Studies in Exodus 1:1-22


Exodus 1:1-22

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Tonight we begin a new series of Lord’s Day evening studies in the Book of Exodus.  In some ways, you will understand, it is an artifice to call Exodus a “book.”  To call it a book suggests that Exodus is a document by itself, that it circulated by itself before being incorporated in the Pentateuch and the Old Testament.  If you turn back a page you will see that the opening verse of Exodus connects the narrative of chapter 1 directly to the events recorded in Genesis chapter 50.  What is more the Levitical regulations that are the subject of the closing chapters of Exodus continue without interruption in the Book of Leviticus that follows.  In other words, there is no great significance to be attached to the division of the books into these parts – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc. – it is a largely artificial division based on the very practical consideration of how much material could be placed on a single scroll.  The Pentateuch (which means “the five volume book”) or the Torah is really, in most respects, a single large volume.  Exodus, at most, is a subdivision.

Nevertheless, as a portion of the Pentateuch, it is a most important portion.  We are inclined to think, and rightly, that Genesis is the foundation of the entire Bible and of the history of salvation contained in it.  That first book begins with the creation of man, his fall into sin, and God’s promise of redemption and tells the story of God’s way of salvation as it begins to take place in his selection of a man and his family to bear the seed from which the Redeemer would come and his making a covenant with that man and his descendants.  Along the way the book demonstrates the abysmal condition into which sin had brought human beings and the power of faith in God to transform sinners into saints.  In other words, the fundamental, the basic motifs of biblical revelation are heard first in Genesis.

But, think of what comes in Exodus.  We have the account of the Lord’s deliverance of his people from bondage in Egypt, the exodus that gives the book its name.  That exodus, of course, is the supreme OT account of the saving acts of God or, as someone else has put it, “the paradigmatic salvation event of ancient Israel.”  [Dillard & Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, 62]  Everything that follows – including the work of Jesus Christ – is going to be seen as the fulfillment of the pattern of salvation by God’s grace and power that is revealed in the exodus of Israel from Egypt.  It is here that we first encounter the idea of salvation by redemption, and redemption by the death of a substitute.  We noticed last week that on the mountain of the transfiguration Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about his exodus, a term deliberately chosen to link the salvation of Christ with its prototype in the ancient epoch. One commentator on Exodus dedicates his commentary to “all who share in the greater EXODUS from the world of sin brought about by our Lord Jesus Christ.”  [H. L. Ellison]

But in Exodus we also have the giving of the law, according to which the moral situation of human life is defined in the rest of the Bible. It was to fulfill the law on behalf of his people that Christ came into the world. Also we have the institution of the Passover (the celebration of which, the night of his betrayal, revealed Christ as the true Passover lamb), the priesthood (of which Christ is the perfect and eternal fulfillment), and the first great prophet, Moses, the promise of whose office the Lord Jesus would himself finally fulfill.  These events and these institutions would dominate the thought of Israel ever after and provide the intellectual and spiritual background for the revelation of Christ when he appeared. What is more, in the history of these events and the establishment of these institutions we are given more of a revelation of the nature and character of God and of his saving grace than anything that we have so far read in Genesis.  It is not for nothing that one scholar has called the Book of Exodus “the centre of the Old Testament.”  [Cole, TOTC, 18]

Now, all of that, to be sure, is only an elaboration of what we have already been taught in Genesis.  Passover is new but sacrifice is not.  The law is given in a formal and thorough way in Exodus but it existed before Sinai.  Exodus continues the story that began in Genesis.  It fulfills the promise of earlier developments in the history of God’s covenant.  The first two Hebrew words of the book are translated in English “These are the names…”  “These are the names” is the Hebrew title of the book.  That is typical.  “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Leviticus,” and the like are true titles, that is, they reflect what someone thought was the theme of the book.  They didn’t exist until the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was prepared 200 years before Christ.  The translators gave these titles to the books.  In the Hebrew Bible, however, the name of the book is simply the opening word or words.  The title of the book of Genesis, for example, is the Hebrew word with which the book begins, “In the beginning,” – just one word in Hebrew – and the name of Exodus, similarly, is “These are the names…” – just two words in Hebrew.  What is more, the first six words of Ex. 1:1 are an exact duplication of Genesis 46:8:  “These are the names of the sons of Israel…”  What the narrator is emphasizing by beginning his book in this way is the continuity between the history of Jacob’s sons, narrated in the previous chapters, the later chapters of Genesis, and the history of the people and nation of Israel who descended from them.

