This is an excerpt from Jennifer Cowart’s women’s Bible study book Fierce: Women of the Bible Who Changed the World, published by Abingdon Press.
By Jennifer Cowart
The word fierce is trendy. It’s used to describe women who are supermodels, extreme athletes, and high-level executives. It describes women who are at the top of their game and making a difference in the world. In fact, if you look up the word fierce in the dictionary, you’ll see adjectives such as strong, powerful, aggressive, and even savage. That definition makes me think of the wild cats of Africa and India — untamed, dangerous, beautiful, and so powerful. When we hear this description of fierce, it may not fit our image of what a beautiful woman of God should be. It may sound too intense or even masculine. But under God’s control, a fierce woman of God is a beautiful warrior — not savage or violent, but powerful and dangerous in the best sense of the word.
During this six-week study, we are going to dig into fierce women of God in the Bible who lived courageously, obediently, and faithfully in order to fulfill God’s plan. Their stories show us the power that comes from resting in God’s love and forgiveness — and how this power can lead to amazing things as we lean into His plans for each of us.
Sarah, Mary, Anna, and Rachel are familiar, Biblical names. In fact, you probably know someone by each of these names today. But what about Shiphrah and Puah? These are not well-known women of the Bible. We don’t name our babies after these heroines, do we? Perhaps, that’s because theirs is a tough story. Or maybe it is because they have only a brief mention in the beginning of Exodus. But their story is one worth knowing. It is powerful. It is fierce.
During the time of the famine in Israel, Joseph, who has risen to become a Prince of Egypt, invites the Hebrews to come and settle in the area of Egypt known as Goshen. During their time in Egypt, the Israelites multiply and flourish. So much so, that the new Pharaoh is threatened by their numbers and orders the women who assist with the birthing process, the midwives, to kill all the male infants immediately at birth.
Do you know anyone who works as a midwife, or perhaps an ObGyn or Labor and Delivery nurse? I do, and these women love people – children in particular. It’s part of why they chose the profession. They know that to be part of the birthing process is to see God’s work at its finest. It’s the opportunity to see miracles on a daily basis. Their jobs are to bring health and healing to those they serve.
Now imagine these women you know being ordered to kill the very miracles they have just witnessed. It’s a disgusting image. Truly evil! Surely, any good midwife, doctor or nurse would cringe at this type of command. Shiphrah and Puah did!
Read Exodus 1:15-17. What did Shiphrah and Puah do in response to the Pharaoh’s command?
They allowed the boys to live! What an act of courage, what fierce faithfulness to the God they served. Their fear of the Lord and His laws took precedence over what an earthly ruler commanded them to do. Surely, they must have imagined what a king that orders genocide could have done to them if he came to know his orders had been defied. Surely, they were afraid. But in that fear, they were faithful.
In general, I’m a rule follower. Detention after school, writing sentences, and being grounded were not part of my story growing up. So when I was called to the principal’s office my freshman year of high school it was newsworthy among my friends. They were shocked. But it was not a surprise to me – I knew what I had done. Here’s what happened. . .
I had a government class first thing every day. For some odd reason, in this class, I ended up being the only girl in a group of about 25. It was a crass group of guys and the teacher (a male coach) thought their teasing and coarse humor was funny. Today we would call it harassment, back then it was just guys being guys. But, without too many details, it was wrong. So for months, I endured a really inappropriate situation. On the day of our final, I, with the help of my mother I might add, brought the guys a treat – chocolate chip cookies made with chocolate ex-lax. It brought me great joy to watch them, coach included, gobble those tasty treats down.
At the end of the test I got up and stood in the front of the room and said, “Guys, those treats are exactly what you deserve. You have been horrible to me. I’m pleased to let you know, there is no real chocolate in those cookies, it’s ex-lax – enjoy your day.” It was awesome friends!
One by one they began to check out of school, and by lunchtime, I found myself in the vice principal’s office. He was a really wise man, his wife was actually my Sunday School teacher, which helped me that day for sure. He talked sternly to me in the hallway and then had me come into his office where he burst out laughing and gave me a high-five.
I should probably regret serving those cookies – but I don’t.
Rules are meant to be followed. In fact, there are scriptures to guide us in this regard:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. Romans 13:1 (NLT).
However, when we read accounts such as Puah and Shiphrah we are met with a conundrum. How do we make sense of this? Is there a contradiction here? This is where wisdom must prevail. In the first chapter of Exodus we are reminded that God’s law always comes before man’s law. We are not taught to be blind fully submissive. There is a time to submit and there is a time to stand. When God’s law is clearly violated, as is the case here with a command to murder infants, we cannot pretend we have no responsibility.
The midwives valued God’s favor more than Pharaoh’s. They feared God’s wrath more than they did the wrath of Egyptian rule. Their motivation came from a deep and abiding love for God’s standards and for the value of God’s created life. They refused to obey evil.
Jennifer Cowart is the Executive Pastor at Harvest Church, a United Methodist Congregation in Warner Robbins, Georgia; she is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council. Her women’s Bible study, Fierce: Women of the Bible Who Changed the World, includes a participant’s workbook, a leader’s guide, and a DVD.