“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:”
1526 B.C., Egypt
Puah’s young arm muscles burned with strain. She was doing her best to help bear the weight of the pregnant woman who was in the final stages of labor. They had helped her squatted upon the birthing stones while Shiphrah knelt underneath her to catch the newborn baby. Puah and Rania stood on either side of the woman with a grip on each of her arms for support while she pushed. This was not the first time Puah had assisted with a birth, but it felt like it.
“Push, Leora!” Shiphrah shouted from beneath the pregnant woman.
Her mentor, Shiphrah, told Puah that with time her arms would build up strength. Apparently, three years had not been long enough. She adjusted her feet to spread the weight over her body like Shiphrah showed her. The movement helped.
She glanced over the pregnant woman’s head to Rania, another midwife apprentice holding the woman’s other arm. She must be struggling with the weight as well because her face was scrunched as if she was the one in labor. Her copper-toned skin was shifting to tones of red. She held her bottom lip between her teeth and her strict focus was on the woman between them.
The pregnant woman was a Hebrew not much older than the two of them. This was her first delivery and she had called for the best midwife in all Egypt, Shiphrah.
Puah had the great fortune to seek out mentorship under Shiphrah. She had just advanced her last two apprentices and was in search of fresh young girls to train. One Hebrew and one Egyptian. Puah had been the selected Hebrew and Rania was the Egyptian.
Shiphrah believed strongly in giving equal training to both groups of women. A practice most unheard of for either culture. Though both enjoyed living in the same land, they were not melded as one. Each remained distinct in almost every way from the other. Even after three hundred years, Puah’s people held to their identity as God’s chosen ones.
Being the youngest in a long line of girls, Puah knew her family wouldn’t have the resources necessary to offer a lavish dowry for her. At the age of twelve, she sought out Shiphrah to train her as a midwife. At least she could put her hands to some kind of good service.
Puah looked down. She noticed drops of sweat on her mentor’s wrinkled forehead. Her dark brown hair was also weighed down with dampness. She also noticed that her hands were too preoccupied with widening the pathway of delivery to wipe her own brow. Her burnt cinnamon eyes were transfixed on her task. Puah thought if a sandstorm had blown up in the room, she didn’t think her mentor would even blink.
The young midwife in training glanced over at the pile of clean linens that Shiphrah had expertly stacked within reach. It crossed her mind to grab one and pat her mentor’s forehead. The burning in her arms caught her breath. She feared if she released her grip even for a moment, the woman would topple on the birthing stones. Rania was of the same age and strength. She knew the girl could not bear the weight alone.
The pregnant woman grunted and bore down hard.
“That’s right,” the midwife encouraged. “Not much more now.”
Shiphrah had delivered hundreds of babies. She made the duty of helping women bring new life into the world look as effortless as breathing.
“Each birth has its own challenges,” the older woman had instructed on their walk to this delivery. “Be prepared for anything and everything.”
Leora’s scream brought Puah back to her task. She dared a peek between the woman’s legs. She saw a dark-haired head slowly appear and then, just as easily disappear back inside its mother. She looked at Shiphrah with wide eyes.
“It’ll drop back down,” the mentor said without taking her focus off her task. “That’s part of the process. It’ll probably do that a few more times.”
Puah watched her intense gaze on the opening.
“I’ve witnessed countless babies fight the birthing process,” Shiphrah commented. “Many refuse to leave the warmth of their mother’s womb. This little one is being extremely stubborn.”
“Just…like…father…” the pregnant woman joked between labored breaths.
“What happens next?” Rania asked from the other side of the pregnant woman.
For the first time in hours, Shiphrah reached over to the pile of cloths and wrapped a linen around her hand. “I don’t care how strong you think you are,” she said toward her two students. “Always, and I do mean always, wrap your hands with clean linens to catch a newborn. They are more slippery than a greased dog. The last thing you ever want do is have to explain to a mother, who is flooded with the strength of a lioness, that you just dropped her baby.”
“One more big push should do it.” Shiphrah glanced up. “Hang on, ladies.”
The two young girls tightened their grip on the mother’s arms to help keep her stable.
Another scream erupted from Leora’s mouth.
“He’s here,” the midwife shouted with glee. She held up the shimmering, olive-toned wiggling boy.
“Praise God,” Leora said as she collapsed into the arms of the two women helping support her body.
“Look at him,” Puah said, still holding Leora’s arm. “He’s lovely.”
“He sure is,” Rania commented.
Her eyes watered. “That was so beautiful!”
