Part I: Genesis 35:16-18

Copyright © 2001 by Larry G. Overton and Beth Overton
All rights reserved.

As most of you may already know, in addition to being the editor and publisher of this newsletter, I am also a midwife, documented by the Texas Department of Health under the Licensure Bureau. A little more than three years ago, I wrote a research paper entitled “The History of Midwifery in America.” However, aside from a few brief references on the very first page of my paper, I do not explore what the Bible has to say about midwifery. My research paper, “The History of Midwifery in America” is available on this Website. 

The research that I did for that paper sparked an interest (for both my husband and I) in what the Bible says about midwifery. Larry is passionate about studying and teaching the Scriptures. Because of both his Biblical knowledge and writing skills, I am thrilled to have him as my partner in writing this series of articles on Midwifery and the Bible.

Mention in the Bible

As I searched the Bible for references to midwives, my first discovery was that there are relatively few references to midwifery in the Scriptures. All of the references are found in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). The Hebrew term translated “the midwife” (hameyaledet) may literally be translated “the childbirth assisting woman.” This term occurs in the singular (“midwife”) just three times: in Genesis 35:17, Genesis 38:28 and in Exodus 1:16. The plural form (“midwives”) occurs just seven times, and all in the first chapter of the book of Exodus: in verses 15, 17, 18, 19 (twice), 20 and 21. And that’s it. There are just ten explicit references to midwives in the Scriptures.

Genesis 35:16-18

16And they moved on from Bethel, and there was still a distance of land before they came to Ephrathah. And Rachel began to give birth, and had it hard in her childbearing. 17And so it was, as she had a very hard time in her childbearing, that the midwife was saying to her, “Don’t be afraid, because this one also is a son for you.” 18As her soul departed – for she died – she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. [LGO]

How Old is Midwifery?

The passage above is the first reference in the Scriptures to a “midwife” (verse 17). One of the questions I had about midwifery concerned its antiquity. The events recorded in Genesis 35 took place nearly 1900 years before Christ. It is important to note that although this is the first reference to midwifery in the Bible, nothing in the passage identifies it as the beginning of such a practice. The presence of a midwife is mentioned as a matter of fact, without introduction or explanation. In other words, midwifery as a practice was already in existence at the time of this incident recorded in Genesis. That would mean that the practice of midwifery was already in existence approximately 4000 years ago.

Commanding Focus

After becoming a midwife, when I reread this account of Rachel giving birth, I could not help but see the story through the eyes of the midwife. Although her role is mentioned very briefly, I tried to imagine myself in her place and visualize what was happening.

First of all, I tried to imagine the possible cause of Rachel’s death. There are really very few scenarios that take a mother’s life in labor and delivery. In such a situation, blood loss is most likely the cause of death. Because Rachel had been traveling, and also had a difficult delivery, I imagine she was exhausted from the delivery of her baby. Maternal exhaustion after a difficult birth is a possible cause of uterine atony (the uterus becoming soft and not contracted). Uterine contractions control bleeding after the birth of a baby. Elizabeth Davis, a highly respected midwife and author, addresses this very subject.

Uterine atony can result in considerable bleeding following the delivery of the placenta. There are several causes: one is a long, drawn out labor which leaves the uterus too exhausted to clamp down efficiently…1

Midwives are trained in various ways to control bleeding. Of course, we are familiar with drugs that can help (pitocin and methergine, which are man-made oxytocins). There are also various herbs that have similar effects. We also use massage to encourage the uterus to contract. We encourage nursing because when a mother nurses, the pituitary gland in her brain releases the hormone oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract.

But there is one other very important thing I do at all births. I make sure the mother is focused on her beautiful new baby. The natural bonding that takes place in a normal delivery plays a big part in the body completing the task of birth. So much is going on hormonally at that time, for both the mother and the child. In a drug free birth, when mother and child meet for the first time, hormones are working in full force. The excitement of the bonding event can keep even an exhausted mother alert. I witnessed this with the birth of my own grandson. After a difficult 36-hour labor with little or no sleep, my daughter was totally excited, alert and weeping for joy as she bonded with her firstborn. And by the way, she had practically no bleeding.

Back to Rachel’s midwife. When I read the words of the midwife in this story, “Don’t be afraid, because this one also is a son for you,” it was easy for me to picture an exhausted mom who is bleeding too much and drifting or fading out. The midwife’s command was to not be afraid. She also called for Rachel to focus on her second son, in words no doubt designed to remind her of her own petition after the birth of her firstborn son, Yoseph. “And she called his name Yoseph, saying, ‘May Yahweh add [Hebrew, yoseph] to me another son.'” [Genesis 30:24, LGO]

Of course, in such a circumstance as this, I would be administering herbs and massaging her uterus, but I also would be commanding her attention. I would tell her to focus on her baby. I would tell her to talk to her baby. If she were panicky, I would try to calm her down and again tell her to focus on her beautiful new baby. And all of this would be for the purpose of controlling a hemorrhage. Consider again the words of Elizabeth Davis as she speaks of hemorrhaging and about commanding the mother to focus.

One cardinal rule in dealing with a woman who is hemorrhaging is to keep her attention focused on the here and now. This means commanding her to stay with you, to look you or her mate in the eyes, or to touch and speak to her baby. In essence, this means the mustering of her vital force and participation, especially critical if she is drifting or fading out.2

Every midwife I trained under taught me the importance of focus and bonding. These principles have been passed down from midwife to midwife for a long time. And if I am right that this is what Rachel’s midwife was trying to do, then these principles have been passed on for a really long time. I do practice both speaking commands to focus and giving a mother encouragement to bond with her baby. I do this because it works!


Well, for what it’s worth, you now have a midwife’s perspective on this passage of Scripture. Next month, in Part II we will take a look at the second passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that refers to midwifery: Genesis 38:27-30. This passage has been used to disprove a belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures, so it should be an interesting study.


Copyright © 2001 by Larry G. Overton and Beth Overton
All rights reserved.

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