The first chapter of Exodus presents us with a paradox that is often found in God’s purposes for his people. Because they have been called by him, they already know divine blessing, and yet in this world he does not grant them ease and immediate success. Rather they have to face up to trouble and hardship. Jesus warned his disciples that this would be so. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Paul similarly instructed the elders of Ephesus that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). It was the same experience that the Israelites underwent when they were in Egypt.
While the Israelites were in Egypt, there were obvious indications that God’s favour rested on them. Their numbers grew at an unprecedented rate (verses 1-7). But the blessing that had been divinely bestowed became the source of their enemies’ hostility and rancour, leading to the enslavement of the Israelites (verses 8-14). It is part of God’s structuring of human history in this fallen world that he has divinely interposed enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), between those who are living in rebellion against him and those whom he has brought into a living and true relationship with himself. That animosity is here especially evident in the character of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who embarks on a policy of genocide (verses 15-21). This chapter sets the scene, and poses the question that is worked out throughout the rest of the book: who will have the last word on the destiny of God’s people — Pharaoh or the Lord? Who is the ultimate power to be reckoned with?
The Family that Moved (1:1-5): Although the book of Exodus continues the story that starts in Genesis, Exodus 1:1 does not begin quite where Genesis 50:26 had left off— with the death of Joseph. It rather takes us back seventy years earlier, to the situation in Genesis 46 where Jacob has learned that his son Joseph is alive in Egypt and able to provide for his needs there. As Jacob travelled south into Egypt, God appeared to him at Beersheba and reassured him of his covenant blessing. Leaving the land God had promisedto Abraham and his descendants will not invalidate the covenant relationship. The Lord will continue to be with him in Egypt. Indeed he will there ensure that their numbers will grow, and that they will return (Gen. 46:2-4). There then follows a list of Jacob’s family. “These are the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob and his descendants) who went to Egypt” (Gen. 46:8). It is with that theme of the descendants of Jacob and their growth in numbers that Exodus begins, using language very similar to that in the earlier passage. These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family (1:1). Indeed, the similarity between the two verses extends to the fact that both begin with the word ‘and’ (not translated in the NIV). Its use at the beginning of this book (and also of many of the historical books of the Old Testament) is further evidence of the writer’s consciousness that he is not starting a new story, but continuing with the next episode of an ongoing narrative: the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people throughout the history of this world.
‘Israel’ was the name Jacob had received from God after he blessed him and reaffirmed the covenant with him (Gen. 35:10-12). The family that we are being told about was no ordinary family, but one that God had chosen and entered into a special relationship with. This is the history of God’s covenant people. This is particularly brought out by the phrase ‘each with his family’ (‘family’ is here literally ‘house’ in the sense of ‘household’, NKJV). The covenant commitment the Lord had made with Abraham was “an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). It was by this on-going commitment to the descendants of Abraham that God was pleased to work out his promise to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This covenant pledge had been repeated to Jacob: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).
The first six names listed are those of the sons of Leah, Jacob’s first wife: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun (1:2-3). Benjamin is the younger son of Rachel, Jacob’s second wife. Her elder son, Joseph, is not mentioned here because he wasalready in Egypt (1:5). There then are listed the sons of Jacob’s concubines in the order of their birth (Gen. 30:4-12). Dan and Naphtali (1:4), the sons of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, are listed before Gad and Asher, who were the sons of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah. This genealogy is of the same pattern as that found in Genesis 35:23-26. Unlike that of Genesis 46:8-17, Jacob’s sons are listed here in order of birth, with Benjamin being the exception.
The descendants of Jacob (literally, ‘those coming out of the loins of Jacob’) numbered seventy (1:5). Genesis 46:27 arrives at the total of seventy for Jacob’s family by including his grandsons. But there is another tradition represented in the fragments of Exodus found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Septuagint, the early translation of the Old Testament into Greek, that Jacob’s descendants numbered 75. This is the figure that Stephen quotes in his address to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:14). This figure is arrived at by including in the total two sons of Manasseh, two sons of Ephraim, and one grandson of Ephraim, who are in fact named in the Greek version of Genesis 46:20. Once allowance is made for wives and daughters, the total would probably increase to about 150. There is also the possibility of servants attached to Jacob’s household and those of his sons. Abraham had had 318 trained men bom in his household (Gen. 14:14). Jacob also had numerous servants (as can be deduced from Gen. 32:13-20), but there is no record of whether they formed part of the group that moved with Jacob into Egypt.