Text Comment

v.1

As we noticed, v. 1 establishes the continuity of this history with what has gone before.  Indeed, very interestingly and importantly, Exodus actually begins with the word “And”, a word attached to another word in Hebrew, a word which the NIV has unfortunately omitted.  And there are the names. It continues from the last sentence of Genesis.

v.5

Only the sons are named, but, of course, they took their families with them when they went to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation.  We were told that there were 70 descendants who left the Promised Land for Egypt in Gen. 46:27.  70 is the numerical symbol of perfection or totality.  There were, for example, 70 nations listed that descended from Noah in Gen. 10.  The point is not only that all Israel went to Egypt, but that she represented a little world to herself, a microcosm of the entire world. [Cassuto, 8]  The sons are named also because by this time each son has become a clan or tribe of the nation and we are about to read about the fortunes of that nation.  In other words, the narrative that follows concerns what became of this family, now become a nation.

v.7

The blessing that God had promised to Abraham was being fulfilled.  His seed was becoming a great nation.  The people of Israel not only increased, they teemed or swarmed in the land.  The verb employed, translated “multiplied greatly” by the NIV (ץרשׁ), is ordinarily used elsewhere in the OT to refer to a teeming swarm of frogs or fish or other animal life.

v.8

A new dynasty is, in all probability, what is meant.  In any case, this king was not bound by any ties of loyalty to Israel for the good that Joseph had done and the enrichment of the royal house that had occurred under Joseph’s administration.  The text does not say that this king did not know about Joseph, but that he didn’t know Joseph, that is, had no personal connection to him, no loyalty to him and his family.  A new dynasty would not feel itself bound to the loyalties of the previous royal house.  The specific Pharaoh is not named, which, interestingly, accords with Egyptian practice of the time.  [Alan Millard, “How Reliable is Exodus,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2000) 55]  Egyptians referred to their king simply as Pharaoh.

v.9

The new king sees the large Israelite colony within his kingdom not as an asset but as a threat.  The king exaggerates, of course, but since when do we expect a politician not to exaggerate a threat if he wishes to use that threat as justification for some plan or program he wishes to implement.  In this case the Pharaoh had designs to build large and impressive cities and he needed laborers.

v.10

The king proposes to outsmart the Israelites to prevent them from either increasing their power or decamping Egypt and depriving the kingdom of their labor and accumulated wealth.

v.11

So the king conscripted the Israelites as slave laborers.  Egyptian ruins still today amaze the world with the demonstration of what can be done, what can be built, if one has a virtually limitless supply of free labor.  Imagine how much cheaper our building would be if we didn’t have to pay any of the workers who were building it!  Or, at least, provide them little more than food.

v.12

“Like a force of nature…the Israelites respond to oppression by redoubling their procreative surge.”  [Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 309]

v.14

Ordinary slave labor not having the effect of curbing the growth of the Israelites, the Egyptians ramped up the oppression.  It is no longer “hard” labor but “crushing” labor, savage oppression meant to crush the spirit.  As the next verses make clear, even this did not avail to control the growth of the Israelite people.

v.15

“Hebrew” is regularly in the Bible the term for Israelites that foreigners would use.  That is, they didn’t generally refer to themselves by that name, but others did.

v.16

The Pharaoh now proposed genocide as the solution to the problem.  This is the first, but definitely not the last time powerful rulers would seek to diminish or destroy the Israelites by a program of systematic extinction.  In this case, as in Hitler’s, this was regarded as the “ultimate” or “final” solution to the problem the Israelites posed.  The king wanted cheap labor, but now the growth in Israel’s numbers was posing a real threat.

