Genesis/Exodus Week 10

“Unlikely Heroes”: Exodus 1:1–4:31

Week 10
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Israelite Oppression

As Exodus begins we are immediately struck by something positive and something negative. The former is that Jacob’s/Israel’s descendants have grown exponentially: “the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:1–4). This is hardly happenstance. Instead, this growth fulfills God’s promise made during the ancestral era (Genesis 13:14–16; 15:5; 17:4–7; 22:17; 26:4, 24; 28:3, 13–14; 35:11; 46:3; 48:4). But the growth that accents God’s promises coming to fruition has a negative aspect. This is because the Egyptian king sees the growth as a threat (Exodus 1:8–9). So Pharaoh takes drastic measures to reduce Israel’s population, or at least stem continuing growth.

One measure is to put Israel into forced labor. It is not clear how this would affect growth. Was the idea to exhaust the people so that they lacked energy to produce babies? Whatever the reason, the strategy failed. In fact, Israel grew all the more (1:10–12).

But the king was not through (1:13–14). We need to remember that this mistreatment brought to fruition something the Lord long ago said would happen (Genesis 15:13). Fortunately, this same prediction had a positive side (15:14).

Enter the Midwives

When the forced labor ploy failed, the Egyptian king took another tack. He hired Hebrew midwives [Author’s Note 1] to murder baby boys (Exodus 1:15–16). However, because the midwives reverenced God, they refused to comply (1:17). Naturally, they were called on the carpet. When confronted with their insubordination, they explained that they were unable to carry out the directive because Hebrew women deliver as soon as labor begins. Babies are therefore born before midwives arrive (1:18–19).

Now it begins to dawn on us that the king is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He accepts this ridiculous explanation. How could midwives make a living in a population where it is impossible to arrive in time to do what they are hired to do? Also, what is the point of trying to halt population explosion by killing males? Would not the smarter move be killing female babies? Perhaps this explains why the Egyptian king remains nameless in contrast to the two named midwives (1:15). Ironically, not only did the king’s absurd strategy fail completely, God was pleased with the midwives’ behavior and gave them children as well. Shiphrah and Puah ended up adding to rather than subtracting from the population (1:20–21).

A third strategy mandated Egyptians to throw into the Nile all Hebrew male babies (1:22). In desperation, one Hebrew mother hid her baby for three months, then put him in a basket and placed him among the reeds at river’s edge. The baby’s older sister stood watchful nearby (2:1–4).

Pharaoh’s Daughter Finds the Baby Moses

Incredibly, Pharaoh’s own daughter spies the basket when she comes to bathe. She realizes the baby’s Hebrew identity immediately. But when the child cries, the woman’s maternal instincts are triggered. Instead of killing the baby on the spot, she takes pity on it. When the infant’s sister intrudes to ask whether she should find a Hebrew wet-nurse, she is given permission. That is how it turns out that the child’s mother is able to nurse the child and get paid for doing so. But that is also how the child eventually ends up as Pharaoh’s daughter’s adopted son, whom she names Moses (2:5–10).

At this point we become aware of a pattern. Pharaoh’s efforts to reverse Israelite growth have been thwarted by several female characters. We note the midwives’ clever actions. Then we witness what Moses’ momma and sister do to rescue him from certain death. Even Pharaoh’s daughter contributes to the cause, even though her actions violate her own father’s edict.

These women do this without any direct divine help. God does not say a word to any of them. The only time God appears directly in these events is when the midwives are given children. The Egyptian king is doing everything he can to undermine God’s agenda for God’s people. These women, wittingly and unwittingly, are doing everything to aid God’s work and undercut Pharaoh’s anti-Israelite agenda.

Moses Falters, Then Flees Egypt

Nothing could be a greater contrast to the competence, cleverness, and resolve of these women than Moses’ hapless efforts. Now an adult, he observes the harsh treatment of his people, whereupon he rashly murders an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave. He hides the corpse in the sand. The very next day he encounters two Hebrews in a squabble and confronts the aggressor.

But his efforts are unappreciated. Worse, the accused man turns on Moses by asking whether he is contemplating another murder. Moses’ response would be laughable were it not so pathetic. He guesses that these two Hebrews are on to what he did, something they had just a moment before explicitly revealed (2:11–14). The women had acted skillfully, with subterfuge, quick wits, or care and compassion. Moses had only one response: maximum force. Even that he administered clumsily — he could not hide his victim for more than a day.