Joseph was already in Egypt. That, of course, was how God had preserved the family when they were threatened by famine in Canaan (Gen. 45:4-7). The narrative clearly records that all of Jacob’s sons went to Egypt. In their reconstructions of early Israelite history, many critical scholars have argued that only some of the tribes had in fact come from Egypt, most commonly only the Joseph tribes. 52:2 (1990), 181-200. Waltke himself concludes, “The immigration, revolt, and two-phase conquest models should be rejected because they depart too radically from the Bible, the primary source recounting Israel’s taking of the sworn-land. These new models betray their arbitrary and subjective nature by their radical differences. They also exhibit the danger of reconstructing the text according to the latest piece of archaeological evidence. This evidence, however, does not support conclusively either the early-date or the late-date models of the conquest. ... In sum, the verdict non liquet must be accepted until more data puts the date of the conquest beyond reasonable doubt. If that be true, either date is an acceptable working hypothesis, and neither date should be held dogmatically” (page 200). But all of Jacob’s family went down into Egypt in accordance with God’s plan.
The Enjoyment of Covenant Blessing (1:6-7):Two significant events in the history of Israel’s residence in Egypt are then recorded. The first of these is positive: the extraordinary growth in their numbers in accordance with God’s covenant promise.
The years went by after Jacob and his family settled in Egypt. Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died (1:6). Joseph’s death is recorded in Genesis 50:26. If Jacob had migrated to Egypt around 1850 b.c., then Joseph’s death would occur around 1775 b.c. It would be a further 325 years before God would again reveal himself to his people, but this silence was not absolute. The people still had their ancestral traditions which told of the God of creation and of his covenant commitment. It was a time when faith was called to rely on the promises already revealed. The lack of new revelation or of some spectacular intervention in the flow of history did not mean that God’s interest in his people had come to an end. It should not have been difficult for faith to discern evidence of God’s covenant blessing working itself out in the growth of the people.
But the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous (1:7). The same phrase is used for ‘Israelites’ here as was translated ‘sons of Israel’ in verse 1. However, times have changed. There it had referred to the family of Jacob; now it has become a technical term for a people, no longer merely a family.
A multiplicity of terms is used to describe Israel’s growth. ‘Multiplied greatly’ translates two verbs ‘they teemed and increased in number’. The first of these words is a term forabundant life, often used of the swarming of innumerable small animals or insects (8:3; Gen. 1:20). The other words echo God’s earlier promised blessings at creation and when he later reaffirmed the covenant. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God blessed Noah and his sons by saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. ... As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Gen. 9:1, 7). When he entered into covenant relationship with Abraham, he promised “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted” (Gen. 13:16). He later said to Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them. ... So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5); “I... will greatly increase your numbers. ... I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you” (Gen. 17:2, 6); “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). When he renewed the covenant promises to Isaac, he promised, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. ... I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham” (Gen. 26:4, 24). Similarly to Jacob he said, “Be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you” (Gen. 35:11). During the years in Egypt these promises came true.
The result was so that the land was filled with them. ‘Fill’ too is part of the vocabulary of creation and covenant blessing. The reference to the land may not be to the whole of the land of Egypt, but to the land of Goshen where Jacob had been permitted to settle. This was a very fertile area (Gen. 47:11), lying in the north east of Egypt in the delta region of the Nile, probably in and to the north of the fertile valley (now called Wadi Tumilat) that links the Delta region with Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes.
Forced Labour (1:8-14): The second event that occurred in Egypt was the emergence of a new dynasty with a new policy. The new regime no longer recognised the blessings that the Israelites had brought to Egypt in the past. Rather they saw them and their rapidly increasing numbers as a threat that required speedy and drasticaction. The oppression was something that the Lord had warned Abraham about: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years” (Gen. 15:13). Such a warning had been given in advance so that it might sustain the people through the hard times they would have to endure. Knowing that the oppression was as much part of God’s plan as their growth in numbers had been should have given them strength to wait for the divine resolution of their destiny.
