When Life is Expendable

| Exodus 1:16 - 2:9 | January 13, 2019

Week of January 20, 2019

The Point: Life is a gift from God we are to protect and preserve..

The Birth of Moses: Exodus 1:16 – 2:9.

[16] “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.” [17] But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. [18] So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children 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 grew very strong. [21] And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. [22] Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” [2:1] Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. [2] The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. [3] When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. [4] And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. [5] Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. [6] When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” [7] Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” [8] And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. [9] And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. [ESV]

Genocide [1:15-22]. Because the first plan had failed to achieve what the regime wanted, Pharaoh, who is the driving force behind the whole policy, now tries a second, secret scheme. This may not have been the same Pharaoh as was referred to in the preceding verses. It would have taken some time for the ineffectiveness of the policy to become evident, and it is possible that the unnamed king of Egypt is just a mode of expression for royal policy in general. In this period of oppression we are introduced to the first two of five women who take a stand against the unthinking cruelty of the regime. The other three (Moses’s mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter) are introduced in the next chapter. The question is often raised whether these midwives were themselves Hebrew or Egyptian. While the text may be translated ‘midwives of the Hebrews’ or ‘midwives for the Hebrews’, their names have now been attested elsewhere as used during this period by Semitic peoples who spoke languages similar to Hebrew. Presumably these two were at the head of the guild of midwives, and Pharaoh expected them to go along with his plans not only because of his personal authority but also because of the extent to which they had become part of the Egyptian state machinery – and benefited from the rewards and status it conferred. It reveals the attitude of Moses as he wrote this, that the names of these two women who were of insignificant rank are recorded, while the Pharaohs are left nameless. The term Hebrew is used here for the first time in Exodus. In the early books of the Old Testament it seems to be used in a cultural, rather than a racial, sense. Similar words are attested in non-Biblical sources as referring to members of an underclass settling in another nation. The term is often found in situations where the Israelites are being described by a foreigner or where they themselves are relating to someone from a different background. Its use here may reflect Egyptian attitudes towards them. Pharaoh directs the midwives to carry out a policy of infanticide [16]. The birthstool translates a word for ‘a pair of stones’. There would be a space between them, and a woman would sit on them while giving birth. The two senior midwives were expected to instruct their subordinates to ascertain the sex of the child as it was born, and if it was a male, to kill it quietly. Pharaoh thus hoped to reduce the scope for military opposition from the Israelites. If the policy was totally successful, in time Israel would be destroyed. In the meantime, the females could become slave wives. Perhaps part of their potential for population growth could be diverted to the Egyptians. Overall the policy seems to be a measure of desperation. How could it be expected that it would remain a secret? When it became public knowledge, surely the women would do without the services of the midwives. Pharaoh does not seem to be thinking clearly, or else the policy was intended only to be a temporary measure to cut population growth. It certainly seems to have lapsed shortly thereafter, or been quite ineffective, considering the number of Israelite males who participated 80 years later in the Exodus. For the first time God is explicitly mentioned in the narrative [7]. It was many years since there had been a direct revelation from God such as the theophanies He had given to the patriarchs in Canaan. But faith in God had not died out in Israel. The midwives feared God, that is, they had a true respect and reverence for Him which led them to act in a way that they knew accorded with His requirements [9:30; 18:21]. Especially they had a grasp of the sanctity of life as a divine gift, and were not prepared to act contrary to their consciences no matter what political pressure they came under. The state, in the form of the despot Pharaoh, had resorted to having helpless infants slaughtered to further his purposes, but they would not be parties to it. The midwives were not national leaders. They did not seek leadership roles in their community. But their quiet and principled resistance thwarts the cruelty of the tyrant. After some time Pharaoh could not help but notice that his instructions were being disregarded [18]. Pharaoh’s power was absolute in the land. It was no trivial matter to be summoned before a dissatisfied Pharaoh. But the women kept their nerve [19]. There must have been sufficient truth in their reply for Pharaoh to remain silent. Civil government has no right to command or compel anything contrary to the law of God. It too is answerable to God, and its sphere of legitimate action is limited by Him. When the actions of political power run contrary to the requirements of God’s word, we must refuse to comply. We must obey God rather than men [Acts 5:29]. Their reply was certainly evasive as regards what they had done. It may not have been totally true. But did Pharaoh in pursuit of his God-denying policy have any right to be told the truth? If the women lied, then they are not commended for it, but for their actions against the state policy of genocide. They did not say, “We just did what we were told.” They recognized that they were responsible before God for their actions. So God dealt well with the midwives [20]. This is not just a forward looking reference to verse 21. It was through God’s control of the situation that there was no follow-up on Pharaoh’s part to the inquiries he had initiated. God in His providence ensured that Pharaoh did not harm the midwives. Furthermore the policy of genocide failed to work. And the people multiplied and grew very strong [20]. There was also a particular reward given by God to the midwives – a reward that matched the actions they had taken in preserving the infant lives. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families [21]. Pharaoh, however, was committed to his aim of curbing the growth of the Israelites. He could not be seen to fail, and so he proposed his final solution. Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live [22]. The male children were to be killed off so that the Israelites would in time die out, and would be no military threat. The female children in the meantime would add to the slave population that could be exploited. It was no longer a secret policy to be carried out quietly by a few. Now all Egypt knew, and were involved. The guilt of complicity is spread throughout all the Egyptians, and all will be involved in the judgmental catastrophe which will be its ultimate consequence. The extent to which Pharaoh’s policy was put into operation is uncertain. The Nile is mentioned. Would this only apply to families living near the river, or were all Egyptian settlements sufficiently close to the Nile to make this feasible? If this policy had been kept up for any length of time, it is impossible to explain the number of Israelite males at the Exodus. It may only have been sporadically enforced, and that in limited areas of the land. The policy that Pharaoh thought would diminish or exterminate the Israelites was overturned by God to become the channel by which he would raise up and equip the deliverer through whom He would set His people free.

