The Birth of Moses, 1-10

The story of Moses and the legend of Akkad
The story of Moses’ birth in Exodus 2 has long been compared other ancient account sharing a ‘child exposure’ motif: a child is left to die, but grows up to become a great leader.  Most frequently cited is the Legend of Sargon of Akkad, a Mesopotamian monarch who ruled from approximately 2371 to 2316 B.C.  According to the extant texts, Sargon was born of a priestess but an unknown father. He was cast adrift as a baby in a reed basket on the Euphrates River.  Found and raised by others, he later became the king of Sumer and Akkad.

Scholars disagree as to the significance of the similarities between the two stories:-

  • Hoffmeier has argued that the story of Moses’ birth in Ex 2 contains a number of words of Egyptian origin, arguing against a Mesopotamian origin.
  • Childs finds a parallel with an Akkadian text, where a nurse is paid a salary to care for a child for three years.  The child is later adopted and educated as a scribe.
  • Cole suggests that the existence of such parallels only shows that this was a favourite way of abandoning babies in the ancient world, equivalent to more modern instances of leaving the newborn outside a hospital or orphanage.
  • Enns, while conceding that the story of Moses’ birth has common features with the legend of Sargon’s birth, thinks that this does not decide conclusively against the historicity of the biblical narrative.  All biblical narrative, says Enns, has a story-like quality, and follows the literary conventions of the day: ‘when God speaks to someone, he speaks their language…it is the very nature of what we mean by “inspiration” that the divine word takes on a human form’.  (Subsequent to the publication of his very helpful commentary on Exodus, Enns has developed his ideas about ‘inspiration and incarnation’ in ways that appear to me to devalue the ‘divine’ aspect of Scripture, while over-emphasising its ‘human’ characteristics.)

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.

Key daughters

  1. Levi’s daughter and the birth of Moses, Ex 2:1-13
  2. Jochebed’s daughter and the rescue of Moses, Ex 2:4-9
  3. Pharaoh’s daughter and the nurture of Moses, Ex 2:10
  4. Jethro’s daughters and the safety of Moses, Ex 2:11-20

(after Motyer)

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.

A charming story?

Fretheim observes that the story of Moses’ birth and upbringing has delighted readers old and young.  ‘It has just the right amount of intrigue, suspense, serendipity, irony, and human compassion, plus a happy ending.’  But, adds Fretheim, we should not close our eyes to the brutality of which the account also speaks.

The role of women in this story is conspicuous

It is the women who thwart pharaoh.  We have already seen the bravery and resourcefulness of the two Hebrew midwives.  Then we meet Jochebed, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister.  Finally, there is Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘Even Pharaoh’s house is changed from destroyer to saviour’ (Motyer).  And they all act out of womanly tender-heartedness, eager to protect and nurture the vulnerable.

Fretheim says: ‘All five women so far noted are actively engaged on the side of life against a ruler who has shown himself to be capable of considerable brutality. Bucking a male-dominated system, they risk their lives for the sake of life. As a result, they not only contribute to the prospering of the children of Israel but enable this particular child, destined to become Israel’s leader, to emerge with the best possible preparation for his task.’

Ryken remarks: ‘With all these women against him, perhaps Pharaoh should have worried as much about the Hebrew girls as he worried about the Hebrew boys!’

How God prequalifies his servants

‘The Scriptures describe other prequalifications of persons called to play a role in the divine plan of redemption. Abraham’s prequalification involved his family’s willingness to settle in Canaan, which then led to the revelation of his position as the father of many nations (Gen 11:31; 12:1). Aaron, Moses’ brother, had to be a Levite and witness of God’s theophany if he were to be a priest and the leader and progenitor of all subsequent priests (Exod 4:14; 19:24; 28:1). Samson was set aside from birth as a Nazirite to become a deliverer of his people from the Philistines (Judg 13:2–25). Samuel’s prequalification came in the form of a divine call of endearment early in life (1 Sam 3:2–21). David’s early anointing (1 Sam 16:13) and precocious military skills (1 Sam 17) established his prequalification. Paul’s descendancy from Jews on both sides of his family gave his mission to the Gentiles the credibility of his impeccable Hebrew lineage. And, of course, Jesus was prequalified in every conceivable way, from his eternality (John 1:1) to his descendancy from David (Matt 1; Luke 3:23–38) to his Nazarene citizenship (Matt 2:23).’ (Stuart)


