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Shemot (Part 3)

The book of Exodus presents two perspectives: those of Yahweh and those of Pharaoh. One of the crucial exhortations for the children of Israel concerns which viewpoint they would adopt. Would they take after Pharaoh or seek after God?
By RICHARD MORGAN
Read Time: 10 minutes

THE GROWTH OF THE ISRAELITES AND EGYPTIAN XENOPHOBIA

While the Book of Genesis focuses on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his sons, The Book of Exodus is about the flourishing of Abraham’s family into the people of Israel. The opening verses of the book remind us of the fledgling nation, which consisted of just seventy people at the close of the book of Genesis. Exodus 1:6 tells us, “Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.”1

The words “fruitful” and “multiplied” are critical in the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Also noticeable in the first chapter of Exodus is the scarcity of language about God. He is not mentioned until verse 17, and it carries on from the time of Joseph, where there is also a scarcity of God language. However, in Genesis 50:20 Joseph acknowledged, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God was always there, behind the scenes, with His people, and that continued into the events of Exodus. God had not forgotten His people nor the promises He made to the patriarchs.

FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLYING GREATLY

The fulfillment of those promises had already begun. Verse 7 tells us,

“But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”

The words “fruitful” and “multiplied” are critical in the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For instance, God said to Abraham he would “multiply you greatly” (Gen 17:2), and “I will make you exceedingly fruitful.” (Gen 17:6). Later to Jacob, He said, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 35:11). It had already begun while Jacob and Joseph were still alive,

“Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Gen 47:27).

However, look again at that verse in Exodus 1:7. In between telling us the children of Israel were “fruitful” and “multiplied,” the text also says they “increased greatly.” While that might look like a synonymous term, there is something else going on here.

Verse 7 stands as a conduit between these introductory words and the actions of Pharaoh and the Egyptians recorded in the following verses. The book of Exodus presents two perspectives: those of Yahweh and those of Pharaoh. One of the crucial exhortations for the children of Israel concerns which viewpoint they would adopt. Would they take after Pharaoh or seek after God?

In Exodus 1:1-7, we are impressed with how much God had blessed His people according to the promises He made to make them fruitful and cause them to multiply. Pharaoh is not going to look at that as a blessing at all; he will view it as a curse.

AMBIGUOUS LANGUAGE

To further emphasize this point, consider another echo in verse 7. A lot of the language comes straight out of one of the most fundamental verses in Scripture, Genesis 1:28. There, God gave humanity the very first commandment,

“And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

It is the same language used about Noah’s generation (Gen 9:1,7), a recreation story. The book of Exodus returns to the principles of creation as God will bring His people out of Egypt as a new people. However, while this verse in Exodus goes back to creation, it does so in more than one way. Look at how the Hebrew terms in Genesis 1:28 match up with our verse in Exodus:

The verse in Exodus looks like a fulfillment of God’s first command to man. And we would have a strong case for saying so, even though two of the phrases are missing. Again, it could simply be that the author of Exodus is using synonymous terms. However, something stands out when we consider how the word translated “increased greatly” is used in Genesis 1.

While it isn’t used concerning humanity, it is used earlier in the chapter for animals—”Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures.” (Gen 1:20). Here the word used for “increased greatly” is translated as “swarm.” It is also used in the next verse,

“So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm.” (Gen 1:21).

Then, in verse 22, God gave the same command to the animals He will later give to man,

“And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’”

We have two similar accounts in Genesis 1, one of man and the other of animals. One of the differences between them is the word “swarm.” It is the Hebrew word seres and means precisely how it’s translated in Genesis—swarming or teeming things. We rarely find it elsewhere in Scripture, but Leviticus 11 uses it five times (over a third of all occurrences), for instance, of unclean animals described as “swarming things that swarm on the ground.” (v. 29).

The chapter goes on to say, “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten.” (v. 41).

The chapter keeps emphasizing the detestable nature of things that swarm, “

You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms.” (v. 43).

