The Birth of Moses, 1-10
1 Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
The fulfilment of God’s promises of a people and a place of rest has, in chapter 1, seemed far away. True, thee were signs that God was working in the background, but providentially, not redemptively. Now all that will start to change, even though events will still move very slowly. A baby is born, and, in God’s good time, he will be prepared as deliverer of God’s people.
A man of the house of Levi – We will later learn that the husband’s name was Amram – great grandson of Levi – and the wife was Jochebed (cf. Ex 6:2; Num 26:59). But, for the time being, the narrator is more concerned with lineage than with names: the tribe of Levi would later be constituted as a priestly tribe, and Moses would play a key priestly role as God’s law-giver.
Prior to the birth of Moses, and no doubt some time before the Pharoah’s edict, Miriam and Aaron had been born. Because MIriam is referred to as the sister of Aaron (e.g. Ex 15:20), and never as the sister of Moses, it is possible that they were Amram’s children by a different wife.
- Levi’s daughter and the birth of Moses, Ex 2:1-13
- Jochebed’s daughter and the rescue of Moses, Ex 2:4-9
- Pharaoh’s daughter and the nurture of Moses, Ex 2:10
- Jethro’s daughters and the safety of Moses, Ex 2:11-20
She saw that he was a fine child – Some commentators show a lack of insight into parental instincts when they wonder why his mother would choose to save Moses simply because he was good looking. For any normal, loving mother to look at her baby and think, “He’s a fine child!” would suggest feelings far deeper than that, and Jochebed was evidently no exception. An alternative (or complementary) explanation is to see this description of the baby as not so much representing the mother’s feelings, but rather the narrator’s echoing of Gen 1, with its refrain that God created everything ‘very good’. This would be consistent with the fact that the narrative, even more plainly, harks back to the flood story. Then again, ‘Moses’ safe passage through the waters of the Nile not only looks backward to the Flood story, but forward to the passage through the sea in Exodus 14 for all of God’s people.’ (Enns)
A papyrus basket…coated…with tar and pitch – It was, in effect, a miniature boat (cf. Isa 18:2). In fact, Stuart and others think that the word would be better translated ‘ark’, and that early reader would have readily spotted the link with Noah’s ark.
She…put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile – Well, Jochebed had indeed thrown her son into the Nile, as ordered, but in a waterproof basket. Bruckner points out a further irony, in that word for the little ark sounds like the Egyptian word of ‘coffin’.
‘His mother very cleverly decided to hide her son in the one place no Egyptian would bother to look: in the river Nile itself, exactly where Hebrew boy-babies were supposed to be cast.’ (Durham)
Did she put her baby here in order to let him die from exposure, or in order that he might, somehow, be saved? The many echoes in the narrative of Noah’s ark, together with Miriam’s watchfulness, suggest the latter.
His sister – Miriam (we assume it is her, although she is not named until Ex 15:20) would probably have been 10 to 12 years old – old enough to have a responsible conversation with pharaoh’s daughter, but not so old that her presence on the riverside would prompt questions about why she was not at work like the other women.
Ex 2:5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
Pharaoh’s daughter – According to Stuart (NAC), Pharaoh may have had dozens of daughters, given the frequent exchange of wives between kings anxious to form treaties that were protected by family ties. Accordingly, the identification of this daughter as Hatshepsut – who became wife to Pharaoh Thutmose II and then, after his death, taking on the role of ruler herself until, after 20 years, her son Thutmose III finally succeeded her – is conjectural.
Down to the Nile to bathe – This was perhaps associated with some religious ceremony: those parts of the Nile which ran close to the temples were regarded as particularly sacred. The water would have been fenced off as a protection from crocodiles.
‘That the princess would choose to bathe in the Nile as opposed to a bathtub reflects the esteem of the pantheistic Egyptians for the sacredness of that river, an issue only hinted at here but of great importance to the later aspects of the story (chaps. 4; 7).’ (Stuart)
She opened it and saw the baby – Bruckner suggests that the NIV misses the drama of this discovery; a possible translation might be: “She opened it and saw him. The little boy! Oh look, the boy is crying! And she was moved to compassion. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’ she said.”
Stuart says that ‘baby’ should be translated ‘boy’ in v6. She knew he was one of the Hebrew boys from ‘the general physical differences between Hebrews and Egyptians, the type of baby clothes used, the fact that her discovery occurred in an Israelite settlement area, and the general situation (the need to hide Israelite baby boys but not Egyptian baby boys).’
‘No tale of romance ever described a plot more skilfully laid or more full of interest in the development. The expedient of the ark, the slime and pitch, the choice of the time and place, the appeal to the sensibilities of the female breast, the stationing of the sister as a watch of the proceedings, her timely suggestion of a nurse, and the engagement of the mother herself — all bespeak a more than ordinary measure of ingenuity as well as intense solicitude on the part of the parents.’ Still, as these commentators (JFB) add, we must not miss the overuling providence of God in all these details.