Then a new king came to power in Egypt (1:8). There has been much speculation about identifying who this king was. Scripture does not offer us many clues. There are two approaches to be found among those who support an early date for the Exodus around 1445 b.c. (see Introduction, 2). One approach2:5-14 (1961). identifies the new king as the leader of the Hyksos, the Semitic people who took control of the delta region of Egypt around 1730 b.c. They would have felt no obligation to continue the favourable treatment of the Israelites that had been established by the previous Egyptian regime. The phrase “came to power in Egypt” is generally understood in that way in English translations, but it is possible to understand it as conveying a more hostile note, “arose against Egypt.” 8) points to the same Hebrew construction having the meaning ‘rise against’ in Deut. 19:11; 28:7; Judg. 9:18; 20:5; 2 Sam. 18:31; 2 Kgs. 16:7), and argues that these occurrences “never have the meaning of assuming the throne of a nation in a peaceful, friendly manner.” This would fit in with a longer period of oppression, which seems to be indicated by Gen. 15:13, and also with the fears expressed in 1:11-12.
The alternative approach is to take the new king as Ahmose, the first king of the 18th Dynasty, who expelled the Hyksos from the delta. Dating the Exodus around 1445 and adopting the CAH chronology would then yield 120 years as the duration of the oppression. If 1:12 refers to an extended period of time during which Israelite numbers continued to grow, then it could well bethat the events of 1:15-22 occur 40 years after the rise of the new dynasty, around 1530 b.c. This fits in with Moses being eighty years old at the time of the Exodus. The change of policy regarding killing males at birth did not affect Aaron, who was three years older than Moses, and so it must have been initiated in the period between their births. But Scripture is silent about dynastic changes in Egypt. What is important is not who this new king was, but his attitudes and the policy he adopts.
The new king is described as one who did not know about Joseph. It was not, however, a matter of inadequate briefing by his officials that resulted in an unfortunate gap in the king’s knowledge. The text literally says “did not know Joseph”, that is, refused to acknowledge the tremendous benefits he had been instrumental in bringing to Egypt. This would be the inevitable result of a change of dynasty such as occurred when the Hyksos entered Egypt, or were expelled from it. There would be no gratitude for benefits bestowed under a previous regime. The Israelites were seen simply as foreigners staying in the land — and far too influential and significant a group of foreigners.
It was the number of the Israelites that attracted most attention — coupled perhaps with their location in Goshen, near Egypt’s north-eastern frontier, a militarily strategic zone. The impression is conveyed that the new king did not take long to identify this unwelcome situation in his kingdom and to formulate a policy regarding it. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us” (1:9). “Much too numerous” is literally “great and strong”, picking up the terms “greatly” and “numerous” in verse 7. It is less likely that a native Egyptian ruler would have said that they were “more and mightier than we” (NKJV), unless this is treated as an example of hyperbole in which the king was deliberately exaggerating the situation to make his concern more reasonable and gain support for the policy he was going to announce. However, if on Rae’s hypothesis the new king is one of the Hyksos, then this might indeed have been literally true. It was through the superiority of their military technology that the Hyksos had been able to defeat the Egyptians. At first Hyksos numbers might well have been threatened by the rapidlyincreasing Israelites. Furthermore, whereas from an Egyptian perspective the Israelites lived at the edge of their territory, from a Hyksos point of view they were an immediate threat on their doorsteps in the delta region.
Covenant blessing stirs up hatred among those who lack the spiritual perception to see the hand of God at work. All the king was aware of was a potentially destabilising influence in his territory. Instead of rejoicing with those who were evidently enjoying the favour of God, he views it as a threat that he must handle. Confrontation is the order of the day. ‘The Israelites’ are literally ‘the people of the sons of Israel’, and the term stands in contrast to ‘his people’. Yet even in this situation of divergent interests, the king is unwittingly declaring the accomplishment of the covenant promise. By using the term ‘people’ he is testifying to the fulfilment of God’s promise to Jacob, “I will make you into a great nation there” (Gen. 46:3).
The king announces the new policy, at first presumably to his courtiers, but it would soon be known about throughout the land. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or (literally, Test’) they will become even more numerous (1:10). The king is arrogantly self-assured that by his political craft and worldly wisdom he will be able to deal with the problem. ‘Deal shrewdly with them’ is literally ‘make ourselves wise with respect to them’. He is sure that he can devise a scheme for population control that will curtail the threat of even greater numbers of potential dissidents. But the outcome will show that true wisdom requires recognition of the Lord and what he intends should happen. Otherwise it will result in frustration. “The wisdom of the wise will perish” (Isa. 29:14; see also Jer. 8:9; 9:23).
