Genesis ended on a high note. Jacob reunited with his long-lost son and died a satisfied man. Joseph – after being used by God to save the civilized world from starvation and becoming the second most powerful man in the world – lived to see four generations of his offspring. The family of Jacob was united, safe and thriving. They were still in Egypt instead of the Promised Land, but they enjoyed favored status as the family of the hero Joseph.
That’s how things were at the end of Genesis, but years have passed as Exodus opens and the scene is about to change dramatically. The people of God are still not in the Promised Land and that’s about to become a real problem. What was a happy little arrangement with the Egyptians is about to be flipped on its head. Favored status is about to change to brutal exploitation. This 180-degree reversal will cause the people of Israel – along with the reader – to wonder what the point was of bringing the Israelites to Egypt and why God allows the Egyptians to afflict them so harshly and for so long. Ultimately, the questions of the first two chapters of Exodus will touch on the hard issues all believers face – where is God during difficult times when He’s silent and why is it that sometimes belonging to Him causes things to be worse than they otherwise would be?
The author – Moses – opens the book with a quick recap of the people who came to Egypt with Jacob as well as a one-sentence summary of how Genesis ended. Seventy people came to Egypt with Jacob – his eleven sons (one less than Joseph, who was already there) and their descendants. Note how the sons are listed – the first seven were born to Leah and Rachel, the final four to the handmaids of the wives (Bilhah and Zilpah). It is the death of this generation that begins the story of Exodus.
As the years go by the family grows considerably. They actually stop being a family and become a nation. What God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob comes to pass. Israel is a great nation with too many people to number, and they now fill the land (later texts will show they still live in Goshen – where Pharaoh told them to settle in Joseph’s day – but they now apparently dominate the area).
Verse 8 forms the basis of all that follows in the book. A new king comes to the throne who doesn’t know Joseph. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t know the history as much as that he no longer feels any debt to Joseph or any responsibility to honor him. The king doesn’t care about Israel’s connection with someone who was once so favored. Israel holds no special place in his estimation; the nation just looks like a threat.
It’s this threat that causes the king to act. He tells his people that Israel is now too large to control and if Egypt were attacked and Israel sided with the enemy there would be nothing Egypt could do. The people of Israel – as long as they continue to grow and continue to live in Egypt – are a danger to Egypt’s existence. Something has to be done and done now before Israel destroys the country.
It’s interesting to consider what causes the king to see a problem. There’s nothing in the text about Israel doing anything threatening. There’s no one event that prompts the king to respond this way. All Israel does is grow. The king’s paranoia is all that precipitates generations of harsh treatment of the Hebrew people. [It should be noted that Egypt had a history of foreign invaders – the Hyksos – who ruled Egypt for some time and were eventually driven out – it could be that the Hyksos were in power at the time of Joseph – if this is true, then the current king is likely a descendant of the Egyptians who drove the Hyksos out and so likely has a keen anti-foreigner bent along with no loyalty to a people who came to Egypt during a hated administration.]
The solution to the Israelite threat is to enslave them. Take away their freedom, make them slaves of the people and the state, use them as forced labor and hopefully shrink their population through hard work. Constant work will shorten lifespans and leave less time to make families. Also, by essentially working them to death, they won’t be as able to rise up against Egypt in a military crisis.
In theory this sounds great but in practice it doesn’t work. As the Egyptians afflict them with more and more work the Israelites actually increase their rate of growth. The problem the slavery is supposed to fix actually becomes worse. The threat of a large and foreign population in the middle of Egypt is now greater than ever.
The Egyptians respond by making the lives of the Israelites bitter. Notice that they are in dread of the sons of Israel (12). [It’s never good to be dangerous – always better as an outsider to be unnoticed or mocked or dismissed.] As the Egyptians become increasingly threatened they work the Israelites harder in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field (the worst kinds of manual labor). The intensity of Israel’s hardship increases as the nation increases.
It’s so clear that God works here. He promised the patriarchs that their descendants would multiply into a great nation and He fulfills that covenant even as Pharaoh and his people try to stop it. Man’s actions can’t stop God’s promise. Israel grows when by all rights it shouldn’t grow – the growth makes no sense from a human perspective. There is, however, another way to look at this. And that’s to notice that God’s blessing brings hardship on His people. The more He “blesses” them with growth the more of a threat they are to Egypt and the more the Egyptians afflict them to stop it. God’s covenant promise actually makes life harder for His people. It’s a counterintuitive lesson every believer must learn; following God sometimes makes life worse from a human/temporal perspective (ask Job).
