Commentary on Exodus 1-2

Last updated: April 19, 2010

English Translation (ESV)

1:1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. 4 And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. 5 Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

11 One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.

16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. 18 When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” 21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. 22 She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.


Notes

1:1-4 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

Genesis 46:8-27 provides a longer list of the descendants of Jacob/Israel who traveled to Egypt. The order of the names here resembles the order given in Genesis 35:23-26.

5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt.

Seventy persons came to Egypt with Jacob but tens of thousands of Israelites would leave Egypt. This reminds the reader that God faithfully fulfilled his promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 26:3-4).

7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

The “land” in question does not refer to all of Egypt but to the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived.

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

The new pharaoh did not know of Joseph’s salvation of Egypt and did not acknowledge the benefits bestowed on Joseph and his family.1

9-10 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”

It was preposterous for Pharaoh to claim that Israel was too mighty for Egypt. “Pharaoh’s paranoia is ludicrous, yet sinister. Demagogues often credit weak minorities with vast powers. Elsewhere, the Bible depicts the Egyptian ruling class as obsessively xenophobic (Gen 42:9, 12; 43:32; 46:34). Egyptian sources attest to their tight control on immigration and emigration.”2 It will be God, not the Israelites, who will ultimately make war against Egypt.

The final words in the pharaoh’s speech appear to comprise a relatively rare Hebrew idiom that may not mean what it has seemed to mean to most translators. The NIV translation “and leave the country” renders contextually what the more traditional English translations have rendered as “and go up from the land” or “and escape from the land,” or the like. But this specific combination of Hebrew words has a semantic value different from what either a literal or typical dynamic equivalence reading might seem to suggest (i.e., simply “go up from the land” or some similar wording of the same concept of “leaving”). The idiom to which we refer appears in the following three texts, each of which has to do either with water rising or people rising up over land, that is, overcoming, overwhelming, or dominating it:

Gen 2:6: But a flow of water would come over the earth, and water the whole surface of the earth.

Exod 1:10: Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and take possession of the land. [author translation]

Hos 1:11: The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. [NRSV, italics mine]

The NRSV correctly recognizes the idiom’s meaning in Hos 1:11 (“take possession of the land”), but none of the best-known translations recognize the idiom here in Exod 1:10, where we believe it should also be translated “take possession of the land.” The idiom is implicitly discernible in Gen 2:6 even in the unsatisfactory traditional translations because what is depicted in that verse is a flow of water that covers the land and thus waters it – it “rises over” or “comes over” or “overwhelms” or “overflows” or “takes possession of” the land – the sort of thing the pharaoh was suggesting in Exod 1:10 that the Israelites might do in Egypt.

With the proper translation of Exod 1:10, the pharaoh’s speech makes sense; without it, it does not. What sort of threat would it be to the Egyptians if the Israelites were to “leave the country” during a war waged by foreigners against Egypt? Indeed, an Israelite departure during war might well be the best possible development from an Egyptian point of view since it would eliminate the enemy threat in their midst. But if the pharaoh is warning about actually being overtaken/overwhelmed/dispossessed from within by the foreign element already resident in Egypt, his speech would have the sort of impact on the collective consciousness that would help justify a full-scale campaign of oppression against a people previously accepted and treated decently.3

11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.

The MT implicates all of Egypt in the slavery of Israel.4 The text does not explicitly state why Pharaoh believed slavery would decrease the population of Israel but there are a number of possibilities: (1) the slaves would be taken away from their families for extended periods of time and therefore have less time to both conceive and nurture children; (2) the slaves would have less time to devote to farming and therefore some Israelites might starve to death; and (3) some slaves would die of the complications of malnourishment, maltreatment, and overwork.5

15-16 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”

Until as late as the sixteenth century of this era, midwifery was everywhere an exclusively female occupation. It was regarded as a violation of the code of modesty for a male, even a doctor, to be present at a birth. Midwifery was thus one of the few occupations open to women; and it seems to have been a prestigious profession in ancient Egypt.

It is strange that there were only two midwives to service such a large population. Ibn Ezra suggests that these two were the overseers of the practitioners, directly responsible to the authorities for the many women under them. It is also possible that the two names may be those of guilds of midwives.

The Hebrew phrase ha-meyalledot ha-ivriyot can mean either “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews”; the latter is how it is understood by the Septuagint and by Josephus as well as by Abravanel. Judah he-Hasid cites a tradition that they were Egyptians. However, the two names are Semitic.6

17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.

