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Exodus 1:15-22

15. And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives; (of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah;)

15. Dixit etiam Pharao rex Aegypti ad obstetrices Hebraeas, quarum unius nomen erat Sephera, alterius Puah.

16. And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools, if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.

16. Sic dixit, Quando adjuvabitis ad partum Hebraeas, et videbitis in illis quod sit masculus, interficite eum: si autem sit foemina, vivat.

17. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men-children alive.

17. Timuerunt vero obstetrices Deum, nec fecerunt sicut praeceperat illis rex Aegypti; conservaruntque masculos in vita.

18. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive?

18. Et vocans Pharao obstetrices, dixit illis, Quare fecistis rem hanc, et servastis masculos?

19. And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.

19. Responderunt obstetrices Pharaoni, Quia non sunt Hebraeae muli-eres ut Aegyptiae: sunt enim vegetae, et priusquam veniat ad eas obstetrix, pariunt.

20. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.

20. Benefecit ergo Dens obstetri-cibus: et multiplicatus est populus, et roborati sunt vehementer.

21. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.

21. Et factum est, quia timuerunt obstetrices Deum, fecit illis domos.

22. And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.

22. Tunc praecepit Pharao cuncto populo suo, dicens, Omnem nature masculum in flumen projicite: omnem vero foeminam vivam servabitis.

15. And the king of Egypt spake. The tyrant now descends from the open violence and cruelty which had availed nothing, to secret plots and deceit. He desires the infants to be killed at their birth; and commands the midwives to be the instruments of this dreadful barbarity. We read of no such detestable example of inhumanity since the world began. I admit it has occasionally happened, that, upon the capture of a city, the conquerors have not spared even children and infants; that is to say, either in the heat of battle, or because the defense had been too obstinate, and they had lost many of their men, whose death they would avenge. It has happened, too, that an uncle, or brother, or guardian, has been impelled by the ambition of reigning to put children to death. It has happened, again, that in the detestation of a tyrant, and to destroy the very memory of his family, his whole offspring has been slain; and some have proceeded to such cruelty against their enemies, as to tear the little ones from their mothers’ breasts. But never did any enemy, however implacable, ever so vent his wrath against a whole nation, as to command all its male offspring to be destroyed in the midst of peace. This was a trial, such as to inflict a heavy blow on men of the utmost firmness, much more to bring low a fainting people, already weary of their lives. For, at first sight, each would think it more advantageous and desirable for them to sink down into an humbler state, than that the wrath of their enemies should be thus provoked against them by the blessings of God. And it is probable, such was the prostration of their minds, that they were not only sorely smitten, but almost stupified. For nothing else remained, but that the men should die without hope of offspring, and that the name and race of Abraham should soon be cut off, and thus all God’s promises would come to nought. In these days, in which we have to bear similar insults, and are urged to despair, as if the Church would soon be utterly destroyed, let us learn to hold up this example like a strong shield: seeing that it is no new case, if immediate destruction seem to await us, until the divine aid appears suddenly and unexpectedly in our extremity. Josephus falsely conjectures that the midwives were Egyptian women, sent out as spies; whereas Moses expressly says, that they had been the assistants and attendants of the Hebrew women in their travail; and this erroneous idea is plainly refuted by the whole context, in which it especially appears that they were restrained by the fear of God from yielding to the sinful desire of the tyrant. Hence it follows, that they were previously possessed with some religious feeling. But another question arises, why two midwives only are mentioned by name, when it is probable that, in so great a population, there were many? Two replies may be given; either that the tyrant addressed himself to these two, who might spread the fear of his power amongst the others; or, that, desiring to proceed with secret malice, he made a trial of the firmness of these two, and if he had obtained their acquiescence, he hoped to have easily succeeded with the others; for shame forbade him from issuing an open and general command.

