Coincidence or Providence?
Verse Commentary on Exodus 1:22-2:10
The Book of Exodus tells the story of the central historical event in
the entire Old Testament: God's deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in
Egypt. It is important to keep in mind from the beginning that while these
narratives are grounded in historical events, their primary purpose is not
just to record historical data. The essential aim of the book is
theological; that is, to communicate something about God and how humanity
is to respond to God. Therefore, attention to how the story is told
is just as critical as the details themselves.
Genesis 1-11 reveals God as Creator and humanity as sinfully violating
God's boundaries in the world. Genesis 12-50 discloses God as Promise
Maker and Sustainer working with sometimes less-than-perfect patriarchs as
they struggle to keep sight of the promise. The unfolding account in
Exodus portrays God as Deliverer and Covenant Maker and traces the
formation of a people who respond to God's activity in faith (Ex. 14:31).
Especially in Exodus, God is not a deity who is far removed from the world
and is only incidentally interested in it. Rather, God is actively and
intimately involved on a personal level with His creation and is willing
to interact with humanity in the arena of human history.. That
understanding of deity was absolutely unique in the ancient world.
But the book also reveals that God does not just intrude and work his
will in arbitrary ways. Instead, he often works in ordinary settings
through ordinary human beings, sometimes very inadequate ones, enabling
them through His presence and guidance to accomplish seemingly impossible
tasks. In this passage God does not act in the marvelous manner in which
He does later in the exodus narrative. Yet, from the way the narrative is
told, we know He is there, working through the efforts of a wise mother
and a faithful sister.
1. Living Under Threat (Exodus 1:22)
1:22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all
his people: "Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let
every girl live."
22. Then Pharaoh gave this order
The arrival of a new Pharaoh in Egypt who "did not know Joseph" (1:8)
indicates a turnover in power, the rise of a new dynastic line.
Historically such changes were marked by internal turmoil as the new ruler
tried to establish his authority and consolidate his empire.
After their flight to escape the famine in Canaan, the twelve sons of
Israel (Jacob) had grown into a sizable minority within Egypt (1:6-7). The
presence of a large contingent of potentially hostile resident aliens
within the borders of his country would understandably have given the new
Pharaoh cause for concern (1:10) Pharaoh met the threat first with
persecution in an attempt to crush the Hebrews into submission (1:11-14),
then with a campaign of genocide against the Hebrews. Since the Pharaoh
was absolute monarch in the country and was at various times considered to
be the incarnation of the falcon-headed god Horus or the sun god
Ra, his word was law.
To all his people Pharaoh's first
attempt at extermination was aimed at working secretly through the
midwives, having them kill the baby boys as they were born (1:15. 16).
When that failed, he resorted to an even bloodier and more straightforward
plan: to have the Egyptian people themselves participate in the slaughter.
The imperatives you will throw and you will keep alive are plural in Hebrew, indicating that the
people were to carry out this command.
Every boy that is born The context
would indicate that it was to be every Hebrew boy. Some modern
translations (RSV) following ancient versions add "to the Hebrews" here
Not only would the extermination of boy babies eventually eliminate the
problem of overpopulation, in terms of the biblical story there is an even
more ominous overtone. To put the male children at risk endangered the
promise to Abraham, because it was to be through his descendants that the
world would come to know God (Gen 12, 22) The threat was not just to the
people but also to God's purpose of revealing himself through the
descendants of Abraham. Everything was at risk!
Throw into the river The annual
flooding of the Nile allowed agriculture in an otherwise barren desert.
The river was the lifeline of ancient Egypt and was personified in the
Egyptian god Hapi, the essence of the life giving water. Seasonal
festivals were observed along the banks of the Nile in honor of Hapi
and occasionally human sacrifices were offered to the river to insure the
annual flood. However, if there is any trace of this in the method by
which Pharaoh chose to dispose of the Hebrew babies, the biblical
tradition is silent. But it is interesting to note that the first two
plagues later in the exodus story involve the Nile (7:14-8:15).
