Last week, we began our trek through Exodus with the first 7 verses. In many ways, those verses are setting the stage for the story in v. 8-22, which are themselves setting the stage for the story of Moses’ birth in 2:1-10. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.
Every story needs a villain, and we meet ours right off the bat in v. 8:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
The fact that this is the only the description of the new Pharaoh is not a good sign. In many ways, Joseph was the mediator between Egypt and the sons of Jacob. He was by birth a member of the latter group, and by providential means, a ruling member of the former class. He thus bridged the gap between the two, representing Egypt and her resources to his family, and representing his family and their interests to the ruling class of Egypt (sound like any NT Person you know?). But now, in v. 8, we see this gap is no longer bridged, and that leads to Pharaoh making a declaration:
And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Here we see exhibit A when it comes propaganda in service of a dictator’s agenda. As Stuart comments,
This sort of propaganda has worked countless times in history. If a regime wishes to be given freedom to oppress a given group within a nation, it defines that group as an undermining force, a real danger, and potentially the agent of overthrow of the established order. The pharaoh was spouting ethnic hate propaganda of the sort still widely employed in the modern world to justify ethnic persecution and eventually genocide. Like most propaganda, it was a distortion of the truth rather than entirely false. 1
This speech thus sets in motion the enslavement of Israel, which is laid out in v. 11-14:
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
Though Pharaoh means to subject Israel, his speech and the results are actually rather ironic. Fretheim points out several layers:
- The king is the first to recognize the children of Israel as a ‘people,’ giving them a status like his own people just mentioned.
- In echoing the narrator’s words of verse 7 (cf. Gen. 18:18), and exaggerating the numbers, an ‘outsider’ highlights the fulfillment of God’s promises. His acts of oppression confirm that God’s word to Abraham in Gen. 15:13 was on target.
- His concern to act shrewdly will be shown to be folly; even with his wisest counselors (cf. 7:11) his policies will again and again be turned to Israel’s advantage. Pharaoh’s efforts will lead to an end precisely the opposite of his intentions.
- Storage cities built out of a concern for life (Gen. 41:34–36) are here used as a vehicle for death.
- Strikingly, he speaks of the exodus, echoing Joseph himself (Gen. 50:24). The phrase ‘escape (‘alah) from the land’ is exactly the wording used in 13:18, which also uses battle language. This verb is also used for God’s saving action in 3:8, 17 (‘bring up’; cf. Gen. 46:4). Pharaoh says more than he knows! 2
It is perhaps safe to say that Pharaoh’s initial enslavement policy backfired. But, as Blackburn points out, it is worth lingering here, “for if we don’t understand the plight of Israel from the beginning, we will fail to appreciate both the magnitude of the deliverance that communicates the nature of God and thereby reveals his name, and the difference between Israel’s serving Pharaoh and serving the Lord.” 3 A more literal translation of v. 13-14 highlights how oppressive Egypt was for Israel:
And the Egyptians forced the sons of Israel to serve with violence. And they caused their lives to be bitter with hard service, with mortar and with brick and with all kinds of service in the field. In all their service with which they served, in violence. 4
This emphasis on “service” sets up a contrast that will span the book of Exodus. As Blackburn later comments, “The plight of Israel in Egypt illustrates this larger truth that runs throughout the Scriptures,” 5 Ultimately, “The exodus does not constitute a declaration of independence, but a declaration of dependence upon God (cf. 14:31).” 6
Right now though, there are deep in Egyptian enslavement. And if that weren’t enough, Pharaoh decided to kick it up a notch for a good measure (v. 15-16):
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
Adding forced infanticide to enslavement is more than just insult to injury. It is Pharaoh setting himself up in direct opposition to God who, making good on his promises, has caused Israel to be fruitful and multiply. As Enns points out,
We see, then, already at this early stage of the book, what will become much more pronounced later on: the real antagonists in the book of Exodus. This is not a battle of Israel versus Pharaoh, or even of Moses versus Pharaoh, but of God versus Pharaoh. The Egyptian king, as we will see in the following chapters, is presented as an anti-God figure; he repeatedly places himself in direct opposition to God’s redemptive plan, and this behavior is already anticipated here. 7
Opposition to God is not a wise path. Proving this rather effectively are the two mid-wives, who rather than implement Pharaoh’s plan, opt for undermining it instead (v. 17):
But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.
Pharaoh is not pleased when he finds out (which might have been years later):
So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
Though one could make the case that the midwives are lying to Pharaoh, it is not absolutely necessary to argue this. They very well could have simply arranged things with the Hebrew women to not call for help until it was basically two late, thus ensuring live births. They certainly were directly disobedient, but they did so in service of God, whom they feared more than Pharaoh. This sets them up as models for later Israel to follow in their transition from serving Pharaoh to serving God.
If they did lie, it would be because they feared the Lord and were seeking to protect the lives of others, which is unlike Abraham in Genesis who lied out of fear of man and to protect his own skin (and endanger his wife). This story also takes place prior to the giving of the law, which specifies that you should defend your neighbor’s right to the truth, and even if we allow a NT understanding of “neighbor,” Pharaoh doesn’t qualify, especially in light of his demands. 8
This kind of understanding is confirmed in the verses that follow (v. 20-21):
So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
What the midwives did was clearly acceptable in God’s sight, so we would do well to see the principle at work and know when to wisely apply it in our own lives.
Though God was pleased, Pharaoh was not, and so takes his oppression a step further:
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Since clearly he could not trust the mid-wives, he now enlists any and every Egyptian willing to help plunder the wombs of Hebrew women. This is presents a “proleptic irony” though a reversal lies down the river, as “Later God would kill large numbers of grown-up boys, that is, Egyptian soldiers, by drowning them in the Red Sea (e.g., Exod 15:4: ‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea./The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea’).” 9 But, before we get to that irony, another irony lies in the next chapter, which we’ll talk about next Monday.
- Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. Vol. 2. NAC. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006, 64 ↩
- Quoted from Terence Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988, 28. ↩
- W. Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of The Book of Exodus. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012, 33 ↩
- From Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known, 32 ↩
- namely, that no man can serve two masters, and we are all either slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-19). The question is not will Israel break free entirely, but who will she ultimately serve? As Stuart points out, “What Israel needed was not independence from Pharaoh and Egypt per se but a shift of dependency, a switching of masters from Pharaoh and the Egyptians to the true and living God.” 10Stuart, Exodus, 71 ↩
- Fretheim, Exodus. 30 ↩
- Peter Enns, Exodus. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, 43 ↩
- For the idea of the 10 commandments as protecting your neighbor’s rights, see Daniel I. Block Deuteronomy. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, 161. This is also why you could argue it is perfectly ethical to lie in the always overused “hiding hypothetical Jews during WWII” scenario. A Nazi soldier is not your neighbor and has forfeited his right to the truth because of his intent to use that truth for evil purposes. It is more important to preserve the sanctity of human life (and keep the Noahic covenant) than to be truthful in a situation where you know it will lead to greater evil. ↩
- Stuart, Exodus, 84 ↩