Persecution in Egypt

Exodus 1

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2016

Today, we will begin with the first chapter of Exodus. There are some incredible things in this chapter for us.  It is a fascinating chapter.  Some chapters of the Bible may not seem too relevant to us today (e.g. genealogies in Chronicles).  Other chapters of the Bible are very relevant to the day in which we live.  This is one of them.  Things have not changed a whole lot in thirty five hundred years.  What we see in this chapter, we see today in our own world in a slightly different form.

Unborn babies are still at risk today with the prevalence of abortion in the US and the world today. God’s people are still persecuted today all over the world.  Anti-Semitism is still a problem today.  All you have to do is look at the Middle East today.  Genocide still takes place today.  Euphemisms are used today.  People call it “The Final Solution” or “ethnic cleansing” (instead of “ethnic killing”).

This chapter also raises some important ethical questions. Is it always wrong to lie?  Is lying ever justified?  Some say that the two Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh and God still blessed them.  We will look at that issue.  Finally, we see the issue of civil disobedience with you in this chapter.  Is it ever wrong to disobey a direct order from a government official?

Firsts in History

1. The chapter describes the first attempted genocide. If the males were all killed, the females would intermarry with the rest of the population and the race would eventually be destroyed.

2. The chapter mentions the first anti-Semite in history. Pharaoh was the world’s first anti-Semite.

3. The chapter describes the first forced Jewish labor camp.

4. The chapter describes the first case of civil disobedience in recorded history.

5. The chapter describes the first pro-lifers in history (two Hebrew midwifes).

6. The chapter contains the first example of population control. These actions were taken because “the people of Israel are too many and too mighty”.

7. The chapter contains the first example of sex or gender selection (choosing the sex of the baby in advance).

There is one villain in the chapter, an evil bloodthirsty tyrant.  There are two heroes in this chapter, the two midwives. We do not even know their nationality.  They may have been Jews.  They had Hebrew names but Josephus said that they were Egyptian[1].  Hagar had a Hebrew name and she was Jewish. The strange thing here is that the heroes in this story were actually lawbreakers.  They were a pair of God-fearing lawbreakers.

Background to the Chapter

Notice how the book begins: “And these are the names of the children of Israel (1:1).  Some bibles do not translate the first word.  They just read “These are the names of the children of Israel” (NIV).  Other bibles read “Now these are the names of the children of Israel” (KJV).  In Hebrew, the very first word in Exodus is “and”.  That is very important.

It shows that Exodus is not a completely separate book.  It is the continuation of the story of Genesis.  Exodus is the sequel to the Book of Genesis.  The first seven verses of the chapter are just a review of the Book of Genesis. The first words begin with a summary of Genesis (1:1-7).

Some of your grammar teachers may have discouraged you from starting a sentence with a conjunction but Exodus begins with a conjunction, so does Leviticus, so does Numbers.  It is the first word in the book of Joshua.  It is the first word in the Book of Judges and the Book of Ruth.  In fact, thirteen books of the OT.  These are not just sentences but whole books of the Bible.

Population Explosion

Exodus begins with a huge population growth.  Seventy men went down to Egypt but four hundred years there is a population explosion.  At the time of the Exodus, there are six hundred thousand and that is just counting the men.  But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them (1:7).

Many of their ancestors had fertility problems (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel).  Now, they are multiplying like rabbits.  They must have had high fertility rates, coupled with low mortality rates, low miscarriages and low disease.  God promised Abraham that this would happen.  He said one day he would have so many descendants; he would not be able to count them all.

Exodus 1:8 says, Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (ESV).  What is the lesson here?  You cannot always trust government.  When an election takes place and a new administration comes in, sometimes they make things better and sometimes they make things worse off than before.  That is why the Bible says, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9 NIV).

Here a new king takes over and institutes some major policy changes.  This Pharaoh was big on change but he had two problems.  He was ungrateful and he was ignorant.  He is also ungrateful to the very one who helped save the whole country from starvation.  Joseph was the one who helped save the whole country from a famine.  He was ignorant of his own history.  He did not know Joseph or how he helped Egypt.

What happened in Egypt has happened in America. Many in America do not know their own history.  It is the sign of the decay of a civilization.  Many do not know that we have a religious background.  Some of our politicians do not seem to know that the founders of our country were religious.  They think it was founded as a completely secular country.

