“If it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live” (Exodus 1:16). With that command given to the midwives Shifrah and Puah—dramatized here on the western wall of Syria’s Dura-Europos synagogue—Pharaoh plans to eliminate the Israelite population in Egypt by killing its newborn sons. But fearing what God might do to them should they start killing babies, Shifrah and Puah quietly defy Pharaoh’s orders.

When the king begins to realize that Israelite boys are surviving despite his decree, he summons the midwives and asks them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” (Exodus 1:19). With wit and deception, Shifrah and Puah tell him that the Israelite women are like animals, who deliver their sons with remarkable speed, before a midwife can come to them. The answer temporarily satisfies Pharaoh, but it doesn’t cause him to lift the death sentence.