Moses’ Birth [2:1-9]. The focus of chapter 2 narrows from that of the situation of the Israelites in Egypt. Now we are introduced to an Israelite family whose quiet but determined reaction to the quandary they face opens the way forward towards the Lord’s deliverance. Still there has been no mighty divine intervention, and we soon learn that eighty years of seeming divine inaction remain. But working in ways that humanly seem improbable, the hand of God is using the weak to shame the strong. Events have consequences that He wants, and thwart the decree of the human tyrant. The chapter relates three incidents in the early life of Moses. First there is his birth and divinely ordained survival so that he can become the deliverer of Israel [2:1-10]. Next there is an incident that occurred when Moses was nearly forty years old and attempted to rescue one of his fellow countrymen from Egyptian oppression [2:11-15]. Even Moses, who will eventually become the deliverer of God’s people, has to learn that he cannot force events forward at his own pace. The final event is Moses’ arrival in Midian and the help he extends to Jethro’s daughters, which leads to his marriage and settlement in that land [2:16-25]. Liberation for God’s people seems even more remote because their deliverer is in exile far from the scene of their plight. But God is providentially controlling matters so that in His good time all will fall into place to the glory of His name.

Moses in the Bulrushes [2:1-4]. The story is tersely related. Moses does not even name his father and mother. He simply says, Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman [1]. Details of Moses’ ancestry are given in Exodus 6:16-20. If there are no breaks in the genealogy there, then Amram, his father, was a grandson of Levi, and his mother, Jochebed, was the daughter of Levi. Such a marriage of nephew and aunt would later be prohibited, but it did not constitute a problem at this stage. Given Moses’ Egyptian upbringing, the double emphasis on Levi, Jacob’s third son, may have been made to stress his Israelite credentials. On both sides of his family he was of true Israelite descent. The phrase house of Levi includes all those descended from him, whether their relationship is close or distant. Whatever the route Moses’ life subsequently took, it would be his own kith and kin he would be leading to freedom. The narrative continues the woman conceived and bore a son [2]. Ordinarily the birth of a son would be a happy event. But Pharaoh’s edict required that all male children of the Hebrews be drowned in the Nile. They lived close to a royal residence [7] and it was unlikely that Moses’ presence would escape detection. However, when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months [2]. What does the fact that Moses was a fine child mean? The text gives no hint that his parents were given special revelation regarding Moses, such as later occurred regarding the birth of Samson [Judg. 13:2-5]. What his parents (and especially his mother) saw about him was that he was a fine child. It was by faith that his mother viewed the baby Moses not just as beautiful but as a gift entrusted to her by God [see Heb. 11:23]. That was why she was determined to save him. The focus here in Exodus on her actions because of her awareness of the divine purpose and sanctity of human life, fits in with the earlier presentation of how the midwives behaved and of the role of women in these early chapters of Exodus in thwarting Pharaoh’s oppression. But the time came when she could hide him no longer [3]. At first they could no doubt pass off any sound of crying as coming from the toddler Aaron, but that could not last indefinitely. Their faith was tested as to what they would do next. She took for him a basket made of bulrushes [3]. Bulrushes or papyrus was a reed that grew abundantly on the banks of the Nile. Its inner pith was split and pasted together to provide a surface for writing, but the Egyptians used it for many other purposes as well. His mother constructed a miniature river boat, and to make it just like them she daubed it with bitumen and pitch to make it waterproof. Clearly this basket was intended to be a means of conveying the young child to safety from threatening catastrophe. The reeds by the river bank would have prevented the basket from being carried away by the current, while providing shade