17. But the midwives feared God. Moses does not mean that they were then first affected with the fear of God; but he assigns this reason why they did not obey his unjust command, viz., because reverence towards God had greater influence with them. And certainly, as all our affections are best directed by this rein, so also it is the surest shield for resisting all temptations, and a firm support to uphold our minds from wavering in seasons of danger. Now, they not only dreaded this crime as being cruel and inhuman; but because purer religion and piety flourished in their hearts; for they knew that the seed of Abraham was chosen of God, and had themselves experienced that it was blessed; and hence it was natural to feel, that it would be an act of very gross impiety to extinguish in it the grace of God. We must also observe the antithesis between the fear of God and the dread of punishment, which might have deterred them from doing right. Although tyrants do not easily allow their commands to be despised, and death was before their eyes, they still keep their hands pure from evil. Thus, sustained and supported by reverential fear of God, they boldly despised the command and the threatenings of Pharaoh. Wherefore those, whom the fear of men withdraws from the right course, betray by their cowardice an inexcusable contempt of God, in preferring the favor of men to his solemn commands. But this doctrine extends still more widely; for many would be1919     This somewhat harsh expression is thus translated in Fr. ver., “veulent estre sages en despit de nature;” would be wise in spite of nature. more than preposterously wise, whilst, under pretext of due submission, they obey the wicked will of kings in opposition to justice and right, being in some cases the ministers of avarice and rapacity, in others of cruelty; yea, to gratify the transitory kings of earth, they take no account of God; and thus, which is worst of all, they designedly oppose pure religion with fire and sword. It only makes their effrontery more detestable, that whilst they knowingly and willingly crucify Christ in his members, they plead the frivolous excuse, that they obey their princes according to the word of God; as if he, in ordaining princes, had resigned his rights to them; and as if every earthly power, which exalts itself against heaven, ought not rather most justly to be made to give way. But since they only seek to escape the reprobation of men for their criminal obedience, let them not be argued with by long discussions, but rather referred to the judgment of women; for the example of these midwives is abundantly sufficient for their condemnation; especially when the Holy Spirit himself commends them, as not having obeyed the king, because they feared God.

18. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives. He was not reduced to a more moderate course by equity or mercy; but because he dared not openly expose to slaughter the wretched and harmless infants at their birth, lest such atrocity should arouse the wrath of the Israelites to vengeance, He therefore secretly sends for the midwives, and inquires why they have not executed his murderous command? I doubt not, however, that he was restrained rather by the fear of rebellion than by shame.2020     Lightfoot, in his Sermon on Difficulties of Scripture, (Pitman’s edition, 7. 209,) says, “How many, in expounding that place, do roundly conclude, they told a lie to save their stake; when, as I suppose, it were no hard thing to shew, that the thing they spake was most true,” etc. And, again, in his “Handful of Gleanings out of the Book of Exodus,” vol. 2. 357, he has a short dissertation, headed, “The words of the Hebrew Midwives not a lie, but a glorious confession of their faith.” In opposition to Calvin, he considers them to have been Egyptian women. In the answer of the midwives two vices are to be observed, since they neither confessed their piety with proper ingenuity, and what is worse, escaped by falsehood. For the fabulous story which the Rabbins invent to cover their fault, must be rejected, viz., that they did not come in time to the Hebrew women, because they had warned them of the wicked design of the king; and so it came to pass that they were not present when they were delivered. What can be more tame than this invention, when Moses shews in his narrative that they were guilty of falsehood? Some assert that this kind of lie,2121     “Qui tend a faire plaisir;” which tends to give pleasure. — Fr. which they call “the lie officious, or serviceable,” is not reprehensible; because they think that there is no fault where no deceit for the purpose of injury is used.2222     Mendacium dividitur ratione culpae et finis; officiosum, jocosum, et perniciosum. — S. Thom., a. 2. Mendacium officiosum dicitur, quod committitur solum causa utilitatis propriae vel alienae; e.g., quis dicit, se non habere pecuniam, ne iis spolietur a militibus. — Dens. Tractatus de reliquis virtutibus justitiae annexis. Coloniae, 1776, tom. 3, p. 396. The subject is discussed by Peter Martyr, Loci Communes, Classis Secunda, cap. 13, with much reference to the Treatises of Augustin de Mendacio, in which this passage is treated of. In Augustin’s letter to Jerome, 82., speaking of the “mendacium officiosum,” he says, “non tam usitatum est in ecclesiasticis libris vocabulum officii.” But I hold, that whatever is opposed to the nature of God is sinful; and on this ground all dissimulation, whether in word or deed, is condemned, as I shall more largely discuss in explaining the law, if God grants me time to do so. Wherefore both points must be admitted, that the two women lied, and, since lying is displeasing to God, that they sinned. For, as in estimating the conduct of saints we should be just and humane interpreters; so also superstitious zeal must be avoided in covering their faults, since this would often infringe on the direct authority of Scripture. And, indeed, whensoever the faithful fall into sin, they desire not to be lifted out of it by false defences, for their justification consists in a simple and free demand of pardon for their sin. Nor is there any contradiction to this in the fact, that they are twice praised for their fear of God, and that God is said to have rewarded them; because in his paternal indulgence of his children he still values their good works, as if they were pure, notwithstanding they may be defiled by some mixture of impurity. In fact, there is no action so perfect as to be absolutely free from stain; though it may appear more evidently in some than in others. Rachel was influenced by faith, to transfer the right of primogeniture to her son Jacob; a desire, undoubtedly, pious in itself, and a design worthy of praise, anxiously to strive for the fulfillment of the divine promise; but yet we cannot praise the cunning and deceit, by which the whole action would have been vitiated, had not the gratuitous mercy of God interposed. Scripture is full of such instances, which shew that the most excellent actions are sometimes stained with partial sin. But we need not wonder that God in his mercy should pardon such defects, which would otherwise defile almost every virtuous deed; and should honor with reward those works which are unworthy of praise, or even favor. Thus, though these women were too pusillanimous and timid in their answers, yet because they had acted in reality with heartiness and courage, God endured in them the sin which he would have deservedly condemned. This doctrine gives us alacrity in our desire to do rightly, since God so graciously pardons our infirmities; and, at the same time, it warns us most carefully to be on our guard, lest, when we are desirous of doing well, some sin should creep in to obscure, and thus to contaminate our good work; since it not unfrequently happens that those whose aim is right, halt or stumble or wander in the way to it. In fine, whosoever honestly examines himself, will find some defect even in his best endeavors. Moreover, by the rewards of God, let us be encouraged to the confidence of thus obtaining good success, lest we should faint at the dangers we incur by the faithful performance of our duty; and assuredly no danger will alarm us, if this thought be deeply impressed upon our hearts, that whatever ill-will our good deeds may beget in this world, still God sits in heaven to reward them.

