Deciding what’s right: Introducing a new series…

Posted by on Sep 22, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

I hope you enjoyed the ‘Why believe?’ series, which was a 101 introduction to apologetics. Lest you missed it, the posts are still readily accessible. We covered ‘Why believe: A sort of apologetics 101’; ‘Theism and all that’ which explored some of the basic arguments for the existence of God; ‘The Bible: Bloodthirsty Text or Solid Witness?’; ‘The Church: Hazard or Witness?’; ‘A World Minus Jesus’; ‘Easter cancelled. They’ve found the body’ (not); ‘Miracles, Maths and Mystery…‘ and then finished the series with an interview ‘Resurrection, Pannenberg and Aaron Chidzey.’ Thanks heaps to those who have provided feedback – sometimes via comments on the blog, often via personal emails. As always, don’t hesitate to add your insights to the blog – be they in agreement or not. And thanks to those who have forwarded on the posts via their social networks – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and a range of others. It has alerted people in over 50 countries of the blog, and it has been encouraging to see its reach grow.

Today we start a new series which focuses of ethics and how we go about making ethical decisions – indeed, how we set about the task of ‘deciding what’s right’. There aren’t easy answers here, and I don’t intend to imply that there are. I am mindful of Bonhoeffer’s penetrating insight in the opening chapter of his book Ethics that the heart of original sin was the desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the belief that it would enable the original couple to decide what was right unaided – outside of any reference to God. Having eaten from that tree they anticipated being able to declare God redundant, for they hoped to match the ethical insight of the creator of all. Sin begins with the desire to push God aside. It remains a temptation in ethics – there is the ever present danger that we try to formulate ethical formulae that can be rigidly applied – close listening to God and trying to discern what the Spirit is doing in this instance no longer required.

By way of a start I have reproduced a little piece I published in the Advocate back in 2010, ‘Pharaoh Who?’ Based on Exodus 1 – which is my favourite starting passage for studying ethics – perhaps it can whet your appetite to some of the posts that will follow. Amongst others these will include a few posts on ethical method, and then a look as some specific topics, including suicide, euthanasia, divorce, sex outside of marriage, same sex marriage, is wealth OK, is the refugee my neighbour, what about ambition, what constitutes virtue, and – provided you give me enough time – any topics you would like me to look at.

Well – as a little taster – here is my short piece from 2010, ‘Pharaoh Who?’

Should you find yourself locked in a tense contest of Trivial Pursuit, it is possible that you might be asked to name the Hebrew midwives of Exodus 1. Knowing my erudite readers, I have little doubt that the vast majority are already mouthing their names – Shiphrah and Puah for those who prefer their minority status. They told a delightful porky to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and in doing so helped save the lives of many Hebrew babies.

The account is one of my favourites. It’s so marvellously messy. Here are the details. A seriously paranoid Pharaoh orders that all Hebrew male babies be killed at birth. Aware that they ultimately account to God, the spunkily courageous Shiphrah and Puah disobey orders. Summoned by Pharaoh to account for their non-execution of the Hebrew boys, they shrug their shoulders and essentially say, “So what’s a midwife to do with these Hebrew women? They aren’t refined like Egyptian women who need a midwife’s help. Hebrew babies drop out so fast that our services are never required.” “Really?” Pharaoh gasps. “You learn something new every day!”

Shiphrah and Puah depart to giggle at their leisure. Prejudice makes fools of people, and Pharaoh’s bigotry has him believing an obvious untruth.

Turns out that God appreciates the midwives’ yarn. We’re told He personally rewards them with children of their own.

And that’s where it becomes ethically perplexing. While I’ve tried to dress up their deceit as telling a porky or spinning a yarn, bottom line is that they knowingly and intentionally told a lie. They tell a lie, and God rewards them… Hmmm, that’s not what you usually learn in a Vose ethics course! Actually, if you do take the unit you’ll explore the realm of conflicting moral obligations. While it would have been nice if Shiphrah and Puah told the truth, it was more important that they saved lives. That was their higher ethical obligation. For those who don’t like where this is going, argue with God! He is the One who decided to reward them with children of their own. There is not a hint of Divine displeasure, only delight at their great courage under pressure.

Back to Trivial Pursuit. What was the name of this decidedly dunce like Pharaoh? We can make a few educated guesses from history, Seti I and Ramses II being popular choices. But we really can’t know because the Bible chooses to remain silent on this topic. And it’s a deliberate silence. Hebrew midwives who risked their lives to save infants have their names recorded and remembered. A tyrannical Pharaoh might have once strutted a now obscure stage and abused his temporary power, but no one bothered to record his name. Indeed – his name will not be remembered…

And so as Jesus taught, the first become last, and the last become first, and those on the margins have their stumbling efforts at faithfulness, rewarded.

Why not spend some time pondering the ethical dilemmas inherent in this situation. Was it really OK for Shiphrah and Puah to lie? And what about the consequences of that lie – the deepening conviction that ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women’ – or that the Jews are an ‘other’ race who can therefore be treated as though not fully human. Did the lie these midwives told contain the seeds for the persistent ‘othering’ of the Jewish nation in history – indeed, eventually to the rationalization of Jewish persecution under the Hitler regime…We’ll unpack the underlying ethical issues in greater depth in the next post ‘Ethics and Exodus 1’.

As always – nice chatting.


  1. Hi Brian

    I love that your starting this series with Bonhoeffer’s insights. This is not remembered enough in discussions on free will. Do we have more knowledge of ethical issues than intended? How interesting. Also, I find it difficult to imagine Shiphrah and Puah ethical dilemma pre Jesus teaching and formalised cannon’s.

    • Bonhoeffer’s own story is so poignant when you think about ethics. He was so deeply committed to non violence, yet the madness of his time saw him eventually agree to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. It failed, and Bonhoeffer, along with the other conspirators, was imprisoned. He was hung just 2 weeks before the end of the war. In prison he wrote his haunting poem ‘Who am I?’ which ends with the lines
      ‘Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
      Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!’

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