Their people’s pleas hung in the air as the cracking whips ripped open old wounds. Shiphrah and Puah could imagine the thick crimson streams rolling down their loved ones’ backs as they labored to build one of Pharaoh’s prized cities. Fear spread like a contagion through Israelite camps as the king of Egypt became increasingly agitated and ruthless toward God’s people.
The Israelites, as we find them in Exodus 1, are beaten down, anxious and exhausted. Their future looked bleak, and the prospect of freedom was growing dimmer. Every day. Surely they wondered, Who will save us?
God often provides redemption and relief to his people through his people. While Moses would eventually lead God’s people out of Egypt, two unlikely leaders preceded him. Shiphrah and Puah, two female slaves, allowed the fear of the Lord to rule in their hearts over the fear of man. Their story holds leadership lessons for the church today.
The Fear of God and the Fear of Our Flesh
The first lesson we can learn from Shiphrah and Puah is about fear. As a byproduct of the king’s own fear, Shiphrah and Puah are ordered to “observe them [the Hebrew women] as they deliver” (Exodus 1:16). The Hebrew girls were permitted to live, and the Hebrew boys were to be killed.
What enabled Shiphrah and Puah to defy the king of Egypt? Exodus 1:17 says they “feared the Lord.” That’s astonishing given how much there was to fear around them. The stakes for their civil disobedience were as high as it gets: Disobeying Pharaoh was a capital offense.
They weren’t exempt from the common emotions that accompany tense life situations. It wasn’t that there was nothing to fear, but their fear of the Egyptian king paled in comparison to the fear of their true King.
Leaders inevitably face situations that cause a spike in blood pressure. Congregants grumble about change, a wayward child wanders from the faith, people complain about leadership style, budgets miss the mark. When we’re in the thicket of moments like these, the concerns are very real and sometimes overpowering.
The fear of our flesh woos us to focus our thoughts on what we fear. Our hearts tempt us to ruminate on what we can’t control, and we begin to live in the “what ifs” of life. “What if my children never become Christians?” “What if all my congregants leave or stop giving?” “What if the men and women I lead don’t like me?”
Staying in this place too long can lead to sin. The king of Egypt’s fear that the Hebrews would continue to grow and threaten his power and kingdom led him to try to exterminate them (Exodus 1:8-10).
Ironically, he feared the wrong people and person. He would later see he should have feared the Lord and the two Hebrew midwives that God used to save his people. In attempting to control the Israelites by killing their sons, he overlooked the two female slaves who led to his fall.
Shiphrah and Puah turned from evil at great risk to their lives. Proverbs 16:6 says “one turns from evil by the fear of the Lord.” The way one obeys God, especially when we are living in the “what ifs” of life, is by fearing the Lord. We need a greater fear.
The Fear of God and the Command to “Fear Not”
The most frequent command in the Bible is to “fear not,” but what do we do as leaders when it seems like all we can do is fear? When we’re fixed on our problems, it produces fear and paranoia. It becomes hard to see beyond our circumstances and the stress that comes with leadership.
There’s another fear which produces wonder and awe in God. This fear leads to faith in God. When we see the command to “fear not,” it’s the command not to fear that which may be fearful. What could happen in our lives is scary, but there must be a refocusing and recalibrating of our fears.