“Life is beautiful,” her mentor agreed as she cleaned the boy with a mixture of water and wine. “Babies come into the world at their own time, but they always make an impact.”
She examined the baby while rubbing him down with oil and wrapped him in a fresh cloth. “Perfect,” she reported. “He’s absolutely perfect.”
“Thank you.” Leora grinned. She sighed with relief as the two apprentices helped her to a waiting pile of pillows.
The older midwife laid the boy on his mother’s chest to enjoy his first meal.
“Another healthy Hebrew,” Puah commented on their way out of the house and into the open streets of Avaris.
“It still amazes me every time I see a woman give birth,” Rania said. “It’s like they are immortals. To have that kind of strength when a human being is being ripped from your loins-”
“We don’t rip anything from anyone,” Shiphrah corrected.
“You know what I’m trying to say.”
The older woman cut her eyes at her young student. “I do, but you must have a little more respect for your service.”
“Where are we going next?” Puah asked.
“Into Memphis.” Shiphrah moved swiftly past several mud-brick buildings as they entered the main street of the Egyptian city. She slowed as the houses grew familiar and a whitewashed one stood proudly sparkling. “Ah, here we are.”
The three women stopped at the entry gate so Shiphrah could knock.
A woman in a modest dress answered the door with a bow. Puah could tell right away she was a Hebrew. Some women worked as servants for their Egyptian counterparts. It was a good wage. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but often times a necessary one.
“Greetings, Ziva. Is your mistress home?” Shiphrah asked.
It always amazed Puah at how easily the older woman could switch her speech from Hebrew to Egyptian and back again without missing a single word. She was sure it was only one of the countless reasons so many women called upon her.
“Yes.” Ziva waved the women in. “This way.”
As they were guided down a long entrance hall, Puah took note of each room they passed. Egyptians and Hebrews lived much differently. Each dressed and spoke distinctly, but it was entering a house in which one could really see the division.
The Hebrew home they had come from in Avaris was a small, square design. An open courtyard welcomed visitors. Wood pillars divided the other half of the house into usable rooms. The few rooms were used by every member of the family. There were no paintings or decorations to cover up the simple walls. Very few even contained furniture.
The house area was divided into two levels with an exposed rooftop. Homes were set close enough together that one could have a conversation with their neighbor while working on the roof.
The lavish Egyptian home stood more rectangular with a massive wall around the outside to close off unwanted guests. The main house held multiple rooms used for various activities such as sleeping, eating, and worship of the family’s chosen deity. A second level was also separated for multiple uses, but it’s top was closed off from the outside. Many were painted or had white limestone applied to the outside to keep the inside of the home cooler against the rays of the harsh sun.
Walls and floors of each room were covered with pictures and sculptures. Pastel colors livened up each room. Couches, tables, and storage vessels cluttered every corner. The simple Hebrew eye could easily get overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Puah blinked a few times to clear her vision.
As they exited the main house and made their way to the back of the property, she noticed the separate kitchen, well, stable, garden, and servant quarters. It was the kitchen where Ziva led them to her mistress.
“Greetings, Anta,” Shiphrah offered when they found the woman of the house kneading dough on a flat piece of wood on the floor.
Puah noticed the recently caught waterfowl swinging from the ceiling. No doubt to be the main course of their evening meal. She could smell the fresh blood dripping from its body. It had been a while since she had tasted meat. To her people, meat was a rare delicacy. To an Egyptian, it was just another way to satisfy their hunger.
“Greetings, ladies.” The woman wiped her hands on a towel and then placed it over the dough.
Ziva stood over her mistress and allowed Anta to wrap her arms around hers. With a cautious movement, she helped lift the woman from her seated position to her feet.
Anta was a beautifully radiant Egyptian woman. She wore a lily-white robe wrapped and tied to accentuate her curves but also allowed room for her rounded midsection to poke out. The red sash Puah had seen her wear on a number of occasions would normally hug her smaller waist and thereby be short enough to spare its material from the ground. With her belly expanded to hold her unborn child, she knotted it under her bulge so that it hung low enough to elegantly sweep the sandy floor as she walked.
Pieces of her dull hair stuck to her forehead from under a shiny, black wig. A sign of wealth to any who wondered if the wearer were affluent enough to afford such extravagance.
Puah tucked some loose strands of her thick, russet hair back under her head covering. If she lived to be as old as Eve, she would probably never afford such luxuries.
Several gold necklaces jingled against Anta’s neck collar as she embraced each midwife. “I’m happy you have come to see me.” She handed each woman a small piece of bread sprinkled with salt.
