Deceiving the Serpent: Was It Sin for the Midwives to Deceive Pharaoh?

Even if we were to study a book of the Bible one verse at a time, there would still be no way extracting every nugget of truth and wisdom from its pages, so given the pace with which we will be studying Exodus (often moving one chapter or more per week), there will obviously be many items of discussion that we will simply will not have time to dive into on Sunday mornings. I hope to present the most significant and interesting of these in articles called An Exodus Excursus later in the week, which, of course, is exactly what this is.

So, let’s dive into the topic at hand: in Exodus 1, did the Hebrew midwives’ sin by deceiving Pharaoh?

Answers to this question vary in part because there are many views on what exactly the midwives did. Some, like Calvin, accuse the midwives of outright falsehood. Others, like Henry, assume that what the midwives said was truthful, pointing toward God’s extraordinary hand upon Israelite fertility. Others still argue that the midwives warned the women of what their orders were so that would only be called after the birth, making their statement to Pharaoh technically true yet purposefully deceitful.

As I said during the sermon, it seems to me that the first or third options are the most likely. If the midwives were simply reporting the plain facts to Pharaoh, then why were they rewarded for opposing him? The text clearly presents the midwives as refusing to follow Pharaoh’s orders because they feared God rather than the king of Egypt. Thus, whether they actually lied to Pharaoh about the Hebrews’ quick births or set up the situation so that their report was technically true, they appeared to have clearly deceived Pharaoh.

So, again, was that deception sin?

I think not.

You see, in the Old Testament there is a strangely long line of deceptive women who are depicted in the text as virtuous. Tamar is one of the earliest examples. She deceived her father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her after he refused to give her his next son as her husband to care for her. That whole situation is an uncomfortable one all around, but Judah himself says that “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26). Judah acknowledged that his own sin is what put Tamar into such a situation where deceiving him was the best option.

Another example is Rahab, who was the prostitute in Jericho that hid the Israelite spies. When the king of Jericho asked Rahab about the spies within her house, she answered, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them” (Joshua 2:4-5). The next verse then says, “But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof.” This means that Rahab blatantly lied to the king’s messengers. Even so, the text does not condemn Rahab for such falsehood; instead, it goes on to emphasize her faith in the LORD and her desire to be counted among the Israelites, a desire that is rewarded.

A third example is Jael in Judges 4. Sisera, the commander of an army opposing Israel, fled the battle, and we are told that Jael offered her tent as a place of refuge, telling him: “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid” (v. 18). When he did so, she gave him some milk to drink and told him to take nap, yet during his nap, she drove a tent peg through his temple. While Jael does not seem to have directly lied to Sisera, she certainly deceived him into thinking that her tent was a place of safety when she intended the very opposite.

Others like Rebekah or Michal could be mentioned, but the point is established through these examples. Although not each of these women told an outright lie as Rahab certainly did, they were each deceptive. Even still, these women are lauded and blessed for their cunning.

Why?

In order to answer that question, we must understand that these women were taking active roles in war, and not just any war, they were doing their part in the great cosmic war between two offspring, one of woman and the other of the Serpent.

Each case in Scripture where a woman’s deception is viewed favorably, either directly or indirectly, pertains to the coming of Christ. The story of Tamar seems to indicate that she had greater faith in the Abrahamic blessing that Judah inherited than he himself did. Thus, like Jacob, she was wrestling her way into the lineage of the Messiah and into the promises of God. The same is true of Rahab, who also became a part of Christ’s genealogy. Jael is a bit different, but she is praised for killing Sisera because he was cruelly oppressing God’s people. Likewise, Rebekah’s deception was for the purpose of securing the blessing for Jacob, who clearly valued it far more than Esau did, and Michal lied about David being sick to save his life from her father, Saul.

Each of these accounts, in one way or another, is an inversion of Genesis 3. In these clear places of enmity between the Serpent and woman, these women deceived the Serpent’s offspring in a way that reverses the deception that the first woman fell into. And while Eve received a curse for being deceived by the Serpent, these women were blessed for having deceived the Serpent.  The Hebrew midwives are clearly in this stream of combatants, fighting for the life of God’s people against the great dragon.

Of course, this does not mean that the Bible condones deception. Indeed, we could give several examples of wickedly deceptive women in the Bible. Women like Delilah or Jezebel figuratively took a second bite of the forbidden fruit, aligning themselves with the Serpent.

No, the Bible does not commend deception. However, Scripture clearly does not shy away from its occasional necessity. Simply put, if deception is needed to keep infants from being slaughtered, then deception is the godly path. Preserving life is more important than rigorously telling the truth, especially when face with one who throws “truth to the ground” (Daniel 8:12).

In other words, these are women who lived in a Serpent-bitten world.

And by faith, they bit back.

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