Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE
Exodus 1: 1-7 Setting the Stage
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 The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7 But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
The book of Genesis, the preceding book in the Bible, spends the bulk of the book with God working through a specific family, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to be God’s covenant partners and to be a blessing to all the nations. As Exodus begins we are joined to the ending of the book of Genesis where the sons of Jacob (Israel) have come down to Egypt and settled in the land of Goshen. Joseph was already in Egypt after being sold into slavery and rising to being second in command of all Egypt and Jacob and his remaining sons come to Egypt seeking relief from a severe famine throughout the land. Throughout the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph God has continued to provide for them in unexpected ways. Yet, now we have left the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the original sons of Israel behind as that generation passes away.
One of the struggles of many of the stories of Genesis was the struggle against barrenness. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all struggle with infertility and these families of the promise struggle with the command in the first creation narrative to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1. 28). At the end of Genesis and here at the beginning of Exodus there has been a slow increase from the original two of Sarah and Abraham to now a household of seventy born to Jacob. Yet now the increase becomes exceedingly fruitful, they begin to become numerous and this combined with a historical amnesia in the land of Egypt sets the stage for the initial crisis of Exodus and the transition from the people’s lives in Egypt to their journey to the promised land.
Exodus 1: 8-14 Historical Amnesia and the Politics of Fear and Oppression
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 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 escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The initial reception in Egypt for the family of Israel was positive and as the book of Deuteronomy can remind the people: “You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” (Deuteronomy 23: 7) Yet, as time passes a sense of historical amnesia sets in. A new king, an unnamed king, arises in the land of Egypt. He may rule the superpower of the day but within this book that will become the ‘West’s meta-narrative of hope’ (Sacks, 2010, p. 1) his name remains unspoken and forgotten. He will not be linked to any of the massive construction projects of one of the Egyptian dynasties or to the culture of the land. This nameless ruler will be only remembered for the way in which the ruler of the most powerful empire of that age feared a subset of those in his land.
Until this point the Israelites were a family, they may have grown larger, but here it is the unnamed ruler who for the first time designates them as a unique people. Somehow the Israelites are distinct, they are unlike the people of the rest of the nation and that distinction gives rise to a politics of oppression. Ultimately, as Rabbi Sacks can remind us, “Pharaoh is driven by political motives, not hate.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 4) Throughout the book of Exodus the people of Egypt will be presented as one option, even a shrewd option for a type of society that can capitalize on the fear and distinction of a people to transform them from neighbors into forced laborers. Fear provides the opportunity to not only discriminate against a people but to build a civilization on their broken backs. The people of Israel will be challenged to learn a different way of organizing their lives rather than the manner of the Pharaohs of Egypt or the kings of the nations that surround them. Yet, the politics of fear and oppression continue to be used in our time to set one group of people against another and to transform neighbors into the ones to be feared.
The initial strategy to remove the threat of the Israelites through oppression fails because the more they were oppressed the more they multiplied. While the policy may have the desired effect in the near term by allowing the Egyptians to have a forced labor pool to build the monuments and houses of the empire it continues to create a fear and a dependence upon the very people they wish to eliminate. The oppression and violence has not yet reached its peak and yet it has already begun to change the oppressor. To maintain this separation between Egyptian and Israelite they become ruthless. Fear and oppression has changed them. Their placing of the projects of the empire above the needs of their neighbor changes their culture. Hospitality is replaced with brutality and yet the Israelites endure and continue to multiply even under the heavy burden of the empire’s imposed service.
Exodus 1: 15-22 The Disobedience of Women
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to 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 became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
This is the first of six stories in the book of Exodus of outstanding moral courage and they are all about women, two (Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah) are not Israelites and here with Shiphrah and Puah they may not be Israelites as well. (Sacks, 2010, p. 9) We don’t know whether these two women are simply midwives that are working with the Hebrew women or whether they are themselves Hebrews but they are named while the king of Egypt remains anonymous. They become examples of how women, who would not have a place within the power structures of men, are able to subvert the command of the king.
The king of Egypt asks these women to commit a crime against humanity. Perhaps the Hebrews are no longer valued as humans any longer by Pharaoh and they become a subhuman beast of burden where the master can decide upon their life and death. Yet, for these women it is not only a crime against humanity but also a crime against the LORD of the Hebrew women who keeps granting them the fertility to bring forth children. The Pharaoh has overstepped the line with these two servants and they work in their own way to find a way to allow life to occur when death has been ordered. Shiphrah and Puah have a calling, whether through morality or through faith, to not carry out this order to kill infants. When they are summoned they respond with a lie and it is a lie which also taunts the strength of the Egyptians. Hebrew women are able to deliver without a midwife present, they are much more robust than the more fragile Egyptian women who need to wait upon the ministering of the midwives. This is one of those times where God seems to delight in the craftiness of the servant. The midwives, who may have been in their role because they have no families of their own, are seen and they too are granted fertility and families. They also now have a place with the Hebrews and they become the first to resist the murderous impulses of the empire. Pharaoh, deciding that these women will not do his work for him now extends the murderous command to all his people. Now the murder of Israelites infant boys becomes the work of the nation and doubtless there will be those who are willing to embrace the politics of fear and division and be a part of the ordered purge. Yet, it is from within the oppression of the empire that something new will happen, that the people who were slaves to Pharaoh will be claimed as the first-born children by the God who is not bound to any place or nation but is instead the creator of the heaven and the earth.