Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10
This week’s passage is divided into two distinct units.
The first unit (1:8-22) gives a concise account about how the favored family of Jacob became an oppressed subgroup within Pharoah’s empire. The second unit (2:1-10) narrates the circumstances surrounding the birth and early childhood of Moses.
These two units contrast each other. Consider some of the word choices of the first unit (per the NRSV): powerful, war, enemies, taskmasters, oppress, forced-labor, dread, ruthless, bitter, hard service, labor, task. These word selections signal the tonal elements of this unit. The Israelites populate quickly to the point of posing as a potential threat to the Egyptians. Consequently, the Egyptian king enslaves the Israelite people. When initial rounds of oppression do not work, the Egyptians become more draconian in their oppression, calling for execution of all Hebrew boys. These verses underlie the references to slavery that will appear throughout the rest of Exodus.
Much of this first unit revolves around the idea of fear. The new king of Egypt did not know Joseph and the legacy of provision that he brought to the land. Consequently, the new king feared the potential uprising of the Israelite people. The text does not include a single hint of any rebellious spirit in the Israelites, yet this fear becomes the driving force to a series of escalating oppressive policies, even to the point of planned genocide. Baseless fear is still fear and resulted in generational suffering for the Israelites.
Verse 15 continues the theme of fear and introduces the midwives. It is important to contrast the cowardly fear of Pharaoh to the midwives’ righteous fear of God. With the failure of earlier actions, Pharaoh introduces progressively harsher measures of cruelty. But the midwives do not fear the Egyptian king, despite his signals of dangerous paranoia. Rather, the midwives fear God (verses 17 and 21). Such a fear compels them to defy the order of Pharaoh and openly disobey the royal command to murder Hebrew boys. This blatant insubordination should normally result in summative execution, but God honors this fear and blesses the midwives, not only with their own lives, but with abundant progeny. Pharaoh’s plans have backfired so he escalates even more. He commands murder of all Hebrew male babies. This is the most complete example of infanticide in the entire Bible.
Immediately following this narrative of fear and cruelty, Exodus 2:1 opens the second unit with a sharply different tone. The narrative moves away from this theme of fear and moves to a broader picture of maternal care. A baby from a priestly and holy lineage is born under this plight. The baby is described as a “good” baby. In this case, a good baby does not refer to an obedient and well-behaved baby, who magically never cries. Rather, it is more of a whole and right baby. Through a complex chain of events, both the birth mother and the royal daughter care for this baby, protecting his life, and divinely providing for the most nurturing of environments. The careful placement of the baby (verse 3) shows the manifestation of this nurturing, and the basket (Hebrew, tevat) recalls the protection for Noah’s ark (also tevat) during the flood. This gentle nurturing for the baby will allow him to grow to orchestrate the downfall of the mighty Pharaoh.
The reversal of fortune against Pharaoh is explicitly theological. Pharaoh is king not only of Egypt, but he reigns during a period of cultural and political flourishing with hegemony beyond its borders to the Eastern Meditteranean, covering modern day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. But as the Pharaoh’s paranoid fear intensifies, God’s response of sovereignty commensurately rises. And Pharaoh’s cruelest edict of infanticide comes back to him in the Passover event. God is sovereign.
When we think of God’s sovereignty, we often associate this with the mighty hand of God, and divine acts when God alters the forces of nature. God’s sovereignty also projects ideas of divine intervention on a massive human scale such as warfare. But in this passage, God protects the baby through these women. It is a different perspective of sovereignty from much of the Bible.
Consider some of the word choices of the second unit (Exodus 2:1-10), again per the NRSV: married, conceived, bore, child, sister, daughter, mother, bathe, pity. God’s sovereignty is manifest through compassion and care. God does not have gender, but in this passage, the analogy of sovereignty is manifest in the care of a newborn through mothers, whether by birth or by adoption. This care is heightened due to the nature of the crisis of infanticide.
But do not mistake this compassion for weakness. Maternal care is powerful. The passage shows that a royal edict cannot defeat the resilient strength of maternal compassion. As Pharaoh increases the oppression, the compassion of the different women ends up raising the one who will truly lead the Israelites into liberation from this oppression.