Hebrew In Israel | Houses: Exodus 1:21 – Learn Torah

hebrew midwives, puah, shifra and puah, midwives in the bible, shiphrah, shemot, parashat shemot,

Hebrew In Israel | Houses: Exodus 1:21 – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

In many cases when studying the Hebrew bible, we find words which do not fit into the regular interpretation of dictionary value.  It is not uncommon that we find ourselves looking up a word, but are unable to interpret it correctly.  Even when we try to use grammar and context, we find ourselves looking at a partial meaning of what is actually being said.

An example of this problem can be found in Exodus 1:21 where the following statement is made:

כִּי-יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם, בָּתִּים

Indeed, because the midwives feared God, he made them founders of families (CJB)

And because the midwives feared God, he made households for them (NET bible)

And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own (NIV)

The word in question here is Batim–Houses–which the English translations have correctly translated as founding families.  This translation can also be found in Jewish commentators such as Rashi, Hizquni and Iben Ezra.  However, a student of Hebrew will not necessarily understand the connection between houses and family.  We by most will say that we understand that it is a logical interpretation, but to fully understand what is being said we have to go to a different type of text. 

The Problem

The problem presented in this text is the lack of information about the women and what happened to them.  We receive names and what they did, but we do not hear speech from God, or details of how this gift was fulfilled.  We are left with a general statement which leaves us nothing when it comes to what any of it means.  All we are told is that the midwives did a good deed, and that God gave them houses/family.  To better understand this passage we need to look into parallel contextual documents that might shed some light on this statement.

Biblical Context

The understanding of this passage hinges on a singular word which can be found in similar context elsewhere in the bible.  It can be found when someone has received a promise from God to have a dynasty.  The most famous case is King David where we find the following:

כָּרַתִּי בְרִית, לִבְחִירִי;    נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי, לְדָוִד עַבְדִּי

עַד-עוֹלָם, אָכִין זַרְעֶךָ;    וּבָנִיתִי לְדֹר-וָדוֹר כִּסְאֲךָ סֶלָה

“You said, “I made a covenant with the one I chose,

I swore to my servant David, 

‘I will establish your dynasty forever,

build up your throne through all generations”   Psalm 89:4

In the Hebrew, the same verb בנה is implemented to refer to the building/establishing of the throne which is the house and dynasty of David.  In the above text in Exodus, we find the verb עשה which means to make.  When looking at these verbs one might think that two different things are being said, however the principle of what is actually being said is not different.  In both cases a fulfillment of and establishment of a house is being made, and the verb used is a variant of how Hebrew uses words to indicate the same thing.  A house is built, not made, and a dynasty is created, not built.  However, it is not unusual for Hebrew to use such flexibility in word use.

We see that building something can be a promise of family and dynasty, and does not have to be an actual house.  

Historical Context

Outside of the bible we find the term House to mean the same thing as with David.  An example of this can be found in treaty documents such as the document given to Ulmi-Teshup of Datasha by King Hattushilish III king of Hatti:

“…But no nobody will take away from the descendant of Ulmi-Teshup either his house or his land in order to give it to a descendant of somebody else”.  (Kingsbury E, The Promises of God: Their History and Their Interpretations, Mustang, p.210).

Having land and a house meant that the person who owns them has a name connected to a place, making his descendants linked to that name for all times.  This becomes even more important when the land was given by the king, making it state sanctioned.  As in the bible, we find that house does not only mean a physical house, but also a dynasty or a descendant-based name which follows the family throughout the generations.  It seems to be that in our case in the bible, that the midwives were given a name which lasted many generations due to their act of protecting the names of families by saving the male offspring who would carry that name.

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