Exodus 1: Stories of Faithfulness
This is the first in a series of reflective devotionals through the book of Exodus. There are 47 of these so it will take some time to work through them, almost a year if done as a weekly Bible study. I know what you are thinking: "A year in Exodus? Maybe a couple of months to talk about the burning bush, the miracle of the parting sea, and the Ten Commandments, but a year? That sounds more like an exile!"
Yes, a year. I am convinced that the whole Bible is the word of God and that even those parts that we tend to label as "less than inspiring" actually have something to say to us. The key to working with those parts is context. The way to catch the full impact of the smaller portions of text, be they inspiring or uninspiring, is to understand their place in the whole. And of course, the only way to get to know the whole is to get to know the parts. So in this series we will find ourselves constantly going back and forth between the whole exodus story and the particular aspects of any given text. I think we will be somewhat surprised as we go along just how much the Lord has to say to us through Exodus. We will discover that Exodus talks. May we have ears to hear.
Exodus continues the story begun in Genesis 12 of God's promise to Abraham. The promise was threefold: God promised to make Abraham a great nation, to give him land, and by implication to be with him. When Genesis ends Abraham has become a father but hardly a great nation. More, his offspring have no land. His descendents number about 70 and they are down in Egypt living on Egyptian land. Has God really been with Abraham? Will the promises be kept? The questions are legitimate. Exodus is the continued story of the promise question. Is Abraham’s God a promise keeping God?
Exodus 1 begins by reporting a rather miraculous development: the land is now "swarming" with Israelites! Verb after verb the writer testifies that the Israelites are exceedingly numerous and that they fill the land. In other words, the writer wants us to know that God has kept his promise to Abraham - his descendents are now a great people. This has been no ordinary population explosion. The verbs echo the Genesis 1 creation verbs, especially those regarding the living creatures that have the sea as their habitat: "Let the water teem with living creatures." God has been silently present down in Egypt, multiplying the Hebrews to the extent that the land is teeming with them.
Some translations miss this verbal connection in the story. For example, if you use an NIV and are looking for the word "teeming" in Exodus 1:7, you will not find it. The NIV uses a "dynamic equivalent" translation theory, seeking to translate thought for thought as opposed to word for word. In many cases that is helpful for understanding an ancient language. But at times, it causes us to miss subtle ways that the storyteller communicates what he wants to say about God.
We don’t normally think of people as "teeming" or "swarming" and thus the NIV does not use one of these words to describe the increase in population. But the "teeming" verb is there in the Hebrew, the same verb used in Genesis 1:20 regarding the sea dwelling creatures. Egypt is teeming with Abraham’s offspring just as the sea is teeming with life.
Also, the NIV, which in many ways is a good translation for casual reading, somewhat lessens the intensity of this (miraculous) population explosion. The Hebrew text uses five verbs to describe the population increase of the Hebrews while the NIV only provides four verbs in its dynamic equivalent translation.
1:7 But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific [Heb: "swarmed" or "teemed"]; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (NRSV)
In this case, the dynamic equivalent translation is not nearly as dynamic as the original Hebrew.
Exodus 1 also reports a further development. A new Pharaoh/regime has come to power that has no regard for the history of Joseph (see Genesis 37ff.). The result is that the new Pharaoh turns his power and nation against the Israelites, who up till then had enjoyed the favor of Egypt due to the legacy of Joseph. Through propaganda against the Israelites the Pharaoh incites fear among the Egyptians. This clears the way for him to force the Israelites into ruthless slave labor, and thereby use them for government building projects. (What a way to gain a cheap labor force!)
When the Israelites continue to multiply Pharaoh goes so far as to legislate genocide. First he orders the Hebrew midwives to terminate the birth-lives of Hebrew boys. When this fails he empowers and commands all of his Egyptian citizens to throw every Hebrew baby boy into the Nile to die. Chapter 1 ends with this drowning atrocity and once again the promise keeping ability of God is in question.
God has kept his promise to give Abraham descendents too numerous to count, but now a king is trying to reverse the promise. What is God going to do about it? And what about the second part of the promise? Will they ever get their own land, or will they remain in slavery in a foreign land? Can/will God keep his promise when the most powerful nation on earth is pitted against him? Is God really with Abraham’s children and does that presence really make a difference? Exodus is the testimony that the Pharaoh's will could not stand against God's will. It is the continuing witness of God's faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. God is present, and that presence makes all the difference in the world, even in the land of Egypt.
Within this big story of God's faithfulness the two Hebrew midwives call for our attention. They are caught between God and a hard spot. On the one side they have the Pharaoh making demands on them to kill male newborns. The king of the land is ordering them in no uncertain terms to kill every Hebrew boy that is born. There will surely be consequences if they disregard his will. When Pharaoh commands, people obey. On the other side is God. The midwives no doubt knew in their hearts that to turn birth into death was to go against God, the creator and sustainer of life. Who would the midwives honor? Would they do as Pharaoh demanded, hoping to win some favor and comfort in the midst of the cruel slavery their people were suffering? Or would they fear God, revering his life-giving authority and trusting him to make a way, regardless of Pharaoh's will?
The Hebrew midwives opted to fear God and disobey Pharaoh. Caught between God and a hard spot they trusted God. They did not give-in to Pharaoh's demands. They obeyed God. When questioned by Pharaoh they gave him a line about the strength of Hebrew women compared to Egyptian women. Pharaoh bought it – what did he know about giving birth? God in turn blessed the midwives with families of their own.
I like the story of the midwives. We all know that God is faithful. And just as we know how Exodus turns out we also know (by faith), we know in similar manner from our later perspective that Christ is victorious and that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. We know the big story. The midwives remind us that God is faithful in the little stories. God is faithful at the personal level. God is not just working out grand promises involving all of creation. God is faithful to two women who dare to disobey Pharaoh in reverence of God. We need to hear that. God is faithful not just to redeem all creation. God is faithful at our level, in our smaller stories of negotiating demands and promises, of learning to trust the Promise Maker.
Maybe we cannot quite relate to the murderous demands placed on the midwives (or maybe we can), but we can relate to being between God and a hard spot. There are always demands that in our hearts we know go against the will of God. There is the temptation to cave-in to those demands in hope of making life a little more comfortable for ourselves, getting along with the powers that be. The demands may come from a boss, friend, family member, boyfriend, political powers, etc. The issue remains the same. Will we trust/fear God, or will we acquiesce to the demands that we know are wrong? The midwives give us courage and hope to fear/honor God, for God is mindful of our dilemmas and faithful to and even beyond our trust. When we find ourselves between God and a hard spot, between doing right and meeting demands, the midwives challenge us to opt for God. God will make a way! So reject the demands and honor God. God is not just concerned with big things. He is concerned with us. And the midwives testify that God will surprise us with His faithfulness!
Along with this primary thrust of midwife faith and faithful God, I can’t help but notice that there were two midwives. Imagine the conversations that these two women must have had with each other. Imagine how they must have encouraged each other to do right. Imagine how they had to trust each other in their commitment to stand against Pharaoh (okay, to lie to Pharaoh). Out of acknowledging their accountability to God they became deeply accountable to each other. I suspect that this mutual accountability and the encouragement that ensued played a significant role in their ability to rebuff Pharaoh. They stood, in part, because they stood together. I think we too will find that an acknowledgement of our accountability with God will call us into a greater accountability to each other. As we embrace one another, we too will find greater strength to stand.