The name is found in a list of slaves in Egypt during the reign of Sobekhotep III. This list is on Brooklyn 35.1446, a papyrus scroll kept in the Brooklyn Museum. The name is written šp-ra and means "to be fair" or "beautiful". The name may be related to or even the same as the Aramaic Sapphira and (up to slight morphological adaptations) as Siphrah, the name of the Hebrew midwife. The name of the second midwife, Pu'ah, is a Canaanite name which means "lass" or "little girl".
Midrashic InterpretationsThe 11th century Jewish rabbi Rashi's Talmud commentary on the passage from Exodus identifies Shiphrah with Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah with Miriam, Moses' sister, making the two midwives mother and daughter respectively.
Commentators have interpreted Exodus 1:20-21 in various ways. Some scholars argue that the two halves of each verse are parallel, so that it is the Israelites ('who multiplied and grew greatly') for whom God 'made houses'. This fits with the reference in Exodus 1:1 to the chldren of Israel coming down to Egypt, each with his 'house'. However, as Jonathan Magonet notes, the more common view is that the houses are for the midwives - 'houses' here being understood as 'dynasties'. Rabbinic thought has understood these as the houses of kehunah (priesthood), leviyah (assistants to the priests), and royalty - the latter interpreted as coming from Miriam.
Other InterpretationsIf the Shiphrah on the Brooklyn document is the same as the one in the Bible, or a close contemporary, then the Pharaoh of the Exodus must be the one named Dudimose or Tutimaios. However, Shiphrah is described in Jewish traditions as not being enslaved, rather hired by Pharaoh, and then was saved from slavery the entire time in Egypt. If this interpretation is correct, then the Shiphrah in the list may be another woman of the same name. Other possibilities are that Shiphrah may have been first a slave, then freed; or that the Jewish traditions may not go back in time far enough to be authentic.
Francine Klagsbrun said that the refusal of Shiphrah and her colleague Puah to follow the Pharaoh's genocidal instructions "may be the first known incident of civil disobedience in history" (Voices of Wisdom, ISBN 0-394-40159-X). Jonathan Magonet agrees, calling them 'the earliest, and in some ways the most powerful, examples, of resistance to an evil regime'.
The name means 'improved' or 'beautiful' (in modern Hebrew, leshaper means "to improve").
Pharaohs in the book of ExodusThe book of Exodus tells how the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt and eventually escape under the leadership of Moses. At least two pharaohs are involved, the "pharaoh of the oppression" who enslaves the Israelites, and the "pharaoh of the exodus", during whose rule the Israelites escape. The biblical story does not name either, nor does it give enough information to identify the period in which the events are set, with the result that there have been many suggestions as to which of Egypt's many rulers was involved. Candidates put forward for the role include:
- Dudimose (died c.1690 BC): David Rohl's 1995 A Test of Time revised Egyptian history by shortening the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt by almost 300 years. As a by-result the synchronisms with the biblical narrative have changed, making the 13th Dynasty pharaoh Djedneferre Dudimose (Dedumesu, Tutimaos, Tutimaios) the pharaoh of the Exodus. Rohl's theory has failed to find support among scholars in his field.
- Ahmose I (1550-1525 BC): Simcha Jacobovici's April 16, 2006 History Channel documentary film Exodus Decoded and attributed to be the first pharaoh of the New Kingdom of Egypt.
- Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC)
- Horemheb (1319-1292 BC): Ahmed Osman surmised that he was the Pharaoh of the Oppression.
- Ramesses I (c.1292-1290 BC): Surmised by Ahmed Osman to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
- Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 BC) Also known as Ramesses the Great, he is the most commonly imagined figure in popular culture, but there is no documentary or archaeological evidence that he had to deal with the Plagues of Egypt or anything similar or that he chased Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt. Ramesses II's late 13th century BC stela in Beth Shan mentions two conquered peoples who came to "make obeisance to him" in his city of Raameses or Pi-Ramesses but mentions neither the building of the city nor, as some have written, the Israelites or Hapiru. Additionally, the historical Pithom was built in the 7th century BC, during the Saite period.