The Hebrew literally says that the midwives feared the God.7

19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

The midwives play on Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrews reproducing by accentuating the difference between Hebrew women and Egyptian women.

The response of the midwives is so clever as to have convinced not only Pharaoh, but a number of modern commentators who accept its veracity on face value. Others see in the answer a sagacious half-truth since, had the Hebrews not used midwives, one wonders why there would have been such an office at all. Actually, the true reason for the failure of Pharaoh’s plan has already been given in v. 17, namely, their fear of God. The clever response serves to highlight the stupidity of the king who would “act wisely.” Once again, the frail resources of two women have succeeded in outdoing the crass power of the tyrant.8

22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”

At this point, all Egyptians were expected to join in the killing of Israelite boys. “There is subtle irony in his decree, for the chosen instrument of destruction – water – will in the end become the agency of Egypt’s punishment.”9

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman.

According to Numbers 26:59, Amram and Jochebad were the father and mother of Moses and Miriam (v 4) was his sister. After the exodus, God designated the Levites as the tribe that would provide the religious and spiritual leadership for the nation of Israel. This verse makes it clear that Moses had the necessary qualifications for his future role.

3 When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank.

The Hebrew word translated “basket” (tebah) is the same word used to denote the ark Noah used to escape the flood. Just as Noah’s ark was a means to salvation so Moses’ basket will be a means to salvation. The “reeds” point to the future when Moses will lead the Israelites through the Reed (Red) Sea.10

5 Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it.

An Egyptian princess would not bathe publicly in the mighty, crocodile-infested river itself. One of its innumerable rivulets, where privacy and safety could be enjoyed, is certainly intended. This suggests that the mother deliberately selected the spot after observing the character and habits of this particular princess.11

9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.

This fateful development is spiced with irony. The evil designs of the pharaoh are unwittingly thwarted by his own daughter. Not only does she save the future redeemer of the Israelites persecuted by her father but she actually pays the mother of the “foundling” to suckle her own baby.

The arrangements she makes follow a pattern found in Mesopotamian legal documents relating to the adoption of foundlings. These “wet nurse contracts” specify payment for the services of nursing and rearing the infant for a specified period; they stipulate that, following weaning, the child is returned to the finder, who adopts it.

That the princess can personally execute such a contract accords with the relatively high social and legal position of women in ancient Egypt. She possessed rights of inheritance and disposal of property, and she enjoyed a fair measure of economic independence.12

10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Two etymologies are provided for the name Moses (moseh). The first underscores the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter through the wordplay between “son” in Hebrew (ben) and in Egyptian (mose). The name Moses is Egyptian. The Egyptian verb msy means “to be born,” and the noun ms means “a son.” The word is used in the names of the pharaohs, such as Thutmose. Thut or Thoth is the name of the Egyptian moon god, represented as an ibis or baboon, and associated with wisdom, writing, and wise government. The name Thutmose means “son of Thut.” The wordplay between Egyptian ms and the name “Moses” is likely intended to function in a similar manner as in the name Thutmose: in the story of Moses moseh now conveys adoption. Exodus 2:10b could be rephrased: “He became her son (ben). And she named him ‘Son’ (moseh).” But when the name Moses is compared to the name Thutmose, it becomes clear that the divine component is missing in the former, as D. N. Freedman notes: “In the case of Moses, his name is typically hypcoristic, meaning that the divine component has been left out, but it is understood. The same is true of many biblical names, including the patriarchs, Isaac, Jacob, and the latter’s son, Joseph. Only the verbal component of the name is given, but the divine name – usually El in these early times – is understood, and occasionally (in other names) given. In the case of Moses, we may speculate that his full name included the name of one of the Egyptian gods.”

A second interpretation emphasizes Moses’ salvation from the river. The daughter of Pharaoh states: “I drew him (masa) out of the water.” The etymology frees the name Moses of its Egyptian origin, locating it instead in the Hebrew verb “to draw out.” According to this interpretation “Moses” means “drawer from water.” A passive form of the verb would better conform to the details of Moses’ birth (i.e., “one drawn from the water”), but the active meaning may be pointing ahead to Moses’ role at the well in Midian or to his leading Israel through the water.13

11 One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.

The Hebrew word behind “beating” (naka) refers to a violent strike that often results in death. In fact, the same term is used in the next verse when Moses kills the Egyptian.14

13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?”

