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In Exodus 1:15–16, the king of Egypt orders the Hebrew midwives to kill the sons born to Hebrew women. However, they do not obey:

But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. (Exodus 1:17, ESV)

When the king questions them, they respond by saying:

“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Exodus 1:19, ESV)

The following verses show God's response:

So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exodus 1:20–21, ESV)

What is an overview of Catholic and Protestant understandings of the actions and words of the midwives, especially in light of other passages on civil authority? Were their actions and words sinful or not?

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The consensus among Catholic and Protestant commentators is that the midwives did not sin by disobeying Pharaoh, but if they did lie to him, they sinned.

Handling each point separately:

Disobedience to Pharaoh

Catholic commentator George Leo Haydock cites Acts 4 and Matthew 10:28 in reference to Pharaoh's command to kill the male Hebrew children, indicating that civil disobedience is appropriate in this instance.

John Calvin strongly defends the midwives on this point, saying that obeying Pharaoh here would have been "an inexcusable contempt of God." Methodist commentator Adam Clarke writes that the women rightly obeyed God's command from Genesis 9:6 rather than Pharaoh's.

Lying to Pharaoh

The idea that the midwives lied to Pharaoh in verse 19 is contested by Clarke. He writes:

I contend that there was neither lie direct nor even prevarication in the case. The midwives boldly state to Pharaoh a fact, (had it not been so, he had a thousand means of ascertaining the truth), and they state it in such a way as to bring conviction to his mind on the subject of his oppressive cruelty on the one hand, and the mercy of Jehovah on the other.

Thus, according to Clarke, God rewards the midwives in verses 20-21 for both their obedience to God and their frankness toward Pharaoh, and since they did not lie, they did not sin.

However, Haydock sees the matter differently. Citing Augustine's Contra Mendacium, he argues:

Perhaps [...] the midwives spoke truth, with regard to the generality of the Hebrew women. But they gave way to a lie of excuse, with regard to some, (ver. 17,) which St. Augustine would not allow, even to save all the Hebrew children.

Thus, according to Haydock, the women sinned:

The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, which was a venial sin; but for their fear of God.

Augustine likewise says the women are guilty of lying, and that they received their reward for being "merciful to God's people." To those who say that the midwives would have died if they had told the truth, Augustine answers:

Yea, but see what follows. They would die with an heavenly habitation for their incomparably more ample reward than those houses which they made them on earth could be: they would die, to be in eternal felicity, after enduring of death for most innocent truth.

Calvin similarly sees that the women "escaped by falsehood":

[B]oth points must be admitted, that the two women lied, and, since lying is displeasing to God, that they sinned.

To explain God's reward to them in spite of their sin, Calvin continues:

[I]n [God's] 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.


References:

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William Blake wrote in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell":

“The Devil answer'd: bray a fool in a morter with wheat, yet shall not his folly 
be beaten out of him; if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him 
in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of 
ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbaths God? 
murder those who were murder'd because of him? turn away the law from the woman 
taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness 
when he omitted making a defense before Pilate? covet when he pray'd for 
his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against 
such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking 
these ten commandments; Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The devil loves to use rules, laws and government regulations to impede lawful acts of charity. The midwives were no exception. The job of midwife is to save lives, not take them, and murder was what Pharaoh was commanding of them. We have the idea of due process, search warrants, evidentiary hearings and the like. Not so the Egyptians. The laws of Moses which would soon arrive require that evidence be shown before a person be sentenced to death. What evidence of wrongdoing could possibly be produced to implicate a newborn?!

The right of governments to execute murderers was pronounced to Noah following the flood (See https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%209&version=NIV). Clearly the abuse of this power is now prompting the Lord to act and tighten his regulations to protect the innocent.

Proverbs 29 says (http://biblehub.com/proverbs/29-25.htm):

Fear of man will prove to be a snare, 
but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.

I do not look at the midwives' behavior in terms of sinning versus not sinning, but in terms of fear. They feared God but they also feared Pharaoh and his soldiers. In their actions they feared God: they did not surrender the babies to the soldiers. In their words they feared Pharaoh, which prompted them to lie. They do not fear God absolutely, but who apart from Jesus does? Thus they can be commended for showing some courage and fearing God, they can also be chided for lying and giving into fear of man.

Imagine what a truly courageous midwife might have done. Would she have died a martyr? Would God have sent down fire and consumed the soldiers and brought deliverance a generation earlier? Would the soldier have been converted and gone off without harming her? We will never know.

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Here is one Protestant view which makes sense to me, and doesn't fudge the issue. The point is that no where in Scripture are the midwives condemned. The same is true of Rahab's actions in Joshua chapter 2. Here I am following the view of the Evangelical Protestant John Davis:-

Not every untruth is the moral equivalent of a lie. All is fair in love and war. Not sure about the love bit, but lying to the enemy is not morally wrong. In all games you can pretend you are going to do one thing but then do something else... it isn't lying. e.g. in tennis you can pretend you are going to lob the opponent and then just tap it over the net... it isn't morally wrong. In warfare you can lay all kinds of deceptions to try and mislead the enemy... it isn't morally wrong.

Sometimes the obligation to one law is nullified by the obligation to obey a higher law.. Should we obey those in authority over us? Yes, except when obeying them means disobeying God.. we must obey God rather than men.

In the case of the midwives the obligation to tell the truth was trumped by a higher obligation, the obligation to save innocent lives.

Pharaoh was the enemy of God and God's people and ordering something contrary to God's will.

Rahab in Joshua 2 faced the same issue and responded in a way which is nowhere condemned (Hebrews 11:31).

Corrie Ten Boon faced the same dilemma in WWII: she chose to lie to the Nazis and say there were no Jews hiding in the house.

In all these cases the deception was not the moral equivalent of a lie. And in all the Biblical cases mentioned to mislead was the right thing to do.

These are the conclusions John Jefferson Davis comes to in his book "Evangelical Ethics- issues facing the Church today" and chapter 1 "Dimensions of decision making".

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