There are several echoes of the early chapters of Genesis:-

  1. The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied and filled the land, Ex 1:7, 20/Gen 1:28; 9:1.
  2. Moses’ mother saw that he was a ‘fine child’ – lit. ‘she saw that he was good’, Ex 2:2/Gen 1:31.
  3. The baby Moses is placed in an ‘ark’ (lit.) – Ex 2:3/Gen 6-9.

All of this hints that God is engaged in a work of re-creation as he blesses his people.  Pharaoh, on the other hand, follows in the line of the serpent in Gen 3 as he tries to undermine that work.

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.

God is working in the background

As Bruckner remarks, ‘this narrative does not mention God at all. God is working behind the scenes through the actions of ordinary and extraordinary people.’  We have already met this theme in ch. 1.  Now, once again, God is working in the background and against the odds.

Enns writes: ‘The Lord God is Lord over all his creation and over everyone who lives on his earth. He, in some mysterious way that rarely makes perfect sense to us, directs the steps of everyone who treads his earth and breathes his air. And he is not at all hesitant about bringing any part of that creation to bear on his dealings with his people.’

Divine irony

The story of Moses’ birth is full of irony.  ‘Moses “is spared by being cast onto the very Nile that was to drown him, is treated with maternal kindness by the daughter of the very king who had condemned him and to whose descendants he would become a nemesis, and is assigned as a responsibility with pay to the one woman in all the world who most wanted the best for him, his own mother.’ (Durham)

Fretheim notes the following ironies in the story:

  1. ‘Pharaoh’s chosen instrument of destruction (the Nile) is the means for saving Moses.
  2. As in Ex 1:15–22, the daughters are allowed to live, and it is they who now proceed to thwart Pharaoh’s plans.
  3. The mother saves Moses by following Pharaoh’s orders (with her own twist).
  4. A member of Pharaoh’s own family undermines his policies, saving the very person who would lead Israel out of Egypt and destroy the Dynasty.
  5. Egyptian royalty heeds a Hebrew girl’s advice! The princess may have been gently conned into accepting the child’s own mother as a nurse, but her pity is clearly stated.
  6. The mother gets paid to do what she most wants to do, and from Pharaoh’s own budget (anticipating Ex 3:22)!
  7. Moses is educated to be an Israelite leader, strategically placed within the very court of Pharaoh.

Fretheim asks: ‘Of what import is this ironic mode? Most fundamentally, it is revealing of a divine irony: God uses the weak, what is low and despised in the world, to shame the strong (cf. Jer. 9:23; 1 Cor. 1:26–29). Rather than using power as it is usually exercised in the world, God works through persons who have no obvious power; indeed, they are unlikely candidates for the exercise of power…But they prove highly effective against the ruthless forms of systemic power, and God is not the subject of a single verb in their various undertakings. Even more, God’s plan for the future of the children of Israel rests squarely on the shoulders of one of its helpless sons, a baby in a fragile basket. Who would have believed that the arm of the Lord could be revealed in such a   p 38  one (cf. Isa. 53:1)? God moves throughout this section in unobtrusive, unlikely, and vulnerable ways.’

The princess gives the boy a name that betrays much more than she knows (including a Hebrew etymology for an Egyptian name): what she has done for Moses, Moses will do for all the people of Israel.’

The principle irony, perhaps, is the fact that the evil that pharaoh intended actually works for good: ‘As we see often in Scripture, the Lord shows his strength by meeting his people precisely in the depths of their despair and working those very circumstances for ultimate good. Pharaoh wishes to counter God’s plan by casting infants into the Nile. God saves Moses by casting him onto the Nile and bringing him to Pharaoh’s front door. Truly the power of God is at work in this boy’s life’ (Enns).  Here, then, is another instance of the great truth expressed by Joseph to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good’ (Gen 50:20) – a truth which finds its ultimate expression in the death of Christ (Col 2:15).