II. Facing Perilous Circumstances
2:1 Now a man of the house of Levi
married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.
When she that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3. But
when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and
coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it
among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4. His sister stood at a
distance to see what would happen to him.
1. A man of the house of Levi ... a Levite
woman We learn their names much later in the book (6:20).
The lack of any names for characters in the story at this point forces
attention to the nature of the events rather than to the characters.
Although their actions are important and certainly play a role in the
story, this is not intended to be a biography of the people and they are
not presented as heroic figures. The focus is rather on the commonplace
events of life (marriage, birth) in which some fairly ordinary people find
themselves dealing with threatening circumstances. It is into this setting
that the unexpected and extraordinary intrudes.
2. Gave birth to a son While
there is no specific reference here to the decree of Pharaoh, it is
obvious that the son
of chapter two is to be read in light of the threat against
in chapter one.
From verse one it appears that this baby is the first-born. It is a
little surprising when his sister, who is obviously much older, appears in
verse four. We also find out later in the book that he has a brother who
is three years older (7:7). There have been various explanations for the
omission of the siblings in verse one (girls were not counted; the brother
was not really older but is listed as older in chapter seven to establish
his superiority as priest, etc.). The simplest explanation is to take the
story line seriously and realize that the order of birth is not a concern
of the narrator here; the entire focus is on the birth and "rescue" of
this single baby boy.
When she saw ... a fine child The
Hebrew word translated fine (tob) can mean beautiful, good,
healthy, or appropriate for a particular purpose. Probably "healthy" with
the overtone of "appropriate for a purpose" would be the best
3. A papyrus basket The word
translated basket is the same Hebrew word (tebah) used to describe
the vessel that saved Noah and his family from the flood waters
(translated "ark" in Gen 6-8). This word, which only occurs in these two
stories in the Hebrew Bible, is undoubtedly used by the narrator
deliberately. In both stories, the emphasis is on the activity of God in
using the efforts of ordinary people to accomplish his purpose. In both
cases, the "ark," the instrument of deliverance, was carefully prepared by
the people themselves.
Put it among the reeds ... of the Nile
The mother here ironically fulfills the command of Pharaoh and "throws"
her baby into the Nile; but not before she carefully prepares for his
survival! This Pharaoh who wanted to "deal shrewdly" with the Hebrews
(1:10) has been thwarted by their proliferation under oppression, has been
outwitted by the midwives, and is now outmaneuvered by a loving mother.
The irony of a Pharaoh who was the incarnation of the Egyptian gods yet
"did not know" is used as a point of emphasis throughout the entire exodus
story (cf. 5:2, 7:5, 14:4).
4. His sister The sister is
likewise unnamed in this story. Only later in the book do we learn her
name (15:20). The fact that the sister watches over the three- month-old
infant at a distance is an indication that the baby is actually being
cared for rather than abandoned. But it is evident from the way the story
is told ("to see what would happen") that there is an element of risk and
In the larger context of the Biblical tradition, the reader knows the
magnitude of the risk! The entire purpose of God for His people, the
entire promise for the future of the sons of Abraham now rests on this
three month old child adrift in the Nile!
III. Good Luck or God? (Exodus
5. Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to
the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank.
She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girt to get it. 6.
She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him.
"This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said. 7. Then his sister asked
Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse
the baby for you?" 8. "Yes, go," she answered And the girl went and got
the baby's mother. 9. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and
nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and
nursed him. 10a When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's
daughter and he became her son.
5. She saw the basket There is
nothing in the story to indicate that this was part of a preconceived plan
on the part of the mother. In fact, the discovery of the child by none
other than the daughter of Pharaoh only heightens the risk! And if
discovery alone were not enough she recognizes the child as
one of the Hebrew babies!
