If we begin to talk about some of the “ethical dilemmas” in the Scripture, the problem becomes further compounded because we are blessed to live in a country where the laws on the books, by in large, don’t conflict with the laws of God. (One obvious exception is the abortion law. Tomorrow is “Right to Life Sunday.” It is on this day that we are reminded that we live in a country that celebrates death by staunchly defending the rights of the mother and denying the rights of the unborn.) However, since those laws that conflict with God’s laws tend to be performed and celebrated behind closed doors, we cannot conceive why we should disobey the government, much less how disobeying governmental laws and lying about it could bring God’s blessings upon us.
Exodus 1 is a classic text when talking about ethical dilemmas. And a contemporary, American Christian may be thoroughly uncomfortable with how it works itself out.
The Israelites had prospered and grown into a large people group inside the national boundaries of Egypt. The Pharaoh decided that they had become a threat. Listen to what he said in verse 10: “Let us deal shrewdly with them; otherwise they will multiply further, and if war breaks out, they may join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.” So the Israelites became the slaves of Egypt.
However, the Israelites were prolific and continued to grow into the great nation that God had promised Abraham (Genesis 12:2). So Pharaoh went to “plan B” and demanded that the Israelite boys must be aborted at birth. Two Hebrew midwives were assigned the responsibility of performing this gruesome task.
Exodus 1:15-16 says: “Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you help the Hebrew women give birth, observe them as they deliver. If the child is a son, kill him, but if it’s a daughter, she may live.’”
Very clearly, these two women heard the government, under which they lived and served, give them their orders. However, those orders went against their moral/religious convictions and they disobeyed. Exodus 1:17 says: “The Hebrew midwives, however, feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” This was a very bold and blatant act that could carry with it dire consequences.
This is nothing new for the believer. The Scripture states that we are called to obey the government under which we live (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). However, when God’s law and governmental law conflict, we must always obey God’s law and disobey the government’s (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).
But the apparent ethical dilemma is found in verses 19-21. The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the governmental law, lied about it to the authorities and were blessed by God anyway. Exodus 1:19-21 says: “The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before a midwife can get to them.’ So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, He gave them families.”
Some would explain this away by saying that the midwives were telling the truth. They say that the Israelite women really did give birth before the midwives arrived. However, verse 17 seems to say that the midwives were not passive but played an active role in letting the Hebrew boys live.
Obviously, situational ethics is not advocated in Scripture (doing what is convenient, rewarding or “right” in the moment). The midwives didn’t simply disregard the government’s laws because they wanted to. The broke the laws because they were obeying a higher standard. But God didn’t just tolerate their lies to an evil government demanding evil behavior. He blessed these women. Reread Exodus 1:19-21. That’s what it says.
I’m going to leave you with a quote from a man who lived during the time of the Third Reich. His name was Deitrich Bonhoeffer and he was a German believer/theologian/pastor. His heart broke over the Jews that were being slaughtered under Hitler’s evil regime. He believed that the SS soldiers and the tyrancial government were not worthy of the truth and so he did much that many Christians in “safe” situations would condemn. In leaving you with this quote, I’m not resolving the ethical question I’ve identified in Exodus 1. Instead, I’m leaving you with something to think about. What do you think about how Bonhoeffer resolved “ethical dilemmas?”
“Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethic problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: “What is the will of God?”