‘To be found and then cared for by one so highly placed could result at least in protection from the progrom against the Hebrews and guarantee at least a fine opportunity for survival.’ (Stuart)
Ex 2:7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” 8 “Yes, go,” she answered. And the girl went and got the baby’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
His sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter – Miriam would have been well able to converse in Egyptian, given the Israelites’ long sojourn in Egypt.
“Yes, go” is, in fact, a one-word command (“Go”) and the turning point in the story.
“Take this baby” – She does not say, “Come with me”, because, as Stuart remarks, it would have been unthinkable for a Hebrew wet nurse to live in the royal residence.
“I will pay you” – There is a pleasing irony in a woman being paid to nurse her own baby! But, as Cole says, there is a deeper purpose at work here, for Moses would have the opportunity, in these formative years, of learning of the ‘God of the fathers’ (Ex 3:15): ‘Without this ancestral background, God’s later revelation to Moses would have been rootless, and the Sinaitic Covenant could not have been seen as a sequel to, and consequence of, the Abrahamic Covenant (Exod. 3:6).’
When the child became older – Weaning would take place at the age of 3 or 4.
He became her son – There is extra-biblical evidence of foreign children being raised and education in the Egyptian court (DOT:P, art. ‘Moses’). Stuart suggests that Moses must have continued to have some kind of contact with his own family, given the assumption in chapter 4 that Aaron and Moses knew one another all along.
We do not know what eventually became of Pharaoh’s decree to have all the Hebrew baby boys killed. Perhaps it was moderated from an attempt at genocide to ‘merely’ an attempt to terrorise and subjugate the Hebrew populace.
She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water” – The name ‘Moses’ appears to be Egyptian (it being unlikely that the princess would know any Hebrew); yet the explanation for the name seems based on Hebrew (mašah = ‘to draw’). Enns thinks that the narrator, or the tradition he is drawing on, made a connection between the two. At any rate, the fact that ‘Moses’ is an Egyptian name counts for the historicity of the account at this point.
There is no indication in the account itself of the significance that Moses would attain; but early (and later) readers would have been well aware of it. They would, perhaps, see a double significance in Moses’ name: he was ‘drawn’ out of the water, and he would ‘draw’ his people out of Egypt.
Moses Flees to Midian, 11-25
11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”
After Moses had grown up – According to Acts 7:23 this was 40 years later. A further 40 years would elapse before God would make a further move the deliver his people. In fact, the incident next recorded may have been enough to discourage him from stepping in to protect the Hebrews for years to come.
According to Acts 7:22, Moses was, during this period of ‘growing up’, ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’, and there is no reason to doubt this. The Code of Hammurabi was well known in the Egypt of that time, and its study may well have been included in Moses education.
In the meantime a whole generation had come and gone, and still God seemed to do nothing.
He went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour – There are clear signs that Moses is beginning to identify with his own people in their plight (cf. Heb 11:23-26). When the text says that he ‘watched them’, this is the same expression that is used of God, Ex 2:25; 3:7, 9; 4:31; 5:19 looking upon their oppression.
Still, as Motyer remarks, this is clearly ‘a story of failure and of a chronic loss of self-belief’.
Glancing this way and that and seeing no one – Bruckner says that this is often misunderstood, as if Moses is guilty of premeditated murder. The Hebrew (says Bruckner) clearly means the following:-
‘He saw an Egyptian striking down (nakah) a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He looked this way and that and saw that there was no one to intervene, so he struck down (nakah) the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.’
Bruckner notes that the man striking down the Hebrew is identified as ‘an Egyptian’, probably not a taskmaster. If so, he had no authority to strike the Hebrew man. Furthermore, Moses responded with the same kind of blow that the Egyptian had used; a blow that might or might not be fatal. Finally, the expression that ‘there was no one to intervene’ is precisely the same as is used in Isa 59:15f, suggesting that what he was looking for was someone who could deal with the injustice of the situation. But he saw no-one, and so took the law into his own hands. Bruckner concludes: ‘No moral law allows for the killing of a man who simply beats or strikes another. Our narrative in its context leaves open the possibility that Moses did not intend to kill, but that he was guilty of unintentional manslaughter in his zealousness for justice in a violent land.’
He killed the Egyptian – Fretheim thinks that Moses may be regarded as anticipating God’s own actions in ‘striking down’ the Egyptians (Ex 12:12, 13, 29; 9:15; cf. 3:20; 7:17, 25). Enns argues similarly, adding that in committing this act, Moses effectively severed his ties with the Egyptian aristocracy.
Although Exodus is silent about Moses’ motivation, Stephen (Acts 7:25) says that “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them.”
Calvin maintained that Moses “was armed by God’s command, and, conscious of his legitimate vocation, rightly, and judiciously assumed that character which God had assigned to him.” Stephen hints at the same interpretation: “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian” (Acts 7:23f).