The Hebrew verb nasa does not necessarily indicate a fight to the death. But three features of Moses’ response suggest that the conflict results in murder. First, Moses addresses the Hebrew man as “the one in the wrong.” Childs concludes that the Hebrew is technical legal language indicating guilt. Second, the question of Moses, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” employs the same Hebrew verb (naka) used to describe the Egyptian’s assault on the Hebrew slave (v. 11) and Moses’ attack on the Egyptian (v. 12). All of these actions likely describe deadly blows. The alternative is that the same verb has different meaning in three consecutive verses. Third, the combination of the verbs “to struggle” (nasa) and “to strike” (naka) indicate murder in the tale of the wise woman of Tekoa, who recounts to King David the struggle (nasa) or her two sons where one is struck (naka) by the other in the field, an act of murder (2 Sam 14:6).15

15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.

Midian is both a place and a people. According to Genesis 25:1-6 the Midianites were descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah. In Genesis 37:25-36 they appear as traders traveling from Gilead to Egypt. The exact location of Midian is not known but this verse implies that it was located outside the land of Egypt.

18 When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?”

The question implies that the girls were regularly mistreated at the well.

22 She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

Some intimately personal significance likely attaches to the name, for its stem g-r-sh, “to drive off/out,” is the same used to describe the action of the shepherds in verse 17, which was the occasion for Moses to meet his future wife and to be received by Jethro’s family. But Gershom also carries a wider, national allusiveness, for later in the narrative the stem is used three more times, to underscore the abject humiliation of the stubborn pharaoh as he is forced to reverse his refusal to let Israel go. The folk etymology inteerprets the name as a composite of ger sham, “a stranger there” and is taken to signify being “a stranger in a foreign land”; this echoes God’s covenant with Abraham, which foretold: “Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs.” The “land” is Egypt, not Midian, and Moses speaks of “there” not “here,” as well as referring to the past. The fulfillment of the predicted slavery evokes the associated promise of liberation, so that the birth of the child may be seen as symbolic of the coming regeneration of downtrodden Israel.16

23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.

Pharaoh’s death allowed Moses to return to Egypt without being a criminal fugitive.17

24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.

In covenantal language the term “remember” (zakar) should not be misunderstood to suggest that God was somehow unaware or unconcerned with previously. The Bible consistently portrays him as intervening at various times for various purposes, though rarely as soon as humans, self-centerdly, would like. Indeed, this particular remembering comes at the end of no less than 430 years of captivity (12:40)! Thus the emphasis is on ongoing covenant: God’s promises never stopped being valid, however seldom most Israelites may have called upon him to honor his promises in the past. The average Israelite likely knew at least something about the Abrahamic covenant, and it may be useful for the modern reader to realize that the term zakar, “remember,” is idiomatic for covenant application rather than recollection (cf. Gen 9:15; Exod 6:5; Lev 26:42, 45; 1 Chr 16:15; Pss 105:8; 106:45; 111:5; Jer 14:21; Ezek 16:60; Luke 1:72). In other words, to say “God remembered his covenant” is to say “God decided to honor the terms of his covenant at this time.” What were those terms? They were, from Gen 12:2-3, the general promise of greatness (already largely achieved) and blessing – including protection (now needing to be addressed); and from Gen 15:13-16, the specific promises of punishment of the nation that oppressed Israel in slavery and deliverance with great possessions (esp. Gen 15:14).18

25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

There is no object qualifying what God knows. Presumably God knew “his ancient obligation to Israel, the full extent of Egypt’s misdeeds, and that the time of recompense had come.”19

Bibliography

Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 1-18. Yale University Press, 1999.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Propp, Exodus 1-18, 130.

2Ibid., 131.

3Stuart, Exodus, 65-66.

4Propp, Exodus 1-18, 132.

5Stuart, Exodus, 69.

6Sarna, Exodus, 7.

7Dozeman, Exodus, 73.

8Childs, The Book of Exodus, 17.

9Sarna, Exodus, 8.

10Dozeman, Exodus, 81.

11Sarna, Exodus, 9.

12Ibid., 10.

13Dozeman, Exodus, 81-82.

14Ibid., 87.

15Ibid.

16Sarna, Exodus, 12-13.

17Ibid., 13.

18Stuart, Exodus, 103-104.

19Propp, Exodus 1-18, 180.

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