Generally speaking, we have no idea when these events take place. The text never really says how long after Joseph’s death the new king decides to enslave the Israelites. We’ll find out later that Israel is in Egypt for 430 years total (12:40). How many of those years pass before things change for the worse is hard to know. Joseph was 39 when Jacob and his family came to Egypt (See Gen 41:46 & 45:6). Since we know Joseph died at 110, it means that the first 70 or so years were good. After that there’s no easy way to calculate when the new king who doesn’t care about Joseph comes to power. If the 430 years is accurate (and there is some controversy over how that number matches some of the genealogical record later in the book), then it follows that the people of Israel are enslaved for generations. However, this last half of Chapter 1 tells of conditions that are present at Moses’ birth. That being the case, it leaves the reader with two choices: either many years pass between verses 14 and 15 (and the king who orders the Israelites to be enslaved is not the same one who orders that all male infants be killed); OR verses 15-21 describe conditions that remain in existence for perhaps centuries. Since the latter means that entire generations of males would be wiped out or that the command is so ignored that Moses would not be in any danger, it probably makes sense to assume that many years transpire between verses 14 and 15 (or that the 430 years is not accurate).
Since enslavement by itself doesn’t solve the problem of Israel’s increasing size, the king of Egypt decides to up the ante. He calls for the two midwives of Israel (it seems very odd that a nation large enough to threaten Egypt only has two midwives – it could be that these two women are the leaders of a group of midwives) and instructs them to kill all male infants at birth. It’s a brutal command and a mark of Pharaoh’s power that he assumes women whose lives are committed to bringing babies into the world will carry it out.
The reason he commands only males to die probably has to do with the military threat. Women are no threat to join a foreign power and fight against Egypt. Also, killing all the males has virtually the same effect as killing all the children without having to actually do so. No males means no growth in population; why kill all the babies when it’s easier to just kill around half and get the same result?
The two women – and notice that unlike every other character in Chapter 1 they’re named (Shiprah and Puah); this shows their heroic status in Israel’s history – refuse to carry out the king’s command. The text says they feared God and let the boys live. This is a fantastic Old Testament example of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28 – do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. As always, the fear of God drives out the fear of man. The midwives ignore the command of the most powerful man on earth because they instead fear the most powerful BEING in the universe.
When the king realizes his plan isn’t working (hard to know how long this takes – how long before he notices that there are just as many little boys as little girls?), he calls for the midwives and demands an explanation. They tell the king that Hebrew women are more vigorous than Egyptian women (pretty bold to throw in a little dig at Egyptian women while coming up with an excuse) and give birth before the midwives get to them. Thus they can’t carry out the command of the king. Since verse 17 says they let the boys live it’s pretty apparent this is a lie. There could be a kernel of truth to it due to cultural differences, but if this were always the case then why do the midwives exist at all? The midwives fear God but also lie to the king.
Before we pass judgment on their decision, it pays to read how God responds. He is good to them while continuing to bless the nation. Israel continues to grow and the midwives themselves are blessed with families of their own (this points to midwives probably being women who don’t have children of their own and are thus free to assist with the births of other women). Ironically, God blesses them in exactly the way the king wanted their help to stop.
Thought: Does this mean it’s okay to lie under the right circumstances? This story along with the story of Rahab seems to argue for ‘yes.’ All three women lied so the people of God would survive and all three were blessed as a result. Is this a slippery slope? Oh absolutely. But it doesn’t pay to read the Bible and pretend these stories don’t exist or that they don’t present a conundrum. Not everything in the Bible is clear-cut and black and white. Lying to further righteousness and thwart evil is not always right but apparently it also isn’t always wrong. [And yes, you may pick up your stones now and escort me outside the camp.]
Pharaoh’s final solution eliminates the need for the midwives. He simply makes a proclamation that all Egyptians are to throw male Israelite infants into the Nile. Instead of depending on two midwives he enlists the services of the whole country. And he makes it easy by saying the babies are to be thrown into the Nile, not killed directly by hand. It’s hard to overstate how horrific this proclamation is. EVERY Egyptian now has the license to grab any Hebrew male newborn and throw him to his death. Think what this does to the Egyptians’ regard for all Hebrew life. The Israelites are now even lower than slaves; their lives are cheap and subject to the whims of their masters. [Since we later read of males being around in Israel and read nothing about a generation of missing men, it could be that this isn’t effective either. Perhaps it’s ignored by the people or only in force for a short time.]