Puah graciously accepted the friendship offering with a bright smile. It was nice to know some Egyptians still tried to befriend Hebrews even in shifting times.
The recent Pharaoh change three years prior had caused unease in the land of Goshen with the addition of taskmasters over the Hebrew people. It seemed the new Egyptian god on earth, Thutmose, was going to make a name for himself by expanding his borders at the same time as he was placing more control over the Hebrews.
She was glad she had chosen to be a midwife as soon as she was old enough to make the choice for herself. At least she would be spared the life of a house servant like many of her female friends.
She observed Ziva, who had stayed nearby waiting for her next orders. She wondered what led her to serve Anta and from which tribe she came from in Goshen. The woman stood as still as a statue, though her muscles were tense with anticipation of her next task. Bright onyx eyes were transfixed on her mistress.
Gazing around the large backyard, Puah wondered if any of the materials of the buildings had been forged by Hebrew hands. Many young husbands had been sent to hard work in the quarries to help expand the presence of Egyptian architecture in the land. Hebrews were always seen a little lower in Egyptian eyes, but it seemed the new royal family was forcing them to bow even lower.
She didn’t have to worry about a husband. The life of a midwife was often solely focused on helping couples welcome life into the world. She understood that part of the calling and welcomed it. No one had caught her eye and she was sure she hadn’t captured any man’s attention.
She tried not to worry about the growing oppression either. She was a midwife. Or at least one in training. The guild was held in high regard for their skill in medicine and was considered one of very few groups that didn’t have to fear being forced into slavery. They were too valuable to Egyptians to be placed under thumb.
As she chewed, the warm bread seasoned with cumin melted the salt into a divine sensation in her mouth. The hefty scent of stew wafted through the air. Her mouth watered over the salt and delicious aromas. It was the tastes of Egypt that made her heart long to live as they did.
“Oh?” Shiphrah said over the bite in her mouth. She motioned to the woman’s stomach. “Is anything wrong?”
“I’m not sure.” Anta rubbed her belly. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
“She has not been feeling well the past few days,” Ziva offered. “She complains of pain.”
Anta glared at her servant who ducked her head.
“Forgive me for speaking without permission,” she whispered from under her warm brown locks. “I’m simply worried about you.”
The mistress softened. “Why don’t you go pick some fruit for tonight?”
Ziva bowed, grabbed a basket, and left the kitchen.
“ ‘Get a Hebrew servant,’ ” Anta repeated the words of her husband with mockery. “ ‘They’re hard workers,’ he said. At least an Egyptian maid would know when to hold her tongue.”
“So,” Shiphrah said quickly changing the subject. “What’s this about pain?”
“It comes and goes.” The pregnant woman rubbed her belly again. “Worse when I eat or try to sleep.”
“Still feeling the baby kick?”
She looked down at her freshly woven sandals.
Shiphrah exchanged a glance with her two apprentices before returning her gaze to the woman in front of her. “Anta?”
“Less the last two days,” she whimpered without raising her head.
“I see,” she said. “Let’s have a look at you.”
Puah and Rania helped the woman into the house and positioned her on one of the couches so Shiphrah could examine her.
After a few moments, the mentor motioned for the two girls to follow her to the next room. “We’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder. “Just rest.”
“What is it?” Rania asked when they were a safe distance away to speak freely. “You look worried.”
“I am,” Shiphrah shared honestly. “I think we need to try to encourage delivery.”
“Now?” Puah wondered. “How close is she?”
“Close enough that we’re not in any real danger, but I’m afraid the baby might be in trouble. Without any way to know for sure, it’s a tough choice.”
“What are you going to tell her?” Rania asked.
“The truth.” The mentor squared her shoulders. “Every woman deserves that much.”
The three returned to Anta’s side.
“I’m going to tell you something.” Shiphrah hesitated. “But I don’t wish to frighten you.”
“The baby?” Anta clutched her mid-section.
“I believe the baby might be in trouble. If the baby is moving less, it might mean something is wrong. Especially if you’re having pain.”
“Or?” Anta raised an eyebrow.
“Or…” She sighed. “It could be nothing. Your body might just be preparing for delivery. Every woman is different.”
“So, nothing could be wrong?”
Anta thought for a moment. “But you don’t think so.”
“I think we should try to help the baby come quicker. You’re far enough along now. If something is wrong, I can help once the baby is here. If the baby stays inside and we can’t help…” She spread out her palms.
“We’ll be here to help,” Puah offered with a pat on the woman’s hand.