Motyer, too, sees genuine concern on the part of Moses: ‘This is all evidence of Moses’ good character, inherited perhaps from a biological mother who could not bear to consign her son to the river and an adoptive mother whose heart was melted by a baby’s tears.’
If Moses is to be blamed, it is not for his sense of justice (cf. Ex 21:12), but for his impetuosity. He is by no means ready to lead his people. He still has much to learn. His imperfection contrasts with Jesus’ perfection as a Redeemer.
He saw two Hebrews fighting – The text implies that Moses was surprised to see two of his kinsmen fighting. But, as Ryken observes, ‘Treat a man with violence long enough and he will become a violent man. After living in a violent culture for so long, the Hebrew community was being torn apart by violence.’
Matthew Henry notes that in killing the Egyptian Moses anticipates the plagues, and in attempting to deal with the controversy between the two Israelites he anticipates his own role in governing Israel. On the latter incident, the same commentator remarks wryly: ‘When God raises up instruments of salvation for the church they will find enough to do, not only with oppressing Egyptians, to restrain them, but with quarrelsome Israelites, to reconcile them.’
Ex 2:14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”
As Motyer says, ‘Moses found himself in the dilemma that al through history has beset the would-be liberator: as soon as he tries to free people by force, he begins to antagonize those whom he wants to helps. They very rightly and logically round on him and says, “We have seen enough of killing, why should we trust another killer? We have too many people with swords in their hands. We do another one.’
Ex 2:15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. 16 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
Pharaoh…tried to kill Moses – not, perhaps, in order to avenge for the killing of the Egyptian, but for siding with ‘the enemy’, the Hebrews.
Moses…went to live in Midian – The Midianites were names after the fourth son of Abraham’s second wife, Keturah, Gen 25:2). It is possible that they retained a memory of Abraham’s faith, and that this was passed on the Moses during his long sojourn in Midian.
Moses’ flight to Midian is historically plausible. The Egyptian Story of Sinuhe, tells of a man who, like Moses, ‘fled from Egypt for political reasons, lived as a tent-dweller amongst the bedouin in Canaan, married the daughter of a local chieftain and returned to Egypt later in life.’ (DOT:P, art. ‘Moses’)
Moses…came to their rescue – This time, without violence, it would seem. Moses is beginning to learn.
[He] watered their flock – The girls’ surprise at this is registered in v19.
Ex 2:18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”
According to Ex 3:1, Moses’ father-in-law was named Jethro. It is possible that ‘Jethro’ was his official priestly title, since the word means ‘his excellency’.
Ex 2:19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
“An Egyptian rescued us” – Presumably, Moses was identified as an Egyptian because of the clothes he was wearing.
Ex 2:20 “And where is he?” he asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become an alien in a foreign land.”
According to Num 12:1, Moses married a Cushite woman. But see Hab 3:7, where Midian and Cush are treated as parallels.
Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become an alien in a foreign land” – ‘The Moses who burst with such triumphalism on to the scene of oppression as would-be deliver is now a self-exiled resident alien.’ (Motyer)
Ex 2:23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
‘Meanwhile, back in Egypt…’
Their cry…went up to God – At last, God is brought into the heart of the story (Fretheim). The cry of the Israelites is, in effect, a prayer that reaches the ear of God and touches his heart.
God heard their groaning – ‘Heard’, that is, in the sense of taking heed of it.
God…remembered his covenant with Abraham… – Not, of course, that he had suffered a lapse of memory. He called it to mind. Here is another link between Genesis and Exodus. They are two chapters in God’s ongoing story.
God looked on the Israelites – Not that he had been averting his gaze until now. He looks with compassion.
God ‘heard their groaning’, ‘remembered his covenant’, looked on the Israelites’ and was ‘concerned about them’. Everything is ‘gearing up’ for action, even though there is, as yet, no change in the material circumstances of either the Israelites or Moses. But we are able to see what, at the time, they were not able to see, ‘that when prayer was made, the prayer was heard; the grim realities of the situation were registered, and God entered into fellowship with his people in their need and came down to deliver them’ (Motyer)
‘Even before the vision of the burning bush, the narrator sets the deliverance from Egypt squarely in the context of the patriarchal promise. To Israel of old, the whole course of the history of salvation could be summed up as being ‘promise and fulfillment’: God promises, God remembers, God acts in salvation.’ (Cole)
In this chapter, we see Moses identifying with his people by seeking to defend them. But has a strong sense of justice. What he lacks, however, is the maturity required to lead God’s people. He gains this maturity during the lengthy period spent away from Egypt. He very occupation as a shepherd helped seal his sense of identity and calling (shepherds were detested amongst the Egyptians, Gen 46:34). He now rescues without violence, and surprises the Midianite women because, as a man, he serves them, Ex 2:19. (Chester)
As Chester remarks, the best commentary on this story is Heb 11:24-27.