Many have no idea that Harvard was originally a Christian school.  It was created to train ministers.  In fact, Christians started all of the Ivy League schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale). Harvard was named after a Christian minister (John Harvard, who was a pastor).  The first presidents of the school insisted that there could be no true knowledge or wisdom without Jesus Christ.

This Pharaoh institutes a policy of persecution.  This chapter is very important.  It is still very relevant today.  This chapter is a case study in anti-Semitism.   The first documented case of anti-Semitism is found in Exodus 1.  It is the earliest case and it is Egyptian in nature. The Egyptians were the first people to persecute God’s people.

Why is this important?  Anti-Semitism did NOT begin with the holocaust.  Hitler did not start it.  It has been done all throughout history and is still done today.  Why did the Pharaoh do this? Why did he pick on the Jews?

They were foreigners.  They were not big on foreigners. The Egyptians had just kicked out the Hyksos invaders from the country, who had ruled Egypt for one hundred and eight years.   Pharaoh had a large number of Jewish immigrants in Egypt.  They all lived in one location.  They were a different race.  They spoke a different language.  They had a different culture.  They had a different religion and they did not assimilate in the country.

Some think it is similar to what is happening in Europe today.  There are a lot of Muslims in Europe right now and they refuse to assimilate into Western culture and it is causing problems.  There is one big difference.  Some of these Muslims are radicalized.  They believe in jihad.  They commit violent crimes in the country.

That was NOT happening in Egypt.  They had absolutely no desire to conquer Egypt to cause a revolution in the country. They were not chopping people’s heads off or raping women.  They were law-abiding citizens. They were harmless shepherds.  Pharaoh believed that the Jews were a military threat.  He believed that they were a national security threat to the country.  It was completely irrational.  It was xenophobia.  Anti-Semitism is always irrational but this Pharaoh believed that there was a Jewish problem in his country and he needed to solve it.

Pharaoh’s Devious Plan

1. Forced Labor

Pharaoh’s plan to control the population involved four parts.  The first stage of the plan involved forced labor.  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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. (1:9-11)

No longer are they just shepherds.  Pharaoh turned them all into construction workers and used them for government building projects.  He used them to build some cities (Pithom and Ramses).  Pharaoh worked them hard.  He afflicted them.  He put heavy burdens on them.  He wanted to work to demoralize them and break their spirit.  He wanted to work them to death.  Some would die and the others would be too tired to have kids but it didn’t work.  It backfired.

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 (1:12 ESV).  Pharaoh loses round one.  His plan didn’t work and the reason it did not work is that he tried to stop the program of God.  God promised to increase the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Pharaoh is trying to wipe it out.

The same thing happened to Hitler.  He tried to wipe the Jews off of the map in the holocaust and it also backfired.  After the holocaust, the Jews were given their own homeland.  His actions only led to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

2. Slavery

The second stage involved slavery. They completely lost their freedom and became the property of the Egyptians and the Egyptians took advantage of them.  So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 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 (1:13-14 ESV).

They were not house slaves, like Joseph; they were field slaves.  It was hard and ruthless.  How long did were the Hebrews slaves to the Egyptians?  They were slaves for at least eighty years but probably much longer.  Moses is born in Exodus 2 and takes the Jews out of Egypt when he is eighty years old (7:7).

3. Abortion

The third stage involved abortion.  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.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live (1:15-17).

This section introduces us to two very important women that God used.  We can learn a lot from these two women and what they did in this chapter.  They were both midwives.  Midwives have been around for a long time. Shifra and Puah were NOT the first recorded midwives in the Bible.  Rachel had a midwife (Genesis 35:17) and so did Tamar (Genesis 38:27-30).

Midwives played a very important role in the ancient world.  Childbirth in the ancient world had a high mortality rate.  There were no hospitals in the ancient world.  Delivery usually took place in the home with the help of a midwife.  Midwives cut the infant’s umbilical cord, washed the baby, and presented the child to the mother (cf. Ezekiel 16:4).

Pharaoh gives these two midwives explicit instructions.  What are the instructions?  Kill babies, not all babies, just Jewish babies.  They were to kill only male Jewish babies.  He tells them to perform a partial-birth abortion.  If the baby comes out and is a boy, suffocate it.  If it is a girl, help it live. It is the opposite of China and India where baby girls were often killed and boys were spared.  The plan in this country was to kill the baby boys.

