Summary: A strong lesson from two relatively unknown Old Testament characters. What can we learn from these two women? Much!
If you are a student of the Old Testament, you are well aware of the strong women characters featured in the book of Genesis. The stories of many of these women, such as Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are given to us in much detail. Through the Genesis text we gain a rich insight into their lives. We are able to, in a small sense, share in their hopes, and dreams, their joys and disappointments. There is enough information provided in the Biblical text regarding their personalities, their families, their struggles, their victories to make us feel that we know them quite well.
As we move into the Biblical account of the Exodus and thereafter, the text provides us with much less detail about the key women characters of the time (the exception being perhaps Miriam). Are these women less important? No! Are they too dull, or not strong enough spiritually? No! It’s simply that things have changed in relation to God’s people. Events are happening at a much faster pace. We are no longer dealing with the life of a particular family, i.e. Abraham, rather we are dealing with the future of an entire race of God’s people.
As one reads the Exodus account in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, continuing even into the conquest account provided in Joshua, women are found in these texts; however, we must work a little harder to find lessons applicable for us today.
Such is the case with the first two women characters named in the Exodus account; namely, Puah (Pew-uh) and Shiphrah (Shif-ruh).
At the close of Genesis, we find Joseph has overcome earlier trials and setbacks in his life and due to his faith in God, he has become second in command over all of Egypt. We learn that only in the throne "I (Pharaoh) will be greater than you" (Gen. 41:40).
Joseph was well thought of in Egypt. After all, he saved the nation from sure death due to the great famine. After the emotional events surrounding the relocation of Joseph’s family to Egypt, we learn that Joseph stayed in Egypt, "he and his father’s household, and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years… and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt"(Gen 50: 22, 26). It is estimated that Joseph died around 1695 BC.
The book of Exodus opens by reminding us of Joseph and his family (the twelve tribes of Israel) residing and multiplying in Egypt: "the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them" (Ex. 1:7). This brief reminder, along with verse 8 are key to understanding the events that are to come in the life of God’s people. In verse 8, we learn of a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
Time is moving very, very quickly in our opening text of Exodus. Again, Joseph died around 1695 BC. According to most ancient historians, Joseph came to power around the beginning of the 13th Dynasty, which saw a total of ten Pharaoh’s. He died around the end of the 14th Dynasty. During the next three Egyptian Dynasties (15—17th) the region recognized a period of decline. The land was invaded and ruled by the Hyksos (Hick-sohss). The beginning of the 18th Dynasty brings about a new kingdom and ushers in a stronger leadership. The Pharaoh Ahmose expels the Hyksos (around 1550 BC) marking the start of the New Kingdom which would eventually be recognized as the heyday of Egyptian power and splendor. Many ancient historians believe Ahmose to be the new king of Exodus 1:8 who didn’t know (remember) Joseph. Why? I think for two reasons. First, the most obvious, so much time had passed (about 145 years). Secondly, the ruling Pharaoh’s after Joseph’s time were foreigners (the Hyksos). They wouldn’t know, or care about what the “second in command” did for a nation they conquered.
Thus, with a new king (possibly Ahmose) in place who didn’t know (or even care for that matter) about a Hebrew, “second-in-command” from years ago, the stage is now set!
Set the Stage for our lesson - Exodus 1:9-14:
The Hebrew population living in Egypt was exploding. There is might in numbers! It would appear that these numbers worried the new king (vs. 8-9). In addition, Egypt had enemies who boardered them. It’s one thing to defend your country from an outside attack, it’s quite another to be attacked from the inside as well. The new king was obviously militarily minded and recognized a potential alliance with the Hebrews and their bordering enemies. Thus, in verse 11 we learn of his first attempt at preventing such an alliance: "So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor."
It would appear that during the Hyksos takeover the Hebrews had been and continued to be slaves to the Egyptian rulers. Now, however, taskmasters were strategically placed over the slaves. What are taskmasters and what was their objective here? They were simply oppressive overseers of large groups of slaves. It’s not in the realm of probability (given the large population of Hebrew slaves) to assume there were hundreds of taskmasters. Their primary objective was to build these storage cites (Pithom and Raamses), however, the new king had a much more devious, underlying motive. We only read of it’s failure in verse 12, yet it would appear the plan was to work them so hard, to the point of exhaustion, thus leaving the men too tired to father children. It didn’t work! "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out…" (vs. 12). So, what are you going to do now “new king?” His next plan is down right hideous! It employees the services of our two women characters — Puah and Shiphrah.