The midwife was in a position, of course, to kill the babies without the mother suspecting murder.  The diminishment of the male population would end any threat to Egyptian security.  The midwives were Hebrew women themselves and we are not told whether Pharaoh offered reward or threatened punishment as an inducement to their complicity in his genocide.  Of course, we are not to imagine that the Pharaoh himself spoke to these simple women.  Some henchman from court no doubt gave the instructions.  Some Egyptian Heirich Himmler.  Similarly, obviously there were more than two midwives serving such a numerous people.  One medieval Jewish commentator proposes that these two were the supervisors of Hebrew midwives, of which there must have been a great many.  If that is not the explanation, it would appear that these two are simply representative and the conversation with them is allowed to stand for the whole.

v.19

The women are clever and have an excuse prepared.  Once the babies have arrived and are in the hands of their parents, there can be no killing of them secretly.

v.20

Pharaoh’s third plan was also a failure and the growth of the Israelite population continued unabated.  After every effort made to control them the blessing of the Lord continues to cause them to thrive.

v.22

Despairing of cooperation from the midwives, Pharaoh goes public with his genocidal plan and enlists the citizenry in a search and destroy operation.  The boys are the threat, the girls can be raised for sexual exploitation and for domestic service in Egyptian homes.

If we ask why not simply suffocate the babies or kill them in some other simple way, this may be the answer.  “The Nile was one of Egypt’s greatest gods.  It is hardly unreasonable to read the suggestion into the decree that here was an abominable people, who would not worship the source of Egypt’s life and prosperity.  Let the god himself decide whether they were to live.  It is not difficult to find ways and means by which one can wash one’s hands and declare oneself innocent of wrongdoing and murder.”  [Ellison, 9]

The book begins with an account of God’s blessing Israel with fertility according to his promise and with an ominous account of Egyptian persecution.  This is not the first time and will not be the last in which it is precisely God’s blessing that places his people in some difficulty.  Later in this same narrative, by wonderful works of divine power and grace the Lord delivers his people from bondage in Egypt only to bring them into a desert wilderness in which there is neither food nor water.  So inevitable is trial and difficulty in this life, so much a part of God’s plan and purpose for the life of his people, that even his blessing, even his favor often results in more affliction, not less.

On the other hand, there is also here a demonstration of the folly of human opposition to the kingdom of God.  The Pharaoh tries this and that to deal with the problem the Israelites pose and every plan is frustrated.  His efforts to reduce the population of Israel only serve to make it grow the more.  Pharaoh says, “Let the Israelites be reduced in number” and God says, “Let them increase,” and so they increase; dramatically!  “If God is for us, who may be against us.”  But, and here is my point tonight, as almost always, God uses means.  God protected his people, in this case, by the brave and clever tactics of two Hebrew women.

Shiphrah and Puah feared God and so they defied the king.  They refused to carry out his wicked plan.  They did what every Nazi soldier should have done who was enlisted in the murderous plans of the Third Reich.  But being the clever women that they were, they not only defied the king, they thought of an excuse to cover their defiance both so that no further steps would be taken to harm Hebrew babies and so that they themselves would not be punished.  It did not work forever, but it worked for awhile; they saved many lives and when the king took the next step in his persecution of the Israelites God was ready to intervene in another way.  Now what these two women said to the king was not, in fact, the truth.

Their explanation about Hebrew women giving birth before the midwives arrived is a classic instance of what Christian ethicists have called “the dutiful lie.” That is, an untruth that is nevertheless right to tell, usually because it was necessary to save lives.  Interestingly, in this case it was a lie to protect Jews (however anachronistic that name for Israelites in 15th century B.C. Egypt) from death.  The great 20th century example of the dutiful lie, as you may know, was the lie told to protect Jews from death at the hands of the Nazi’s during World War II.  If officials came to the door of your Dutch home and you, in fact, had Jews hiding in your attic, you lied to the officials and said that you knew nothing of any Jews nearby.  Such as this lie.  It was a bald-faced untruth, but it was right to tell it.  Or so many Christian authorities have argued.  Indeed, the term “dutiful lie” is really a misnomer.  It isn’t a lie.  It is not a falsehood such as is forbidden in the 9th commandment.  In the same way that all killing is not murder, so all speaking untruth is not lying.

