But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. Exodus 1:17
THE STORY IN THE PAINTING
Shiphrah and Puah were midwives among the Hebrews during the time of Moses. Pharaoh commanded these women to slay at birth the male children born to the Hebrews. Shiphrah and Puah, as recounted in Exodus 1, secretly refused to carry out the edict. In this painting, Shiphrah is a solitary figure surrounded not only by darkness, but by the loneliness in which an act of courage cloaks an individual. She holds a newborn babe, protecting the child from fear, darkness, and death. Her quiet caress enfolds the babe in love and hope, despite the void in which she and the child appear.
The scriptural account tells us that Shiphrah made the decision to defy Pharaoh because she feared God. Proverbs 14:26 tells us that "fear of the Lord is strong confidence: and his children shall have place of refuge." It is this confidence, borne of faith, that gives Shiphrah the courage to defy Pharaoh. Her righteousness in this moment, which surely tested her character and faithfulness, results in the Lord blessing she and Puah with "houses" (Exodus 1:21). Just as the Savior promises that He will "prepare a place" for His disciples (see John 14:2), a "place" was provided for these noble women because of their courage.
SYMBOLISM IN THE PAINTING
Light in the image does not come from anything the viewer can see. Consequently, as far as the viewer is concerned, the light could emanate from a candle or a lamp, or perhaps from a protective Providence. For just as Shiphrah holds the infant safe in the midst of peril, so it is Providence that stands in the void to light such unseen acts of quiet courage.
The almost minimalist treatment of Shiphrah's costume and adornment lends to the emphasis on her act of courage, rather than herself. The viewer's eye is drawn directly to the child and Shiphrah's tender expression, rather than to her appearance. Both midwife and child are bathed in a warm, ochre light, rather than a pale or silvery light, symbolising the watchful eye of the Lord and the rewards he had in store for these righteous women. by Elspeth Young