In the Book of Exodus
Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. They disobey, and when he asks them why, they tell him that Hebrew women give birth so quickly that the midwives can't get there in time. God "dealt well with the midwives" and "made them houses".
The 11th century Jewish rabbi Rashi's Talmud commentary on the passage from Exodus identifies Shiphrah with Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah with Miriam, Moses' sister, making the two midwives mother and daughter respectively.
Commentators have interpreted Exodus 1:20–21 in various ways. Some scholars argue that the two halves of each verse are parallel, so that it is the Israelites ('who multiplied and grew greatly') for whom God 'made houses'. This fits with the reference in Exodus 1:1 to the children of Israel coming down to Egypt, each with his "house". However, as Jonathan Magonet notes, the more common view is that the houses are for the midwives - "houses" here being understood as 'dynasties'. Rabbinic thought has understood these as the houses of kehunah (priesthood), leviyah (assistants to the priests), and royalty – the latter interpreted as coming from Miriam.
Francine Klagsbrun said that the refusal of Shiphrah and her colleague Puah to follow the Pharaoh's genocidal instructions "may be the first known incident of civil disobedience in history" (Voices of Wisdom, ISBN 0-394-40159-X). Jonathan Magonet agrees, calling them "the earliest, and in some ways the most powerful, examples, of resistance to an evil regime".
The name means "improved" or "beautiful" (in modern Hebrew, leshaper means "to improve").
Connection with archaeological finding from Egypt
The name is found in a list of slaves in Egypt during the reign of Sobekhotep III. This list is on Brooklyn 35.1446, a papyrus scroll kept in the Brooklyn Museum. The name is written šp-ra and means "to be fair" or "beautiful". The name may be related to or even the same as the Aramaic Sapphira and (up to slight morphological adaptations) as Siphrah, the name of the Hebrew midwife. The name of the second midwife, Puah, is a Canaanite name which means "lass" or "little girl".
- Limmer, Seth M.; Pesner, Jonah Dov (2019). Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice. CCAR Press. ISBN 9780881233193. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
- "Exodus 1 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". www.mechon-mamre.org. Retrieved 14 November 2017.
- See for example Judah Loew ben Bezalel's Gur Aryeh: Sifrei Chachamim ('Books of the Wise')
- Magonet, Jonathan (1992) Bible Lives (London: SCM), 7–8
- Magonet, Jonathan (1992) Bible Lives (London: SCM), 8
- See for example Talmud Tractate Sotah 11b; and Exodus Rabbah 1:17
- W. F. Albright, Northwest-Semitic Names in a List of Egyptian Slaves from the Eighteenth Century B. C., Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1954), pp. 222–233