Exodus 1: Forgotten gratitude and misinterpretation

Welcome to Exodus!

Exodus begins with a bit of a puzzle. Things that I was “taught” or have kinda picked up along the way about the beginning of Exodus:

  • the Israelites were enslaved 400 years by the Egyptians
  • Pharaoh ordered the troops to go out and grab all the Israeli boys below two years old and kill them.
  • Moses’ mother sent him away in a basket to try to save him
  • Pharaoh’s daughter picked him up from the basket and decided to keep him.

As I read this first chapter, I found that these weren’t exactly true or untrue. As is often true of real life, there is much more to the story. So far, the most disappointing thing about this project has been to realize just how watered down these stories are for public consumption. I also completely understand where I got these impressions. They came from children’s stories.

Back in Genesis 15, God told Abraham his descendents would “be strangers sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” This is a pretty straightforward sentence. The unfortunate thing is that when we get to Exodus, this is either not true or misinterpretted. I went for misinterpretted and dug in a little more. I found several articles and posts from other blogs that attempt to explain this discrepancy. This is the one that made the most sense to me. It has several things going for it.

The first thing that I thought was great about it was that it makes the misinterpretation obvious by adding some extra punctuation that the Bible doesn’t use. Here is the version of that old prophecy from the website:

You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.

Punctuation matters a great deal here because it changes this from 400 years of enslavement to 400 years of being sojourners with enslavement thrown in. This made the most sense with the text itself because these troubles in Exodus begin with:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph

And it’s this pharaoh that stays the course through to Moses’s birth and he surely did not live for 400 years. There’s also dispute over the timeline and when these 400 years begin, even if we are talking about 400 years in a land not their own rather than in slavery. My study Bible has the timeline beginning with Israel going to Egypt in 1876 and crossing the Red Sea in 1446. This is 430 years on it’s own. The same website that showed that the misinterpretation could be a matter of punctuation said that the 400 years begin with Isaac leaving the land he was born in and that was promised to Abraham and ends with the crossing of the Red Sea. Either way you slice it, these are not 400 years of enslavement. The other things that this site has going for it is that it is a Jewish website that covers all kinds of things about their traditions, rituals and faith. I would hate to be accused of going against Jewish teachings about their own heritage, so I feel like I went to a good source. If anyone finds this is not a good source and has a better suggestions, please leave it in the comments.

Having established that the Israelites were not in their land for 400 hundred years and enslaved for some time of that, we can move on to the murder of babies. This is also a bit more complicated than we tend to give it credit for. I have always accepted the notion that Pharaoh was worried about a particular Israeli boy, probably because I too closely associated the story of the coming of Moses with the coming of the story of Jesus. Pharaoh was not concerned with a coming Hebrew boy. He was concerned with a coming war.

If the Hebrews, who lived close by in Egyptian lands and were great in number, decided to rise up against Egypt, Egypt would be unable to stop them. Worse, if the Israelites joined with neighboring forces in an effort against Egypt, Egypt wouldn’t stand a chance. Rather than attempt some sort of peaceful resolution to this issue, Pharaoh went straight to killing babies. Baby boys, to be specific, because they were the only ones that he was concerned with becoming warriors.

Since harsh slavery didn’t work, and making slavery even worse didnt work, he stopped by the midwives. It wasn’t clear if the midwives were Israelites or if they were just the midwives to the Israelites but were Egyptian, they were just referred to as “Hebrew midwives”. It also seems a little crazy that people who are so fruitful that it worries Pharaoh would have only two people who specialize in bringing babies. Nevertheless, he goes to these two women and tells them to kill the male babies.

A part of me wants to just find it obvious that they didn’t obey, but that’s not the way to do this. These are people who he has asked to not fulfill the primary purpose of their job for his benefit without there being any kind of benefit to them, not even his good graces. How exactly were they supposed to leave a house where they just killed the boy that was born to it? Were they supposed to pretend that all those boys were stillborn? I think they knew it would be suspicious even if they did want to do it. We’re also given that the reason they don’t do it is that they fear God more than Pharaoh. It makes sense that any believer would.

Their response to his subsequent questioning seems reasonable, though I did find it funny how readily Wesley accepted it in his  commentary. Labor is hard and it sucks and this is a time before an epidural. Sure, it’s possible for babies to be born to “vigorous” women before the midwife gets there, but for it to suddenly be happening so consistently that the male children are surviving is a little laughable.

I do resent the implication given in the text that it was the midwives’ fear of God that made Him give them families. There are plenty with a fear that don’t have families and plenty who don’t care at all with families.

So now that he knows the midwives won’t do as he asked, he goes on to “command all his people”:

Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.

Again, Pharaoh is primarily worried about the Hebrews rising against him and males were traditionally the warriors. I can’t imagine how he thought this was going to work out. Were random citizens supposed to just pluck these children from their parents and throw them into the river? Were they supposed to look for them? Who knows?

Well, I started the post with four things about the beginning of Exodus that appeared simple but were more complicated and have talked about three of those things. The other o will come in the next post as we introduce Moses.

So there are my feelings and impressions on the first chapter of Exodus. Have you read it? What do you think?


Chapter links go to the ESV translations at Biblehub.com but I’m reading from the ESV Global Study Bible, which is available for free on the Kindle Reading App.


Note: Wikipedia also made an interesting note that no Jews were in Egypt at this time. They point out that they were Israelites or Hebrews at this time and that the Jews were not in existence until the kingdom of Judah sometime later.

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