8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 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.
15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then 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.” – Exodus 1:8-22 ESV
As the story of Exodus begins, approximately 360 years have passed since Jacob’s descendants first arrived in the land of Egypt. During the nearly four centuries they had lived in Goshen, a rich and fertile land located in the Nile delta, their numbers had exploded. Moses explains that “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV). This statement is intended to prepare the reader for what comes next. It is essential to recognize that the Israelites’ 360-year stay in Egypt had been marked by relative peace and prosperity. They were living in the well-water plains of Lower Egypt and had plenty of pasture lands for their growing flocks and herds. While Jacob’s son, Joseph, was still alive and functioning as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, they enjoyed his patronage and protection. With Pharaoh’s permission, Joseph settled his family in Goshen and provided them food from the storehouses of Egypt.
Joseph settled his father and his brothers and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded. And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their dependents. – Genesis 47:11-12 ESV
And for 360 years they enjoyed a full and satisfying life in Egypt. This is important to understand because, too often, we operate under the impression that the Israelites lived as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. But the reality is that the vast majority of their time in Egypt had been marked by God’s blessings. He had greatly increased their numbers and had graciously multiplied their flocks and herds. They actually lived better lives than many of the Egyptians from the lower classes who must have resented the prosperity of these Hebrew refugees.
And Moses points out that the burgeoning numbers of the Israelites had gotten the attention of none other than Pharaoh himself.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 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.” – Exodus 1:8-10 ESV
Moses does not provide the name of this Pharaoh because it is not relevant to the storyline. There has been much debate and scholarly speculation as to the identity of this “king over Egypt.” Some have identified him as Ahmose, while others have determined him to be Amenhotep I or Thutmose I. It is virtually impossible to know with any certainty which of these men was the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus 1:8. But, whoever he was, he saw the Hebrews as a threat to his kingdom. From his throne in Zoan, the capital of Egypt at the time, he likely received regular reports that kept him informed about the expansive Hebrew population in Goshen. He describes them as being “too many and too mighty.” For nearly four decades they had lived alongside the Egyptian people and had posed no threat to the nation. But for some reason, this particular Pharaoh became paranoid about their presence and decided to take steps to bring them under control and mitigate their potential for joining forces with one of Egypt’s adversaries.
“…if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.”
So they put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor. As a result they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. – Exodus 1:10-11 NLT
This represents the turning point in the Israelites’ existence in Egypt. For the next 40 years, things would grow increasingly difficult for the descendants of Jacob. Almost overnight, their prospects in the land of Egypt would take a decidedly negative turn.
Notice that Pharaoh had no desire for the Israelites to leave the land of Egypt. He was not looking to expel them but was only interested in bringing them under his control. It is likely that the Egyptians benefited from the presence of the Israelites. During the days of Joseph, his brothers had served as shepherds over the royal herds.
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best region of the land. They may live in the land of Goshen. If you know of any highly capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” – Genesis 47:5-6 NLT
It is likely that this arrangement still existed and the new Pharaoh had benefited from shepherding skills of the Hebrews. And the sheer number of Israelites would have made them a powerful trading and economic force in Egypt. So, Pharaoh decided to institute a series of measures that would bring the Israelites under his mastery.
It began with what can only be described as forced enslavement. Pharaoh ordered the conscription of all able-bodied Hebrews and used them as an unpaid labor force to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses. These construction projects would have taken decades and would have subjected the Israelites to grueling conditions designed to crush their morale and beat them into submission. Yet, Moses indicates that “the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread” (Exodus 1:12 NLT).
The resilience of the Hebrews frustrated and enraged the Egyptians, causing them to increase the intensity of their oppression.
They made their lives bitter by hard service with mortar and bricks and by all kinds of service in the fields. Every kind of service the Israelites were required to give was rigorous. – Exodus 1:14 NLT
But despite the brutal conditions placed upon them, the Israelites seemed to prosper. This led Pharaoh to turn up the heat. This time, he ordered a pogrom that utilized infanticide as a means of controlling the ever-increasing numbers of Israelites. If he couldn’t beat them into submission, he would simply eradicate them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, observe at the delivery: If it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. – Exodus 1:15-17 NLT
Pharaoh attempted to lower the birthrates of the Hebrews by ordering the immediate execution of every male infant, and he chose to implement this sadistic strategy by enlisting the services of the Hebrew midwives. These women were ordered to carry out this gruesome plan by using their intimate role as midwives to murder innocent newly-born male babies. But they refused to carry out those orders. Fearing God more than Pharaoh, they risked their own lives by sparing the lives of every baby boy they helped deliver. And when Pharaoh caught wind of what they were doing, he confronted them.
Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and let the boys live?” – Exodus 1:18 NLT
These women responded with what appears to be a lie.
“Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women—for the Hebrew women are vigorous; they give birth before the midwife gets to them!” – Exodus 1:19 NLT
It seems that these two women oversaw a network of midwives who served the large Hebrew population. In an attempt to explain the higher-than-expected number of successful male births, they chalked it up to the “vigor” of the Hebrew women. The labor time of the Hebrews was so fast, that the midwives weren’t able to get there in time to help with the birth. It’s likely that there was an element of truth to Shiphrah and Puah’s statement, but they were also disguising the fact that they had ordered non-compliance to Pharaoh’s edict among their fellow midwives. They were not going to play his sadistic game. And Moses makes it clear that God was pleased with their actions.
God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. – Exodus 1:20-21 ESV
God blessed them because their sacrificial efforts resulted in the saving of many lives. As a result, the people of Israel continued to increase in number and God blessed these women with families of their own.
In a final, last-gasp attempt to control the Hebrew population, Pharaoh ordered every Egyptian to play a part in his nationwide infanticide program.
Then 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.” – Exodus 1:22 ESV
He was not giving up. His fear of and hatred for the Hebrews only intensified with time and with each setback to his plan. But this conflict was going to set the stage for the rest of the story. because God also had a plan. And His plan was bigger and greater than that of Pharaoh. The persecutions and pogrom of Pharaoh were not going to get in the way of what God had in store for His chosen people. As a matter of fact, it was going to be the very thing God would use to set His people free. Slavery and persecution would become the backdrop for His plan of redemption for them. But to set them free, they would have to be enslaved. Had they never been persecuted by the Egyptians, the Israelites would never have wanted to leave. They had nothing to go back to. They had no land, no home, no gardens, and no farms.
They were content living in Egypt. But things were about to change. The situation was about to heat up because God was about to do something unexpected and unprecedented. He had a promise He was going to fulfill.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.