Pharaoh has no hesitation in tearing up past agreements entered into during the time of Joseph. He also employs scare tactics to bring his own people into agreement with his policies. Living as they did in the strategically vulnerable area of Goshen, where armies attacking Egypt from the north would try to invade the land, he presents the Israelites as a security threat. If war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country. There was nothing to suggest that the Israelites werecontemplating such treachery as aligning themselves with foreign powers. However, if the Pharaoh is Ahmose who had just ousted the Hyksos, then he might have suggested a scenario in which during a renewed Hyksos invasion the Israelites sided with the invaders, both being Semitic peoples (see verse 8 and Introduction, 2).
But at first sight it does seem that Pharaoh was schizophrenic. If they left the country, would that not have solved his problem? Why not simply expel them if they were such an internal threat to security? But what Pharaoh was after was to control them. He did not want them to be in a position to threaten his regime, but he did not want rid of them either. He wanted to exploit them. Therefore he adopted what was an inherently evil approach to the Israelites.
There may also be here a clue as to what happens later in the book. It has always been recognised that ‘fight against us and leave the country’ is a peculiar worry. If it was ‘fight against us and seize power in our land’, that would more readily accord with the concerns of the regime — especially if the new Pharaoh was himself a usurper. The new king may not have known Joseph, but he may well have been acquainted with the hope the Israelites entertained that at an appropriate opportunity they would depart from Egypt and take possession of Palestine. When Jacob was dying he had made Joseph swear that he would take his remains out of Egypt into Palestine (Gen. 47:28-31). The memory of that funeral would not have readily died out in Egypt. Joseph too anticipated that his earthly grave would not be in Egypt, requiring the Israelites to swear that they would take his remains with them when they left the land. “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Gen. 50:24). It would seem from 1 Chronicles 7:21-24 that some Ephraimites attempted to return to the land before the Exodus. Though two of them were killed, they were able for a time to control several cities of the Amorites. Pharaoh knew that the aspirations of the Israelites were not towards domination of Egypt, but towards possession of Canaan, and he did not want to lose a valuable resource from the land or see the creation of a rival state to the north.
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour (1:11). ‘Slave masters’ is a technical term for those who were overseers of forced labour. This was a device commonly employed in the empires of the ancient world whereby people were compelled to work on state projects, such as the construction of public buildings or maintenance of highways. Wall paintings from Egypt show those forced to serve in such projects being directed by slave masters with whip in hand to enforce obedience. In this way the king thought he could turn the potential threat from the growing number of Israelites into an asset for the state. ‘Oppress’ (22:21) indicates the desire to wear them down and exhaust them by the harsh conditions under which they would be compelled to work. It might even lead to a reduction in their numbers, for public works projects were dangerous. ‘Forced labour’ points to its burdensome and wearisome nature. (The word is rendered ‘hard labour’ in 2:11, ‘work’ in 5:4 and ‘working’ in 5:5, and ‘yoke’ in 6:6, 7.) It would certainly lower their morale and cause exhaustion, thus tending to eliminate any threat from them. (Notice that Pharaoh does not expect any opposition from them when he institutes this policy — hardly consistent with a people ready to fight against the Egyptians.) The Egyptian regime was naturally bureaucratic, but even so the organisation required for implementing such a scheme must have strained its resources.
They built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. Both the names Pithom and Rameses were used by the Egyptians for a number of sites, and so there is uncertainty about where precisely they were situated. The most widely accepted location for Rameses is at Qantir (Tell ed-Dab‘a), in the land of Goshen, on one of the distributaries of the Nile. when the harbour at Rameses silted up. It is clear that Rameses was located at Qantir, to the south of Tanis, and furthermore that it was the same as Avaris, the Hyksos capital. For a discussion regarding the site of Rameses, see J. D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 125-128. He also discusses the possible location of Pithom (128-130). It is often supposed that Pithom was nearby. But the general unlikelihood of two store cities being built in close proximity suggests the possibility of a site near the south of the Delta region, perhaps at Heliopolis.