Exodus 1 and Abortion Today

How does this apply to our day?  This is where the bad news comes in.  We have abortion today but what we do in America is far worse. We have killed far more babies that Pharaoh ever did.  We kill a million a year and fifty-eight million since Roe v. Wade.  We kill girls as well as boys.  Abortion kills babies voluntarily.  Women are not forced to abort their babies.  They are not commanded to do this.  They choose to do it (“pro-choice”).

These two women did something amazing.  In America, people have the legal right to abort their own babies and often choose to do so.  These two women were COMMANDED to kill other people’s children and they REFUSED to do it. They said “No” to Pharaoh.  They deliberately disobeyed a direct order from the most powerful man in the ancient world.  Their job as midwives was to save lives, not take life.

These two women committed the first act of civil disobedience in the Bible.  They broke a law.  It was an unjust law.  Pharaoh commanded them to sin.  He commanded them to commit murder, so they broke the law.  What they did is what we should do today if we are ever commanded to sin.  We should obey God, rather than man (Acts 5:29).  Pharaoh’s laws directly contradicted God’s laws.  God’s laws always supersedes man’s law. We should not break laws we do not like but we should also not keep laws that involve sin.

What they did was dangerous.  They risked their life doing it.  Pharaoh was a dictator.  To disobey a direct order from Pharaoh is like disobeying a direct order from Hitler.  They risked their lives to save the lives of these little Jewish baby boys.  Have you ever done that?  Have you ever risked your own life to save another life?  They did.  They were definitely pro-life.  They loved babies.  They were tenderhearted.  They had the maternal instinct.   They were also selfless.  They thought of others, rather than themselves.

Why did they do it?  The text tells us.  They were motivated by fear, fear of God.  We are told that twice in the text (1:17, 21).  It is the first time God is mentioned in the Book of Exodus.  Now this is very interesting.  There were many gods in Egypt but they feared the true God.

Pharaoh had to power to kill them but they feared God more than Pharaoh.  They feared God more than they feared a dictator who could kill them.  They feared the King of the Universe, who is invisible, more than they feared the King of Egypt, who was visible.

So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 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” (1:18-19).

The very next verses say that God blessed these two women.  He honored them for what they did.  How did He bless them?  He blessed them in three ways. First, God honored them by naming them.  They are named Shiphrah and Puah.  Their names mean “beauty” and “splendor”.  Many women are NOT named in the Bible but they were.

In fact, the Pharaoh is not even named but they are.   He was the big shot in his day but was not important to God.  His name was deliberately left out of Exodus. “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.” (Proverbs 10:7).

Two, He protected them. He not only named them, He kept them alive.  They were not put to death.  Three, He gave them households of their own.  And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own (1:21). The KJV says “He made them houses”.  The idea is not houses but families.

They started with no households but God gave them households.  They were single before this but got married and had children.   I Samuel 2:30 says, “The one who honors me I’ll honor.”  They saved the household of another family and so God gave them a household of their own.

Now this raises a lot of questions.  Is lying a sin?  Yes.  How could God honor people who lie to the government?  He didn’t.  That is a common misunderstanding about these women.  Their answer was evasive but it was not necessarily dishonest.

If you notice, these women did not directly answer Pharaoh’s question.  It was brilliant.  He asked them, “Why did you let the babies live?”  They said, “Hebrew women are different than Egyptian women”.  It was not necessarily true in every case but it may have been true as a generalization.  What can we learn from this?

Sometimes, we should tell everything (“the whole truth and nothing but the truth”).  Sometimes, we should tell nothing.  Jesus did that.  There were many questions he answered. The High Priest asked him a question.   He said, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mattherw 26:63).  Jesus answered that question.  He said, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Matthew 26:63).

Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews (John 18:33). Jesus answered that question.  Herod asked him a question and he didn’t answer it.   When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer (Luke 23:8-9 ESV).

4. Infanticide

The last stage is infanticide. Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (1:22 NIV).  The first three plans did not work, so he tries male infanticide.  This was Pharaoh’s final solution.

Let the babies be born and then throw them into the river after they are born.  Evil seems to be winning.  You have not only murder but state-sanctioned murder, mass murder.  That is the setting for the birth of Moses in the next chapter.  When things could not get any worse, Moses was born in the darkest days of the nation.


[1] Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews (II, 9, 2).

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