Now these [are] the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob.
Our story begins with a reminder of how the patriarchs arrived in Egypt. Time passes:
And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.
And the Israelites prosper:
And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
But not everyone is happy about this:
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.
While there are various theories about exactly who this new king was, it seems fairly certain he represented a new dynasty with different priorities and alliances.
And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel [are] more and mightier than we:
Perhaps the fact that the Israelites had been willing settle in the despised but fertile area of Goshen had contributed to their disproportionate prosperity; even today expatriate minorities often achieve similar success (and resentment).
Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and [so] get them up out of the land.
This also may well speak to a new dynasty, feeling on uncertain footing with regard to internal or external threats. This new king apparently subscribes to the philosophy that ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’:
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.
While it may have diminished their wealth, it seems to have perversely increased their fertility:
But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel.
So it goes. Oppression seeks to crush a people’s spirit, but can often make it stronger. Of course, this enrages the oppressors even further, leading to greater cruelty (perek):
And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, [was] with rigour.
And ultimately to emasculation/genocide:
And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one [was] Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see [them] upon the stools; if it [be] a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it [be] a daughter, then she shall live.
Interesting how the king (melek) is nameless, but the two midwives (yalad) — Shiphrah (Shiphrah, fair) and Puah (Puw`ah, splendid) — are immortalized in Scripture. Perhaps because of their courage in choosing to fear (yare’) God (‘elohiym) rather than the king:
But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive
Not to mention their chutzpah in lying to his face:
And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women [are] not as the Egyptian women; for they [are] lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.
I must admit, I’m always uncomfortable with these sorts of moral dilemmas: when is it right to lie to an authority figure, even if they’re evil? Though, God doesn’t seem to have any qualms about rewarding (yatab) their duplicity:
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.
It sounds like the midwives — or at least these two, who may have been chief midwives or something, assuming a decently large population — were barren, and after this act of faith God gave (`asah) them families (bayith) of their own.
Since working subtly through them didn’t get him anywhere, Pharaoh is forced to make his edict explicit:
And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.
Not clear whether he’s trying to command the Hebrews directly, or telling the Egyptians to enforce it on them. However, it does mean the fiction of early birth won’t save a man-child for very long. But that doesn’t stop people from trying:
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took [to wife] a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he [was a] goodly [child], she hid him three months.
Interesting how the parents are also nameless at this point. Ironically, when the child is too old to hide, she fulfills the earlier command to “cast into the river” — albeit with protection:
And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid [it] in the flags by the river’s brink.
One suspects her mother may have had a plan in mind, which is why her daughter lay in wait:
And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
Perhaps this is what she was waiting for:
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash [herself] at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.
If so, her plan to capture the heart of a princess was eminently successful:
And when she had opened [it], she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This [is one] of the Hebrews’ children.
But that’s not all:
Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give [thee] thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.
A plan worthy of Joseph! To not only save the child, but be allowed to still nurse (yanaq) him — and even get paid (sakar) for it. One wonders whether Pharaoh’s daughter suspected anything, or was so enraptured by a beautiful baby she didn’t marvel at the coincidental appearance of a wet nurse, right on cue.
Still, eventually the price had to be paid, so — presumably after weaning — the child is delivered into Pharaoh’s household:
And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.
An extraordinary set of circumstances: saved by a poor but resourceful Hebrew mother with the help of a powerful but compassionate Egyptian princess. Yet this is but a foretaste of the extraordinary fate awaiting young Moses, as we shall soon see.
God, thank you for faithful women who through courage, resourcefulness, and compassion delivered a nation — and a man named Moses — from the hands of an oppressor. Lord, grant me courage to fear you rather than man. Grant me humility to never become an oppressor. Grant me hope, to keep seeking freedom even when everything within and without seems doomed to slavery. Amen.
About the Title:
Today’s title is a pun on the term midlife crisis. In some ways, I see Moses (re)founding the nation of Israel as parallel to my own quest to rebuild my family and career around the idea of transformation. Whether that’s an early midlife crisis or merely a late adolescence, I don’t know.