Exodus 1: The Oppression of the Israelites

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Exodus is a unique story that stands by itself. The beginning, however, is closely connected to Genesis. That book ends with a story about the death of Joseph. In 50:24, when he is about to die, Joseph says, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He says this twice. Joseph doesn’t intend their stay in Egypt to be permanent. He intends it to be a temporary sojourn, so he instructs them, “When you go, take my bones along with you.” Now we might not think that 400 years is very temporary, but clearly, it is never intended to be their permanent residence.

Additionally, in Genesis 15:13-14, in a discussion with Abraham, God predicts the bondage and the outcome. In other words, that passage in Genesis prepares readers for the events to come. So even before the book of Exodus starts, readers already have been told that the Israelites will be in bondage and that they are going to leave Egypt. And Joseph says, "When you leave, take my bones along. I don't want to be left behind."

Exodus 1, then, begins with a listing of the sons of Jacob who traveled to Egypt. There are seventy in all. Continuing, after “Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation” have died, the text reads: “the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.” Essentially, this is an affirmation that God’s promises are indeed being fulfilled!

In Genesis, God has repeatedly bestowed his blessings upon mankind, the patriarchs, and their descendants. In Genesis 1:28, God blessed humankind. In 9:1,7, He blesses Noah and his sons. He blesses Abraham and his descendants multiple times. And what is the nature of those blessings? Be fruitful and multiply. God essentially promises two things. He promises Abraham that he will become a great nation, and He promises him land. In other words, things are turning out just as God has intended. The Israelites are fruitful, and they have multiplied. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

But isn't it just like the world to get really upset when things are in alignment with God? After 400 years, “a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.” The identity of this unnamed king has frustrated scholars forever. Many attempts have been made to identify him/her, but the narrator probably leaves him/her nameless as a representative of all oppressors.

Nonetheless, this Pharaoh looks around and sees the many Israelites. He says that “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” Scholars believe that he makes this announcement to his people.

Now this is an important point. The Israelites have been living in Egypt for 400 years, and Pharaoh is still making a big distinction between the native Egyptians and the Israelites. He is still looking at the situation in terms of “them” and “us.” There is no show of unity in this storyline. And precisely what is he concerned about? He is afraid that there is going to be a war; he’s afraid that all these Israelites are going to join the enemy; and in the end, he is afraid that Egypt will be defeated. He’s also afraid that they might leave the land.

Because scholars cannot pinpoint the dating of these events, they cannot be certain which “enemies” might have been threatening Egypt. However, many nations were known to have been migrating throughout the ancient world, and there is no shortage of contenders. Another major concern is that the Israelites will leave. Such a move would have been highly detrimental to the myriad building projects underway during this period. The Pharaoh’s concerns are probably legitimate.

It is important to note, however, that the Israelites are doing nothing wrong. They haven’t aroused his ire; they haven’t been acting suspiciously. Everything hinges on a hypothetical situation. Maybe they will rise up; maybe they will join their enemies; maybe they will leave. All these worldly concerns put Pharaoh on the path of opposing God’s promises. In Genesis 18:18, God states that Abraham will become “a great and powerful nation.” Without knowing why, Pharaoh feels the Israelites pose a threat to him and the country. Eventually, he comes up with what turns out to be a three-point plan. In so doing, he is now placing himself over against God’s plan.

The first thing he says is that there are too many Israelites, and he intends to “deal shrewdly” with them. His solution is to start working them to death. So he conscripts them and makes them all do forced labor.

Exodus 1:13 and 14 are translated, The Egyptians “worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.” Readers don't hear it in English, but within these two verses, the Hebrew root for “serve” is used five times. The stress is clearly on Israel’s forced servitude. These people are meant to serve. And they are serving the Egyptians. Pharaoh has wrongly assumed that these people belong to him, that he can claim them as his own. Such a claim, of course, stands over against the creation narratives and God’s blessings. It does, however, serve to highlight the growing tension and conflict between God’s plan and Pharaoh’s.

