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Coincidence or Providence?
Verse Commentary on Exodus 1:22-2:10

Dennis Bratcher

The Book of Exodus tells the story of the central historical event in the entire Old Testament: God's deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It is important to keep in mind from the beginning that while these narratives are grounded in historical events, their primary purpose is not just to record historical data. The essential aim of the book is theological; that is, to communicate something about God and how humanity is to respond to God. Therefore, attention to how the story is told is just as critical as the details themselves.

Genesis 1-11 reveals God as Creator and humanity as sinfully violating God's boundaries in the world. Genesis 12-50 discloses God as Promise Maker and Sustainer working with sometimes less-than-perfect patriarchs as they struggle to keep sight of the promise. The unfolding account in Exodus portrays God as Deliverer and Covenant Maker and traces the formation of a people who respond to God's activity in faith (Ex. 14:31). Especially in Exodus, God is not a deity who is far removed from the world and is only incidentally interested in it. Rather, God is actively and intimately involved on a personal level with His creation and is willing to interact with humanity in the arena of human history.. That understanding of deity was absolutely unique in the ancient world.

But the book also reveals that God does not just intrude and work his will in arbitrary ways. Instead, he often works in ordinary settings through ordinary human beings, sometimes very inadequate ones, enabling them through His presence and guidance to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. In this passage God does not act in the marvelous manner in which He does later in the exodus narrative. Yet, from the way the narrative is told, we know He is there, working through the efforts of a wise mother and a faithful sister.

1. Living Under Threat (Exodus 1:22)

1:22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: "Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live."

22. Then Pharaoh gave this order  The arrival of a new Pharaoh in Egypt who "did not know Joseph" (1:8) indicates a turnover in power, the rise of a new dynastic line. Historically such changes were marked by internal turmoil as the new ruler tried to establish his authority and consolidate his empire.

After their flight to escape the famine in Canaan, the twelve sons of Israel (Jacob) had grown into a sizable minority within Egypt (1:6-7). The presence of a large contingent of potentially hostile resident aliens within the borders of his country would understandably have given the new Pharaoh cause for concern (1:10) Pharaoh met the threat first with persecution in an attempt to crush the Hebrews into submission (1:11-14), then with a campaign of genocide against the Hebrews. Since the Pharaoh was absolute monarch in the country and was at various times considered to be the incarnation of the falcon-headed god Horus or the sun god Ra, his word was law.

To all his people Pharaoh's first attempt at extermination was aimed at working secretly through the midwives, having them kill the baby boys as they were born (1:15. 16). When that failed, he resorted to an even bloodier and more straightforward plan: to have the Egyptian people themselves participate in the slaughter. The imperatives you will throw and you will keep alive are plural in Hebrew, indicating that the people were to carry out this command.

Every boy that is born The context would indicate that it was to be every Hebrew boy. Some modern translations (RSV) following ancient versions add "to the Hebrews" here for clarification.

Not only would the extermination of boy babies eventually eliminate the problem of overpopulation, in terms of the biblical story there is an even more ominous overtone. To put the male children at risk endangered the promise to Abraham, because it was to be through his descendants that the world would come to know God (Gen 12, 22) The threat was not just to the people but also to God's purpose of revealing himself through the descendants of Abraham. Everything was at risk!

Throw into the river The annual flooding of the Nile allowed agriculture in an otherwise barren desert. The river was the lifeline of ancient Egypt and was personified in the Egyptian god Hapi, the essence of the life giving water. Seasonal festivals were observed along the banks of the Nile in honor of Hapi and occasionally human sacrifices were offered to the river to insure the annual flood. However, if there is any trace of this in the method by which Pharaoh chose to dispose of the Hebrew babies, the biblical tradition is silent. But it is interesting to note that the first two plagues later in the exodus story involve the Nile (7:14-8:15).

II. Facing Perilous Circumstances (Exodus 2:1-4)

2:1 Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

1. A man of the house of Levi ... a Levite woman  We learn their names much later in the book (6:20). The lack of any names for characters in the story at this point forces attention to the nature of the events rather than to the characters. Although their actions are important and certainly play a role in the story, this is not intended to be a biography of the people and they are not presented as heroic figures. The focus is rather on the commonplace events of life (marriage, birth) in which some fairly ordinary people find themselves dealing with threatening circumstances. It is into this setting that the unexpected and extraordinary intrudes.

2. Gave birth to a son  While there is no specific reference here to the decree of Pharaoh, it is obvious that the son of chapter two is to be read in light of the threat against every boy in chapter one.

From verse one it appears that this baby is the first-born. It is a little surprising when his sister, who is obviously much older, appears in verse four. We also find out later in the book that he has a brother who is three years older (7:7). There have been various explanations for the omission of the siblings in verse one (girls were not counted; the brother was not really older but is listed as older in chapter seven to establish his superiority as priest, etc.). The simplest explanation is to take the story line seriously and realize that the order of birth is not a concern of the narrator here; the entire focus is on the birth and "rescue" of this single baby boy.

When she saw ... a fine child The Hebrew word translated fine (tob) can mean beautiful, good, healthy, or appropriate for a particular purpose. Probably "healthy" with the overtone of "appropriate for a purpose" would be the best understanding here.

3. A papyrus basket  The word translated basket is the same Hebrew word (tebah) used to describe the vessel that saved Noah and his family from the flood waters (translated "ark" in Gen 6-8). This word, which only occurs in these two stories in the Hebrew Bible, is undoubtedly used by the narrator deliberately. In both stories, the emphasis is on the activity of God in using the efforts of ordinary people to accomplish his purpose. In both cases, the "ark," the instrument of deliverance, was carefully prepared by the people themselves.

