Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

These first verses of Exodus use concise prose to set a tragic scene of oppression.

August 21, 2011

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10

These first verses of Exodus use concise prose to set a tragic scene of oppression.

The systematic mistreatment of the Hebrews by Pharaoh escalates from enslavement (1:11, 13) to ethnic cleansing as Pharaoh commands that the Hebrew boys be killed at birth (verse 16) or drowned in the Nile (verse 22).  These verses give us keen insight into the kind of psychology of hate that, driven by fear, can move whole societies to engage in genocidal acts. And yet these verses also capture the ironies of human psychology and planning.

Pharaoh, who does not know Joseph or recognize how Joseph helped save Egypt from famine, seeks to be shrewd and wise, even as others around him show him to be a fool. The very things that Pharaoh fears and seeks to avoid nevertheless happen, as a result, in part, of his own efforts. His attempts to control the Hebrew population lead to its exponential increase instead! His plan to keep the Hebrews from escaping the land (‘alah) moves God to commission Moses (3:8) to bring the people out (‘alah).1 Pharaoh’s desire to kill the boys spurs the women to action. With gracious defiance, the women of Exodus 1-2 shelter and nurture the boys, among them the one boy who will become the future rescuer of the people.

It would not be out of line to ask where God is to be found in this story of hate, oppression, death, and defiance. The first mention of God in this story is not until 1:17, which speaks of the midwives’ fear of God. Already, the story of oppression is well underway. But God’s first explicit action does not come until 1:20, close to the end of the chapter, and God remains in the background as abuse and oppression grow. When God does act, these chapters depict it in ironic ways. It is through God’s providence that the Israelites are “fruitful and prolific” (Exodus 1:7), something God had promised to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:5; 17:2). But this same blessing and promise of multiplication has become the source of Pharaoh’s fear and the Hebrews’ oppression. Indeed, the more God multiplies the Israelites, the more Pharaoh opposes them with abuse and death (Exodus 1:10, 12, 20-22).  

Unlike the later chapters of Exodus, in which God takes direct action against Israel’s opponents, this story reveals God’s workings to be more subtle and indirect. In the work of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ mother and sister, God’s agency aligns and intertwines with human agency to accomplish salvation.

The story highlights the cleverness and understated bravado of the women agents who defy Pharaoh. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, commanded by the king to kill the boys in stealth when they see one being born, protect the babies and disguise their life-saving actions. In the ruse, they appeal to Pharaoh’s own prejudices.  The Hebrew women are like animals (khayot) and give birth too quickly, the midwives say to Pharaoh (1:19). Indeed, Pharaoh’s genocidal plan indicates that he has ceased to regard the Hebrews as fully human, and the midwives use this to satisfy Pharaoh’s inquiries. At the same time, the midwives contrast the Hebrew women’s animalistic vigor with the delicate constitution of the Egyptian mothers who are forced to labor harder and longer during childbirth. Apparently, the midwives intend Pharaoh to hear such a statement as echoing his own loathing of the Hebrews and his own positive valuation of the Egyptian women and their delicacy.2

While the midwives’ ruse works initially, it does not prevent further deaths, as Pharaoh publically commands all Egyptian people to participate in the infanticide. Once again, the story highlights the resourceful irony of one mother who is determined to save her son after seeing that he was ki tov, a beautiful or good baby (the same Hebrew phrase describes God’s own evaluation of creation in Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31). Like Noah building the ark (tevah, Genesis 6:14), Moses’ mother carefully builds a small basket (tevah) for her infant son, so that even as she casts him into the river–in compliance with the command–the infant will survive the deadly waters.

While the midwives are motivated by their fear of the Lord, and the mother by her attachment to the beautiful baby, the actions of Pharaohs’ daughter emerge from her pity. But whatever their motivations, the actions of the women align with God’s own life-giving work. The princess is not intentionally serving the Hebrew God when she rescues Moses. She sees the baby and hears his cries and she is able to acknowledge his vulnerability. By virtue of her own humaneness, she recognizes his humanity and need and acts on it. While many readers mistakenly think that Moses is adopted immediately and raised by Pharaohs’ daughter, in fact, Moses is returned to his mother through the quick intervention of his sister, Miriam. Nevertheless, he will grow up under the protection of the princess even before he is officially adopted. Defiance of Pharaohs’ commands comes from within his own house at the hands of his own daughter.

The work of these agents counteracts the psychology of hatred and fear that motivates Pharaoh.  Moreover, their collective work is a gracious defiance because of the way it embraces life and blurs Pharaoh’s attempts to draw lines of distinction between “us” and “them,” between Egyptian and Hebrew, between dominating and dominated. 3 As a result, Moses grows up to be a child of two worlds. Though raised by his Hebrew mother (2:9-10) and identifying the Hebrews as his people (2:11), he becomes the adopted son of the Egyptian princess who gives him an Egyptian name. “Moses” is, in fact, an Egyptian name meaning “son”–a name connected with other rulers of Egypt (i.e. Thutmose).  A child such as this is surely destined for great things.

1Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 31-40.
2 Jacqueline Lapsley, Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005),72-79.
3Renita Weems, “The Hebrew Women Are Not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1,” Semeia 59 (1992), 28-30.