To be sure, others have said that the commandment to tell the truth, the 9th commandment, is an absolute obligation and brooks no relief.  The midwives should not have lied to Pharaoh.  Had they refused to reply or told the truth, God would have delivered his people in some other way.   This is the position taken by no less than John Murray, longtime professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and one of the most influential of 20th century Reformed theologians, in his valuable work of Reformed ethics, Principles of Conduct. He argues at this point, and others like it – for example, when Rahab lies to the men of Jericho to protect the Israelite spies – that here in Exodus 1, while the faith of these women in commended, their lying is not.

The problem with his argument is that there are too many examples of such untrue speech in the Bible that seems to have God’s approval, or certainly is not actually disapproved or condemned in any way.  The Hebrew midwives and Rahab are not the only ones in the Bible who tell untruths and seem to be commended for doing so.  Jonathan told such a tale to his father Saul and Jeremiah spoke an untruth to some Jewish men who wanted a report of his conversation with the king.  There are a number of other cases.

In fact, it is a basic rule of the interpretation of biblical law that the reach and demand of any particular commandment is defined not only by its words themselves, but by its applications as they are reported in Holy Scripture.  For example, the 6th commandment reads:  “You shall not murder.” But what is murder? We learn elsewhere in the case law that God’s law does not forbid the killing of a human being by another human being in certain instances.  For example, it is permissible to kill another in cases of self-defense – though such killing is forbidden, even in self-defense, if killing can be avoided.  In the same way the law not only does not forbid but actually commands the execution of capital criminals.  Nor does the 6th commandment render guilty those who kill accidentally – though it may if the so-called accident should have been and could have been foreseen and prevented.  Nor does it prevent killing in war. It is only by paying attention to the whole of Scripture that we gain a true understanding of what any particular commandment requires and what it does not require. The Scripture indicates in many ways how circumstances alter the nature of a case and the nature of the ethical obligation we face.

Dr. David Jones, a teacher of mine and the author of a standard introduction to biblical ethics, offers this illustration.

“A terrorist throws a hand grenade into a crowd. A man sees what is happening. He chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself upon the grenade and in so doing chooses what he thinks to be the lesser of two evils. The greater evil would be for the grenade to explode and kill five or ten others. Yet suicide is prohibited. What would you do with this kind of case?”

Prof. Jones’ reply is surely correct. In effect he says that this is not suicide and, therefore, is against no law of God. Indeed, to say that laying down your life for your neighbor is suicide and so sinful is to accuse the Lord himself of sin. To call the heroic self-sacrifice of oneself for others suicide is to misconstrue the biblical command. The law of God forbids no such thing.

Well, similarly with the command not to bear false witness. It should not be forgotten how fundamentally important truth is to the entire teaching of Holy Scripture. God is truth, sin is untruth, righteousness and truth are linked together at the deepest level. Lying is a terrible sin with terrible consequences. It is a great offense against the true God.
But does the ninth commandment require a Dutch or French family to tell inquiring Nazis that the Jews they have been hiding are upstairs in the attic? Well, take the Scripture together, and the answer is “No.”

  1. First, of course, the Scripture gives us a number of instances in which lying is avoided by a refusal to answer. Jesus gave no answer to his questioners at some points. He remained silent. If you remember the film A Man for All Seasons, this is what Thomas More did, when it was demanded that he take the oath of loyalty to King Henry VIII, and, in so doing, approve his break with the Roman Church. He refused to swear the oath.  But he did not say he was refusing; he just kept silent.  In English common law, silence is implied consent.  That is, More argued that if one were to have to draw a conclusion, by law he would have to conclude that Thomas More consented to the oath, even though everyone knew that his silence was because of his disagreement with the oath.  So, a clever man used silence to avoid either telling a lie or exposing himself to punishment.
  2. The Bible also gives us examples of evasion, of saying something that is not the whole truth or even the main truth, though it is not technically a lie. God’s instructions to Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-3) are a case in point. The Lord told Samuel to tell Saul “I’ve come to sacrifice to the Lord” not “I’ve come to anoint your successor.”  In the Christian ethical tradition, silence, evasion and equivocation have been regarded as permissible, though only in those occasions forthrightness is not possible or would lead to the harm of others.
  3. But can one ever just tell an outright untruth? Well, contextually, the Scripture certainly seems to say that one can, under certain extreme conditions. It seems to me very difficult to maintain the position that in these cases in the Bible, and there are a number of them as I said, there is approval only of the faith but not of the speaking of untruth. The untruth seems in the narratives essential to their act of preserving life and seems clearly to be approved. What is more, it is just like the other commandments: we learn the reach and the meaning and the obligation of each law by the way in which it is explained and applied in Holy Scripture as a whole.