In other words, seres is a word used for unclean and detestable creepy crawlies. The only time Exodus uses it outside of verse 1 is to describe the frogs of the second plague, where we’re told, “The Nile shall swarm with frogs.” (Exod 8:3). Why use a word like that to describe the growth of the children of Israel? Maybe it’s just metaphorical, but when we see Pharaoh’s reaction, it does appear Exodus is telling us something profound about the way the Egyptians perceived that growth.

EGYPTIAN XENOPHOBIA

Exodus 1:8 says, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” That’s problem number one. This Pharaoh had no relationship with the children of Israel. To them, they were a large non-native, non-Egyptian population inhabiting the land of Goshen. Beyond that, they didn’t mean anything special to him.

we see the rise of Egyptian xenophobia against the children of Israel

The fantastic impact Joseph previously had on Egypt was forgotten by the passage of time. Pharaoh identified a problem with the rapidly multiplying Hebrews, so,

“He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.’” (v. 9).

The word “mighty” picks up on one of the words in verse 7, where the children of Israel “grew exceedingly strong.” Their increased numbers disturbed Pharaoh, and something had to be done about them. Thus, we see the rise of Egyptian xenophobia against the children of Israel, and there may be a historical reason for it.

Joseph likely lived in Egypt at the time of the Hyksos pharaohs. They were foreign rulers (The word Hyksos probably comes from an Egyptian word meaning “rulers of foreign lands,” or more literally “mountain people.”) who took over from native Egyptians several hundred years before the exodus. Archeological finds have determined they came from the area of Palestine.

Eventually, the Hyksos were expelled from Exodus were not inclined to honor any agreements which the Hyksos made with the Hebrew people. To many Egyptians, the Hyksos, and anyone associated with them, including the Hebrews, were hated, foreign oppressors.

When we examine the language of Pharaoh recorded in Exodus 1, there are further hints of xenophobia and of the way the Egyptians began to dehumanize the Israelites. Where Pharaoh calls the Hebrews “the people of Israel” in verse 9 illustrates how the Egyptians had marked them off as different.

The Hebrew for “people” is am, the same word used at the beginning of the verse, “He said to his people.” The term mainly refers to an entire ethnic group. On the one hand, we have Pharaoh’s people, the Egyptians, and on the other, the people of Israel, whom he views as a separate and opposing group that threatens them. Usually, the Hebrews were referred to as ben Yisrael or “the children of Israel.”

When we examine the language of Pharaoh there are hints of xenophobia; Egyptians began to dehumanize the Israelites.

But the term used by Pharaoh is more derogatory in making a distinction between “them and us.” Identifying a visible minority within a country as different and a threat is a tactic used throughout history by many regimes that use such propaganda to infringe on human rights.

Pharaoh also used hyperbole by saying the Israelites were “too many and too mighty for us,” undoubtedly an exaggeration. But to the Egyptian ear, it would have sounded like a call to do something about it, before they took their jobs, homes and livelihood.

ORDER AND CHAOS

Xenophobia was deeply embedded in the ancient Egyptian worldview. Similar to some countries today, the Egyptians believed their nation was the center of the world. They thought that order existed in Egypt, and anywhere outside Egypt was chaos. They referred to foreigners with the dismissive term “the other.”

The word “Egypt” itself traces back to Latin and Greek origins, and the Egyptians themselves called their land Kemet, meaning Black Land because of the dark, fertile soil around the Nile River after it flooded. All the nations surrounding Egypt had a hieroglyphic that represented them, usually denoted something geographic that summarized their land, for instance, “mountainous” (see Hyksos above) or “desert.”

That was how the Egyptians thought about foreign lands, uncivilized places of hills, rocks and sands. Egypt, on the other hand, was a place that was ordered, civilized and cultivated. Therefore, it was not going to be difficult for the Egyptian people to buy into Pharaoh’s propaganda and dehumanize the Hebrews.

There are some Egyptian texts describing foreigners like animals2, so to view the Hebrews like creepy crawlies was a very likely scenario. Pharaoh continued his speech to the Egyptians by saying,

“Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (v. 10).