Put it among the reeds ... of the Nile The mother here ironically fulfills the command of Pharaoh and "throws" her baby into the Nile; but not before she carefully prepares for his survival! This Pharaoh who wanted to "deal shrewdly" with the Hebrews (1:10) has been thwarted by their proliferation under oppression, has been outwitted by the midwives, and is now outmaneuvered by a loving mother. The irony of a Pharaoh who was the incarnation of the Egyptian gods yet "did not know" is used as a point of emphasis throughout the entire exodus story (cf. 5:2, 7:5, 14:4).

4. His sister  The sister is likewise unnamed in this story. Only later in the book do we learn her name (15:20). The fact that the sister watches over the three- month-old infant at a distance is an indication that the baby is actually being cared for rather than abandoned. But it is evident from the way the story is told ("to see what would happen") that there is an element of risk and uncertainty involved.

In the larger context of the Biblical tradition, the reader knows the magnitude of the risk! The entire purpose of God for His people, the entire promise for the future of the sons of Abraham now rests on this three month old child adrift in the Nile!

III. Good Luck or God? (Exodus 2:5-10a)

5. Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girt to get it. 6. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said. 7. Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?" 8. "Yes, go," she answered And the girl went and got the baby's mother. 9. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10a When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son.

5. She saw the basket There is nothing in the story to indicate that this was part of a preconceived plan on the part of the mother. In fact, the discovery of the child by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh only heightens the risk! And if discovery alone were not enough she recognizes the child as one of the Hebrew babies!

6. She felt sorry for him  This is the first solid indication in the story that the child will survive. The Hebrew word translated felt sorry for (charnel) means "to spare" or "to have mercy on." The word is often used in contexts where there was a reason to take a life but because of compassion it was not done (cf. 2 Sam 21:7; Mal 3:17) or with a negative in warnings not to spare persons who were accountable (Deut 13:6- 11).

That the daughter of the Pharaoh who issued the brutal decree should respond with compassion at the chance discovery of an "outlaw" Hebrew baby is perhaps a touch of irony to the story. More probably, the unlikeliness of the events points beyond the characters to the unseen working of God. However, the fact that there is no direct mention of God here leads the reader to draw that conclusion for himself from the events.

7. Then his sister asked  The promptness of the sister's action is another indication that the baby is being lovingly cared for. While there are intimations of the providence of God at work, there is also unmistakable notice taken of the actions of the people involved. While they are not the focal point of the story, yet without the wisdom of the mother and the faithfulness of the sister, the infant would not have been spared from the waters of the Nile. God may be at work here, but He is working through human agents, even the daughter of Pharaoh.

8. To nurse the baby  While Hebrew women usually nursed their infants, it was a common practice in Mesopotamia and Egypt for wealthy women to hire a wetnurse to care for their infant (cf. 2 Kings 11:2).

9. Got the baby's mother We should not overlook the irony of having the baby's own mother hired to take care of him. While the biblical tradition often openly asserts the activity of God in miraculous ways, it can also acknowledge God working silently and unobtrusively in "ordinary" events (note the Joseph story, Genesis 37-50, especially 50:20). Throughout the exodus story the narrator uses such irony as a way to express indirectly what he wants to communicate about God and his activity in the world.

10a He became her son  The Hebrew word ben, translated son, has a range of meaning from the specific idea of "son" (2:2) to the general idea "people" (1:7, sons of Israel, i.e., Israelites). No doubt the young man was taken into Pharaoh's household and treated as a member of the royal family. But a later incident also shows that he had no special standing when he came into conflict with Egyptians (2:15). Even though he was later mistaken for an Egyptian, probably from his clothing (2:19), he remained a Hebrew (2:11).

IV. The Name of Moses (Exodus 2:10b)

10b She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water."

The biblical tradition has here connected the name Moses with the Hebrew verb mashah which means "to draw out." Actually, the name Moses is the Egyptian word mose (boy or son) written in Hebrew. The word can be seen in the names of several Egyptian Pharaohs (Thutmoses, Ahmose, Rameses). Many scholars agree that the connection of the Egyptian name with a Hebrew word was a later development in the tradition, added to the story by a narrator, perhaps unaware of the word's Egyptian origin. The explanation of names by reference to events is a common feature of Israelite narratives (Gen 35:16-20; 1 Sam 4:19-22).

The developing story here in Exodus is something that we should not overlook since it will help us understand this passage. Initially this "rescue" of the infant from the Nile seems a positive development, and will prove to be so in the long run. But at this point in the narrative, it certainly seems like a setback.

People listening to this story for the first time would have expected that this child might provide relief from the oppression, that God might use him to fulfill the promises made many years earlier to Abraham (Gen 12). Yet here, even though he has been saved from the Nile, he is in the household of the "enemy" with no indication of his future. The narrator has built into the story a subtle but delightful anticipation that if this young man is to accomplish anything, God will again have to work in his life

Of course, this child becomes Moses the Deliverer and Moses the lawgiver.  But in the story, he has only disappeared into Pharaoh's court.  Just as often in our own lives, we do not know how God is at work.  Our initial hopes and plans may disappear under the power of those who would destroy us.  And yet, it is only as we trust God, and remain faithful to him, that we come to understand that even when the Pharaoh seems to have won, God is not yet finished.  And we learn that what may appear to be common and ordinary, or what may appear to be coincidence, God may in his providence turn into something wonderful. 

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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