Commentary on Exodus 1:8-14 [15—2:10]; 3:1-15
A lot has happened since we left Jacob in Genesis 32 last week.
This year’s narrative lectionary skips the story explaining how Jacob’s family landed in Egypt: how jealous brothers sold Jacob’s favorite son into slavery, how Joseph rose to power alongside the pharaoh, and how a drought drove the family to seek help, and finally refuge, in a foreign land.
Exodus begins several generations later, when trouble is brewing for Jacob’s multiplying descendants. A new pharaoh comes to power who fears the foreigners. He proposes to “deal shrewdly,” making slaves of all these once-honored guests, forcing them to build grain storage cities for his profit. He does not seem to realize that his cruelty will ensure the thing he most fears. He will be defeated — not just by the Israelites, but by their God.
While Exodus 1:8-14 summarizes the Israelites’ deteriorating conditions in Egypt, and chapter 3 relates God’s call to Moses to save them, the real drama occurs in the surrounding episodes, played out in vivid scenes in which the king attempts repeatedly to overcome the immigrant population by violence, but is repeatedly outmaneuvered.
The pharaoh’s second shrewd move in the story is even more violent and illogical than the first — he decides to kill off his future slave force, all the male babies who would otherwise grow up to work for him. The pharaoh fears boy babies, but he should worry instead about the women. The Hebrew midwives he recruits to carry out his plan, telling them to kill the babies at birth, simply ignore him. When summoned for questioning, they offer explanation wrapped in insult: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are strong. They give birth before the midwife comes.”
So, matching draconian violence and poor judgment with sheer frustration, the pharaoh gives his own people a chilling order to throw every boy baby into the Nile. All pretense of shrewdness gives way to pure violence.
Action centers next on a single household: a mother hides her newborn son, devising a plan to have him rescued from the riverbank by the pharaoh’s own daughter and, through his older sister’s intervention, sent back to his own mother, who is paid to nurse him. He becomes the shrewd pharaoh’s own adopted grandson and grows up in his family.
Unlike the two midwives, the pharaoh’s daughter is not named in the story. But according to an ancient rabbinic tradition, she is honored: God says to her that because she took in a child not her own, and called him her son, God will take her in and call her the daughter of God, “Bat-ya.”
Thus the king fails to realize he is being thwarted not by boys but by five bold women. Two midwives, a mother, a sister, and a daughter all help save a baby who has so far done nothing either for or against the pharaoh. Thus unfolds the story of God’s preferential option for those who otherwise appear powerless. Far from being the God of the Establishment, far from being manageable or tame, the Hebrew God spurns human power, makes fools of the pretentious, and honors those, whether princesses or slave girls, who act on their instinct for justice.
The rest of chapter 2 relates Moses’s early adult missteps. He is neither fully Egyptian nor fully Hebrew, and he exerts his own sincere instinct for justice rather less expertly than his female champions had. After murdering an Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite kinsman and then learning that his deed was known, he flees to Midian, where he befriends and marries into a priest’s family. Meanwhile, the pharaoh dies, but slave conditions remain intolerable. The chapter ends with God taking heed to them again.
Exodus 3:1-15 describes Moses’ encounter at the burning bush at Mount Horeb, and God’s seven-verse-long speech to Moses, announcing that God intends to use him to rescue the slaves and take them to Canaan.
Moses’ first two responses follow. First, “who am I” to do such a thing; and second, “who are you”: what is your name? God does not address Moses’ qualifications, but rather reassures him of divine presence. As for who God is, God first responds with the famous, and circular, pronouncement, or perhaps retort, “I am who I am.” But after this God self-identifies with the God of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, indicating that this God is no newcomer, but One who has been following the Israelite descendants through their fortunes and misfortunes for centuries, though they did not know it.
These two responses to the question of God’s identity do in fact seem to be illustrated by prior events. Neither the story nor this conversation clarify why a compassionate God would have allowed the Israelites’ condition to deteriorate so far in the first place, and for that we can only agree that “I am who I am” works in rather mysterious ways. In this case, as in the previous generation, God chooses particular people through whom to work, and not necessarily those we might have suggested. God’s support for the previous pharaoh’s dissidents even before Moses’ birth preceded, and made possible, this moment at the burning bush.
The conversation goes on past the lectionary reading for another 24 verses. Moses raises further objections, which God answers patiently and generously, providing a few visual aids to help convince Israelites who disbelieve his words — a staff that becomes a snake, a hand that turns leprous and heals, water that becomes blood. Moses, ignoring all this, objects that he is a poor speaker. God promises to give him the words. But when Moses, seeing all his exits blocked, says, “Please send someone else,” God reluctantly agrees that his brother Aaron will help.
The drama continues unfolding in chapter 5 when Moses’ first attempt to liberate the slaves fails miserably, resulting in further hardships for the slaves and rancor against their supposed rescuers. A complex battle of the gods ensues, in which pharaoh’s sorcerers at first match Moses’ tricks, but are finally outdone. As is true for battles from the dawn of civilization until now, this intercultural struggle wreaks ecological disaster, devastating water, vegetation, animals, and Egyptians many times over before, suddenly and dramatically, the Israelites flee to safety beyond the sea barrier.
From here the lectionary will skip to Deuteronomy, to Moses’ reminders on the border of Canaan of the commandments God gave the people once they returned to Horeb, the mount of the burning bush.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of deliverance, you called Moses to be your hands, feet, and voice in a troubled world. Teach us how to work, walk, and speak your word in a troubled world. Amen.
I sing the mighty power of God, Robert Leaf