POLITICAL LANDSCAPE OF THE PATRIARCHS
Welcome to a series of one of the most illustrious characters of the ancient world.
In order to appreciate the life story of Moses a little better, let’s ask Exodus chapter 1, to fill us in.
Exodus 1:1 Now these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt; each man and his household came with Jacob: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; 4 Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. 5
Verse 5 All those who were descendants of Jacob were seventy persons (for Joseph was in Egypt already).
The record of the few who migrated with Jacob to Egypt is given here by way of emphasizing the remarkable numerical increase of the children of Israel during their years of sojourn.
This growth was the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham (Gen. 15:14) and to Jacob (Gen. 46:3).
Verse 6,7 And Joseph died, all his brothers, and all that generation. But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.
The family of Jacob increased miraculously, both during the lifetime of the 12 patriarchs and after their death. The blessings pronounced upon mankind at creation (Gen. 1:28) and the promise later made to Abraham (Gen. 22:17) were now realized in appreciable measure.
The land was filled. This refers particularly to the land of Goshen, where the Hebrews lived (Gen. 47:11). The climate of Egypt, the fertility of the soil, the natural virility of the Hebrew race, and the blessing of God together resulted in an extraordinary growth in population.
I often visit Wadi Tumilat in the eastern delta of Egypt and I can testify to the excellent fertility of the ground.
Verse 8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
8. A new king. Not merely another individual but a new dynasty. We are now moving from the Hysos rule to the 18th dynasty.
The kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who freed Egypt from Hyksos rule, were the Pharaohs of the oppression.
The Hyksos were Asiatic people like the Hebrews, and though Egyptianized they would be friendly toward Joseph and his family.
But the expulsion of the Hyksos led to a new spirit of nationalism, and all foreigners were viewed with suspicion, especially those favored by the Hyksos.
The contribution made by Joseph to the welfare of the people would be forgotten, primarily because he was an Asiatic and the minister of an alien king.
The generation that had experienced the seven years of famine had died, and the descendants of Jacob’s sons were confronted with an entirely new situation, a native Egyptian population and a dynasty that hated the Israelites.
Verse 9 And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we.
“He” would be an early Eighteenth Dynasty king and he was called Thutmose I (1525-1508 B.C.), the father of Hatshepsut.
Said to his people. The king was undoubtedly conferring with his ministers and counselors. In the few documents that shed some light on the war of liberation, the statement is twice made that the kings Sekenenre and Kamose called their counselors together before taking action.
Verse 9 And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we.
Pharaoh was probably exaggerating, since Egypt had been a great nation for centuries. It was the sort of exaggeration in which unprincipled persons indulge by way of justifying an extreme and unreasonable course of action.
Verse 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.”
Deal shrewdly with them. Pharaoh suggested a clever political expedient to avoid the danger of revolution and the possibility that the Israelites might make common cause with his enemies, the Hyksos, and then leave Egypt. It probably was not so much the conquest of his kingdom which he feared as an alliance with his enemies.
Among the Hebrews were many skilled workmen, and Pharaoh therefore proposed to retain them as slaves that he might employ them on his various construction projects.
Verse 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12
Taskmasters. Literally, “superintendents of [forced and unpaid] labor.” Pharaoh hoped that oppressive treatment would break the physical strength of the Israelites and retard their remarkable increase in numbers.
He expected, furthermore, to crush their spirit of independence and self-respect. Finally, he would be able to carry out his vast construction projects without laying a burden on his own people.
Supply cities. Since the land of Goshen was situated in the eastern Delta, Pharaoh set the Israelites to work on temples and other government buildings in the eastern border region.
In ancient times national wealth was often stored in temples, presumably under the guardianship of the gods.
Pithom. This name has been explained as a Hebrew rendering of the Egyptian Per–Atum, “House of [the sun-god] Atum.”
Some scholars have identified it with the present Tell el–Maskhuta in the Wadi Tumilat in the eastern Delta region, where Naville uncovered great storehouses for grain, in 1883.
I have visited Tell el-Maskhuta a number of times. Some scholars identified it with the Biblical Succoth (12:37), whence the Israelites departed from Egypt.
Can a challenge the archaeologists to come to our help?
Raamses. This was the ancient Biblical city called Zoan (Num. 13:22), formerly called Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos.
Long after their expulsion from Egypt, Ramses II enlarged and beautified it, and named it after himself.
Ramses II, however, cannot have been the Pharaoh of the oppression. Biblical chronology of the period from the Exodus to the monarchy of Israel requires at least a 15th-century date for the Exodus (see 1 Kings 6:1), which therefore took place two centuries earlier than the reign of Ramses II.
The name of the store city here called “Raamses” is to be understood as the modernization of an older name. Another illustration of this practice occurs in Gen. 47:11, where the land of Goshen is called “the land of Rameses.”
No one will advocate that the entry of Jacob into Egypt took place under the reign of Ramses II; therefore, the old name of the region called “Rameses” in Gen. 47:11 appears to have been dropped in favor of a more modern one (see on Gen. 47:11).
The ancient city of Laish, also, is called Dan in Gen. 14:14 (see on that text), although it received this name many centuries after both Abraham and Moses were dead.
The most reasonable explanation for these and other texts in which modern city names are applied in the narrative to earlier times is to assume that later copyists exchanged older, obsolete names for more modern ones, in an attempt to clarify the narratives for later generations.
It could also be that the place name Rameses had no connection with pharaoh Rameses who built a city and named it after him.
Let us move on with our Bible story.
Verse 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel.
Pharaoh’s first plan did not accomplish its purpose. The Hebrews increased in numbers proportionate to the degree of oppression, and the Egyptians were naturally dismayed at such unprecedented growth.
