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Commentary on Exodus 1:8-14 [15--2:10]; 3:1-15

Patricia Tull
A lot has happened since we left Jacob in Genesis 32 last week.
This years narrative lectionary skips the story explaining how Jacobs family landed in
Egypt: how jealous brothers sold Jacobs favorite son into slavery, how Joseph rose to
power alongside the pharaoh, and how a drought drove the family to seek help, and finally
refuge, in a foreign land.
Exodus begins several generations later, when trouble is brewing for Jacobs multiplying
descendants. A new pharaoh comes to power who fears the foreigners. He proposes to deal
shrewdly, making slaves of all these once-honored guests, forcing them to build grain
storage cities for his profit. He does not seem to realize that his cruelty will ensure the thing
he most fears. He will be defeated -- not just by the Israelites, but by their God.
While Exodus 1:8-14 summarizes the Israelites deteriorating conditions in Egypt, and
chapter 3 relates Gods call to Moses to save them, the real drama occurs in the surrounding
episodes, played out in vivid scenes in which the king attempts repeatedly to overcome the
immigrant population by violence, but is repeatedly outmaneuvered.
The pharaohs second shrewd move in the story is even more violent and illogical than the
first -- he decides to kill off his future slave force, all the male babies who would otherwise
grow up to work for him. The pharaoh fears boy babies, but he should worry instead about
the women. The Hebrew midwives he recruits to carry out his plan, telling them to kill the
babies at birth, simply ignore him. When summoned for questioning, they offer explanation
wrapped in insult: The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are strong.
They give birth before the midwife comes.
So, matching draconian violence and poor judgment with sheer frustration, the pharaoh
gives his own people a chilling order to throw every boy baby into the Nile. All pretense of
shrewdness gives way to pure violence.
Action centers next on a single household: a mother hides her newborn son, devising a plan
to have him rescued from the riverbank by the pharaohs own daughter and, through his
older sisters intervention, sent back to his own mother, who is paid to nurse him. He
becomes the shrewd pharaohs own adopted grandson and grows up in his family.
Unlike the two midwives, the pharaohs daughter is not named in the story. But according
to an ancient rabbinic tradition, she is honored: God says to her that because she took in a
child not her own, and called him her son, God will take her in and call her the daughter of
God, Bat-ya.
Thus the king fails to realize he is being thwarted not by boys but by five bold women. Two
midwives, a mother, a sister, and a daughter all help save a baby who has so far done

nothing either for or against the pharaoh. Thus unfolds the story of Gods preferential
option for those who otherwise appear powerless. Far from being the God of the
Establishment, far from being manageable or tame, the Hebrew God spurns human power,
makes fools of the pretentious, and honors those, whether princesses or slave girls, who act
on their instinct for justice.
The rest of chapter 2 relates Mosess early adult missteps. He is neither fully Egyptian nor
fully Hebrew, and he exerts his own sincere instinct for justice rather less expertly than his
female champions had. After murdering an Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite kinsman
and then learning that his deed was known, he flees to Midian, where he befriends and
marries into a priests family. Meanwhile, the pharaoh dies, but slave conditions remain
intolerable. The chapter ends with God taking heed to them again.
Exodus 3:1-15 describes Moses encounter at the burning bush at Mount Horeb, and Gods
seven-verse-long speech to Moses, announcing that God intends to use him to rescue the
slaves and take them to Canaan.
Moses first two responses follow. First, who am I to do such a thing; and second, who
are you: what is your name? God does not address Moses qualifications, but rather
reassures him of divine presence. As for who God is, God first responds with the famous,
and circular, pronouncement, or perhaps retort, I am who I am. But after this God selfidentifies with the God of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, indicating that this God
is no newcomer, but One who has been following the Israelite descendants through their
fortunes and misfortunes for centuries, though they did not know it.
These two responses to the question of Gods identity do in fact seem to be illustrated by
prior events. Neither the story nor this conversation clarify why a compassionate God
would have allowed the Israelites condition to deteriorate so far in the first place, and for
that we can only agree that I am who I am works in rather mysterious ways. In this case,
as in the previous generation, God chooses particular people through whom to work, and
not necessarily those we might have suggested. Gods support for the previous pharaohs
dissidents even before Moses birth preceded, and made possible, this moment at the
burning bush.
The conversation goes on past the lectionary reading for another 24 verses. Moses raises
further objections, which God answers patiently and generously, providing a few visual
aids to help convince Israelites who disbelieve his words -- a staff that becomes a snake, a
hand that turns leprous and heals, water that becomes blood. Moses, ignoring all this,
objects that he is a poor speaker. God promises to give him the words. But when Moses,
seeing all his exits blocked, says, Please send someone else, God reluctantly agrees that
his brother Aaron will help.
The drama continues unfolding in chapter 5 when Moses first attempt to liberate the slaves
fails miserably, resulting in further hardships for the slaves and rancor against their
supposed rescuers. A complex battle of the gods ensues, in which pharaohs sorcerers at
first match Moses tricks, but are finally outdone. As is true for battles from the dawn of
civilization until now, this intercultural struggle wreaks ecological disaster, devastating

water, vegetation, animals, and Egyptians many times over before, suddenly and
dramatically, the Israelites flee to safety beyond the sea barrier.
From here the lectionary will skip to Deuteronomy, to Moses reminders on the border of
Canaan of the commandments God gave the people once they returned to Horeb, the mount
of the burning bush.