21. He made them houses.2323     The accuracy of Calvin’s criticism is undeniable, namely, — that as the Hebrew pronoun is of the masculine form, ordinary usage would forbid our considering this clause to be spoken of the midwives; and yet that the masculine and feminine pronominal affixes, distinguished respectively by a final ם or ן, are not used with such inflexible regularity as to preclude all debate. In fact, Moses has used the masculine pronoun ם at the end of ver. 17 of the next chapter, where a feminine pronoun should have been expected. In the clause under consideration, V. has the ambiguous pronoun eis, whilst the LXX. has ἐποίησαν ἑαυταῖς, which is a departure from the Hebrew text in both words. — W
   The gloss in the Geneva Bible is, — “i.e., God increased the families of the Israelites by their means.” Lightfoot, Harmony 2. 108, on the contrary, explains the expression, “For which, their piety, God marrieth them to Israelites, for they were Egyptian women, and builded up Israelitish families by them.” “Triplex hic difficultas, (says Poole,) 1. Quis fecit? 2. Quibus? 3. Quid?” The balance of comments appears to favor Calvin’s solution.
It is not at all my opinion that this should be expounded as referring to the women, and I am surprised that many interpreters have been grossly mistaken on so dear a point. All are agreed that the pronoun is masculine, and therefore, according to ordinary usage, should refer to males; but because the two letters ם and ן are sometimes used interchangeably, they have supposed that the two clauses of the verse must be connected, and both referred to the women. But there is no need of this, since the sentence runs very well in this way: — “The people multiplied and waxed very mighty, and it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made them houses,” i e., the Israelites; as much as to say, that through the piety of these women, they obtained an abundant offspring. And because some saw that a suitable meaning could not be elicited by this false interpretation, they have imagined that, by the inspiration of God, well-fortified houses were built them by the people, where they might be secure from the attacks of their enemies. Nothing can be more puerile than this conceit. But lest readers should puzzle themselves unnecessarily on this not very perplexing point, let us inquire what the Hebrews meant by this expression, “to make houses.” When God promises (1 Samuel 2:35) that he will build for Samuel “a sure house,” there is no question that he refers to a stable priesthood. Again, when he declares (2 Samuel 7:27) that he will build a house for David; and when a little afterwards we read in David’s prayer, (v. 27,) “thou hast revealed to thy servant, saying, I will build thee a house,” the royal dignity is clearly to be understood. It is plain, too, from the address of Abigail, that this was a common mode of speaking, where she says, (1 Samuel 25:28,) “the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house.” Now, it is quite unsuitable to the female sex and name that a woman should be made head of a family. Whence it appears that the words are forcibly2424     “Tire par les cheveux;” dragged by the hair. — Fr. wrested if we say that God made a house for the midwives; but it will be most applicable to the whole people, that it was multiplied by God, until it arose like a perfect building to its full height. The conclusion is, that the Israelites owed to the exertions of two women the fact, not only that they survived and were preserved, but also that they flourished more and more, in order that thus the glory of God might shine forth with greater brightness, since he so marvelously preserved his people when very near destruction by these weak instruments. But Moses puts the word “houses” in the plural number, because the people were built up by the increase of the offspring of separate families.

22. And Pharaoh charged. If he had not been transported with wrath and struck with blindness, he would have seen that the hand of God was against him; but when the reprobate are driven to madness by God, they persevere obstinately in their crimes; and not only so, but, like the deranged2525     “Vertiginosi, vel phrenetici.” — Lat. “Phrenetiques, ou demoniacles.” — Fr. or frantic, they dash themselves with greater audacity against every obstacle. It is indeed commonly the case that cruelty, having once tasted innocent blood, becomes more thirsty for it; nay, in general, wicked men, as if excited by their course, grow hotter and hotter in crime, so that there is no end nor measure to their iniquity; but here, in this very desperate rage, we must perceive the vengeance of God, when he had given up the tyrant for the devil to destroy him, whilst we also remember his design both to try the patience of his people as well as to set forth his own goodness and power. The tyrant, finding that his snares and deceit availed nothing, now shakes off fear and flies to open violence, commanding the little ones to be torn from the breasts of their mothers and to be cast into the river. Lest there should be any lack of executioners, he gives this charge to all the Egyptians, whom he knew to be more than ready for the work. He spares the daughters, that, being enslaved and allotted to the Egyptians, they might produce slaves for their masters, whilst by them the races and names could not be preserved. Here it may be worth while to meditate on a comparison with our own times. Antichrist, with all his murderous agents, leaves in peace those who by their treacherous silence deny Christ, and are prepared to embrace as slaves every kind of impiety; neither does he exercise his cruelty, insatiable though it be, where he sees no manliness to exist; and he exults and triumphs, as if his end was gained, when he perceives any who had some courage in professing their faith fallen into effeminacy and cowardice. But how much better is it for us to die an hundred times, retaining our manly firmness in death, than to redeem our life for the base service of the devil.


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