One has to wonder why actors like Charlton Heston are called on to play Moses. Central casting might be more faithful to the biblical text by putting someone like Woody Allen in the role. At least that is the case so far. Moses had been in an excellent position in Pharaoh’s court to help his people. Think of what Joseph had done. Instead, Pharaoh puts a price on his head and he is forced to flee (2:15).

For the first time, Moses does something helpful when he rescues the seven daughters of a Midianite priest who are being harassed by shepherds who won’t allow them to draw water from a well. Moses is better at helping non-Hebrews. This deed gives him a chance to get back on his feet, since he accompanies the women home, marries one of them (Zipporah), and starts a family (2:15–22). This was a reprieve of sorts, but it did Moses’ people little good.

Back in Egypt, the tyrannical Pharaoh dies, but the people still suffer under terrible conditions. Helpless, they are able only to cry out for help. But God hears that cry and remembers the covenant made with their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2:22–25).

Week 10
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Moses and the Burning Bush

If we thought that God would spring into immediate action once the people cry out, we are wrong. Instead, the scene shifts back to Moses, who is tending his father-in-law’s flocks (3:1). However, what seems like an ordinary day is utterly transformed when an angel of the Lord appears in a bush which is burning but not consumed. When Moses gets closer to examine the spectacular sight, he is stopped short by the voice of God, who announces that Moses is standing on holy ground and that he is face to face with his ancestral God. Naturally, Moses is overcome with fear (3:2–6).

We are then astonished to learn that the Lord’s resolve to rescue Israel from continuing Egyptian oppression will include Moses. What has Moses ever done to merit a job of this magnitude? Plus, this is a big-deal move on God’s part. Not only will the Lord release Israel from bondage, but God will in addition start the process of escorting the elect people to the land that had been promised to the ancestors (Genesis 12:7; 13:14–15, 17; 15:18–21; 17:8; 26:4; 28:4, 13; 35:12; 48:4). Yet God does not hesitate: Moses is the man on the spot (Exodus 3:7–10).

But Moses is not so sure. First he protests that he is insignificant: “Who am I . . .” (3:11). The Lord counters by promising to be with Moses (3:12). Unfazed, Moses next wants to know what to say when asked the deity’s name (3:13) [Author’s Note 2]. God answers with the enigmatic: “I am who I am” (3:14).

Then God elaborates on the divine name as well as the promises made to the ancestors. God brings up the distinctive personal name YHWH and tells Moses to gather the elders together for a summary of the ancestral promise. Moses is to make clear that he has encountered none other than the ancestral deity, that this same God will rescue the elect people and then see to it that they inherit the Promised Land (3:15–17). The Lord wants Moses to go before Pharaoh with the Israelite elders and ask for a three-day leave into the wilderness. God knows that great power will be required to compel Pharaoh to agree to these demands, something the Lord is prepared to use.

Not only that, just before the people leave, God will make the Egyptians regard the Israelites favorably, so that Israelite women (women again!) will be able to borrow so much jewelry and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors that Egypt will be thereby despoiled (3:18–22).

God Provides Signs for Moses

You would surmise that this certain word from God would be enough. But Moses is unconvinced. He insists that the Israelites will not believe that he actually encountered God (4:1). To counter this objection, the Lord offers Moses a couple of signs as a way of demonstrating contact with God. The Lord even offers a third sign just in case the first two do not work (4:2–9). Instead of being impressed by the signs at his disposal, Moses brings up the matter of his poor speaking ability (4:10). Again, the Lord has a response for this protest. God will tell Moses what to say (4:11–12).

None of this matters to Moses. He simply does not want the job. So he asks God to send someone else (4:13). For the Lord, this is the last straw. God gets mad. Still, though angry, the Lord meets this objection also. The Lord will send Aaron, Moses’ brother, as his spokesman. All Moses has to do is tell Aaron what to say. The Lord says that with Aaron and Moses’ rod, with which he is to perform the signs, Moses really should have enough to accomplish the task (4:14–17).

At last, Moses accedes. This is hardly the model for following God’s call, but a reluctant man who was prepared to offer unlimited excuses is now off to do what the Lord asked him to do. Moses asks his father-in-law for permission to check on the welfare of his people back in Egypt, which is granted. The Lord assures Moses that he’s in no immediate danger because those seeking his life are dead. At this point, Moses returns with his family and the all-important rod in his hand (4:18–20).

What happens next underscores that what God is about to do is more than a run-of-the-mill rescue operation. As important as that is, something even more substantial is afoot. The Lord tells Moses to proceed with the plans: return to Egypt, perform the requisite miracles, and do the appropriate signs.

