Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10
The command to know “who you are and whose you are” has become a cliché in Christian preaching these days, often overused and under-explained.
Even so, this simple phrase gets at the heart of the book of Exodus, which is dominated by the theme of identity. In fact, the book of Exodus can be read as Israel’s response to and explication for the questions “Who are you?” and “To whom do you belong?”
This week’s lectionary passage begins with a crisis of identity for the descendants of Jacob, Israel, who migrated to Egypt to escape famine in the closing chapters of Genesis: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, emphasis added). No longer known to the Pharaoh as a favored people, the Hebrews become enslaved to him instead. The crisis sets the stage for understanding the identities not only of individuals in the book of Exodus, but also of the people of Israel and of God’s very self.
Afraid of the Hebrews’ increase in number and power, Pharaoh orders their midwives to murder male Hebrew babies as they are delivered. Though the NRSV renders the phrase “Hebrew midwives,” the grammatical construction in the Hebrew text obscures whether “Hebrew” refers to the midwives’ ethnicity or that of the women they serve. The names Shiphrah and Puah mean “beautiful” and “splendid,” and so they may be generic, folkloristic designations for the women. Shiphrah and Puah could Hebrews, Egyptians, or members of another group that goes unmentioned.
Regardless of their nationality, Shiphrah and Puah show that they fear God, not Pharaoh. They do not carry out the king’s orders, and to save the Hebrew boys they appeal to what appears to be Pharaoh’s own prejudicial sense of the relationship between physical difference and ethnicity. They insist that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19). The word here for “vigorous” shares the root of the word “life.” While deceiving Pharaoh, that language also winks at the reader: the Hebrew women are full of life. Their identity resists death.
Throughout the early chapters of Exodus, Moses will wrestle with his dual identity as a Hebrew and an Egyptian. The beginning of chapter 2 establishes Moses’ Hebrew parentage for the reader: there should be no doubt that, as the child of two Levites, Moses is a Hebrew and, more specifically, a Hebrew from the priestly lineage of Levi. In the face of another murderous edict from Pharaoh against Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother has set him adrift on the Nile.
It is unclear exactly what she hopes will come from this desperate maneuver. If Pharaoh has his way, the baby will be thrown into the Nile, but Moses’ mother prepares a basket and places him gently in the water. The river that should be the scene of Moses’ death becomes the place of his salvation. When Pharaoh’s daughter draws him out of the water, she also delivers him from the water, so that his name, too, evokes life.
Though the text gives us no further details about Moses’ childhood, we can safely assume that it would have been full of the trappings of Egyptian royal life, even as he may have been taught Israelite traditions by his mother, whom Pharaoh’s daughter hired to nurse him. (Steven Spielberg’s film The Prince of Egypt imagines the context of the Egyptian palace, as well as Moses’ crisis of identity, very well.)
Exodus 2:19 does give a hint of Moses’ outward appearance. When the daughters of Reuel tell their father about their misadventure at the well, they report, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds … ” Something about Moses’ appearance looks Egyptian, even though we readers know of his Hebrew parentage. Like the Hebrew midwives, Moses will eventually understand whom he fears and with whom he belongs: God, not Pharaoh.
Moses’ dual identity will reach a crisis point when he kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew (2:11-15). His vocational identity, as God’s prophet chosen to lead God’s people out of bondage, will continue to be tested as the book of Exodus progresses. This week’s earliest glimpses into Moses’ story set the stage for that unfolding drama.
This week’s passages detailing the midwives’ courage and Moses’ infancy are parts of the broader story of the relationship between God and Israel as presented in the book of Exodus. Israel will learn who God is, and they will learn that their identity is rooted in belonging to God. In Exodus 3, God will reveal God’s name to Moses, declaring that this God YHWH is the God of Moses’ ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God will refer to the Israelites time and time again as “my people,” claiming them, hearing their cries, and delivering them. Pharaoh will ask, “Who is YHWH, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Like the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, this Pharaoh does not know YHWH. Pharaoh, like the Israelites, will need some convincing about who this God is and to whom the Israelites belong.
Lifting up the theme of identity in Exodus fits well with Jesus’ questions to the disciples about his own identity in this week’s appointed gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20): “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” The book of Exodus and the Gospel reading alike show that even if questions of identity can be boiled down to pithy answers, the phrase “who we are and whose we are” is understood most fully when accompanied by the careful interpretation of the rich stories that have shaped our understanding of ourselves and our God.