In the opening chapter of Parshas Shemos we read about the beginnings of Jewish slavery in Egypt. One of Pharaoh's main objectives in enslaving the Jewish people was to end the rapid growth of the Jewish population. The Torah tells us, however, that despite his efforts, the exact opposite took place and the Jewish population began to grow at an even faster pace.
At this point, Pharaoh chose to take a more direct approach to his "Jewish problem" by recruiting the midwives that served the Jewish people in a plot to covertly murder their male children during birth. The Torah tells us the story in six verses (Exodus 1:15-21):
And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews, of which the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah. And he said, "When you deliver babies of the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live." But the midwives feared God, and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them, and they sustained the lives of the boys. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and he said to them, "Why have you done this thing, and sustained the lives of the boys?" And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are skilled [in childbirth], before the midwife comes to them, they have already given birth." And God was good to the midwives and the people multiplied, and became very strong. And it was that because the midwives feared God, He made them houses.
Instead of obeying Pharaoh's orders, the midwives actively worked to sustain every Jewish child. This is truly one of greatest stories of moral courage in history. Indeed, the medieval commentator, R' Yosef Bechor Shor, writes that the Torah tells us the names of the midwives in order that they should be remembered for all time for their heroism.
However, this brings us to a difficulty. As Rashi tells us, the Sages (Sotah 11b) taught that Shifrah was actually Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah was Miriam, Moses' older sister. This raises an obvious question. If Jochebed and Miriam were the actual heroes of the story, then why does the Torah hide their identity from us?
I believe that the basic answer to this question is that Jochebed and Miriam are two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, and if the Torah had explicitly identified them as the midwives it would be all too easy for us to write off their heroism as simply "par-for-the-course" for such outstanding individuals. The Torah wants us to recognize that the heroism of Shifrah and Puah was rooted simply in the fact that, like any pious Jew, they "feared God." Such heroism is something that we can and should expect from every Jew.
This answer gains additional strength in light of the fact that Shifrah and Puah could not possibly have been the only midwives for the entire Jewish population. Rather, as many commentaries (e.g. ibn Ezra, Chizkuni) explain, Shifrah and Puah were the chief midwives, and under them were many hundreds of midwives, all of whom risked their lives to save the lives of the Jewish boys. While Jochebed and Miriam were the leaders of the midwives, the Torah specifically omits identifying them so as not to detract from the heroism of the hundreds of "ordinary" women who also "feared God" and refused to obey Pharaoh's wicked command.
However, some significant difficulties still remain. A survey of the major commentaries finds a surprisingly strong debate on whether, according to the peshat (simple) reading of these verses, the heroic midwives were even Jewish! While most commentaries (e.g. Rashbam, R' Yosef Bechor Shor) reject the possibility that the verses are referring to non-Jewish midwives, there are also major authorities (e.g. the Rokeach, Abarbanel, and Malbim) who see this as the simple reading of the verses.
This would seem to brings us back to square one. Not only did the Torah hide the true identities of Shifrah and Puah, it was even ambiguous about their Jewish identity! There is even a midrash (Medrash Tadshe cited in Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 9) that includes Shifrah and Puah in a list of righteous female converts! This would certainly seem to directly contradict the identification of Shifrah and Puah with Jochebed and Miriam. Is this midrash simply arguing on the tradition cited by Rashi?
Perhaps we can answer this by expanding on what we discussed previously. If Jochebed and Miriam were merely the heads of a large group of many hundreds of midwives, then it is quite possible that at least some of those midwives were not Jewish. This would explain why the Torah is ambiguous about their national identity, because the midwives were actually a mixture of Jews and non-Jews.
If this is correct, then we have to ask ourselves what ultimately happened to the families of these non-Jewish God-fearing women, who risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people. Is it possible that their children and grandchildren suffered the same fate as the other Egyptians during the Ten Plagues? Was that the ultimate destiny of the "houses" with which God rewarded these heroic midwives?
Perhaps the answer is that these God-fearing midwives, having come face to face with the utter moral depravity of Egyptian society, chose to join the Jewish people in their slavery. (Thus, they would not even have been counted among the erev rav, which only joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) I believe this may be the underlying intent of the midrash that identifies Shifrah and Puah as righteous converts. In that midrash, Shifrah and Puah represent the God-fearing non-Jewish midwives who, having risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, chose to throw their lot in with them entirely.
There is obviously a great deal that we can learn from this story. Based upon what we've just said, perhaps the most basic lesson is the central importance of fear of God for all mankind. As Abraham responded when Abimelech asked him why he hadn't revealed that Sarah was his wife, "Because I said, 'The only thing lacking in this place is fear of God, and they will kill me for my wife.'" (Genesis 20:11) No matter how materially or even ethically refined a society or individual may appear, without fear of God there is no limit to the moral depths to which they can sink. But, Jew or Gentile, all those who truly fear God will ultimately merit to enter beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.