Blessing during Bondage in Egypt

1:1  These are the names of the sons of Israel who entered Egypt—each man with his household entered with Jacob: 1:2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 1:3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 1:4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 1:5 All the people who were directly descended from Jacob numbered seventy. But Joseph was already in Egypt, 1:6 and in time Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died. 1:7 The Israelites, however, were fruitful, increased greatly, multiplied, and became extremely strong, so that the land was filled with them.

These are the names – There is an untranslated ‘And’ at the beginning of this first verse.  Then comes an even clearer link back to Genesis as the narrator rehearses the descent into Egypt.

Seventy in all – Acts 7:14 puts the number at seventy-five. On the apparent discrepancy, Calvin regards the difference as trivial, and invokes 1 Tim 1:4 in counselling his readers to avoid controversy in such matters.  Marshall (TNTC on Acts), however, thinks that the matter can be resolved: ‘The figure of seventy-five persons is based on the LXX of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, while the Hebrew text has 70. The larger total is arrived at by omitting Jacob and Joseph and including the remaining seven of Joseph’s nine sons. In both cases the number is the total of Jacob’s descendants who went down into Egypt or were born there.’  The key point here is that this relatively small number of Jacob’s descendants left Egypt as a great nation numbering tens of thousands.

Continuity and discontinuity

There is both continuity and discontinuity with the book of Genesis.

Continuity. As Enns points out, we should read Exodus not so much as a book, as one chapter in a book.  The original Hebrew  begins with the word And.  Other connections with Genesis include the repetition in this verse of the same six words that are found in Gen 46:8, and the language of Ex 1:7, recalling as it does that of Gen 1:28; 9:1.  Such continuity can be seen throughout much of the OT.  Leviticus and Numbers also begin with the word ‘and’.  The Book of the Kings takes up the story from Samuel, Samuel from Judges, and Judges from Joshua.  All of this shows the outworking of God’s promises, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, and that the seed of Abraham should be the universal blessing.  In particular, we can regard the whole of the Book of Exodus as recording the fulfilment of Gen 15:13-16.

Discontinuity. The narrator quickly moves from the world of Genesis into a new world (Fretheim).  Verse 6 soberly points out that Joseph and his entire generation had ‘died’.  This is the last time in the Pentateuch that the phrase ‘the sons of Israel’ is used to describe Jacob’s immediate family. From now on, they will be referred to collectively as ‘the Israelites’ (cf. v7), indicating a change in focus from one person and his family to the development of a nation.

History is not bunk!

The Bible is constantly linking the present with the past, so that God’s people can understand who they are, and how they got here.  Many are the references back to the Exodus, in both Old and New Testaments.  Matthew and Luke both have genealogies near the beginning of their respective Gospels.  But with each of them we note not only how far back they reach, but where they finish – with Christ.

The people God chooses and uses

The sons of Israel ‘are ‘names blotted with many a crime, rarely suggesting any lovable or great association, yet the names of men with a marvellous heritage, as being the sons of Israel, the Prince who prevailed with God. Moreover they are consecrated: their fathers dying words had conveyed to every one of them some expectation, some mysterious import which the future should disclose.’ (Expositor’s Bible)

As Ryken says, ‘The twelve sons of Israel were never likely to become epic heroes. In fact, the more we know about this family, the more amazed we are that God would have anything to do with them at all. It was not a large family; there were only seventy of them to begin with. They were not very powerful. Joseph had risen to a position of authority, but his office was not hereditary, and the rest of his family were living as strangers in a strange land. They were not especially bright. Certainly they were no more talented than the Egyptians, who built a civilization that could boast some of the world’s leading intellects. Nor could this “dirty dozen” claim to be any more righteous than anyone else. Their family history was a sordid tale of treachery, philandering, and violence. Their father Jacob had betrayed his brother Esau by tricking him out of his birthright. Like father, like sons: By getting rid of Joseph, Jacob’s boys had tried to deny their father’s blessing. The most despicable of all was Judah, who had sex with his daughter-in-law Tamar. The sons of Israel were all sinners—ordinary mortals, as their obituary proves: “Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died” (Exod. 1:6).’

Ryken adds that this family had one thing going for them: their God.  And what a God! (See, for example, Ex 34:6f).  This raises a practical question for ourselves: ‘Who is our God? The truth is that we are no better than the sons of Israel. We are envious, ill-tempered people who stubbornly refuse to follow God. We fail to live up to his perfect standard every day. What we need is the God of Exodus. If he is our God, then he has performed for us a miracle of grace, and we can trust him to save us to the very end.’

