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On the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa, a Mediterranean port city in Israel’s Galilee, are my two favorite street names. They are Shifra St. and Puah St., and they intersect in a residential neighborhood not far from the Baha’i Shrine and its famous terraced gardens.
Shifra and Puah are two minor figures in the Hebrew Bible — and two of the greatest heroines in the moral development of humankind. Their brief story, told in just seven verses near the start of the book of Exodus (1:15-21 ), was included in the section of the Torah that was read in synagogues this past Sabbath. Their story is also relevant to the saga of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born in Georgia 92 years ago this week and will be honored next week on the national holiday that bears his name.
Exodus opens with an accusation by the Egyptian ruler, generally thought to be the historical Pharaoh Ramesses II, that the Hebrews living within his kingdom are disloyal. He riles up public opinion against them and demands that they be suppressed through forced labor.
But enslavement doesn’t achieve the results Pharaoh seeks, so he proceeds to a plan of genocide. He summons the midwives Shifra and Puah, and directs them to inspect each Hebrew baby as soon as it is born. If it is a boy, they are to kill it. (Newborn girls would be spared, presumably in the expectation that they would eventually marry Egyptians and assimilate into the population.)
Shifra and Puah, however, refused to just follow orders. As Exodus recounts:
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.”
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Shifra and Puah, low-status midwives instructed by the mightiest ruler on earth to kill the infant Hebrew boys that passed through their hands, did not do as they were told because they “feared God” — because their conscience prevented them from committing murder. Directly violating Pharaoh’s order, “they let the boys live.” In so doing, they committed the first recorded act of civil disobedience in history. They were commanded to commit a crime against humanity, and would not do so on the grounds that it was immoral. And when they were ordered to explain their failure to obey, they replied with a transparently insincere excuse — “the babies are born before we arrive!” — a defense so lame that they seem, between the lines, to be mocking Pharaoh.
This demonstrated not just extraordinary courage, but also extraordinary moral imagination. Millennia before any theory of civil disobedience existed, eons before the notion of universal human rights would be formulated, let alone incorporated into law, Shifra and Puah “feared God” and would not carry out an immoral order. Their refusal bent the arc of history at least as meaningfully as any of the all-powerful despots of their age.
What makes the story even more astonishing is that Shifra and Puah were almost certainly not Hebrews themselves. Grammatically, the text that tells their story can be translated as either “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives to the Hebrews,” and there is a fanciful Jewish tradition that identifies them with the mother and sister of Moses. But it seems highly implausible that Pharaoh would have ordered Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies — and even more unlikely that the Torah would make a point of naming the women only to disguise their true identity.
Of course it would have been praiseworthy had these two pioneers of civil disobedience risked Pharaoh’s wrath to save the lives of their own people. But to do so for a despised slave people at the bottom of the social pecking order? Such self-sacrifice and moral heroism would be inspiring in any age, but it must have been incomprehensible to the men and women of ancient Egypt.
Today we are accustomed to praising civil disobedience. We extol those who chose to fight unjust laws by breaking them and were prepared to face the consequences — people like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Oskar Schindler, Rosa Parks, the Soviet refuseniks, the “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, Mildred and Richard Loving, or those who sheltered Anne Frank and her family. Next week’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday honors not only King’s life but also his fierce conviction that while law is indispensable to a civilized society, the mindless enforcement of bad laws is never a substitute for decency or justice.
King was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers, and his writings and speeches are filled with intensely religious language. But King didn’t write only about God and theology. His renowned 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” conveys a powerful message about law, and about the dangerous temptation to venerate law and the legal process as ends in themselves.
From his jail cell, King wrote in response to a group of local white clergymen who had criticized him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for organizing nonviolent protests against the rigid segregation in the city of Birmingham. In his letter, which is now a classic in the literature of civil disobedience, he depicted the casual cruelties of Jim Crow in language so affecting that even white Americans would understand why black civil rights could no longer wait. At the same time he insisted that civil disobedience was not a license for lawlessness: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationists would do,” King wrote. “This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
King had been arrested for doing something illegal — parading without a permit — but that didn’t mean he had no respect for the law. Far from it: One who disobeys a law on a matter of conscience and freely pays the penalty for doing so “is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Rioters and terrorists may believe sincerely in the worthiness of their cause, but to resort to violence against the innocent is always to replace one form of immorality with another. That, King refused to countenance.
“When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters,” he wrote on the last page of his letter, “they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thus carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers.”
In truth, they were harking back even further — back all the way to Shifra and Puah, the lowly but indomitable midwives of antiquity who were given an evil order and refused to carry it out. At a time of unfathomable moral darkness, they found a ray of light, one that illuminates the world to this day.