It became apparent that persecution and trials could not thwart the purpose of God, and measures intended to destroy His people proved to be a source of greater strength.
They were in dread. The presence of an enemy within their borders that could not be subdued was embarrassing and irritating.
Verses 13,14 So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.
Made their lives bitter. Undaunted, the Egyptians put forth yet greater effort to enslave Israel.
Verses 13 and 14 do not record a new oppression, but the continuation and intensification of the program of hard labor already in force.
In morter, and in brick. While stone was the material chiefly employed by the Egyptians for their great temples and other public buildings, brick was used to a large extent for palaces and lesser buildings, for city walls, for forts, for temple enclosures, and for storage houses such as those mentioned in verse 11.
All manner of service. The Hebrews had originally been employed to tend the royal flocks and herds (Gen. 47:6), but later took up agricultural pursuits as well (Deut. 11:10).
There is no country where painstaking care and labor are so constantly required throughout the year as in Egypt. Previously the annual flooding of the Nile necessitates extreme watchfulness, to save cattle and to prevent the inundation of houses and villages and the washing away of the river embankments.
Cultivation is continuous throughout the year, and success depends on a system of irrigation that requires constant labor and unremitting attention.
If the “service in the field” included also the digging of canals (Josephus Antiquities ii. 9.1), the lives of the Hebrews would indeed have been made bitter.
To work under the hot Egyptian sun, with no shade and scarcely a breath of wind, from sunrise to sunset, and with the feet in water (Deut. 11:10), is a most grueling experience.
When Mehemet Ali built his Alexandrian canal, about the middle of the 19th century, he lost 20,000 laborers out of 150,000. The percentage of loss may have been about the same in ancient times.
But so far as Pharaoh was concerned, the more the Hebrews perished, the better it suited his evil purpose.
Verse 15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah;
Spoke to the Hebrew midwives. Pharaoh’s second attempt to control the increase of the Hebrews made no pretense at concealing his real objective. From cruel oppression he went to open murder.
It has been questioned whether the midwives were actually Hebrews, since in that case the king could not be sure of their cooperation.
The phrase translated “Hebrew midwives” may also be rendered, “midwives of the Hebrew women,” meaning midwives who attended the Hebrew women at childbirth.
But their names are definitely Semitic and not Egyptian, Shiphrah meaning “beauty” and Puah, “splendor” or “brightness.” This confirms the King James Version rendering (see on v. 17).
Verse 16 and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17
The birthstools. Literally, “two stones.” Various unconvincing explanations of this term have been given, none of which need be repeated here inasmuch as its real meaning has been discovered by the Egyptologist Spiegelberg.
In Egypt, birthstools consisting of either two stones or stones laid in the shape of a horseshoe were used.
The common Egyptian expression, “to sit on the bricks” for “giving birth,” as found in various ancient inscriptions, reveals the meaning of the king’s words, “Watch them when they are on the two stones.”
The use of this Egyptian expression confirms the Mosaic authorship of Exodus.
If it is a son. It was a common practice throughout the ancient world to expose unwanted children by leaving them to die, or more commonly, to be devoured by birds or wild animals.
The command of the king also reflects the pagan custom of killing all enemy males and forcing the women and girls to become household slaves of the conquerors.
In many ancient wars of conquest the entire male population was thus put to the sword. Pharaoh apparently intended to make use of living males for the specific building projects he had in mind, but to let the Hebrews die out as a people with that generation.
He planned thus to rid himself of a potential enemy within his borders, and at the same time provide a supply of female slaves for Egyptian households.
Verse 17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.
Clearly, the midwives were Hebrews, for they “feared God” and knew that He had forbidden murder.
Though they may not have been acquainted with the words of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill,” they were familiar with the regulation, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6).
Fearing God more than they feared the tyrant king (see Acts 4:19; 5:29), these courageous women dared ignore the royal command.
The fear of men makes a man the victim of circumstances, but the fear of God brings rest in the midst of tumult and peace in the face of mortal danger.
This must have been the experience of the two chief Hebrew midwives, upon whose shoulders lay a grave responsibility.
Verses 18,19 So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.”
The Hebrew women were no doubt required to labor in the fields along with the men. Since they were accustomed to toil in the open air, it is not unlikely that childbirth was comparatively easy for them.
Arabic women, related racially to the Hebrews, lead strenuous lives and require but little assistance in childbirth. This fact explains the plausibility of the excuse offered Pharaoh by the Hebrew midwives. There is no evidence that their story was questioned in any way.
They are lively. Literally, “They are vigorous.” The result was that the midwives were seldom called. There was little demand for their services, since any female relative or acquaintance could usually provide all the assistance necessary.
This may explain why only two midwives were needed by the Hebrews, in spite of their large numbers.
Verse 20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. 21 And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them.
God rewarded the midwives for their faithfulness by giving them families and preserving their posterity. That this is the meaning of the expression is clear from parallel texts in which it is used in this sense (see Ruth 4:11; 2 Sam. 7:11, 27).
By ignoring the ruthless command of the king they had helped to build up the families of Israel, and their own families were therefore built up by God. They had risked their own lives to save their people.
Verse 22 So Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”
The failure of all his plans to weaken the Hebrew people drove the king to acts of open violence. This new decree placed a responsibility on every Egyptian to make the desire of the king his own. The task of exterminating the Hebrews was now shifted from the taskmasters and the midwives to the common people.
After the break we will see how God turned this curse in a blessing. His daughter Hatshepsut adopted a Hebrew baby and Tutmosis I became the foster grandfather of little Moses.
He had no other choice than to rescind his death decree.
It God wants to save you, no earthly power can thwart His plans.