Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Genesis 37-50 tells the story of Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son. Joseph’s brothers, offended by Joseph’s impudence, sold him into slavery (Genesis 37). Joseph became Potiphar’s servant but, falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, soon found himself in prison (Genesis 39). Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of two fellow prisoners (Genesis 40), bringing him to the attention of Pharaoh, who was looking for someone to interpret his own dream. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, leading to his appointment as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, in charge of storing provisions to carry Egypt through a coming time of famine (Genesis 41).
During the famine, Joseph’s brothers, not aware of Joseph’s exalted status, went to Egypt to buy food. They dealt directly with Joseph, not knowing his identity. Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers, and they were reconciled (Genesis 42-45). That led to Jacob and his family, seventy people, settling in Egypt (Genesis 46-47). Then Jacob, an old man, blessed Joseph’s sons, said his last words to all of his sons, died, and was buried (Genesis 48-49). The book of Genesis closes with the story of Joseph’s death at age one hundred ten (Genesis 50).
The book of Exodus opens with the names of the sons of Israel/Jacob, and reminds us that the number of Jacob’s family that entered Egypt originally was only seventy (1:1-5). It then mentions the deaths of Joseph and his brothers (1:6), and adds this important note:
“The children of Israel were fruitful,
and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and grew exceedingly mighty;
and the land was filled with them” (1:7).
Later, after the Exodus, we will learn that the Israelites have grown to six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty people, not including the Levites, who were not included in the census (Numbers 1:46-47).
EXODUS 1:8-11. THERE AROSE A NEW KING OVER EGYPT
8Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we. 10Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it happen that when any war breaks out, they also join themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and escape out of the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. They built storage cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph” (v. 8). The new king probably represented a new dynasty (a new series of rulers of the same line of descent). Joseph most likely began his ascent to power under a pharaoh of the 17th Dynasty—a dynasty of Hyksos or foreign rulers. The people of Egypt chafed under the rule of these foreigners, and celebrated the coming of the 18th Dynasty—Egyptian rulers—which began about 1550 B.C. and lasted 250 years. These new rulers would surely be aware of Joseph’s role in their history but, thinking of him as the representative of an unpopular foreign dynasty, would have no interest in perpetuating his memory or helping his descendants.
“He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we'” (v. 9). Verse 7 established that the Israelites have “increased abundantly” and that “the land was filled with them.” If our assessment is correct that this pharaoh is an Egyptian who has chafed under foreign rule, it is only natural that he would be concerned with the growing power of this foreign people (the Israelites) in his midst.
“Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it happen that when any war breaks out, they also join themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and escape out of the land”(v. 10). Pharaoh’s comments will sound familiar to anyone who has studied American history. Each successive wave of American immigration has triggered xenophobic concerns directed at African-Americans—the Irish—Italians—Eastern Europeans—Jews—Asians—Hispanics—and others. Two classic examples include the fear of 19th century Southern whites that African-American slaves might revolt—and the fear during World War II that Japanese-Americans might act as spies or saboteurs. The concern about African-American slaves led to harsh measures to control them. The concern about Japanese-Americans led to their internment for the balance of the war.
The same kind of concern will be familiar to people of other nations. Fear of foreigners is common throughout the world—as is tribal warfare. Jews have been the targets of pogroms (organized massacres) in many times in many nations. A classic example was the Holocaust in Germany during the 1930s and 40s. Tribal and political conflicts have caused millions of deaths over the past century.
“Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens” (v. 11a). Slavery is pharaoh’s first line of defense. He will curtail the Israelites’ freedom and force them to serve at hard labor. Limiting their freedom will lessen the possibility that they will be able to rise up against the Egyptians. Forcing them to work at hard labor will leave them too exhausted to carry out a revolt.
“They built storage cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Rameses” (v. 11b). The Israelites, during Joseph’s lifetime, settled in Goshen, a fertile region in the Nile Delta (Genesis 47:27; 50:8). While we are not certain of the location of Pithom and Rameses, they were probably located in the Nile Delta. They were supply cities, and the fertile land of the Delta would provide abundant crops for storage. A location in the Delta would also make it unnecessary to relocate the Israelites before putting them to work on the supply cities.
EXODUS 1:12-14. THE MORE THEY MULTIPLIED
12But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out. They were grieved because of the children of Israel. 13The Egyptians ruthlessly made the children of Israel serve, 14and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve.
“But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out. They were grieved because of the children of Israel” (v. 12). Pharaoh’s strategy failed. He had bet that he could control the Israelites and limit their growth by requiring them to do backbreaking work. He had assumed that their strength as a people would decline in proportion to the adversity that they were required to bear. However, the opposite turned out to be true. The more Egypt oppressed them, the stronger they grew.