6. She felt sorry for him
This is the first solid indication in the story that the child will
survive. The Hebrew word translated felt sorry for (charnel) means
"to spare" or "to have mercy on." The word is often used in contexts where
there was a reason to take a life but because of compassion it was not
done (cf. 2 Sam 21:7; Mal 3:17) or with a negative in warnings not to
spare persons who were accountable (Deut 13:6- 11).
That the daughter of the Pharaoh who issued the brutal decree should
respond with compassion at the chance discovery of an "outlaw" Hebrew baby
is perhaps a touch of irony to the story. More probably, the unlikeliness
of the events points beyond the characters to the unseen working of God.
However, the fact that there is no direct mention of God here leads the
reader to draw that conclusion for himself from the events.
7. Then his sister asked The
promptness of the sister's action is another indication that the baby is
being lovingly cared for. While there are intimations of the providence of
God at work, there is also unmistakable notice taken of the actions of the
people involved. While they are not the focal point of the story, yet
without the wisdom of the mother and the faithfulness of the sister, the
infant would not have been spared from the waters of the Nile. God may be
at work here, but He is working through human agents, even the daughter of
8. To nurse the baby While
Hebrew women usually nursed their infants, it was a common practice in
Mesopotamia and Egypt for wealthy women to hire a wetnurse to care for
their infant (cf. 2 Kings 11:2).
9. Got the baby's mother We should
not overlook the irony of having the baby's own mother hired to take care
of him. While the biblical tradition often openly asserts the activity of
God in miraculous ways, it can also acknowledge God working silently and
unobtrusively in "ordinary" events (note the Joseph story, Genesis 37-50,
especially 50:20). Throughout the exodus story the narrator uses such
irony as a way to express indirectly what he wants to communicate about
God and his activity in the world.
10a He became her son The
Hebrew word ben, translated son, has a range of meaning from the
specific idea of "son" (2:2) to the general idea "people" (1:7, sons of
Israel, i.e., Israelites). No doubt the young man was taken into
Pharaoh's household and treated as a member of the royal family. But a
later incident also shows that he had no special standing when he came
into conflict with Egyptians (2:15). Even though he was later mistaken for
an Egyptian, probably from his clothing (2:19), he remained a Hebrew
IV. The Name of Moses (Exodus 2:10b)
10b She named him Moses, saying, "I drew
him out of the water."
The biblical tradition has here connected the name Moses with the
Hebrew verb mashah
which means "to draw out." Actually, the name Moses is the Egyptian word
(boy or son) written in Hebrew. The word can be seen in the names of
several Egyptian Pharaohs (Thutmoses, Ahmose, Rameses). Many scholars agree that
the connection of the Egyptian name with a Hebrew word was a later
development in the tradition, added to the story by a narrator, perhaps unaware of
the word's Egyptian origin. The explanation of names by reference to
events is a common feature of Israelite narratives (Gen 35:16-20; 1 Sam
The developing story here in Exodus is something that we should not
overlook since it will help us understand this passage. Initially this
"rescue" of the infant from the Nile seems a positive development, and
will prove to be so in the long run. But at this point in the narrative,
it certainly seems like a setback.
People listening to this story for the first time would have expected
that this child might provide relief from the oppression, that God might
use him to fulfill the promises made many years earlier to Abraham (Gen
12). Yet here, even though he has been saved from the Nile, he is in the
household of the "enemy" with no indication of his future. The narrator
has built into the story a subtle but delightful anticipation that if this
young man is to accomplish anything, God will again have to work in his
Of course, this child becomes Moses the Deliverer and Moses the
lawgiver. But in the story, he has only disappeared into Pharaoh's
court. Just as often in our own lives, we do not know how God is at
work. Our initial hopes and plans may disappear under the power of
those who would destroy us. And yet, it is only as we trust God, and
remain faithful to him, that we come to understand that even when the
Pharaoh seems to have won, God is not yet finished. And we learn
that what may appear to be common and ordinary, or what may appear to be
coincidence, God may in his providence turn into something wonderful.