’ve talked to other women recently who have said something similar Angie: that they haven’t known strong women friends/allies in their lives. This breaks my heart and, simultaneously, makes me so grateful for the many I have had and now know who are just that. Certainly, the face-to-face kind, but also those who emerge in texts like these. The power of women is beautiful. The power of women together? Staggering, formidable, Divine.


    Megan April 28, 2010 at

    I agree that our greatest strength is in community too… Women together.

    My husband and I have had discussion where he’s pointed out that he sees a lot of women putting down women, and supporting patriarchal attitudes themselves. I was asking him if he thought they would behave that way if boys hadn’t taught it to them, if patriarchy hadn’t made it so important.

    Lately, the more I think about these things (though, I may be behind the times), the more I think that the two greatest sweeps patriarchy accomplished was to make women believe that our own wisdom and power was evil and to be avoided and then to divide us amongst ourselves. Which means, the first things we must do is learn to embrace our feminine wisdom and power and then to embrace each other with open minds and hearts.

    It is true that all the powerful stories are those where women have stood up in support of women… I think that’s our “thing”.

    .-= Megan´s last blog ..Daring Mondays: Just Keep Swimming =-.


    Ronna Detrick May 1, 2010 at

    Megan: somehow your comment ended up in my Spam file. I’ve now amended that – gratefully – and am thrilled that you’re here. Yes – you’re right: for women to believe that their wisdom/power was evil is deeply disturbing…and oh, so real! And yes, to be divided from one another…oh, so real. Though I’m seeing a shift – at least in my own worlds; a hunger to come-together, a recognizing of shared language, story, truth; a convergence of wisdom and power as embodied uniquely in women that will not be silenced again. LOVE that you’re in the mix!


    Shawna Cevraini April 27, 2010 at

    “They support one another” – this is my favorite part (though I love the whole post). How many times do we forget that? It frustrates me to see/hear women bring each other down (I’ve done it, I can’t deny). How young girls are constantly hurting each other with their words and actions. It breaks my heart.

    Thankfully, there are people like you and programs like one at my daughter’s school(YES Program) that are teaching us to lift each other up. That remind us to encourage and support one another. That makes my heart glad! There have been a few times where I have pondered that if more women were world leaders, what a different world that would be. I can only try to make change myself and encourage my daughter to be all that she can be!

    Thank you Ronna for another beautiful post!
    .-= Shawna Cevraini´s last blog ..Resistance =-.


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    You’re welcome and, of course, thank you, Shawna. Indeed, women have and will continue to change the world. Its exponential and gorgeous when we do it together!


    PicsieChick April 27, 2010 at

    Thank you for introducing me to Shiphrah and Puah, I had not met them before, and feel richer knowing their story.

    I’m sorry you received bad news. I’m sending you blue, purple and crimson tinted butterflies, whose wings are showering you with gold glitter.

    And hugs, too
    .-= PicsieChick´s last blog ..Pulled along through your streets, you draw me in =-.


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    Thank you. Butterflies received. Glitter celebrated. Hugs needed. ‘Appreciate you!


    Karen Sharp April 27, 2010 at

    Love you, Ronna. And while yes, your post is stunningly beautiful and a perfect instance of women supporting each other and speaking truth to power — both in the story you tell of Shifrah and Puah, and in your own example — I want to respond more directly to your own feelings of struggle, excruciatingness, and needing encouragement.

    Because I think what may be even more important than telling the truth, is being the truth, being truthful about our reality. Our real reality, including the reality that is painful, full of struggle, needing encouragement. Because I think that’s how we ally with each other, by being true with each other. And it’s a movement, it’s about always moving into faith, feminism, truth-telling. If we were already there, there’d be nothing transformative going on. It’s about the movement, together, that is the power of allying with each other.

    So while I’m sorry to hear that you hit a rough patch (*hug*) I am grateful and proud that you spoke the truth about it, rather than covering it over and presenting this post as if it was all the good stuff, and none of the hard stuff. As if you were an Authority, and not just another woman, making your own way as best you can, with your joys, and your trials and tribulations.

    Because for me, it’s you as just-another-woman, not as a capital-A Authority, albeit with a bit more courage than me perhaps, that enables me to take encouragement and strength from your example. So thank you.


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    I’m feeling the hug, Karen – certainly in what you’ve virtually sent, but so much more in your words, your encouragement, your heart. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


    Karen Sharp April 27, 2010 at

    and then, about Shifrah/Shiphrah (both spellings are correct) and Puah, I just wanted to share this, from Rachel Barenblat’s Velveteen Rabbi blog.

    [T]he Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:19)

    Shifrah and Puah, sent to strangle
    any Hebrew boys who survived

    the dangerous passage
    through the narrowest of straits

    cupped basins to catch vomit
    and counted breaths between pains.

    They cradled feet up and open,
    stretched each woman’s fingers down

    so she could feel the tiny head
    emerging, changing everything.

    Pharaoh didn’t understand
    no one births a child alone.

    Rachel Barenblat

    (There is an important pun here — the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, literally means place of narrowness, constraint. Narrow straits. And the Exodus from Egypt is often characterized as a birth, passing through the place of narrowness into the place of expansiveness. So the baby boys in the poem, passing through the narrowest of straits, are symbolic of the Hebrew people passing out of Egypt altogether … and of course, our own passage through our own narrowest of straits, in the real truths of our lives, today, now, here. Faith, feminism, truth-telling. All of it’s the same thing.)


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    I nearly wept through these images, Karen (and have bookmarked Velveteen Rabbi). So beautiful! So powerful. So poetic. So poignant. Thank you for sharing them here! And I love the complexity and complicity in the Hebrew language: words that mean more than one thing, that can be twisted and turned and talked about (Midrash) in ways that give us different perspective and meaning. So beautiful. Again, thank you!


    Mindy Danylak April 27, 2010 at

    oh ronna…beautiful words. truthful heart. lovely views, even in the desert. this poem came to mind as i read your post. baskets of appreciation to you tonight as you move through the particular labor of this time.

    “I and You”

    Yes, I come from another country,
    To your world I can never belong.
    Tinkling guitars cannot please me,
    I want a wild desolate song.

    I do not read my verses in drawing-rooms
    To black-coats and dresses like shrouds.
    I read my verses to dragons,
    To the waterfalls and to the clouds.

    I love like an Arab in the desert
    Who flings himself on water and drinks,
    Not like a knight in a picture
    Who looks at the stars and thinks.

    I shall not die in a bedroom
    With a priest and a lawyer beside me.
    I shall perish in a terrible ravine
    With a mass of wild ivy to hide me.

    I shall not go to a Protestant heaven,
    Open to all in tidy blue skies,
    But to a place where thief and publican
    And harlot will cry: ‘Friend, arise!’

    Nikolai Gumilev
    (Translated by V. De S. Pinto)


    Ronna Detrick April 27, 2010 at

    Mindy: Tears and Gratitude. At this moment, I can say no more.


    Julie Daley April 27, 2010 at

    Yes, yes, and yes. The sacred feminine is all those things, and she is you, she is me, she is every woman. Beautiful post, Ronna. Simply beautiful. I’m honored to call you sister.


    Ronna Detrick April 28, 2010 at

    Thank you, Julie. Truly. The weaving of stories, themes, ideas, thoughts, and passions is truly stunning to me. Case in point: your latest post: http://ht.ly/1E6no


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