So far, the book of Exodus has not mentioned Yahweh—not even once. However, people familiar with this story can sense Yahweh’s presence in the background. The Israelites are not prospering because they are a superior people. They are prospering because they worship a superior God.
Egypt’s failed effort has given them even greater reason to be afraid. Is there any hope that they can succeed in controlling the Israelites?
“The Egyptians ruthlessly made the children of Israel serve” (v. 13). As so often happens when people are desperate, the Egyptians try to redeem a failed strategy by redoubling their efforts rather than trying to implement a new strategy. They have imposed hard labor on the Israelites. Now they will work them even harder.
“and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve” (v. 14). Note the adjectives in this verse—”bitter,” “hard,” and “ruthlessly.” There is no compassion here—quite the opposite. The Egyptians intend to break the spirit of the Israelites—perhaps even to work them to death.
The kinds of work mentioned here—”mortar and brick” and “service in the field”—are physically demanding. Add a whip to punish workers or to spur them on, and you soon get truly intolerable conditions.
EXODUS 1:15-22. IF IT IS A SON, KILL HIM
15The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah, 16and he said, “When you perform the duty of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool (Hebrew: ‘obnayim); if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God, and didn’t do what the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the baby boys alive. 18The king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and have saved the boys alive?”
19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous, and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
20God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied, and grew very mighty. 21It happened, because the midwives feared God, that he gave them families. 22Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “You shall cast every son who is born into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”
“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah” (v. 15). Now pharaoh implements a new strategy. This verse raises two questions:
• First, does pharaoh personally instruct these two midwives? This verse makes it sound as if he addresses them directly, although he could issue instructions through an intermediary.
• Second, why only two midwives? Circumstances dictate the number of births at which a midwife can assist. In this case, the Israelites are dispersed among two cities and a widespread rural area. Travel from one expectant mother to another would be slow, and women in labor do not give birth according to a timetable. Given these realities, a midwife would be lucky to assist at more than a few hundred births in a year. Two midwives could not serve a population large enough to frighten the Egyptians. Perhaps pharaoh considered these two midwives trustworthy enough to take into his confidence. Perhaps they are simply representatives of the larger midwife community.
This verse identifies the midwives as Hebrews. That does not necessarily mean that they are Israelites—the word Hebrew was used to refer to various nomadic tribes. However, this verse tells us that they are not Egyptians—and that they might identify with the Israelites.
It is significant that the text honors these women by giving their names, while pharaoh is not so honored. These women will earn this honor by saving the lives of babies whom they have been ordered to kill. Because of their faithfulness, their names will be celebrated throughout history.
“When you perform the duty of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool” (Hebrew: ‘obnayim) (v. 16a). The word ‘obnayim comes from a root that means “a pair of stones,” which has led scholars to speculate that ‘obnayim in this verse is a euphemism for testicles. In other words, this verse might better be translated “and see their testicles,” which simply means “confirming that they are boys.” However, it is also possible that ‘obnayim is used here to refer to stones which new mothers would use for support while giving birth.
“if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live” (v. 16b). Pharaoh’s initial plan to stifle the growth of the Israelites has failed, so he now turns to a more direct method. He orders these midwives to kill all the baby boys.
This story has a parallel in the book of Matthew, where Herod orders the massacre of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16).
Why kill only boys and not girls? Boys would be more likely to engage in violent revolt, but killing only boys would not necessarily slow population growth—one man can impregnate many women. However, killing male babies would demoralize the Israelites and, over time, would weaken their community.
“But the midwives feared God” (v. 17a). Fearing God in Hebrew scripture means trusting God and having reverence and faith that leads to obedience to God’s will. Even though pharaoh has the power of life and death over these women, they are determined to do God’s will and are willing to trust God to vindicate their faithfulness.
“and didn’t do what the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the baby boys alive” (v. 17b). History is replete with examples of people who showed great courage to do the right thing in the face of great and evil power. Israel today honors “Righteous Gentiles”—people who risked their lives to help Jewish people during the Holocaust. We know that Shiphrah and Puah are Hebrews, but we don’t know for sure that they are Israelites. Perhaps they are the first “Righteous Gentiles.”
“The king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, ‘Why have you done this thing, and have saved the boys alive?'” (v. 18). As absolute ruler, pharaoh expects absolute obedience. He must be angry as he interrogates these women concerning their disobedience. He could order their execution for disobeying his direct order.
“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous, and give birth before the midwife comes to them'” (v. 19). The Israelites have proven more vigorous than pharaoh expected. They responded to the harsh conditions imposed by pharaoh by growing in strength and numbers. Now the midwives tell pharaoh that Hebrew women are strong and independent when it comes to giving birth—much stronger and more independent than Egyptian women. Hebrew women are able to give birth largely unassisted. No midwives are required.
