27 October 2014Exodus 1:1-11
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.’” (vv. 8-9)
At the very beginning of Israel's life as a nation, God had promised to Abraham that his descendants would become as numerous as the stars (Genesis 12:2; 15:5). Since at the time he had no children at all, Abraham found this hard to believe; yet God is faithful to God's promise. By the time Jacob settled in Egypt, his family was complete, the number seventy (verse 5) reflecting the 'perfect' number seven. The book of Exodus tells the story of how the descendants of Jacob grew from this (large) family into a nation, not just numerically but in their shared story and identity. Their development as a nation echoes the fertility promised in Genesis (Genesis 1:28).
Yet the story of Israel's life together begins in oppression. Pharaoh and his entourage felt threatened by the vitality and vigour of the immigrants, and therefore took steps to ensure that it was a struggle for them to gain their livelihood. This was achieved through a form of slavery known as forced labour, where whole groups of people are forced to work (often for little or no pay) to construct buildings for the state. There has been intense interest in Pithom and Ramses, the store-towns which they built for Pharaoh. If you google these names you will find maps and pictures of archaeological remains which may be those described here.
The names given in this story are significant. The sons of Jacob, ancestors of the twelve tribes, are carefully listed. Pharaoh may not know their names, not even the famous Joseph, but the story keeps the names alive. It is all the more striking, then, that we are not told Pharaoh's name, just given his title. He is dehumanised, as the oppressor, by this omission, which was very likely deliberate. In the following section, unusually, names are recorded for two Israelite women (verses 15-21). Shiprah and Puah were the courageous midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh's command to kill all boy babies at birth, and gave the outrageous excuse that the Israelite women were so much stronger than the weak Egyptian ones that they gave birth too quickly for them to act. Their quick-witted courage defeats Pharaoh's obsessive hostility to the people. Already we see that Pharaoh is wicked and stupid.
- Can you think of any contemporary situations where one ethnic group faces oppression from another, just because they are different? How does this story help you reflect on that situation?
- Do you think differently about people, or treat them differently, when you know their name?