Bible Commentary: Exodus 1-2

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Exodus 1-2

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Introduction to Exodus

“Exodus is the record of Israel’s birth as a nation,” says The New Open Bible (introductory notes to Exodus). “The Hebrew title, We’elleh Shemoth, ‘Now These Are the Names,’ comes from the first phrase in 1:1. Exodus begins with ‘Now’ to show it as a continuation of Genesis. The Greek title is Exodus, a word meaning exit, departure or going out. The Septuagint [Greek translation of the Old Testament] uses this word to describe the book by its key event (see 19:1, ‘gone out’)” (1990). Though a nation of slaves, Israel will leave Egypt victorious to meet their God in the wilderness.

Exodus is the second of the five books written by Moses (see Exodus 17:14). Jesus Christ affirmed him as the author (compare Exodus 3:6; Mark 12:26). After calling Moses, God sends him to lead the people. But it is clear that the power to free the Israelites is not the power of Moses. Rather, it is the power of the divine King of the universe. All the while, the weakness of man is made quite clear—from Moses’ own initial resistance of God’s will to the stubborn hardheartedness of Pharaoh to the incessant complaining, murmuring and outright rebellion of the Israelites.

God, however, proves ultimately faithful. He will deliver His people. And this is all a mere type or forerunner of the future deliverance that He will accomplish through sending Jesus Christ—first to die as the true Passover lamb (represented in type here in Exodus) and then to come again as immortal Savior—to destroy His enemies and glorify all who choose to serve Him and live according to His law, a law first spelled out for us in the book of Exodus.

Archeologists and biblical scholars have entered into lively discussions about whether Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus really occurred. Biblical “minimalists” dispute the historicity of these events, because there is no evidence outside of the Bible for them. Yet many distinguished scholars uphold the veracity of the biblical account. “‘Absence of evidence,’ observes Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, ‘is not evidence of absence.’ Nahum Sarna, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Brandeis University, argues that the exodus story—tracing, as it does a nation’s origins to slavery and oppression—‘cannot possibly be fictional. No nation would be likely to invent for itself, and faithfully transmit century after century and millennium after millennium, an inglorious and inconvenient tradition of this nature,’ unless it had an authentic core. ‘If you’re making up history,’ adds Richard Elliott Friedman, professor at the University of California at San Diego, ‘it’s that you were descended from gods or kings, not from slaves.’

“Indeed, the absence of direct material evidence of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt is not as surprising, or as damaging to the Bible’s credibility, as it first might seem. What type of material evidence, after all, would one expect to find that could corroborate the biblical story? ‘Slaves, serfs and nomads leave few traces in the archeological record,’ notes [respected archeologist] William Dever. And since official records and inscriptions in the ancient Near East often were written to impress gods and potential enemies, it would be quite surprising to find an account of the destruction of the pharaoh’s army immortalized on the walls of an Egyptian temple” (Jeffery L. Sheler, Is The Bible True?, 1999, p. 78).

Though Enslaved, Israel Becomes a Nation

Here we have a recount of the sons of Israel, interestingly not by order of age, but listed according to the sons’ mothers. First listed are the sons of Leah, then the sons of Leah’s handmaid (Zilpah), Rachel’s son Benjamin (Joseph was already in Egypt), then the sons of Rachel’s handmaid (Bilhah). It is stated that Jacob’s family of “seventy persons” had come into Egypt (verse 5), just as was stated in Genesis 46:27. Yet some people see here a conflict with Stephen’s statement in Acts 7: “Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people” (verse 14). Yet, as Christ stated, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). And indeed, a simple explanation is given in John W. Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible: “Jacob’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren amounted to sixty-six [Genesis 46:8-26]. Adding Jacob himself, and Joseph with his two sons, we have seventy. If to the sixty-six we add the nine wives of Jacob’s sons (Judah’s and Simeon’s wives were dead; Joseph could not be said to call himself, his own wife, or his two sons into Egypt; and Jacob is specified separately by Stephen), we have seventy-five persons, as in Acts” (p. 389).

But the Israelites were not to remain at these numbers for long. God had promised and covenanted with Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore (Genesis 22:17-18). He reiterated that promise with Isaac ( Genesis 26:4) and with Jacob (Genesis 28:14), who was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). Now we see in Exodus the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise, emphasized by the use of five different descriptions: “were fruitful”; “increased abundantly”; “multiplied”; “waxed exceeding mighty”; “the land was filled with them.” It seems as though God inspired Moses to drive home the point that He was starting to fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is very easy to forget God’s Word, especially when we fall upon difficult times, but this shows God’s faithfulness to His promises.