‘Note, It is good for those whose latter end greatly increases often to remember how small their beginning was, Job 8:7.’ (MHC)

Joseph…died – ‘Thus the connection with Canaan became a mere tradition, and the powerful courtier who had nursed their interests disappeared. When they remembered him, in the bitter time which lay before them, it was only to reflect that all mortal help must perish. It is thus in the spiritual world also. Paul reminds the Philippians that they can obey in his absence and not in his presence only, working out their own salvation, as no apostle can work it out on their behalf. And the reason is that the one real support is ever present. Work out your own salvation, for it is God (not any teacher) who worketh in you.’ (Expositor’s Bible)

The Israelites – A major contrast between Genesis and Exodus is that the former was essentially the story of one family, whereas the latter concerns the fortunes of a nation. The stream broadens into a river.

Fruitful…multiplied greatly…became exceedingly numerous…the land was filled with them – According to Ex 12:37, the number of men going down out of Egypt was 600,000.

The language of this verse reminds us of Gen 1:26-28 (see also Gen 12:2).  In the original seven different expressions are used to describe the multiplication of the Israelites (cf. v9f).

‘The three statements of blessings and multiplication here (Exodus 1:7, 12, 20) give the chapter its structure. Despite being in Egypt (v 1-7), despite being oppressed (v 8-14) and despite being threatened (v 15-22), God’s people prosper because of his promise.’ (Chester)

The land – probably the land of Goshen in northeastern Egypt, in the Wadi Tumilat in the Delta, a valley 30 to 40 miles long. (cf. Gen 47:4)

For an idea of the time-scale involved, bear in mind that the total period from the time of Abraham to to Exodus was 430 years, Ex 12:40. Other scriptures inform us that during this time the people had largely forsaken Jehovah and turned to the gods of the Egyptians, Jos 24:14; Eze 20:8.

Thus did the Israelites prosper; but we shall shortly meet with a reminder that success is fraught with danger, and requires just as much divine assistance and protection as failure.

In terms of the narrative structure of this passage, note the tension that v7 creates (what will happen to this burgeoning nation-within-a-nation?).  The very next verse will introduce the next scene in the drama.

Foreigners in an alien land

The Israelites were never to forget that they were aliens in a foreign land, and for that reason to have compassion on foreigners in their own land, Deut 23:7. There is, of course, a lesson here in all ages in terms of treatment of aliens, immigrant, refugees, and the like. History is littered with stories of abuse of foreigners, or even, as in the case of the North American Indians and many others, of supplanting the earlier residents of a land.

James parallels Exodus by addressing God’s people as ‘the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’ (Jas 1:1).  We are the people of God, spiritual descendants of the children of Israel.  And if we find ourselves, as our ancestors did, living in dark days in an alien land, then we may not have to conclude that we have brought it upon ourselves, any more than the Israelites had brought the Egyptian oppression upon themselves.

The Bible does not offer glib answers to the question of why God’s people suffer in this way.  But just as we can see the wise and loving hand of God at work – often behind the scenes – in the Exodus story, so we can trust in his gracious purposes for ourselves.  They could believe and trust that God was fulfilling his purposes for them (Gen 15), and that he would be there with them (Gen 46:1-4).  So can we.

Egypt was not the promised land.  It was never God’s intention that the Israelites should make Egypt their permanent home, Gen 50:24.  What unexpected twists and turns the story will take before they reach their final destination!  And Heb 13:14 reminds Christian believers that ‘here we do not have an enduring city’.

God’s work is often ‘behind the scenes’

Note the piling up of expressions to describe the extraordinary multiplication of the Israelites.  This is a clear indication that God is at work to bless his people (cf. Deut. 10:22; 26:5; Ps. 105:24), even though he is not even mentioned until we reach v17.  God’s creational purposes are being realised in this family (Fretheim, cf. Gen 1:26-28), and his promises to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:2,6; 22:17; 26:4; 28:14; 35:11; 46:3; 48:4) are being fulfilled.

Fretheim observes that the very reticence to speak about God in these ‘growth’ passages underscores the importance of his behind-the-scenes creational activity, in which he works in and through gifts given in creation.  His redemptive work, though more obviously interventionist, can then be seen as an intensification of this creational work.

Matthew Henry observes: ‘From the call of Abraham, when God first told him he would make of him a great nation, to the deliverance of his seed out of Egypt, it was 430 years, during the first 215 of which they were increased but to seventy, but, in the latter half, those seventy multiplied to 600,000 fighting men. Note, 1. Sometimes God’s providences may seem for a great while to thwart his promises, and to go counter to them, that his people’s faith may be tried, and his own power the more magnified. 2. Though the performance of God’s promises is sometimes slow, yet it is always sure; at the end it shall speak, and not lie, Hab 2:3.’

Chester invites us to discern God’s hand in ordering the sequence of events in our own lives, and in fulfilling his covenant promises.  Moreover, ‘even sin is a context in which God is at work, for he incorporates acts of sin into his purposes. That is what he is doing here; it’s what he did when two other rulers opposed not his people but his own Son (Acts 4:27-28); and it’s what he does in and around us still today as he works for our good in all things (Romans 8:28).’