Something to think about as we reach the end of Chapter 1 – where is God in all of this?
The scene now changes to a Levite family who has a son during the time of the announced ban on male infants. Since we’ll find out later that this is their third child (and one of the older children is a son who apparently was born before the ban), it means the new proclamation hasn’t been in effect long. Nevertheless, they decide to try to save the boy and so hide him for three months.
At the end of the three months it becomes impossible to continue to hide their new son. Thus the family takes drastic measures. They take a basket and cover it with tar and pitch (something not to miss in verse 3 – the Hebrew word for basket is the same word translated ‘ark’ in Genesis 6; and notice that the basket is made waterproof using the same method Noah used for the ark – this is not coincidental – in both cases God provides for the survival of His people through and on water) and place it in the Nile near the shore in the midst of some reeds. They tell their oldest daughter – who we’ll find out later is Miriam – to watch over it. What the plan is isn’t clear; the text says Miriam is to watch to see what happens to him but they presumably want him to stay hidden in the reeds. Perhaps they plan on leaving him there as much as possible and essentially using the basket as a crib. Maybe they think that once he reaches a certain age he’ll be out of danger? Regardless of what the plan is, it’s a desperate faith that initiates this plan (he’s THREE MONTHS OLD – can you imagine doing this as a parent??). He’s floating on the river that’s supposed to kill him. If he’s found it will be easy for his discoverer to carry out Pharaoh’s command.
What Miriam sees happen boggles the mind. The daughter of Pharaoh comes to bathe in the Nile. Remember, it’s her father who ruled that all male Hebrews must die. When she comes, she notices the basket floating amongst the reeds and dispatches one of her maids to fetch it. When they open it she sees there’s a Hebrew male inside (not clear why she knows it’s a Hebrew – perhaps how he’s dressed, the blanket or other things that are with him, or possibly just that no Egyptian would abandon their baby in the Nile – another answer could be that Moses is circumcised) and instantly has pity on him as he cries.
At this point Miriam comes to her and conveniently offers to find a Hebrew woman who could act as wet nurse to the infant. Pharaoh’s daughter – who apparently isn’t too worried about disobeying her father’s command – tells her to go ahead (it would be fascinating to know how much the princess understands – does she buy Miriam’s story or does she discern what’s going on and goes along out of compassion and wanting a son?). Miriam brings back Moses’ mother who keeps him in her house until he’s weaned (and gets paid for it). After that, Moses goes to the palace to be raised as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson.
Three things are important to observe about this story. First, Moses probably lives in his biological family’s house for two to four years – perhaps long enough to have some memory of his time there. Second, how hypocritical is it for Pharaoh to have a Hebrew grandson in the royal household (and the fact that his daughter leaves him with a Hebrew nurse makes it seem that they didn’t try to hide his identity)? Third – and most important and encouraging – is that the VERY THING the parents of Moses tried to avoid is exactly what God uses to save him. They wanted him hidden, he was discovered. They wanted him saved from the Egyptians and PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER found him. Everything they tried to avoid happened and yet it’s the failure of their plan that ensures the baby now lives and thrives. God’s ways are not our ways – and thank God they aren’t!
In a nutshell here’s the story of the first chapter and a half of Exodus: the people of God suffer and God responds by sending them a deliverer. Those are the facts. But what about the details of those facts lived out by the people of God? Consider:
- God blesses the people and they become enslaved as a result (possibly for generations).
- God continues to bless the people which makes their slavery worse.
- God blesses them even more and Pharaoh initiates two pogroms to wipe them out.
- God sends a deliverer and miraculously provides for his survival while other male newborns presumably die.
- God’s deliverer is unknown so the people’s suffering isn’t alleviated at all.
- God’s deliverer is here but he’s EIGHTY years away from leading Israel out of Egypt.
- God is silent until Chapter 3.
We serve a mysterious God who doesn’t act on our time or according to our sense of urgency and doesn’t see the world as we do. HOWEVER, we know the following to be true: He will never leave us or forsake us. He is sovereign and timeless. He is good. He loves us. There are many times in life where life makes no sense and God seems to be absent – just as in this text. But that’s when we walk by what we know rather than what we experience – we walk by faith, not by sight. We know God’s promises are true even when there’s no visible evidence that they are.
God is about to act and act powerfully and miraculously and effect the biggest and most important event of the Old Testament. But what He’s about to do is completely hidden from His people and their current experience screams out that their God doesn’t care.