Why did he think they would join Egypt’s enemies if war broke out? This was more propaganda, setting the Hebrews up as the enemy within. The end of verse 10 is mistranslated in most versions. The text here uses an idiom, and the translation “escape” misses the point entirely. The same expression is used in Hosea 1:11. In the ESV (and similarly in most versions), it reads, “They shall go up from the land,” but the NRSV correctly translates it as “they shall take possession of the land.

Why did he think they would join Egypt’s enemies if war broke out? This was more propaganda, setting the Hebrews up as the enemy within.

The idea behind the word is of an overwhelming or overflowing force. To the Egyptians, the people of Israel were like an uncontrollable infestation of insects, and they needed to be stamped out. When you dehumanize a population, atrocities like the ones the Egyptians subsequently committed are much easier to do.

PHARAOH’S IRONIC SPEECH

Those words at the end of Pharaoh’s speech end a series of ironic statements that he made. The word translated “escape,” ala, is the same one used later when “the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.” (Exod 13:18). They never battled against the Egyptians, but the narrator’s mention of it may be a reference to what Pharaoh had feared, that “they join our enemies and fight against us.”

OPPRESSION

The oppression by the Egyptians towards Israel increased in intensity in their efforts to control the perceived threat. First, “they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens.” (v. 11). Those burdens were to continue right up until the time when God rescued them after sending the ten plagues upon Egypt.

The Hebrew word translated “burdens,” sebel, is rare in Scripture and mostly used in Exodus 1 through 6. It is a word that becomes a summary of what the Israelites experienced under Egyptian oppression. Here it started relatively light with them forcing the Israelite to build cities. Perhaps Pharaoh intended to divide the men from the women or tire the Israelites out, so they did not procreate so readily.

The fact they are building cities for Pharaoh is significant in light of what happens in the second half of Exodus. There, the focus shifts to the children of Israel building the house of God. These two bookends describe the transformation of God’s people from oppression in Egypt to freedom as His children.

Exodus begins with them being lost and without God in Egypt and finishes with God’s house being full of His glory. Forcing the Israelites to build cities had the opposite effect on what the Egyptians wanted because

“the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.” (v. 12).

Our English translations hide the initial Egyptian reaction, “And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” The word for “dread” is qus and means to loathe or feel disgusted or repugnance towards something. Pharaoh’s propaganda had worked, and the Egyptians did look at the people of Israel as an infestation.

The phrase “spread abroad” is the Hebrew word parats, used by God in His promise to Jacob,

“Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.” (Gen 28:14).

The context is the time Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau, but God would be with him wherever He went. The same was true for the children of Jacob in the Book of Exodus. Despite Egyptian oppression, they would spread abroad, and the irony of what Pharaoh tried to do, as this verse in Exodus says, caused further growth and spread of God’s people. The same word parats is used in the context of God’s care for the barren woman in Isaiah 54:3,

“For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations.”

Pharaoh’s oppressive regime, designed to exterminate God’s people, was thwarted by the power of God even before He unleashed the plagues. God, working behind the scenes, was already confirming His promise to multiply the seed of Abraham. Verses 13 and 14 describe the next stage of oppression,

“So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”

Notice all the different words used to emphasize this oppression, “work as slaves,” “hard service,” “all kinds of work,” “ruthlessly.” But things were to get even worse. The next section is the story of the midwives where they were commanded by Pharaoh concerning the birth of Hebrew children:

“If it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (v. 16).

When that didn’t work,

“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.’” (v. 22).

With this introduction to Israel’s servitude under the Egyptians, a grand theme begins of a cosmic battle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. God intends to fulfill the promises He made to the fathers, to make them fruitful, but Pharaoh threatens God’s creative work. In return, God will bring the power of that creation in full force against Pharaoh and, in so doing, redeem His people.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills, CA

1 Unless otherwise stated, Bible quotations taken from English Standard Version (ESV)
2 For instance, as mentioned in Topos und Mimesis: Zum Ausländer in der ägyptischen Literatur [On
Foreigners in Egyptian Literature], Antonio Loprieno, 1988

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