Rania nodded in agreement. “Right here with you.”
“How long will Ziva be gone?” Shiphrah asked retrieving the bag she had left at the front door.
“Oh, she didn’t go far. She hasn’t in the last few days.”
“She’s worried about you too,” Puah said.
“I know.” A pain caused her to tense. “I should have listened when she wanted to call on you days ago.”
“Yes,” Shiphrah agreed. “You should have. Now, let’s prepare for a baby.”
She gave instructions to her students to set up the birthing stones while she prepared her mixtures and cloths.
Hours into the night, Anta squatted upon the cool stones, panting, “How much longer?”
“Hard to tell,” Shiphrah called from beneath her.
“Stay strong,” Puah said with a tightened grasp on the woman’s arm.
“You’re doing well,” Rania added.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up.”
“Let’s try another big push,” the older midwife instructed.
“I don’t know.”
“Here.” Puah wiped Anta’s brow with a wet rag. “We are all right here with you.”
“Push now,” Shiphrah urged.
Anta bore down so hard her face turned red.
“That’s it. Almost—Oh! Stop! Stop pushing.”
She released her breath. “What’s wrong?”
“I see the problem.” Shiphrah’s forehead scrunched in concentration. “Hold perfectly still.”
“What’s wrong with my baby?”
“Almost got it. Don’t push.”
Several moments of agonizing silence hung between the women.
“Well?” Anta demanded.
“The cord is around the neck.” She attempted again to get her fingers between the cord and the baby’s neck with no success. “I’m having a difficult time getting it off.”
“What does that mean?”
“Shh!” Shiphrah focused on adjusting the thick cord that had wound its way around the baby’s delicate neck. “I can’t get it. I’m going to have to cut it off.” She grunted. “Puah, let Ziva take over your spot and come help me.”
The younger women rushed to exchange positions.
“Here, grab the head and brace the shoulders.” She adjusted her position to make room for the extra body between the woman’s legs. Then she grabbed a sharp knife from beside her. “Give me a little more room.”
Puah moved her fingers out of the way while delicately bearing the weight of the upper portion of the half-delivered baby.
Shiphrah slid the tip of her knife under the cord and pulled upwards away from the neck. A few more cuts and the cord fell away. “Big push for me.”
Anta obliged with a deep thrust.
“Hold on,” she instructed her apprentice.
“She’s out!” Puah shouted as she fell back into a seated position with the baby in her arms.
Anta collapsed into the other two women and released her air.
“She’s not breathing!” Puah’s voice hit a high-pitched shrill as she screamed to her mentor, “She’s not breathing!”
“I know,” Shiphrah said. “Flip her over.” She snatched a clean towel and vigorously rubbed the baby’s back. “Come on!”
“What’s happening?” Anta lifted herself to see.
“The cord cut off her air.” She rubbed harder. “I’m trying to get her to breathe.”
“My baby!” The mother covered her mouth as she wailed.
“Flip her over,” the mentor demanded.
Puah carefully, but quickly adjusted the petite baby in her hands.
The older midwife placed her mouth over the newborn’s nose and mouth and blew a few short breaths. “Come on, little one.”
“Come on,” Rania whispered.
Shiphrah snatched the baby from Puah’s hands and placed her upside down in her own lap. She pounded on her back with the palm of her hand. “Breathe!” she commanded. “Please, breathe.”
Puah rocked back and forth. “God of the universe,” she prayed. “Hear the cry of your faithful midwives. Breathe life into this child.”
Anta let out a monstrous howl and dropped onto Ziva’s chest.
“Please, Lord. Return back the life of this little one.” Shiphrah flipped the baby over and gave a few short breaths into her nose again. She bent over and placed her ear over the baby’s face.
Everyone held their breath.
Shiphrah tucked her chin to her chest and shook her head slightly before lifting her head to kiss the baby’s forehead. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No!” Anta yelled. “You bring my baby back.”
“There’s nothing else I can do. The cord was wrapped too tight and possibly too long…I’m sorry.”
“Leave me,” she wept.
“I can help-”
“Of course,” Shiphrah said. She carefully wrapped the baby in a fresh cloth and handed the bundle to Ziva. “If she has any pain or-”
“I said leave!” Anta barked.
“As you wish.”
The three midwives walked quietly out of the house and headed north. It wasn’t until they reached the home they shared in Avaris before any of them spoke.
“I’ll never get over that,” Puah said, sorrow filling each word.
“No, you never do,” Shiphrah said. “Never.”