1:8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt. 1:9 He said to his people, “Look at the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger than we are! 1:10 Come, let’s deal wisely with them. Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.”

Cf. Stephen’s comment in Acts 7:18.

A new king – Possibly Ahmose I (ca. 1570-1546), who expelled the Hyksos rulers from Egypt, or more likely Amenhotep I (ca. 1546-1525) or Thutmose I (ca. 1525-1512). ‘The book of Exodus does not identify any of the Egyptian kings (Pharaohs) mentioned. In spite of their influential position they are portrayed as nobodies. This is in keeping with the contrast which Exodus draws between the Lord and the Egyptian kings.’ (NBC)

If the Exodus is dated around 1450-1440 BCE, the Pharaoh spoken of here was probably Thutmose I, and the Pharaoh of the Exodus Thutmose III or Amenhotep II.  The Israelites might then be identified with a group mentioned in the Tell el-Armarna letters as the Habiru, a class who were regarded as political outcasts in Palestine.

Who did not know about Joseph – This probably doesn’t imply that he had never heard of Joseph, but rather that he disregarded the favourable reputation he had had in Egypt.

‘Much more than mere acquaintance is meant, for this verb refers to experiential knowledge of the most intimate kind. It is used to describe long-term and deep relationships, (e.g., Gen 29:5, 2 Sam 7:20) as a euphemism for sexual intercourse between husband and wife, (e.g., Gen 4:1; 1 Sam 1:19) and to refer to the communion between humankind and God that produces a reorientation of life in men and women. (e.g., Eze 24:27; Isa 1:3)’ (Durham, WBC)

‘For two centuries ending in 1550 B.C., a foreign Asiatic people called the Hyksos actually ruled Egypt. After their expulsion, the new pharaoh extended his rule into Canaan and Syria, transporting back to Egypt many prisoners of war. In an address to the meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research last year, Hoffmeier explained that he believed that “after the expulsion of the Hyksos ruling and military elite, Pharaoh Ahmose and his successors discovered large numbers of Semitic-speaking peoples, including the Hebrews, in the Delta, who were subsequently forced to work alongside the POWs. This shift in status from being tolerated immigrants to an enslaved population described in Exodus 1:8 may represent the transition from the Hyksos period to the eighteenth Dynasty. It is worth noting that the practice of using forced labor for building projects is only documented for the period 1450 to 1200, the very time most biblical historians place the Israelites in Egypt. The realization that there were others enslaved along with the Hebrews may explain who the ‘mixed multitude’ of Exodus 12:38 are who joined the ‘freedom train.’ ‘ (Kevin D. Miller, Christianity Today)

The expulsion of the foreign Hyksos rulers was an occasion for great celebration in Egyptian history.  ‘It is…understandable that a pharaoh who had expelled—or whose ancestors had expelled—hated foreign oppressors would have had no sympathy for or even interest in honoring the memory of a foreigner who had served as Egypt’s prime minister during the reign of one of those Hyksos pharaohs.’ (Stuart)

‘It is indeed the eternal curse of despotism that unlimited calamity may be drawn down upon millions by the caprice of one most unhappy man, himself blinded and half maddened by adulation, by the absence of restraint, by unlimited sensual indulgence if his tendencies be low and animal, and by the pride of power if he be high-spirited and aspiring.’ (The Expositor’s Bible) Modern examples: Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe, Sadam Hussein.

‘Suddenly the once favoured sons of Israel (Jacob) are no longer welcome guests in the fertile Nile delta. Sojourn becomes captivity and privilege becomes enslavement. The covenant promises are removed one stage further, for the people not only live away from the promised land, but are now prisoners of a cruel monarch. Again the experience of the recipients of the promises seems to contradict the promises.’ (Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, 60)

“The Israelites have become much too numerous for us” – and thus were increasingly becoming a military threat.  Pharaoh’s deliberations hark back to those of the inhabitants of Babel, Gen 11:3–4.

The increase in the numbers of the Israelites is both in line with the creation mandate and with God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.  Pharaoh himself is represented as an anti-God figure.  In fact, the entire conflict will not be so much between the Israelites and Pharaoh, or Moses and Pharaoh, but between the Lord and Pharaoh.

“We must deal shrewdly” – ‘The wisdom here proposed to be employed was the wisdom of the serpent; but with men of reprobate minds, governed solely by the corrupt spirit of this world, whatever measures tend to promote their own interests and circumvent their opponents, is dignified by the epithet wise, though it be found, when judged by a purer standard, to be in reality nothing less than the very policy of hell.’ (G. Bush.)

