Befehl ist Befehl

The Child Moses on the Nile (Ex. 1:8-22, 2:1-4). Doré’s English Bible. 1866.

In ordinary times, the Kriyas haTorah [“Reading of the Torah”] occurs publicly in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Unfortunately, in these times, this is not always possible. A reading consists of one, sometimes more than one, of fifty-four divisions of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. This past week, the portion was from the beginning of the book of Exodus.

I especially enjoyed reading again about the birth and early life of Moses. It is a well-known story. Moses was the son of slaves. Pharaoh, Egypt’s ruler, was concerned about the growing number of Hebrews and their potential threat to his country. He enslaved them and ordered the midwives assisting Hebrew women in birthing to kill all male children born to them. The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, disobeyed Pharaoh. 

Pharoah learned that the midwives disobeyed his orders and met with them to ask why they had saved the male children alive. Their ingenious answer is recorded in Chapter 1, Verse 19. The following translation is from the Geneva Bible

“And the midwives answered Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the women of Egypt: for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come at them.”

—1599 Geneva Bible. Tolle Lege Press.

I selected the Geneva Bible translation because of the note the translators give at verse 19: “Their disobedience herein was lawful, but their dissembling evil.”

The midwives told Pharaoh what today we would call a “white lie”—”a diplomatic or well-intentioned untruth.” [American Heritage Dictionary]. I believe that most people now would not say that the midwives’ lie was evil. On the contrary, many would say that it was moral, ethical, the right thing to do under the circumstances. Indeed, the next two verses in the text indicate God’s approval of what they did. But King James I of England, the man behind the King James Version of the Bible, disapproved of the midwives’ lie? Why?

In his fascinating book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson gives James’ reason. 

“For James, their [the midwives’] behaviour had been the essence of sedition. Their disobedience was wicked and their deception made it worse. It was clearly the midwives’ duty to obey the royal instruction, to conform to the authority of the powers that be and to murder the babies.”

Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, p. 59.

The essence of sedition! Nicolson tells us that James hated the Geneva Bible because of its marginal notes [see Nicholson, page 73.] One of the instructions drawn up for use by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible appears to validate Nicolson’s assertion: “Noe marginal notes att all to be affixed, but only for ye explanation of ye Hebrew or Greeke Words, which cannot without some cicumlocution soe breifly and fitly be expressed in ye Text.” 

The translators complied. As a Jew, this is interesting to me. From an early age, we are taught to read the Five Books of Moses with the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105), usually referred to by the acronym Rashi. And as we grow older, several more famous commentators are added. 

But what intrigues me even more than an uncommented text is James’ belief that the midwives had a duty to follow the royal instruction. It was not “trumped” by any moral or ethical imperative to the contrary. Of course, we should remember that in the next generation, James’ son’s head was removed by those who didn’t quite agree with James’ idea of duty here.

I first became acquainted with this duty versus ethics conflict while reading about the Nuremberg trials. There, the duty idea was labeled the “Nuremberg Defense.” It was stated, in German, as “Befehl ist Befehl,” an order is an order. The defense is sometimes phrased, for example, as “just following orders.”

Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg trials. Wikimedia Commons.

So imagine, if you will, that the midwives complied with Pharaoh’s order and had killed all the newborn Hebrew male babies. Then envision a slave uprising; the rebel forces defeat the mighty Pharaoh and his army. After their victory, the former slaves recall what the midwives did and put them on trial. During the trial, the midwives claim that they were following Pharaoh’s order. Guilty or not guilty?

  1. Should/Would the nationality/ethnicity of the midwives make any difference in determining their guilt? Would their compliance, for example, be more immoral if they were Hebrews themselves, less offensive if they were Egyptians?
  2. Should/Would it make any difference if the punishment for the disobedience of Pharaoh’s order of genocide was death, torture, etc.? What if there was no punishment attached to disobedience?

I grew up in one country and now live in another, both of which have been involved in numerous wars. Each generation seems to have its own conflict. For the Americans of my age, it was the Vietnam War. The US was involved in Vietnam in varying degrees from 1961 to 1975. It encompassed my years from middle school all the way through graduation from college. 

Upon graduating from college, I did what the Army called “volunteering for the draft,” and joined the US Army. The war was still going on. I wasn’t sent to Vietnam but served in a field artillery unit stationed in Germany. I was fortunate. To say that the war in Vietnam involved ethical dilemmas would be an understatement. They started with the decision Just to serve in the military at all, and for many ended with what to do, how to act on the field of battle.

There is a shameful stain on America’s service in Vietnam. I am referring to what has been labeled by some as the “Mỹ Lai Incident” by others as the “Mỹ Lai Massacre.” It happened on March 16, 1968, my last semester in high-school. Three-hundred forty-seven unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed in Mỹ Lai, Vietnam. You didn’t hear about the incident until 1969. Army and congressional investigations followed. In 1971, five soldiers were court-martialed, and one was sentenced to life imprisonment. The convicted soldier was released in 1974. A federal court overturned his conviction.

The Wikipedia article “Superior orders” references the “Mỹ Lai Massacre” and describes the convicted soldier’s defense approach during his trial, a defense that some maintain ultimately reduced his sentence. When confronted by another soldier during the massacre, the later convicted soldier used the exact phrase “just following orders.”

While reading about something that happened in ancient Egypt, I learned about something here and now, thousands of years later. Details change, but human nature stays pretty much the same. It’s one of the reasons I love studying the Bible. I’ve found no other book that understands humans half so well.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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