Now we discover that it is simplistic to regard these merely as tactics to force Pharaoh to let the people go. Though God already expressed the view that it would take serious coercion to make Pharaoh act (3:19–20), here the deity allows that the situation is more complex than that. For this reason, the Lord plans to harden Pharaoh’s heart, that is, to render him stubborn. That way the king will not let the people go. When Pharaoh refuses, Moses is to inform him that God regards Israel as a first-born son, such that failure to release the “child” will put the king’s own first-born son in jeopardy (4:21–23). As we can plainly see, this confrontation will be anything but conventional.

Moses Returns to Egypt; Zipporah Saves His Life

While we are still puzzling over God’s designs against Pharaoh, something really bizarre takes place. When Moses stops at an inn on the return trip to Egypt, God tries to kill him (4:24). We recall the Lord’s former anger at Moses (4:14), but figured that God had cooled down by now. Apparently, we were wrong. Though the text is difficult, the bottom line is that Moses is saved by Zipporah’s quick action (4:25–26).

We may conclude two things. One is that God’s sovereignty is such that one simply cannot presume on God or always predict the divine behavior. Not even Moses is safe! Egypt, as we shall see, will ignore this feature of God to its own peril. Two is that we have one more example of a woman who acted decisively on her own and ended up furthering the divine agenda. Though God’s willingness to employ the incompetent and reluctant Moses remains quite odd, the women — Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, Zipporah — contribute to God’s plans in exemplary ways.

Finally, at God’s behest Aaron meets Moses, whereupon Moses relates what has happened. Then they both inform Israel’s elders, performing signs in the process. Happily, the people believe what God said and worship (4:27–31). God is about to keep the promise made so long ago to their ancestors. That is cause for thanksgiving and worship. The women had kept their proverbial fingers in the dike until Moses could get his act together. Now we are ready to see whether God will be able to use this man who wanted no part of the divine rescue mission.

Questions for Further Reflection: Exodus 1:1–4:31

  1. Why do you suppose that only more recently has the role of the women in these chapters been emphasized?
  2. Why do you think that in popular lore, even in the Church, Moses has been seen as larger-than-life and utterly heroic in spite of the way he is portrayed in the biblical text?
  3. What do you make of the great difference between the benevolent Egypt depicted in Genesis, especially in the Joseph narrative, and the extremely malevolent depiction in Exodus?
  4. Are there any clues in the text about Moses as a spiritual or religious person? What do you make of this?
  5. How do you understand theologically the idea of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh and the Egyptians?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Throughout the Old Testament in certain contexts Israelites, or precursors to Israelites, are referred to as Hebrews. Many have seen this term as a term indicating ethnicity, but this is simplistic. Usually the term is found in a context of non-Israelites. Either outsiders refer to Israelites as Hebrews or Israelites self-identify as Hebrews in the context of outsiders.

The term’s usage in the Old Testament suggests that it should be understood as a word suggesting social status rather than an ethnicity. An equivalent might be the term immigrant, which connotes a certain past and social standing. Any ethnic group may have immigrant status. Compare the following references: Genesis 14:13; 39:14, 17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32; Exodus 1:15, 16, 19; 2:6, 7, 11, 13; 3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3; 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12 (2); 1 Samuel 4:6, 9; 13:3, 7, 19; 14:11; 29:3; Jeremiah 34:9 (2), 14; Jonah 1:9; 1 Chronicles 24:27. In one instance, the term is so neutral in referring to immigrants there is a reference to Hebrews who had been with the Philistines joining the Israelites (1 Samuel 14:21).


Author’s Note 2

The ancient Near Eastern world was a polytheistic world. As such, all gods had personal names. It would have made little sense to say that one believed simply in God, for one had to designate which God or gods one recognized. Israel was no exception. The distinctive personal name of the Israelite God was spelled with four letters that would be the English equivalent of YHWH. This name is sometimes called the Tetragrammaton (or “four-letter name”). In most modern English translations whenever this name appears in the text it is translated with Lord, often in small capital letters (so the RSV and NRSV).

In older translations and even hymns, the word was rendered as Jehovah. While that name has some tradition behind it, there is actually no such word. Instead, Jehovah is a word made up of the consonants of YHWH (through German sources the Y is a J and the W is a V) and the vowels of the Hebrew generic name for God: Elohim. When YHWH tells Moses at the Burning Bush the divine name, Moses is being informed of the distinctive personal name of the Israelite deity.



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