for the baby. Her action transforms the river which Pharaoh had tried to use in his program to eliminate the Hebrew male children into a source of deliverance for her young child. What did she expect would happen? A newly made basket caught in the bulrushes would catch the eye and be worth recovering. By placing it near where Egyptian women might be expected to come to the river, Moses’ mother no doubt expected to attract the attention and sympathy of at least one of them. Moses’ sister is stationed to observe what will happen, but not too closely, lest her presence arouse suspicion. Her courage and initiative place her too among the ranks of the women who are here portrayed as acting in defiance of the oppressive edicts of Pharaoh.

Rescued by Pharaoh’s Daughter [2:5-9]. We do not know how long Miriam had to wait. Probably the care with which her mother had selected the spot meant that it was not too long, but we cannot tell if even she had anticipated quite what did happen. The wall paintings on Egyptian monuments show ladies of rank bathing in the sacred river with various female servants in attendance who walked along the river bank to guard the privacy of the princess. The identity of the princess is no more revealed than that of Pharaoh himself. There were various royal residences throughout the Delta region, many situated close to one of the branches of the Nile. Any one of the daughters of Pharaoh from the royal harem is all that the text warrants. The phrase took pity [6] denotes more than just a feeling of sympathy. It was also compassion and a determination to spare his life. She may have identified him as a Hebrew because of the policy in operation at the time, or she may have seen that he was circumcised. Now Miriam had been watching closely all that occurred, and judging that this was the moment to intervene, she approached the princess [7]. No doubt Miriam acted as naturally as she could, but we may well wonder if the princess did not have some idea of what was going on. However, the suggestion was a practical one in the circumstances (no Egyptian woman would have nursed a Hebrew baby), and so she readily fell in with it [8]. The relief this news brought must have been overwhelming. There would be no delay in Moses’ mother coming to the riverside [9]. The situation was not without its funny side: a mother was now being paid to look after her own baby, and she could do so without fear of the Egyptian authorities. If anyone asked about him, she could name the princess as her defense. The other side of the picture is that in God’s providential oversight of Moses’ early years the instructions given by the princess were not for his mother to come and act as a nurse to Moses in the palace, but to take him away and care for him in his home environment. Moses’ earliest years were thus with his own family, where he would learn about his true identity and the promises God had given to His people. Later when God revealed Himself to Moses, He could meaningfully identify Himself as the God of your father [3:6]. The pious background of his early years shaped the outlook of the growing child and provided the basis for his later faith.” [Mackay, pp. 40-51].

Questions for Discussion:

1. God commends the midwives for their disobedience to the Pharaoh. The Bible teaches that we are to submit to the governing authorities [e.g., Rom. 13:1-7]. When are we to disobey the governing authorities like the midwives did [Matt. 22:21; Acts 5:29]?

2. How do we see the hand of God at work in this passage? How does God use five women from different backgrounds to accomplish His purpose of raising up and equipping His chosen deliverer of His people?

3. What lessons can we learn from this passage? What comfort can we derive from God’s providential work in the events of this passage?

4. One of the things that distinguishes Christianity from secularism is the value given to human life. We see this especially today with the practice of abortion and the movement towards euthanasia. Why does Christianity have a higher view of human life than secularism? What things do you see in our modern culture that reduces the value given to every human life?


Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

The Message of Exodus, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Exodus, Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, B & H Publishing.