The wonderful reassurance of Rom 8:28 is apposite here.  We are not taught that nothing bad will ever happen to believers, but that God will, in his own way and in his own time, work out everything for good.  See also Rom 5:2-5; James 1:2-4.  God does not merely deliver Moses from the effects of Pharaoh’s malicious decree: he works through those intentions in order to bring about a greater good: the deliverance of his suffering people.  And so it with with the death of Christ: God did not effect the world’s salvation despite the crucifixion, but through it.

A child is born

The story of Moses’ birth fits perfectly into the unfolding bigger story of God’s redemptive dealings with his chosen people.  One helpless baby, who might easily have been drowned at birth or left to die from exposure, is rescued, through God’s largely unseen providence.  More than that: a nation is born, and God’s plan of salvation for the whole world is kept on course.  Here are themes that, as Enns says, are also so in the stories of Isaac, Samson, Ruth, and Samuel, and which culminate in the manger in Bethlehem.  (On the comparison between Moses and Jesus, see Heb 3:1-6, and on Christ as the fulfilment of all these ancient patterns and promises, see 2 Cor 1:20).

So…for us

Motyer suggests that the first two chapters of Exodus teach us about faith in dark days:-

It is a trustful faith, that rests in the knowledge that in everything that happens to us there is a ‘secret, undeclared providence’ at work; cf. Rom 8:28.

It is an expectant faith, that says with Abraham, ‘the Lord will provide’, Gen 22:13.

It is a patient faith, so that even though centuries may pass, the Lord will certainly fulfil his promise, Gen 46:3, and will do so with perfect justice, Gen 15:16 and unlimited patience, 2 Pet 3:9,15 (see also Heb 6:12).

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.’

Moses points to Christ

Combining and adapting the observations of Merida and Enns, we note that

  1. Both were born to be deliverers of God’s people.
  2. Both were rescued from an evil ruler at birth (cf. Mt 2:16).
  3. Both sojourned in Egypt (cf. Mt 2:15).
  4. Both experienced ‘silent years’ before their public ministry.
  5. Both spent time in the wilderness (Moses and the Israelites, 40 years; Jesus 40 days).
  6. Both gave authoritative teaching from a mountain (cf. Mt 5-7).
  7. Both were shepherds of their flock (cf. Mt 2:6; Jn 10:11).
  8. Both were rejected by their own (cf. Acts 7:39, 51-53).

Enns concludes: ‘The Moses of Exodus 2:11–25 must precede the Moses of Exodus 14. The Christ born of lowly circumstances, who was despised and rejected by men, who died with great shame, must precede the Christ of the resurrection. We, too, must be broken before we can be built up again, for his sake.’

Heb 11:26 confirms the link between Moses and Christ.  And ‘in Exodus 2 we see Moses identifying himself with God’s people in their suffering in order to bring them salvation. Jesus Christ has done the same thing for us, entering into our situation in order to save us. In an earlier passage, Hebrews states that God has accomplished our salvation through the sufferings of Christ. Then it goes on to make the remarkable claim that because we are united to Christ in his sufferings, “Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers” (Heb. 2:11b). We are siblings of the Savior, brothers and sisters of God the Son. Moses condescended to join his brothers the Hebrews, but the supreme condescension is God joining himself to us in Christ, so that we might become members of his own family.’ (Ryken)

According to Childs, ‘Moses’ act of identification with his brothers is judged to be a model of Christian faith…He suffered abuse for Christ, he shared ill-treatment with the people of God, and he looked for his reward.  Moses decision is a pattern of Christian faith because he responded to God in his decision of obedience, and endured by faith in his promise.’

All our troubles disappear?

‘…and now I am happy all the day.’

‘Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But his smile quickly drives it away.’