Yet, it is not exactly clear how he thinks this plan is going to work. Why would increasing their labor decrease the population? Some have speculated that by increasing the quotas, the men would not be able to return home at night but would have to stay on the job. Or maybe he just hopes to demoralize them. Whatever his motives, Pharaoh’s enslavement policy fails miserably. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”

When his first plan proves to be a total failure, Pharaoh moves into phase two -- an attempt at genocide. Obviously at this point, he needs some collaborators, someone who can carry out his plan. He calls two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and he says to them: “Now when you are delivering these Hebrew babies, ‘If it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’” Once again, one wonders about this Pharaoh. He wants to act “shrewdly,” but if he’s trying to decrease the population, isn’t he choosing to kill the wrong sex? Killing boy babies isn’t going to do much to bring down the population, especially since one man can have several wives. After all, it is the females who actually bear new life. So what is the point?

On the other hand, perhaps he is “dealing shrewdly” with these people. He intends to demoralize them. Boys are valued very highly in that society. It is considered a sign of God’s favor to have sons. If there are no sons, there would be no sign of God’s favor. So even though Pharaoh would be the last person to acknowledge their God, he is deliberately placing himself over against God. He is trying to impugn Him, to get at the people by making God seem impotent. This is a prime way to demoralize them.

But let’s look closely at this story. There are some interesting facets worth noticing. One is that the midwives are both named. Remember that in the Old Testament the naming of people is very important. It matters who has a name and who doesn’t. In this story, Pharaoh is not named. He is never named; he is always “Pharaoh.” Scholars still don’t agree over which particular Pharaoh this might have been. If they knew, scholarship would be a lot less complicated. But in the entire book of Exodus, Pharaoh is always Pharaoh. The midwives, on the other hand, have names. This is an extraordinary reversal of things. Pharaoh with all of his trappings, his power, his wealth, and his prestige is anonymous. The midwives, who are women, are involved in the service of life without status or any of the trappings of prestige. They are the ones who are named!

Now some texts identify them as Hebrew midwives. However, the text could also be translated as “midwives of the Hebrews,” and many scholars think that makes more sense. These women are probably Egyptian midwives. It would make no sense to call on Hebrew midwives and direct them to start killing off their own people. It does make more sense to assume these are Egyptian midwives. But if that is the case, the story becomes even more interesting. These women would have been subject to Pharaoh, and he surely expects them to obey him. Do they? No! The text says that they “feared God”: “They feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”

There is a standard of behavior that they are realizing, that they are responding to. Regardless of their nationality, they are God’s partners in creation. They have a reverence for life and devote themselves towards helping create life. It doesn’t say anything about them being sympathetic towards the Hebrews; nor does it say they set out to defy Pharaoh. It says they “feared God.” When faced with a conflict between a depraved sovereign request and God’s higher moral law, they choose morality and place themselves over against Pharaoh. It is the first biblical account of civil disobedience. It’s no wonder these women are named for all eternity.

Well, it doesn’t take long for Pharaoh to notice that things are amiss again. He summons those midwives and asks, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” And the midwives answer Pharaoh: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” These Hebrew women are healthy, and their babies are healthy. Most of the time the babies are born before they even get there. They can’t just enter and kill perfectly healthy little babies. Delivering them is just not like being with Egyptian women. “And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”

Thinking he is still in charge, Pharaoh says, “All right, that’s it.” And he makes a decree throughout all of Egypt: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” Now, is there an uprising among the people? No, there isn’t a single word that suggests this is in any way upsetting to anyone. Do you think they followed through on it? Considering the story that follows, one might rightly assume that this is, in fact, a major concern. Additionally, however, there is a tremendous irony in this decree, because the Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt. Now it is positioned as the point of death for all these Hebrew babies. So far, all of this has been on the community level. The next chapter brings it into focus for one particular family.