This painting depicts the heroic midwife, Puah, following her interview with Pharaoh as described in Exodus 1:15-16. Pharaoh commanded Puah and Shiphrah to play a key part in his plan to destroy the children of Israel, by instructing them to kill all Hebrew male children at birth. Puah and Shiphrah were, therefore, forced to choose between fear of God and fear of man. Their decision would affect the entire Israelite nation for good or ill, and also affect their own lives. Nonetheless, these two valiant women, "feared God, and did not as the King commanded them, but saved the men children alive" (Exodus 1:17).
The viewer sees Puah, here, as she makes this vital decision between good and evil. Her countenance evidences her concern, but her resolute choice to do what is right despite her fears is mirrored in her confident posture. Despite peril, she is quietly courageous, looking forward with faith and trust in the Lord. She and Shiphrah nobly choose to serve the Lord, just as the prophet Joshua firmly declared almost 150 years later, that, "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). Puah's choice saved countless lives and enabled the children of Israel to "wax very mighty" (Exodus 1:20).
Shiphrah and Puah were not left to face evil alone, however. The Biblical account tells us that because the women feared God, He "dealt well with the midwives" and "made them houses" (Exodus 1:20-21). Shiphrah and Puah were also blessed with an inspired answer for Pharaoh regarding their inability to carry out his commands (see Exodus 1:19). Consequently, Pharaoh spared their lives.
Biblical scholars have endeavored to interpret what kind of blessing from Heaven's hand the word "houses" might indicate. The Hebrew word used in verse 21 is bayith, possibly derived from the root banah (see Strong 20, 22). Both words embody a variety of meanings which could combine to connote the repair or building up of a house, family, palace, or temple. Whatever the precise blessing conferred by the Lord upon these faithful women, the words described above remind us of the blessings of eternal families, available in Holy Temples, where covenants "build up" and "repair" family ties so that they may last throughout eternity. These blessings are available to those who, like Shiphrah and Puah, ignore evil's insidious invitations.
A simplified semi-circular gold "pectoral" adorns Puah's throat and a white linen wrap falls in pleats at her shoulder. Colorful rust and royal blue fabrics are also part of her costume. All these elements combine the artist's interpretation of the Egyptian and Canaanite costuming depicted in a 14th century tomb painting from Thebes. The sharp visual contrast created by the white wrap intentionally draws the viewer's eye immediately, to remind the viewer of Puah's purity and faith.
The Egyptian pillars behind the figure are incised with Egyptian hieroglyphics and echo ancient Egyptian architectural detailing. They are, however, crumbling visibly. Not only does this symbolize Pharaoh's fear of the loss of his political power due to the impending rise of the Israelite nation (see Exodus 1:7-10), it also represents the way in which our lives and futures crumble when we choose to serve man, rather than God. The palm tree beyond the pillars, on the other hand, symbolizes the renewal of life and continuance afforded those who choose to serve the Lord.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. New York: Abingdon Press, 1890. Choose you this day painting by Elspeth Young