‘What Pharaoh meant by “deal[ing] shrewdly” was politics as usual: pursue military strength, exploit the poor, attack minorities. But the conventional wisdom proved to be folly, because Pharaoh was dealing with the God who says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (1 Cor. 1:19).’ (Ryken)

“Leave the country” – perhaps the Egyptians had heard the Israelites speak of God’s promise to settle them in their own land.

An absent God?

‘As Gowan suggests, the portrayal of God as “absent” in chapter 1 comes into clearer focus in the light of the immediate, directive role he takes beginning in Ex 2:23-25 and throughout the remainder of Exodus – “the author’s explicit and powerful statement…that now something different is about to happen.” It is Yahweh who delivers the Israelites, who fights for them, who cripples the Egyptian army, and who renders Pharaoh impotent. The “absence” of God in chapter 1 is sorely felt by the Hebrew slaves, and it is important for understanding the thrust of the first two chapters of Exodus that we allow this tension to remain. The appearance of God in Ex 2:23-25 must be seen in the light of the Israelites’ perception of his absence in chapter 1. “How could God allow this terrible turn of events to take place? Why has the God of our fathers, the God who promised his abiding faithfulness to us and our ancestors, allowed us to become slaves? Look at this young upstart pharaoh, flexing his muscles. Why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and make him go away? Why has God forgotten us?”‘ (Enns)

On not taking our privileges for granted

Ellison notes that the Israelites went from being a privileged people to an oppressed people at a stroke.  How many Christian groups, down the centuries, have taken privilege and patronage for granted, and only realise the blessing once it has gone?  Is not the current removal of privileged status for Christians in the UK a case in point?

M. Henry counsels: ‘The place of our satisfaction may soon become the place of our affliction, and that may prove the greatest cross to us of which we said, This same shall comfort us. Those may prove our sworn enemies whose parents were our faithful friends; nay, the same persons that loved us may possibly turn to hate us: therefore cease from man, and say not concerning any place on this side heaven, This is my rest for ever.’

Blessing from God can bring trouble from the world

Stuart expresses the irony of the situation well: ‘Their rapid growth was a glorious blessing of God, in faithful fulfillment of his creation decrees (see below) and patriarchal promises (see vv. 1–7). How then could it get them in so much trouble? The short answer is that in a fallen world, the blessings of God are often so in conflict with the prevailing corrupt values of this world’s culture that they function as a threat to those who are not aligned with God’s will. The parade example of this phenomenon is the rejection of Jesus. He was the purest example of good that the world has seen, and yet God could send him to earth with the certain knowledge that he would be put to death by people who thought they were doing the world a favor.’

There is a universal tendency to blame ‘outsiders’ and minorities”

Stuart observes that [Pharaoh’s] statement ‘plays on the universal xenophobic tendency of peoples to fear losing their jobs, their wealth, their land, and their political control to foreigners in their midst. It is no accident that all major countries of the modern world have immigration laws including numerical restrictions on the influx of foreigners and that many have restrictions on foreign investment within their borders as well…Nations throughout history have tended to be afraid of losing their power to “outsiders,” so the Egyptian mentality at this point can easily be understood.’

Similarly, Ryken says: ‘Blaming things on ethnic minorities is always convenient because racism is part of our sinful human nature. This is what made it so easy for Hitler to promote anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. It is why the Afrikaaners were able to use the “black threat” argument to such deadly advantage in South Africa.’

How much harm has been done down the ages by rulers taking pre-emptive action against those they fear might become their enemies?

How leaders mislead

‘It is by such exaggerations and alarms that all the worst crimes of statesmen have been justified to consenting peoples. And we, when we carry what seems to us a rightful object, by inflaming the prejudice and misleading the judgment of other men, are moving on the same treacherous and slippery inclines. Probably no evil is committed without some amount of justification, which the passions exaggerate, while they ignore the prohibitions of the law.’ (The Expositor’s Bible)

God’s covenant challenged

What began, long ago, as a sojourn, has now become a captivity. But what is the significance of the Egyptian captivity from the point of view of Biblical theology? We must go back to the Abrahamic covenant. The captivity in Egypt presents the ultimate challenge to the covenant. God’s people find themselves in the wrong place and under the wrong rule. The covenant, accordingly, will be fulfilled by means of redemption from captivity.

1:11 So they put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor. As a result they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 1:12 But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread. As a result the Egyptians loathed the Israelites, 1:13 and they made the Israelites serve rigorously. 1:14 They made their lives bitter by hard service with mortar and bricks and by all kinds of service in the fields. Every kind of service the Israelites were required to give was rigorous.

Plan A – Slavery and oppression. The Israelites were organized into large labour gangs under Egyptian slave masters. All public or royal buildings in ancient Egypt, including the pyramids, were built by captives; and on some of them was placed an inscription that no free citizen had been engaged in the work.

The Hebrew word for ‘oppress’ is the same one used in the prophecy of this event in Gen 15:13.