Motyer remarks that hymn writers (and others) can too readily give the impression that God is in the habit of quickly banishing our worries and fears.  ‘To the contrary, however, the book of Exodus makes us face the prevailing and continuing of the darkness which is often a part of our experience, while at the same time lifting the corner of the dark curtain to tell us that there is also another story going on – that the people who walk in darkness are on their way to the great light (cf. Isa 9:2).

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)

Injustice confronted

Fretheim notes that in the three episodes narrated in this passage, the key issue is that of justice.  Moses reacts to injustice of three different types, perpetrated by individuals from three different people groups:-

Moses 2

His motives are not recorded (cf. Ex 4:10), but his actions speak louder than words: ‘Moses’ sense of justice transcends boundaries of nationality, gender, and kinship. He is not indifferent to evil by whomever it is perpetrated or whoever the victim might be. He demonstrates a concern for life, especially the life of the weaker members of the society, and an intolerance for abuse exercised by the strong. Also evident is the courage of Moses, risking his own life, a characteristic needed for action on behalf of those suffering injustice.’

Another ‘undeclared providence’

What Moses (and we) can learn from his flight to Midian is ‘that the Lord still loved and cared for him in the midst of his mistakes and failures (cf. 1 King 19:3-8).  Moses, who humanly speaking, had “messed the whole thing up”, found safety, home, and family awaiting him, made ready by a gracious but yet undeclared providence.’ (Motyer)

Moses foreshadows God’s saving actions

Fretheim suggests that the very language used in this passage shows how Moses is being prepared to think and act like God, and for God:-

  1. He ‘sees’ Israel’s oppression, v11.
  2. He ‘strikes down’ the Egyptian, v12.
  3. He confronts wrong, v13.
  4. He ‘saves’ the daughters of Jethro, v19.

‘Yet,’ adds Fretheim, ‘these actions of Moses, while anticipatory, are also inadequate. A personal sense of justice is not adequate for the mission God has in mind. Moses must have a word to speak and he cannot accomplish the salvation of Israel on his own; God will have to become directly involved.’

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.

We face the same choice as Moses

‘We face the same choice as Moses. Every Christian is in the same situation. After our conversion, the land of our birth and our upbringing becomes a foreign land to us. Now we are pilgrims heading for the promised land, the home that is kept for us in heaven.

We have to choose. Which home will set our priorities? Which home will shape our behaviour? Which home will define our standard of living? Will we choose the “pleasures of sin” and “the treasures of Egypt”? Or will we choose “to be ill-treated along with the people of God”? Will we choose “disgrace for the sake of Christ”? There is the stark choice: will you live for pleasure and treasure, or will you live in disgrace?

Moses chose the disgrace. Why? Because he “was looking ahead to his reward … By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger.”. Notice again how his faith meant he did not fear the king—just lie the Hebrew midwives.’ (Chester)

A missionary God

Our attitude towards the lost must be the same as God’s.  We too should see their plight and respond by hearing and looking with compassion, and calling to mind God’s covenant of redemption.

Merida underlines the importance of mission in both word and deed:-

  1. God’s Israel needed rescue not because of their sin, but because of Egypt’s.  Redemption addresses not only personal guilt, but also violence, injustice and oppression.
  2. The Great Command and the Great Commission encompass between them both physical and spiritual aspects.
  3. God is still the same.  If God was concerned about injustice and oppression then, he is concerned now.  See Mt 23:23.
  4. What God did for Israel he wants to do for all oppressed people.  Israel was a blessed nation in order to be a blessing to other nations.
  5. Those who participated in God’s mission (the midwives) are honoured for what they did.  They are examples for us to follow.  We need an army of people who will care for orphans, widows, the unborn, and victims of injustice.

On the other hand (adds Merida) we must not neglect the spiritual aspect of mission.  God freed Israel in order that they might serve and worship him.  He wanted them to be free not only from oppression, but also of idolatry.

But why so long?

‘Why was Moses forty years in returning to Egypt?  Because Egypt was not yet ripe for its final time of probation and the Amorites were not yet ripe for their appointed judgement.  More than that, however, Moses was not yet ripe to be a leader.’ (Motyer)

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