These fortified military cities would have served as stores for the grain produced in the area and also would hold strategic reserves to provision the Egyptian garrisons along the road to the north. Pharaoh intends to convert the Israelites from being a potential source of weakness in the north east of the land into a means of strengthening defences there. The name Rameses (the Hebrew text here spells it as Ra‘amses) is often taken as an indication that Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the oppression, and that the Exodus therefore occurred in the thirteenth rather than the fifteenth century b.c. Quite apart from the conflict that then arises with 1 Kings 6, there is also the problem that the text definitely implies that these store cities were being built many years before Moses’ birth, and so it is difficult to have Rameses II as the king of both the oppression and of the Exodus. Those who support an early date for the Exodus argue either that there is no reason to identify the city name with that particular Pharaoh (the form Rameses already occurs in Gen. 47:11) or that here there is a minor scribal updating of an earlier name that had become obsolete. 10) argues that Raamses was a name used by the Hyksos, and that its occurrence is not a later updating. The name was rejected by the 18th Dynasty but revived by the 19th Dynasty, which he considers brought about a return to Hyksos traditions and particularly to the worship of the god Seth. Although there is some inscriptional evidence to back up such a reconstruction, Rea’s basic hypothesis of 1:8 referring to the Hyksos and a long period of oppression does not depend on it. It must, however, be conceded that the Scriptural practice of updating generally involves citing the older name and not just substituting the new one, for instance, “the king of Bela (that is, Zoar)” (Gen. 14:2).
The Egyptian king is here referred to for the first time by the title ‘Pharaoh’. This transliterates an Egyptian word that originally referred to the royal palace as a building, then as an administrativecentre, and eventually became a respectful mode of address for the king himself. Although Egyptian official records do not use the term until a time after that of the Exodus, it was probably in popular use much earlier.
Whatever shrewdness and cunning had gone into Pharaoh’s plan proved inadequate. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread (1:12). God has not been explicitly mentioned so far in the chapter. However, just as there was no doubt that he was the source of the initial prodigious increase in numbers, so too there is no doubt that even in these difficult circumstances he does not allow the might and stratagems of the Egyptian state to thwart his purposes (compare the similarly unavailing attempts of the king of Moab to bring about Israel’s downfall after the Exodus, Num. 22-24). As has happened many times in history, oppression has backfired, and rather than eliminating an unwelcome people or cause has served to strengthen it. Pharaoh tried to achieve his purposes by intensifying the oppression, but to no avail. Israelite numbers continued to increase. The word translated ‘spread’ has a variety of senses. While it may just indicate growth in numbers, ‘increased’, it is more likely that it conveys the idea of breaking through some constraint. Possibly Israelite numbers become so great that they encroached on other areas of the land (Gen. 28:14).
The combined effect of Pharaoh’s propaganda campaign against the Israelites and the failure of his policy to deal with the menace he perceived them to be had its effect upon his own people. So the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ‘Dread’ is literally ‘dread from the face of — a combination that also occurs in Numbers 22:3 and Isaiah 7:16 in contexts that indicate the possibility of impending war. The Egyptians had accepted Pharaoh’s presentation of the situation, and were sick with worry over it. Their reaction also seems to have involved detestation of the Israelites (the word is used to describe that reaction in Num. 21:5) and disgust (which is how it is translated in Gen. 27:46). “How can these people who are only fit to work as slaves possibly have so many children?” The policy of oppression alienated the Egyptians from the Israelites. But their reaction was being divinelycontrolled so that events proceeded in the way God wanted. “The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants” (Ps. 105:24-25).
As a result the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly (1:13). This seems to have been an intensification of the previous policy. To bring out the severity of the situation, words connected with the idea of ‘work’ ‘serve’ ‘be a slave’ occur five times in this and the next verse: ‘worked’, ‘labour’, ‘work’, ‘labour’, ‘used’ (literally, ‘worked’). Also the word ‘ruthlessly’ is repeated at the end of verse 14. It indicates an attitude of brutality and unfeeling harshness such as Israel was later forbidden to show towards slaves they had (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). The policy of oppression led to the depersonalising of the Israelites; they were treated as things, not as persons.