Pharaoh means “great house” – a title, not a personal name, for the king who lived in the great house.

Pithom and Rameses – The building of both of these cities is associated with Rameses II (c. 1290-1225 BC).  This would appear to fix a later date for the exodus and the events surrounding it.  However, it is possible that the text is employing a simple anachronism (as it is even more clearly in Gen 47:11), so that we should understand it as referring to ‘the city which was later named Rameses’; this would allow an earlier date for the exodus (around 1700 BC), and would enable us to identify the city with Avaris.

The store cities housed weapons and supplies to be used in case of attack.

Note the multiplicity of terms describing the Israelites misery, 11-14, compared with the similarly rich language of their multiplication, v7.

‘Here are many expressions used, to affect us with the condition of God’s people. They had taskmasters set over them, who were directed, not only to burden them, but, as much as might be, to afflict them with their burdens, and contrive how to make them grievous. They not only made them serve, which was sufficient for Pharaoh’s profit, but they made them serve with rigour, so that their lives became bitter to them, intending hereby, (1.) To break their spirits, and rob them of every thing in them that was ingenuous and generous. (2.) To ruin their health and shorten their days, and so diminish their numbers. (3.) To discourage them from marrying, since their children would be born to slavery. (4.) To oblige them to desert the Hebrews, and incorporate themselves with the Egyptians. Thus he hoped to cut off the name of Israel, that it might be no more in remembrance. And it is to be feared that the oppression they were under had this bad effect upon them, that it brought over many of them to join with the Egyptians in their idolatrous worship; for we read (Jos 24:14) that they served other gods in Egypt; and, though it is not mentioned here in this history, yet we find (Eze 20:8) that God had threatened to destroy them for it, even while they were in the land of Egypt: however, they were kept a distinct body, unmingled with the Egyptians, and by their other customs separated from them, which was the Lord’s doing, and marvellous.’ (MHC)

The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread – ‘As often for Israel, it must pass in and through adversity on the way to the fulfilment of promises.’ (Fretheim)

They made their lives bitter – The bitter oppression of Egypt was later commemorated by the bitter herbs of the Passover meal (Ex 12:8).

Seven different words for the multiplication of the Israelites were used in v7.  Here, these are matched by seven words (not all different) for their oppression under the Egyptians.  Their impact echoes the crack of the Egyptian whip.  Cassuto’s translation: ‘So the Egyptians made the children of Israel work with rigour and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field, in addition to all their (other) work, wherein they made them serve with rigour.’

Hard labour in brick and mortar – ‘Ruins of great brick buildings are found in all parts of Egypt. The use of crude brick, baked in the sun, was universal in upper and lower Egypt, both for public and private buildings; all but the temples themselves were of crude brick. It is worthy of remark that more bricks bearing the name of Thothmes III, who is supposed to have been the king of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, have been discovered than of any other period. Parties of these brickmakers are seen depicted on the ancient monuments with “taskmasters,” some standing, others in a sitting posture beside the laborers, with their uplifted sticks in their hands.’ (JFB)

Nota bene


  1. Times of affliction have often been the church’s growing times, Sub pondere crescit – Being pressed, it grows. Christianity spread most when it was persecuted: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.
  2. Those that take counsel against the Lord and his Israel do but imagine a vain thing, (Ps 2:1) and create so much the greater vexation to themselves: hell and earth cannot diminish those whom Heaven will increase.’ (M. Henry)
Oppression doubly dehumanises

‘As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized.… Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it—oppressor and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in the situation, and both bear the marks of oppression.’ (Freire, quoted by Fretheim)

God is on the side of the oppressed

The cruelty of the Egyptians towards the Israelites is a sad, but common, symptom of human iniquity.  In fact, so much pain and suffering in our world can be directly ascribed to our own hatred, selfishness, and greed.  But it still raises the question, Why doesn’t God do something about it?  A complete answer to this question evades us.  But, in the light of the way God is presented in Exodus, we may not simply say that all of this was outside of his control.

Indeed, the narrative will shortly begin to show how God beings to intervene on behalf of his oppressed people.  Fretheim remarks: ‘God is God of the oppressed; God enters into their difficult, suffering situations to set things right. God is a God who is concerned to move people from slavery to freedom. The tradition will include the spiritual (cf. 6:9) and the cosmic dimensions of this movement, but the vivid physical details of the bondage and the explicit sociopolitical realities in the text should keep our understanding of the divine salvation very much related to all aspects of people’s lives.’

1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 1:16  “When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, observe at the delivery: If it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” 1:17 But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.

Plan B – Secret Murder.  Calvin: ‘Never did any enemy, however implacable, ever so vent his wrath against a whole nation, as to command all its male offspring to be destroyed in the midst of peace.’