A principle at work here seems to be: a murderer in search of an innocent victim has no right to the truth from those hiding the innocent and no reason to expect honesty from those aware of the circumstances.  We are always to do what is right; we are never to do something that is wrong.  God’s law is always to be obeyed.  But the 9th commandment, as it is explained in Holy Scripture and illustrated on a number of occasions, does not forbid the telling of untruth in certain very specific circumstances.

Now, take no comfort for yourselves here if you have grown used to lying simply because it eases your way through situations and circumstances.  The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that we are to tell the truth, even if the truth creates great difficulties for us.  But in this case, the Hebrew midwives were not obliged to tell the king what they had done and were, in fact, free to mislead him by telling him what was not in fact the case.

George Sayer tells the story of a walk he once took with C.S. Lewis.  They were in the hills and they met a bedraggled and exhausted fox.  “Poor thing,” Lewis said, “What shall we do when the [hunting party] comes up? I can already hear them.  Oh, I know, I have an idea.”  And he cupped his hands and shouted to the first riders that appeared that the fox had gone thataway and pointed in the direction opposite to the one the fox had taken.  And the entire hunting party rode off in the wrong direction.  Sayer even raised the moral issue of what Lewis had just done but Lewis later boasted about what he had done to Sayer’s wife  and showed no trace of remorse.  [Jack, 209]  Now, was he right to do what he did?  I’ll leave that question for you to ponder.  But in the case of these good women we are not talking about foxes but human beings who were marked for murder, a murder they would have had to commit themselves, with their own hands, holding the nose and mouth closed until the baby had suffocated.  They were right not to murder and right to tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women delivered their children before they could arrive to help with the delivery.

Now all of that is background for this.  These women, these simple Hebrew women, in order to defend the lives of their countrymen, told Pharaoh a whopper. It was a clever story.  He apparently bought it.  But they tricked him nonetheless and, in doing so, obviously exposed themselves to great danger.  What I want us to take away from this short episode, which is, after all, just a part of the opening scene of the book of Exodus, a scene that sets the stage for the birth of Moses in the next chapter, is the courage and determination of these women.  These humble Hebrew women thumbed their noses at the greatest king in the world of that day.  They defied his direct orders and tricked him into thinking that they hadn’t.  By this means many lives were saved.  And why?  Because we read in v. 17 that these women feared God.

That is what the fear of God makes of a humble woman:  a tiger, more than a match for great kings.  The fear of God, the knowledge of his greatness, of his sovereignty, of his power, makes people humble before God but strong before kings.  It makes little people great people. It makes two Hebrew women, inconsequential in the world’s eyes, into heroes of world history. Isn’t it marvelous that one of the great books of the Bible begins with two women who, because they feared God, took on Pharaoh of Egypt, with all his power and majesty, and left him looking a fool.  Have you thought about this: some, perhaps many, perhaps a great many Israelites who were delivered on eagles wings from bondage in Egypt, were alive at the time of the Exodus because of these brave, clever women who feared the Lord.  We said this morning that a little faith can move mountains.  Here was a mountain that was moved by faith.  A threat to the lives of many warded off by two women who knew their God.

I cannot possibly tell you what mountain you will have to move, what power you will have to stare down, what enemy you will have to defeat, what lives you will have to save, but I tell you that if you fear God, if as these women you live and act in the fear of God, if you show reverence for him above all, obedience to him first and foremost, a commitment to his will, his cause, his people above anyone and anything else, there will be in your life – I guarantee it – what there was in the lives of Shiphrah and Puah.  There will be in your lives also what is wonderful and praiseworthy and that brings great good to many others; there will be that in your life that amounts to the defeat of God’s enemies.  The story of the exodus itself, one of the greatest things that ever happened in this world, begins with two simple women who feared God, did what was right, and defeated a great and powerful king who wished to do evil.  It is not the main theme of Exodus, of course, but by the way, and at the very beginning, we learn something of what believers are and what they do.