We don’t know how much of this report is true. Perhaps the midwives have warned the Hebrew community that their women need to forego assistance by midwives. Perhaps the Hebrew women really are strong and independent. However, it seems likely that the midwives have assisted in Hebrew births and have disobeyed pharaoh’s order to kill the male children. If so, this is an instance of the end (preserving the lives of Hebrew babies and the lives of the midwives) justifies the means (telling pharaoh a lie). “The end justifies the means” is a slippery slope that can lead to evil consequences, but there are extreme situations where it is appropriate. This is one of those situations.
In any event, the midwives must convince pharaoh that they have not chosen to ignore his order. Otherwise, their lives will be in danger. Their report is believable, because the Hebrews have proven so robust—and it appears that pharaoh believes their report.
There is a parallel here to the story of the massacre of the innocents in the Gospel of Matthew. In that instance, the Magi, “being warned in a dream that they shouldn’t report to Herod, …went back to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). They, too, will refuse to be complicit in an evil scheme. They, too, will prove faithful to God. They, too, will frustrate an evil ruler.
“God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied, and grew very mighty” (v. 20). God blesses the midwives—and the Israelite people as well. Verse 21 will announce the specific blessings accorded the midwives. This verse says that, in spite of every attempt of a mighty nation to stop them, the Israelite people continue to grow in numbers and in strength.
“It happened, because the midwives feared God, that he gave them families” (v. 21). God rewards the midwives for their faith and faithfulness by giving them families of their own. In most cultures, children are prized. In that time and place, they were especially prized. People thought of children as a divine blessing (Genesis 15:1-5; Psalm 127:3-6). To be deprived of children was painful (1 Samuel 1-2). People needed children to help with the many chores associated with rural life—they provided for parents in their old age—and they were necessary to carry on the family name. Nothing that God could do for these women would be perceived as a greater blessing than the gift of children.
“Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, ‘You shall cast every son who is born into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive'” (v. 22). Having been frustrated by the refusal of the midwives to kill Hebrew children, pharaoh now turns to the general population. He gives them the same order that he gave to the midwives—to kill every male Hebrew baby but to allow the female babies to live.
Pharaoh prescribes a particular method of execution. The people are to throw the babies into the Nile River where they will drown or be eaten by crocodiles. Egyptians view the Nile as a sacred river, so they can justify these actions as religious sacrifices.
EXODUS 2:1-4. SHE HID THE BABY IN A PAPYRUS BASKET
1A man of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi as his wife. 2The woman conceived, and bore a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. 3When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket (Hebrew: tebat) for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch. She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. 4His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him.
“A man of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi as his wife” (v. 2.1). Levi was the third son of Jacob. He engaged in deceit and violence to avenge his sister, Dinah (Genesis 34), so that Jacob, on his deathbed, withheld his blessing of Levi (Genesis 49:5-7).
At Sinai, after the Israelites make the golden calf, Moses will call, “Whoever is on Yahweh’s side, come to me!” (Exodus 32:26), and the sons of Levi will gather around Moses and help him punish the people. Moses will then respond, “Consecrate yourselves to Yahweh, yes, every man against his son, and against his brother; that he may bestow on you a blessing this day” (Exodus 32:29). On his deathbed, in acknowledgement of the faithful service of the Levites, Moses will ordain them to teach the law and to sacrifice burnt offerings at the Lord’s altar—in other words, will ordain them as priests (Deuteronomy 8:8-11; see also Numbers 1:50ff; 3:12, 32; 8:5ff; 18:6ff). That, however, lies in the future. At present, the Levites are simply one of the twelve families of the Israelites.
This Levite man marries a Levite woman. Later, we will learn their names. He is Amram, and she is Jochebed (Exodus 6:20)
“The woman conceived, and bore a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months” (v. 2). This sounds as if Moses is this woman’s firstborn. However, as we will see shortly, he has an older sister (vv. 4, 7). Presumably, she is Miriam, who will later be identified as the sister of Aaron—and as a prophetess (Exodus 15:20-21). Later, we will also learn that Aaron is Moses’ brother—older than Moses by three years (Exodus 6:20; 7:7).
Jochebed succeeded in hiding her baby for three months. Undoubtedly, her Israelite neighbors helped with this subterfuge.
“When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket (tebat) for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch. She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank” (v. 3). Papyrus is an aquatic reed found in marshy areas of the Nile. People would lay strips of papyrus side by side to form one layer, and would then place another layer perpendicular to the first one. Two layers would make a strong paper-like sheet, and additional layers would add strength. Properly prepared, papyrus can make a strong fabric that can be molded to various shapes. In this case, Jochebed molds the papyrus into a basket large enough to hold her baby—and sturdy enough to insure his safety—and buoyant enough to float even weighted down with the weight of a healthy baby.