Hebrew midwives – ‘Hebrew’ was apparently a term used for all the semi-settled Western Semitic peoples, and not just the Israelites.  The same group is thought to be referred to as the ‘Apiru in Egyptian texts, and as the Habiru in the Tell el-Amarna tablets.  ‘The term is employed in the narrative of the oppression only as a somewhat derisive epithet intelligible to the Egyptians, one the Israelites would not use among themselves.’ (WBC)

Shiphrah and Puah – Critical scholarship takes the view that the size of population implied by the presence of just two midwives to deal with the obstetric needs is at odds with the immense size of population said (in Ex 12:37) to have escaped from Egypt.  But this pair were perhaps the chief midwives, and not the only ones.  The fact that their names are recalled attests to the historicity of the text.  In fact, the text stresses their names by saying, ‘The name of the first was Shiphrah and the name of the second was Puah.’

‘But another question arises, why two midwives only are mentioned by name, when it is probable that, in so great a population, there were many? Two replies may be given; either that the tyrant addressed himself to these two, who might spread the fear of his power amongst the others; or, that, desiring to proceed with secret malice, he made a trial of the firmness of these two, and if he had obtained their acquiescence, he hoped to have easily succeeded with the others; for shame forbade him from issuing an open and general command.’ (Calvin)

So here is a match between two lowly Hebrew midwives and the entire Egyptian nation and its ruler.  Guess who wins!

‘In the refusal of women to cooperate with oppression, the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage has its beginnings.’ (Exum)

“The delivery stool” – lit. ‘the (two) stones’.  The expression occurs only here and in Jer 18:3, where it refers to stones, probably two of them, used by a potter.  It is quite possible that it is used here as an euphemism for the male genitalia, in which case a reasonable translation would be, ‘take care to determine the sex of the baby’.

“If it is a boy, kill him” – The original Hebrew stresses the relational aspect of these children to their parents, by calling them ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’.

The midwives…feared God – This is the first time that God has been mentioned, and even now only by the narrator and not by any of the characters.

They feared God rather than the king of Egypt.  Cf. Mt 10:28.

Depths of cruelty

Notice the depths of cruelty to which the human heart can sink, Rom 3:15f.  Even the innocence of the new-born means nothing to those who have no fear of God.  ‘Pharaoh and Herod sufficiently proved themselves agents for that great red dragon, who stood to devour the man-child as soon as it was born, Rev. 12:3, 4.’ (M. Henry)  The same commentator adds: ‘It added much to the barbarity of the intended executions that the midwives were appointed to be the executioners; for it was to make them, not only bloody, but perfidious, and to oblige them to betray a trust, and to destroy those whom they undertook to save and help.’

‘And at last that happens which is a part of every downward course: the veil is dropped; what men have done by stealth, and as if they would deceive themselves, they soon do consciously, avowing to their conscience what at first they could not face. Thus Pharaoh began by striving to check a dangerous population; and ended by committing wholesale murder.  Thus men become drunkards through conviviality, thieves through borrowing what they mean to restore, and hypocrites through slightly overstating what they really feel. And, since there are nice gradations in evil, down to the very last, Pharaoh will not yet avow publicly the atrocity which he commands a few humble women to perpetrate; decency is with him, as it is often, the last substitute for a conscience.’  (The Expositor’s Bible)

They feared God

‘Fear of God is that holy disposition or gracious habit formed in the soul by the Holy Spirit, whereby we are inclined to obey all Gods commands; and evidences itself by

  1. A dread of His displeasure.
  2. Desire of His favour.
  3. Regard for His excellences.
  4. Submission to His will.
  5. Gratitude for His benefits.
  6. Conscientious obedience to His commands.’

(C. Buck, in Biblical Illustrator)

‘They feared God, regarded his law, and dreaded his wrath more than Pharaoh’s and therefore saved the men-children alive. Note, If men’s commands be any way contrary to the commands of God, we must obey God and not man, Acts 4:19; v. 29. No power on earth can warrant us, much less oblige us, to sin against God, our chief Lord.’ (M. Henry)

‘Learn a life-lesson from the monument to Lord Lawrence in Westminster Abbey. Of all the memorials there, you will not find one that gives a nobler thought. Simply his name, and the date of his death, and these words; He feared man so little, because he feared God so much. Here is one great secret of victory. Walk ever in the fear of God. Set God ever before you. Let your prayer be that of the Rugby boy, John Laing Bickersteth, found locked up in his desk after his death: “God, give me courage that I may fear none but Thee.”‘ (Biblical Illustrator)

How difficult it is for a powerful person to back down!

As Durham wryly remarks, ‘a new Pharaoh cannot afford to be wrong.’  How difficult it is for a proud and powerful person, once set on a course of action, to back down!

Who is important?

Many commentators have noticed that none of the Pharaohs in Exodus is named.  ‘Pharaoh stands for the height of human power, ranged against God and the people of God.’ (Cole)  Ryken adds: ‘The Pharaoh of Egypt was not a private individual; rather, he represented the entire nation of Egypt, including their gods.’

Why doesn’t the author tell us exactly which Pharaoh this was?  Enns urges that we should not suppose that these stories circulated for the first time in their present written form: ‘It is likely that by the time the narrative received its “official” (i.e., biblical) written form, the story had already been in wide circulation for considerable time. The biblical form then presents a story that for modern readers appears fresh, but for an ancient audience was the very stuff of their cultural and spiritual fabric.’

But it may be that the narrator intended to portray the Pharaohs as nobodies, in spite of their worldly power.  ‘For all his “greatness”, Pharaoh is left unnamed, while the midwives (whom he regarded as mere tools of his policy) are remembered individually.  This is Exodus’ perception of who is important and who is not!’ (Motyer; cf. Prov 10:7; Ps 109:13,15.)  Hoffmeier agrees that ‘the absence of the Pharaoh’s name may ultimately be for theological reasons, because the Bible is not trying to answer the question ‘who is the Pharaoh of the exodus’ to satisfy the curiosity of modern historians; rather, it was seeking to clarify for Israel who was the God of the exodus.’

Protect the defenceless!

The midwives were asked to be dealers in the death of newborn children!  How is this so very different from today’s obstetricians, who are asked to deal in the death of unborn children?

Pharaoh anticipates all the antichrists of history

‘Pharaoh’s attempt to exterminate the sons of Israel anticipated all the antichrists of history. Wherever there is a reign of terror or a culture of death, Satan is trying to destroy the work of God. The slogans change, but the sin remains the same. Whether it is Adolf Hitler and his “final solution” for eliminating the Jews, or Communist China and its “one family, one child” policy, or the “pro-choice” movement in the West, opposition to life is always hatred of God.’ (Ryken)

There is a place for civil disobedience

‘This was an act of civil disobedience. Pharaoh gave the midwives a direct order, and they disobeyed it. But this is what God’s people always do when the laws of men contradict the laws of God. Our first allegiance is to God, and as Peter and the other apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). There are times when Christians not only have the right but also the responsibility to resist.’ (Ryken)  The Bible has a number of examples of people who, out of fear of God, disobeyed authority and did what was right: they include Esther and Mordecai, Esth 3:2; 4:13-16; the three young men, Dan 3:16-18; and Peter and the apostles, Acts 5:29.

1:18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and let the boys live?” 1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women—for the Hebrew women are vigorous; they give birth before the midwife gets to them!” 1:20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people multiplied and became very strong. 1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he made households for them.

‘In view of the remarkable increase of the Israelite population, Pharaoh may well have accepted the comment about the ability of the Hebrew women to give birth prior to the arrival of the midwives.’ (NBC)

An interesting parallel

An interesting parallel to the response of the Hebrew midwives comes from the village of Le Chambon, where 5,000 French Reformed Protestants rescued some 5,000 Jews from the Nazi horrors. It is said that during World War II Le Chambon was the safest place for a Jew in all of Europe. The brave Chambonnais Christians who risked their lives faced many difficult ethical dilemmas. On one occasion the chief of the Vichy police interrogated the ringleader of the resistance, pastor André Trocmé. “Pastor,” he said, “we know in detail the suspect activities to which you are devoted. You are hiding in this commune a certain number of Jews, whose names I know.… You are therefore going to give me the list of these persons and of their addresses.” Trocmé replied that he did not know the names of any of these people. Strictly speaking, this was true, because the Jews had all been given false identity cards. Although this seemed like the only way to save lives, Trocmé and others lamented what seemed to be a loss of their usual candor. On another occasion a Nazi lieutenant demanded to know where the Jewish refugees were hiding. “Jews?” the Chambonnais replied, as if astonished. “What would Jews be doing here? You, there, have you seen any Jews? They say they have crooked noses.” To be sure, such a reply required an element of deception, yet it was more like a jest.


Were the midwives right to lie?

‘It has been argued that God blessed these women for their act of lying, but the approval of a character in one area is not an approval in all areas. For example, God declared David to be a man after his own heart, but there was also the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba. Solomon was called Jedidiah, meaning “loved of the Lord”; but I can think of a thousand things wrong with him! Exodus 1:21 specifically says that Shiphrah and Puah were blessed of the Lord because they “feared God,” not because they lied. Thus their respect and awe of God took precedence over their allegiance to Pharaoh. They trusted the Lord and feared falling into his hands to give an account for murdering the babies more than they feared falling into the hands of Pharaoh. But this is not to say that the women were right in everything they did or said.’ (HSB)

Some commentators have held the Hebrew midwives to be culpable for lying.  So Augustine, Gregory, and Calvin.  But ‘if they did tell a lie, it was to avoid committing murder.  Of two evils, they chose the less’ (Haley).  But perhaps we should see it as a species of mockery (so Ryken): this is suggested by the jibe that Hebrew women are hardier than Egyptian women.  Moveover, if what the midwives said was literally true, then the Hebrew women did not need midwives at all!