Now we read that a number of years have passed since Joseph and his family (including his brothers and their families) have all died. A new pharaoh has come into power who does not know, remember or acknowledge the deeds and position that Joseph once held. Ask any number of young adults today whether they remember men such as Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It doesn't take long to forget men who once held highly visible positions. Yet in Egypt the tendency was far worse. There weren't textbooks to read or TV news to watch. And a new pharaoh often erased evidence of the glory of the previous pharaoh to aggrandize himself in the eyes of the people.

This new pharaoh now regards the Israelites as a threat because of their vast and growing population. So the Egyptians devise a plan to bring the Israelites into total submission through slavery. This is all according to God’s plan that He had revealed to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-14). The attempt by the pharaoh to use the taskmasters to break the spirit of the Israelites, ruin their health through long, hard hours of work and discourage them from having children who would be born into slavery was not working. So an edict was proclaimed to kill the male children, thus restraining the population growth. It’s interesting to note God’s intervention here, as the midwives were not punished for disobeying Pharaoh’s command. In fact, God blessed the midwives due to their respect for Him! Pharaoh, in turn, commanded the Egyptians to engage in the murder of the male Hebrew children. Though many were killed, it is improbable that the edict lasted very long as we can see that by the time Moses returned to lead Israel out of Egypt as a grown man (in his 80s), the adult males of Israel numbered approximately 600,000.

Moses “Drawn Out"

Here we find an attempt by a Levite family to save their son during the time of Pharaoh’s edict. It’s interesting to note that Jesus—the ultimate Deliverer of whom Moses was a forerunner—also had to be hidden in Egypt when He was born, as a similar edict was issued during His infancy.

It is also wonderful to see here how God intervened during this very sobering time. Moses drifted right into the bathing area of the daughter of Pharaoh, who desired to save him and raise him as her own son. Though she recognized him as a Hebrew child, perhaps she viewed him as a gift of the gods, perhaps of the Nile god Khnum. Moreover, not only was Moses’ life spared, but his real mother was paid to nurse and rear him! The name the princess gave him, Moses, means “Drawn Out,” as in birth. Interestingly, this was a common suffix for the names of various pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt. For instance, Thutmose or Thutmosis is Thoth-mosis, meaning “Drawn (or born) from Thoth,” the god of wisdom. Another example is Rameses or Ra-meses, meaning “Drawn (or born) from Ra” or Re, the sun god. Thus, there is reason to believe that Moses’ name may have originally had a pagan prefix that he, quite understandably, did not record when he wrote the Pentateuch.

More amazing still, considering that the pharaoh’s daughter recognized that Moses was a Hebrew child, it would be rather surprising if the pharaoh himself did not. Yet the pharaoh did not demand the death of the child (perhaps out of a combination of love for his daughter and a belief that the child may have been a divine gift). In fact, he allowed the boy to become a prince of Egypt. In Acts 7:22 Stephen tells us that besides the trappings of royalty, “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.” Indeed, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus informs us that he became a great Egyptian general. But all of this changed overnight when Moses became a fugitive fleeing for his life.

Acts 7:23-29 tells us that Moses was 40 years old at the time of his flight from Egypt. Verse 30 reveals that he sojourned in the land of Midian for another 40 years. And he would later wander with the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years (verse 36)—finally dying at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7). So Moses had three 40-year segments of leadership training: 1) training as a leader in Pharaoh’s court; 2) training as a shepherd in Midian; 3) training as a leader of the Israelites. From this we can deduce that a period of approximately 80 years, or two thirds of Moses’ life, transpires in Exodus 2 alone!

Moses was trained for 40 years under Reuel, the “priest” of Midian. This term makes sense when we realize that the Midianites were descended from Abraham (Genesis 25:1-4) and that, even in Israel, the head of each family was the one who would offer sacrifices prior to the institution of the Levitical system. Moses married Reuel’s daughter Zipporah. It should be noted here that Reuel was also known as Jethro—as both names refer in Scripture to Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 2:18; Exodus 3:1; Numbers 10:29). Author John Haley says that, according to several scholars, “Jether, or Jethro, is not a proper name, but simply a title of honor, denoting ‘excellency,’ and about equivalent to the Arabic ‘Imam’” (Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pp. 354-344).

Map of possible locations for Mt. Sinai

Supplementary Reading:Moses--Leader of a Nation”, Good News Magazine, March-April 1997, pp. 25-28.