The Hebrew word translated “basket” in this verse is tebat—the same word used earlier for Noah’s ark (Genesis 6). In each of these stories, God uses a tebat as a vessel of salvation for people essential to his ongoing purposes.
Bitumen and pitch are tar-like substances that would make Moses’ ark waterproof. While the Lord commanded Noah to make his ark waterproof by applying pitch (Genesis 6:14), the word translated pitch there is different from the words translated bitumen and pitch in this verse. However, the principle of waterproofing is the same in both stories.
A basket placed in the Nile would usually be expected to float downstream with the current. However, Jochebed places Moses’ ark, made of papyrus reeds, among the reeds near the riverbank. The reeds would camouflage the ark to some extent—and would also hold it in place so that it doesn’t float away.
There is much delicious irony in this story. In this instance, Moses’ mother follows pharaoh’s order to place male Hebrew babies in the Nile—except that his purpose is to kill the babies, but Jochebed’s purpose is to save her baby. The Nile—pharaoh’s instrument of death—becomes an instrument of life for God and God’s people.
“His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him” (v. 4). As noted above, we will later learn that this girl’s name is Miriam. We don’t know how old she is, but the impression that we get is of a young adolescent. She must be older than her bother, Aaron, because Aaron is only three years older than Moses (Exodus 7:7).
Jochebed stations her daughter at the riverside to see what will happen to the baby. With the ark located near the riverbank, Miriam can also feed and change the baby as needed.
EXODUS 2:5-10. HE BECAME THE SON OF PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER
5Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river. Her maidens walked along by the riverside. She saw the basket among the reeds, and sent her handmaid to get it. 6She opened it, and saw the child, and behold, the baby cried. She had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Should I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?”
8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.”
The maiden went and called the child’s mother.
9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.”
The woman took the child, and nursed it.
10The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
“Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river. Her maidens walked along by the riverside. She saw the basket among the reeds, and sent her handmaid to get it” (v. 5). Pharaoh almost certainly has a harem. If so, this daughter is probably one of hundreds of pharaoh’s daughters. She comes to bathe in the sacred Nile waters, sees Moses’ ark among the reeds, and decides to investigate.
“She opened it, and saw the child, and behold, the baby cried. She had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children'” (v. 6). She quickly and accurately assesses this to be a Hebrew baby, and can easily see that it is a male baby. She surely knows of pharaoh’s concern about the Israelite people and his edict that all male Hebrew babies are to be killed. However, affairs of the heart often override considerations of that sort, and that is what happens here. She feels a wave of compassion for this baby, who is floating all alone in his little basket.
“Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Should I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?'” (v. 7). Miriam has surely been planning what she will say when Moses is discovered. When she sees that pharaoh’s daughter is inclined favorably toward the baby, she offers to find a wet nurse among the Hebrew women to take care of the baby. What a clever offer! What a clever girl! Miriam must speak Egyptian, because it is unlikely that pharaoh’s daughter speaks Hebrew.
“Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go’ (Hebrew: leki—”Go!”). The maiden went and called the child’s mother” (v. 8). This is another delightful bit of irony. Miriam calls Moses’ real mother to become the surrogate mother to her own baby.
“Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.’ The woman took the child, and nursed it” (v. 9). Pharaoh’s daughter offers Jochebed a paid position—taking care of the newfound baby. In the mind of pharaoh’s daughter, it is now her baby, but of course it is really Jochebed’s baby. Jochebed will be paid for taking care of her own baby! And, in the bargain, she will receive immunity from pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew babies are to be killed.
“The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son” (v. 10a). It would appear that Jochebed takes care of Moses until he is weaned at age three or four, so she has plenty of opportunity to instill Godly values in her son before turning him over to pharaoh’s daughter. She surely helps him to understand his identity, because in verse 11 he goes to the defense of a Hebrew man whom he understands to be his kinsman.
“She named him Moses, and said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water'” (v. 10b). The Hebrew word, moseh, means “drawing out.” Why would pharaoh’s daughter use a Hebrew name for her adopted son? Two possibilities come to mind. One is that Jochebed names her son Moses, explains the significance of the name to pharaoh’s daughter, and pharaoh’s daughter continues using the name. Another is that pharaoh’s daughter gives her adopted son an Egyptian name and the Israelites interpret the reason as explained in this verse. While Moses doesn’t appear to be a common Egyptian name, Egyptians use variations such as Ahmose and Harmose.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Childs, Brevard S., The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
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Newsome, James D. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan