Friday, June 21, 2013

Exodus 1: Shiphrah and Puah Are Heroes

Today's Podcast

Before we get to the reading, let's look at the wikipedia entry on this book.

Authorship: Apparently Moses is supposed to be the author of the first 5 books, but scholarship as of late 19th century sees this as unlikely. Apparently, it is thought to likely have been written in the 6th century BCE during the Babylonian exile.

Israel Increases Greatly in Egypt (v. 1-7)

Joseph and his brothers eventually die, but they were fruitful and their people multiply greatly in Egypt and grew increasingly strong.

So we are moving forward to new characters. Good to know.

Pharaoh Oppresses Israel (v. 8-22)

There is a new king in Egypt, and he looks around at all of the Israelites and is concerned that they are too many and too mighty. They are a real threat if they go to war against Egypt. Since they are strong, the king decides to deal shrewdly with them.

He's a racist prick, but he seems to have a point. If the Israelites have a huge population in Egyptian territory and yet don't consider themselves Egyptian, there are big potential problems down the road. He fears they are already too strong to deal with them directly, so they use more clever methods.
pic source

The Egyptians made the Israelites work as slaves, and yet they still multiplied.

It doesn't really go into detail about how they made them slaves, on the surface it doesn't seem very likely, as they are a very strong group. I think we can focus on the verse that says the Egyptians acted shrewdly, though. They tricked them into harder and harder work somehow, and before they knew it they were slaves and they didn't have the chance to fight back.

Interesting point from Guzik
The nation could not grow this way in Canaan, because they was practically impossible to avoid intermarriage with the pagan and wicked inhabitants of Canaan. Egypt was so racist and had such an entrenched system of apartheid that Israel could grow there over several centuries without being assimilated.

The king then wanted to stop the Israelites from multiplying more, so he decided to have all of their male children killed. His first plan involved the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who work with the Israelite women. He told them to let any girls live but kill all of the boys when they are born.

Presumably they could do it before anyone else knew what was up, and everyone would think the baby was just stillborn. Well, this king is now showing himself to be a truly horrible person. Killing babies, what a monster.

Another interesting tidbit from Guzik, he's on fire today
We shouldn't expect that these two women were the only midwives for all the children of Israel. They were probably the "presidents" of the "association of midwives."
The midwives refused to do this because they feared God. They didn't go through with it, and when the king asked them about it they lied and said that the women gave birth before they got there and they didn't have time to kill the boys.

They are fucking heroes. This is the kind of stuff I would like to see more of in the bible. These two women were put in a really difficult position, someone in power over them asked them to do a horrible thing and they resisted. Awesome!

Another point from Guzik here
Many people assume that the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh when they said this. However, this may not be the case. The midwives may have told the truth, - perhaps indeed the Hebrew women were heartier than the Egyptian women, yet the midwives did not explain all the reasons why the babies were spared.
I went back and read it again, I suppose he's right, they don't explicitly say the midwives lied, but it does imply it by saying they "did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them". I suppose they could have just "shown up late" to the Hebrews or something. It seems much more likely to me that it is a lie. Either way, they are still standing up to the king.

The king declares instead to cast every son of the Hebrews into the Nile.

This is actually a little bit confusing. It seemed that he was trying to be a bit stealthy with the midwives, but now he's just throwing children into the river? Perhaps he thinks he can get people to do this, where having them snap a baby's neck is a harder sell.

From Guzik
Seeing that his plan is not working, Pharaoh makes a far more radical command, that all male children should be killed - even Egyptian boys (Pharaoh commanded all his people).
Wait, what? I went back and looked at the verse.
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."
But on my kindle there is a footnote
Samaritan, Septuagint, Targum; Hebrew lacks to the Hebrews
So according to some sources the verse would instead read
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."
That's a big fucking difference.

For the verses of note post


Exodus 1:17 The midwives ignored the kings orders and protected the children

"But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live."


  1. Several parts of this story don't make sense. If Pharaoh was worried that the Israelites would revolt due to their massive numbers, why would he take actions guaranteed to enrage them en masse? Had the midwives carried out their orders, the Israelites would have realized that their newborn sons were being killed. And throwing babies into the river? How would that NOT provoke them into rebellion?

    Enslaving the Israelites is another quandary, since enslaving them outright might provoke resistance. Maybe Pharaoh did so through economic means, such as debt bondage or serfdom, rather than forcible enslavement?

    1. Yeah, it was pretty low on detail. It did say that the king wanted to "deal with the shrewdly", so I guess we can assume the king was shrewd and the writer here didn't really capture it well. As you mentioned, the transition to slavery could have been slow via economic activities or something.

      Also, the thing with the midwives was supposed to be done in secret (I think), and perhaps the number of babies that die around birth was high enough that it would have taken a while before it was obvious what was going on.

      The river thing though, totally baffling to me. It's hard to imagine any mother going along with that. I imagine virtually all women would risk (and sacrifice) their own lives rather than follow through with that command. You have an armed guard breaking into your house to take your baby, you don't give it to them, you hit him with a frying pan (or whatever else is handy) and risk your own death.

  2. Exodus has always been one of the more fun books in the bible. I will be reading this eagerly.

    Guess the Pharaoh didn’t realise that by killing all the sons he was effectively destroying his workforce. After all no boys, means no babies.? But then again either way he was not that shrewd.

    1. I guess it comes down to which source you are working from. If it's the version where only the Hebrew boys are thrown into the river it wouldn't destroy his workforce. If it's the version where every boy is thrown in the river, I guess we have one more reason the whole thing is just silly.


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