by Doug Ward

One cornerstone of Judeo-Christian ethics is the sanctity of human life, based on the principle that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6). Because human life is precious, protecting it takes precedence over most other considerations.


Respect for life is exemplified in the courageous choices made by Shiphrah and Puah, leaders of the Hebrew midwives during the sojourn of the children of Israel in Egypt. These midwives lived during a time when Egyptians feared that the Israelites would soon overpower them. When other efforts to control Israel's population failed, the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered Shiphrah and Puah to kill male Israelite babies at birth (Exod 1:9-16).


Pharaoh's command created a crisis for the midwives, who were dedicated to bringing life safely into the world. Heeding the Egyptian king meant betraying everything for which they stood. Because they feared the true God more than Pharaoh, they elected to defy Pharaoh's directive and refused to kill the newborn boys (v. 17).


In choosing to protect the babies, Shiphrah and Puah invited the Egyptian king's ire and placed their own lives at risk. In a subsequent confrontation with Pharaoh they failed to tell the truth, falsely claiming that Israelite mothers were giving birth without the assistance of midwives (vv. 18-19). But because they followed the higher priority of saving human life, God blessed and protected them (v. 21).


Saving Life

The priorities of the midwives are shared by later Jewish teaching. After the failed Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 A.D., Israelites endured another era of persecution under the Roman emperor Hadrian. In a time when most outward expressions of Torah observance were illegal, Jews risked their lives by following their faith. This crisis prompted rabbinic authorities to rule that in order to save one's life, a person could, if necessary, break any commandment except those prohibiting idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality (b. Sanhedrin 74a).


Shiphrah and Puah are highly honored in Jewish tradition. According to one midrash, their greatness is displayed in the fact that they remained faithful despite being tempted to commit each of the three sins just mentioned-idolatry, murder, and sexuality immorality. The midwives resisted idolatry by defying the order of Pharaoh, who was considered to be a god. They avoided murder by sparing the lives of the newborn boys. And they avoided sexual immorality by shunning the advances of Pharaoh.


The midrash makes this last claim based on a peculiarity in the wording of Exod 1:15-16, which says that Pharaoh (a) spoke to the Hebrew midwives (v. 15); and (b) said that they should kill the male babies (v. 16). The wording leads to the speculation that Pharaoh spoke twice to Shiphrah and Puah, first urging them to join his harem and then giving the order recorded in verse 16. While this midrash is rather fanciful, it does make an important point. Pharaoh was one of the most powerful men in the world at that time, and he probably used various kinds of intimidation to pressure others to do his bidding. The midwives were very brave to resist that pressure.1


Promoting Human Well-Being

A high regard for life-and more broadly, for human flourishing in general-was especially evident in the deeds and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. In one incident, recounted in all three synoptic gospels, hungry disciples of Jesus plucked grain while passing through a field on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1). These disciples were criticized by some Pharisees, apparently because their actions constituted harvesting activity that was a kind of work forbidden on the Sabbath (Exod 34:21).


Jesus defended the actions of his disciples with a scriptural argument. First he cited the example of David, who while fleeing King Saul once fed his hungry men with bread of the presence from the tabernacle of God (I Sam 21:1-6), bread normally reserved for priestly consumption (Matt 12:3-4). Then he pointed out that temple priests were required to work on the Sabbath in order to fulfill their duties. He concluded by stating that "something greater than the temple is here" (v. 6).


There are several opinions on what the "something greater than the temple" might be. Identifying the "something" as "hunger and human need" fits well in the context of Matthew 12.2 Then Jesus' argument can be summarized as follows: David's example shows that hunger and human need take precedence over the service at the tabernacle or temple. The responsibilities of the temple service take precedence over the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Therefore hunger and human need take precedence over the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, justifying the actions of Jesus' disciples.


The hunger of the disciples was surely not life-threatening, but alleviating that hunger was life-affirming. Since the Sabbath is a gift from God to man, designed for the benefit of people, it is a time for good deeds. "The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath," Jesus taught (Mark 2:27). The Gospels mention several other Sabbaths when he gave the gift of healing to people with long-term disabilities (Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; John 5, 9).


For Jesus, promoting life and well-being held a high priority. In support of his ordering of priorities, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 ("For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice ... ."). Apparently Jesus often referred to this verse to make the point that life-affirming acts of love outweigh ritual and ceremonial concerns (Matt 9:10-13; 12:7).


The words and actions of Jesus send a clear message on the value of human life. During his years on earth he raised the dead, healed the sick, included the marginalized, and eased human suffering. His teachings promoted love and abundant living (John 10:10). Ultimately he gave his life to bring us eternal life. In all things he chose life, and he calls us to be like Shiphrah and Puah and follow in his footsteps.


1For more on Shiphrah and Puah, see the book Moses' Women by Shera Aronoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport (Ktav, Jersey City, 2008).


2On this point, see Chapter 1 of The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospels' Sabbath Conflicts by D. Thomas Lancaster (First Fruits of Zion, Marshfield, Missouri, 2013). Here Lancaster follows a suggestion by Dr. R. Steven Notley.

Issue 29


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On 21 Dec 2014, 16:15.