They made their lives bitter with hard labour (1:14). ‘Bitter’ is used to describe the taste of unpleasant water (15:23, 25), and also of the bitter herbs eaten at the Passover (12:8). The herbs were used to recall their pitiless exploitation in Egypt. They were forced into two main sorts of work: in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields. Clay bricks were the ordinary method of construction in Egypt, and were formed from the mud of the Nile and dried in the sun. Labour in the fields would also have included the Egyptian method of irrigation involving a foot driven device to raise water from the river for it to flow along canals to more distant fields. The Israelites were used in all sorts of heavy labour and were shown no consideration. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century a.d., records that Israelite labour was also used to build canals. 2.9.1. Josephus does, however, tell us here that the Israelites were employed on building the pyramids, and by any chronology the age of pyramid building was long past by this stage. In all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. The repetition of ‘ruthlessly’ drives home the point made in the previous verse.
Genocide (1:15-22): Because the first plan had failed to achieve what the regime wanted, Pharaoh, who is the driving force behindthe whole policy, now tries a second, secret scheme. This may not have been the same Pharaoh as was referred to in the preceding verses. It would have taken some time for the ineffectiveness of the policy to become evident, and it is possible that the unnamed ‘king of Egypt’ is just a mode of expression for royal policy in general. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah (1:15). In this period of oppression we are introduced to the first two of five women who take a stand against the unthinking cruelty of the regime. The other three (Moses’s mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter!) are introduced in the next chapter. The question is often raised whether these midwives were themselves Hebrew or Egyptian. While the text may be translated ‘midwives of the Hebrews’ or ‘midwives for the Hebrews’, their names have now been attested elsewhere as used during this period by Semitic peoples who spoke languages similar to Hebrew. Presumably these two were at the head of the guild of midwives, and Pharaoh expected them to go along with his plans not only because of his personal authority but also because of the extent to which they had become part of the Egyptian state machinery — and benefited from the rewards and status it conferred. It reveals the attitude of Moses as he wrote this, that the names of these two women who were of insignificant rank are recorded, while the Pharaohs are left nameless.
The term ‘Hebrew’ is used here for the first time in Exodus. In the early books of the Old Testament it seems to be used in a cultural, rather than a racial, sense (see on 2:11). Similar words are attested in non-Biblical sources as referring to members of an underclass settling in another nation. 69-70; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2:586-90. The term is often found in situations where the Israelites are being described by a foreigner or where they themselves are relating to someone from a different background. Its use here may reflect Egyptian attitudes towards them.
Pharaoh directs the midwives to carry out a policy of infanticide. “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (1:16). The delivery stool translates a word for ‘a pair of stones’. There would be a space between them, and a woman would sit on them while giving birth. The two senior midwives were expected to instruct their subordinates to ascertain the sex of the child as it was bom, and if it was a male, to kill it quietly. Pharaoh thus hoped to reduce the scope for military opposition from the Israelites. If the policy was totally successful, in time Israel would be destroyed. In the meantime, the females could become slave wives. Perhaps part of their potential for population growth could be diverted to the Egyptians.
Overall the policy seems to be a measure of desperation. How could it be expected that it would remain a secret? When it became public knowledge, surely the women would do without the services of the midwives? Pharaoh does not seem to be thinking clearly, or else the policy was intended only to be a temporary measure to cut population growth. It certainly seems to have lapsed shortly thereafter, or been quite ineffective, considering the number of Israelite males who participated 80 years later in the Exodus.
For the first time God is explicitly mentioned in the narrative. The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live (1:17). It was many years since there had been a direct revelation from God such as the theophanies he had given to the patriarchs in Canaan. But faith in God had not died out in Israel. The midwives ‘feared God’, that is, they had a true respect and reverence for him which led them to act in a way that they knew accorded with his requirements (9:30; 18:21). Especially they had a grasp of the sanctity of life as a divine gift, and were not prepared to act contrary to their consciences no matter what political pressure they came under. The state, in the form of the despot Pharaoh, had resorted to having helpless infants slaughtered to further his purposes, but they would not be parties to it. The midwives were not national leaders. They did not seek leadership roles in their community. But their quiet and principled resistance thwarts the cruelty of the tyrant.