‘Their faith inspired them with such courage as to risk their lives, by disobeying the mandate of a cruel tyrant; but it was blended with weakness, which made them shrink from speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ (JFB)

Whatever way in which we justify the midwives’ response, it seem to have satisfied Pharaoh who, on this occasion seems to have been a few bricks shorts of a pyramid. (Ryken)

This is the first time that God is named in this chapter.  However, there is a consistent conviction that God controls all history and all circumstances.

Although, as noted, some commentators scruple at the response the midwives gave to Pharaoh, God evidently did not.

‘The key to an understanding of these narratives of the Pharaoh’s attempts at genocide is theological, as is the purpose for which they have been brought into sequence. As vv 7, 9, 12, and 20b make plain, what is taking place in the family of Jacob/Israel is of God. The promise to the fathers is in view, both the half that is well on the way to fulfillment and the half that is yet to come to pass.’ (WBC)

In one way or another, God will honour those who honour him.

1:22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “All sons that are born you must throw into the river, but all daughters you may let live.”

Plan C – Violent Genocide

‘What had begun as forced residency escalated to forced labor, then to increased brutality, to a policy of forced infanticide, and finally to a general order to all his people to kill Hebrew babies.’ (Bruckner)

The Nile – lit. ‘the river’.  There is, as Bruckner remarks, deep irony here, especially given that Pharaoh had other means of killing the boys: ‘Is the Nile a source of life or of death? Who is ruler of the great river, if not the one who would turn it to blood? Who would God drown in the Reed Sea, but the Egyptians (14:28)? God repeats the pattern of using creational means that “match the crime” to resolve injustice throughout the Pentateuch and the Prophets.’

But let every girl live – They could become slave wives, and thus quickly absorbed by the Egyptians.

How fully this order was carried out, we cannot tell.  Clearly, Moses was not the only male to survive.

The attempt to destroy the male offspring, but with the deliverance of God’s chosen one, is paralleled in Mt 2:16.  As Chester remarks: ‘Hundreds of years later, another king ordered the slaughter of innocent children. King Herod ordered every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed (Matthew 2:16-18). Again, what was at stake was the life of God’s Saviour and the future of God’s promise. Again, the king was thwarted when the baby’s adoptive father, Joseph, was warned in a dream to flee and, somewhat ironically, escaped with Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).’

Chester adds that this repeated threat to God’s people (and God’s promises to his people) is part of Satan’s age-old rebellion against God.  So it was at the beginning, Gen 3:15; 22:18.  So it was, too, when Satan tried – but failed – to divert Christ from his course and to destroy him.  And so it is today: Satan tries with all his guile and malicious power to destroy the church; but the promise holds: ‘The gates of Hades will not over come it’ (Mt 16:18).  Our confidence in God’s purposes enables us to be courageous in obeying him.

God’s ‘editorial policy’

Deffinbaugh comments on God’s “editorial policy” in this chapter.  If anyone from the modern media were reporting these events, he would, no doubt, describe in gruesome detail the afflictions of the Israelites and the cruelty of the Egyptians.  God would have us focus elsewhere, and his “editorial policy” is as significant in what it leaves out as in what it includes.  What is our “editorial policy”?  Which events, both positive and negative, in our own lives do we emphasise?  ‘Faith chooses to focus upon the purposes, the promises, and the power of God, and looks for His hand at work, preserving His people, and preparing them for the blessings which are to come.’

Reviewing this chapter

In reviewing this chapter, consider

  1. Who are the real heroes/heroines.
  2. That things sometimes seem to go from bad to worse.
  3. That God sometimes seems to ‘go missing’.  He is not even mentioned until v17.  The Israelites might well have wondered where the God of their fathers was, and what, if anything, he was doing.
  4. That the enemy is powerful and ruthless.
  5. That God’s covenant, in order to be fulfilled, will require redemption.
  6. That there is a constant conflict between good and evil, between God and his enemies.
  7. What we have been saved from: slavery and oppression.
  8. The importance of maintaining the ‘big picture’, both in reading Scripture and in everyday life.
  9. That it is only later (Ex 2:24; 3:7) that we learn that God had regarded the plight of the Israelites and heard their cry.

Watching and waiting

The chapter ends on a note of ‘watching and waiting’.  What will God do?  How will the situation resolve itself?  Often, we cannot see what lies just around the corner.  We must wait and see; watch and pray.

‘This sequence functions to assure us that God is present in Egypt and that his purpose there is certain. The question with which the first chapter of Exodus leaves us is not “If?” but “How?”‘ (Durham, WBC)