Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10
Exodus 1:8 — 10: From Welcomed Guests to Suspected Terrorists
By the end of the Genesis narrative, the Israelites had achieved most-favored immigrant status in the land of Egypt. The Egyptians had welcomed the Hebrew foreigners from Canaan because they were family to Joseph who, even as a non-Egyptian, had risen to second-in-command next to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:37-45). But then came the great disruption: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). Israel’s status quickly deteriorated from welcomed guests (Genesis 45:16-20) to feared aliens and oppressed slaves. The text reveals again the interaction of politics, ethnic difference and religion as a volatile cauldron for human interaction with potential both for great good and great evil.
A tempting political strategy for new leaders, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Nazi Hitler, involves trying to solidify power by singling out a relatively weak minority or outsider group and calling them an enemy. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity. In Exodus 1, Pharaoh singles out the rapidly expanding Hebrew minority as an emerging threat. What Genesis describes as God’s faithfulness in blessing the Israelites through many descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 28:1-4; Exodus 1:7), Pharaoh describes as a terroristic threat that may endanger Egypt’s security and way of life. There is no hint in the biblical narrative that the Israelites are anything but good, faithful citizens of the empire. Yet the delusional Pharaoh imagines that the growing but still small Israelite minority in Egypt is more numerous and more powerful than we. He warns the Egyptians that in the event of war the Israelites might join our enemies and fight against us. Pharaoh’s responds by trying three different (but ultimately unsuccessful) strategies to stem the growth of the Israelite people: a) Exodus 1:11-14, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, b) Exodus 1:15-21, Pharaoh commands midwives to kill Hebrew boys at birth, and c) Exodus 1:22-2:10, Pharaoh commands all Egyptians to throw Hebrew boys into the Nile River.
Exodus 1:11-14: Pharaoh Enslaves the Israelites
Pharaoh begins with a pre-emptive strike upon the Israelites and the illusory threat they might pose. He forces the Israelites into slave labor to build two of Pharaoh’s supply cities. The cities serve the oppressive Egyptian economy in the distribution of goods rigidly controlled from the top. Yet paradoxically, the more the Israelites are oppressed, the more they multiply and spread. The goal of Pharaoh’s strategy had been to diminish and weaken the Israelites. But the biblical text testifies that there is another power at work in, with and through the Israelite people. God’s blessing and sustaining activity, although hidden at this point in the narrative, remains at work among the Israelites in their suffering. God will have the final word here. Pharaoh may think that he is in control. But as the story of exodus unfolds, the reader will be constantly reminded that God alone is ultimately Judge, Lord and Savior.
Exodus 1:15-21: Pharaoh Commands Midwives to Kill Hebrew Boys at Birth
Pharaoh’s first strategy to enslave the Israelites does not work to diminish their numbers. So Pharaoh’s second strategy is to demand that the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, kill all Hebrew male babies (but not female babies) as they are born. Ironically, Pharaoh sees no threat from Israelite females, yet it is females (the midwives) who are the very ones who begin Pharaoh’s undoing. The midwives’ vocation from God is to preserve and protect life. Pharaoh demands that they deny their vocation and kill. In the Bible’s first act of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance for the sake of justice, the midwives refuse to obey Pharaoh’s deathly command. They lie to the authorities, breaking the law for the sake of justice and life. They explain to Pharaoh with their fingers crossed and a wink in their eye, the Hebrew women just give birth too quickly before we can get there!
The midwives succeed in saving the lives of both Hebrew boys and girls. In the process, they protect the birth of one special child named Moses, the eventual leader of Israel who would overthrow Pharaoh and lead Israel to freedom. As is the case so often in the Bible, God uses what the patriarchal and power-hungry Pharaohs of the world consider as low and despised in their eyes (Hebrew women) as instruments to shame and overthrow the arrogant and the strong (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Jeremiah 9:23; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Exodus 1:22-2:10: Pharaoh Commands Egyptians to Throw Hebrew Boys into the Nile River
In a third attempt to weaken the Israelites and resolve Pharaoh’s irrational fear, the Egyptian king commands all his people (not just the Hebrew midwives) to kill all Hebrew baby boys by throwing them into the Nile River. Again, Pharaoh allows the Hebrew girls to live; he wrongly sees them as no threat. Again, ironies abound. It is a powerful cross-cultural and intergenerational alliance of three women – Moses’ Hebrew mother Jochebed (Exodus 2:1-3, 7-10; 6:20), Moses’ Hebrew sister Miriam (Exodus 2:4. 7-8; Numbers 26:59), and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter (Exodus 2:5-10) – who disobey Pharaoh and rescue the baby Moses.
Pharaoh tries to make the Nile River, Egypt’s main source of water and life, into an instrument of death. Yet the three women allies succeed in making the river a place of rescue and life. Moses’ mother, who as a slave received no wages, is paid a just wage for doing something she would gladly do for free–caring for her own baby (Exodus 2:9). The ironies of the story signal the fracturing of Pharaoh’s power and world view. God is at work bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:52). This ancient text from Exodus echoes powerfully in our congregations, nation and world: issues of race and politics, religion and politics, gender and power, the war on terror, debates over immigration policy, the inequities of our global economy, congregational mission and hospitality to the stranger, and all manner of suffering and bondage that threaten the individuals and families with whom we minister.