After some time Pharaoh could not help but notice that his instructions were being disregarded. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” (1:18). Pharaoh’s power was absolute in the land. It was no trivial matter to be summoned before a dissatisfied Pharaoh. But the women kept their nerve. The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (1:19). There must have been sufficient truth in their reply for Pharaoh to remain silent. Civil government has no right to command or compel anything contrary to the law of God. It too is answerable to God, and its sphere of legitimate action is limited by him. When the actions of political power run contrary to the requirements of God’s word, we must refuse to comply. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; see also Dan. 3:16-18; 6:13; Acts 4:19). Their reply was certainly evasive as regards what they had done. It may not have been totally true. But did Pharaoh in pursuit of his God-denying policy have any right to be told the truth? If the women lied, then they are not commended for it, but for their actions against the state policy of genocide. They did not say, “We just did what we were told.” They recognised that they were responsible before God for their actions.
So God was kind to the midwives(1:20). This is not just a forward looking reference to verse 21. It was through God’s control of the situation that there was no follow-up on Pharaoh’s part to the inquiries he had initiated. God in his providence ensured that Pharaoh did not harm the midwives. Furthermore the policy of genocide failed to work. The people increased and became even more numerous.
There was also a particular reward given by God to the midwives — a reward that matched the actions they had taken in preserving the infant lives. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own (1:21).
Pharaoh, however, was committed to his aim of curbing the growth of the Israelites. He could not be seen to fail, and so he proposed his final solution. Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (1:22). Many ancient versions insertthe explanatory phrase ‘to the Hebrews’ after ‘born’. ‘Throw’ has overtones of ‘throw away’ or ‘abandon’. The male children were to be killed off so that the Israelites would in time die out, and would be no military threat. The female children in the meantime would add to the slave population that could be exploited. It was no longer a secret policy to be carried out quietly by a few. Now all Egypt knew, and were involved. The guilt of complicity is spread throughout all the Egyptians, and all will be involved in the judgmental catastrophe which will be its ultimate consequence.
The extent to which Pharaoh’s policy was put into operation is uncertain. The Nile is mentioned. Would this only apply to families living near the river, or were all Egyptian settlements sufficiently close to the Nile to make this feasible? If this policy had been kept up for any length of time, it is impossible to explain the number of Israelite males at the Exodus. It may only have been sporadically enforced, and that in limited areas of the land. The point is that it was in force when Moses was born, and the very policy that Pharaoh thought would diminish or exterminate the Israelites was overturned by God to become the channel by which he would raise up and equip the deliverer through whom he would set his people free.
The book of Exodus has as one of its themes getting to know God and learning how to live in a way that pleases him. In this first chapter it presents us with a situation where God’s presence is not immediately evident. Indeed the skies are dark and louring.
His people are under threat, but it is not a threat that catches God unawares. It has been long foretold, and is part of the structure he has imposed on the history of this world. Through this he teaches his people to rely upon him for the victory.
But there is also presented to us here in the first chapter of Exodus the record of how two ordinary women acted at a time of oppression and coercion. They knew what they believed in, and were prepared to stand up to the cruelty of an oppressive state, no matter what it cost them. They would not be false to their beliefs, and opposed the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the despot. Their quiet resistance remains an example to all when it comes to achoice between obeying human authorities and obeying God (Acts 4:19).
Furthermore we see here more than an instance of attempted genocide, perpetrated by an ancient despot. This is part of the ongoing battle that has structured all human history since the Fall of mankind. In Eden the Lord God had announced to Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike at his heel” (Gen. 3:15). In attempting to eliminate the offspring of the woman, the chosen people of God, Pharaoh and all Egypt with him are acting as Satan’s pawns, and their murderous schemes will not achieve their end.
Such oppression did not cease when Israel left Egypt. There have been many times when God has seemed unmindful of his people’s suffering and evil has had the upper hand. Nowhere is this more evident than in the darkness of the cross when Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Then the assaults of the kingdom of darkness reached their peak against him who is supremely the offspring of the woman, but they did not win the day. Though Christ has achieved the decisive victory over sin and Satan, demonic antagonism is permitted to continue, and trouble and hardship and persecution remain for the people of God, but their triumph over them is already assured in Christ. “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Paul can go on to assure the believers at Rome — and with them the church down through the ages — “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). When God does intervene, his glory shines all the more brightly against the sombre canvas of his people’s tribulation.