The Shadow of Pharaoh

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.[1] You know Joseph, youngest of Jacob’s sons until baby Benjamin was born. Joseph the dreamer with his fancy coat whom his brothers hated so much they sold him as a slave to some Midianite traders. He ended up in Egypt, where he rose to a position of power and authority. You know Joseph who made it, against all odds, and who made it big: Pharao’s right-hand man.

When drought and famine struck the land of Canaan, the sons of Jacob went down to Egypt looking for food, and there they reconciled with the brother they hadn’t seen in a very long time. After the party Pharao said to Joseph, “Settle your father and your brothers and their families in the best part of the land,” and they settled in the Nile delta. Pharao remembered Joseph who had made him owner of all the arable land by reorganizing Egypt’s economy, and Joseph’s people enjoyed most-favored immigrant status.

Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. Now a new king arose over Egypt, one with a short memory. Now those resident aliens and their large families were regarded with growing suspicion.

In Exodus, the first person to speak is this new king who doesn’t remember, and in his mind fruitfulness and flourishing among the Hebrews aren’t signs of blessing but a growing threat. “Look,” he says to his people, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.”

What we hear in his words is not just the sadly familiar fear of strangers that so easily turns into prejudice and hate. The Israelites are the bearers of God’s promise to Abraham; their life is a testimony to the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God, and the king wants to suppress their life.

The new king remains unnamed in this story. He is more than a historic figure whose name the story tellers failed to recall. This king embodies our own forgetfulness and our resistance against God’s plans for the flourishing of a people in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed, which was the promise to Abraham. He embodies our fear of everything that might undermine the plans we make and the systems we build to control life, no matter how large or small our thrones might be.

The new king’s anxiety quickly turns into a policy of forced labor, but the results of his efforts are the opposite of his intentions: the Israelites continue to multiply and fill the land. The powers of oppression and abuse are helpless against the power of blessing that is at work in this community.

In these opening paragraphs, God isn’t mentioned, only the irrepressible growth of God’s people, against all odds, despite all the ruthless efforts to make their lives bitter with hard service. And when forced labor doesn’t have the desired effect, the king ratchets up the oppressive measures. Building royal supply cities with cheap labor wasn’t enough to bolster his sense of power and to keep the Hebrews in their place. Now he summons the Hebrew midwives and gives them the obscene commandment to kill all newborn Hebrew boys.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1939 book, Moses, Man of the Mountain,

Moses hadn’t come yet, and these were the years when Israel first made tears. Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. ... So women in the pains of labor hid ... They must cry, but they could not cry out loud. They pressed their teeth together. ... Men learned to beat upon their breasts with clenched fists and breathe out their agony without sound. ... The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law.[2]

They shuddered with terror, but in the deadly chaos of genocidal cruelty, courage and grace arose, and each is given a name in the story: Shiphrah and Puah. Remember those names, remember those women. You don’t need to remember how many times Joseph’s brothers travelled from Canaan to Egypt; you don’t even need to remember their names – you can look them up anytime you want. But these two names you need to remember, the names of Shiphrah and Puah, because the moment will come in your life, if it hasn’t already, when you witness the depth to which human depravity can sink, especially when power is at stake. And you will feel small and powerless against the forces that oppose the flourishing of God’s people in true freedom and true peace. And you will shrink a little more and say to yourself, “What can one person do?”

You need to remember Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. The first time God is mentioned in the great story of the Exodus is when these two women are introduced. They know a lot about the irrepressibility of new life that wants to be born. They know a lot about helping life to emerge and thrive. And this king summons them and says, “If it is a boy, kill him.”

These two women know everything about the shadow of Pharaoh squatting in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. But the midwives, it says in verse 17, feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. What can one person do? You can choose to fear the God of life. You can refuse to obey the masters of oppression.

The great story of the liberation of God’s people begins with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, two women willing to say ‘no’ to a mad king’s deathly decree. With defiant grace they go about their good work in the birthing place. When the king summons them again and demands an explanation, they lie and life among the Hebrews continues with the blessing of children.

Now the king ratchets up his rule of terror yet another level and he commands all his people to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile.

This king distorts everything that is good: Work is a form of human creativity, a source of pride in making things, a source of joy in being useful. This king turns work into forced labor. Midwives assist in the birth of new life with patience, love, and great skill. This king wants to turn them into servants of death. The great river runs through the land like a life-giving artery, watering the fields and replenishing them with fertile silt, and carrying the ships that bring the harvest to market. This king wants to turn the river into a grave. It is as though in the realm of this king nothing can escape the pull of fear and death. In such a world, what can one person do?

The next chapter begins with a man and a woman. There is a marriage. There is a birth. It is as though out of the chaos which the king decreed, life again emerges defiantly; and it is good. The infant’s mother hides him, and when she can no longer hide him, she makes a basket; she puts the child in it and places it among the reeds on the bank of the river. She does it all with love and great care and with tears, and his sister stays close by the river’s edge to see what will happen to the boy.

The Hebrew story teller has left a beautiful hint that is hard for us to detect, but we have wise teachers in the rabbis who point these things out for us. The word which is translated ‘basket’ here, is the same word which is translated ‘ark’ in the story of Noah and the flood. We are to hear the two stories together, let one resonate in the other, and know that the little boy is safe, floating in his little ‘ark’ on the water which the king had intended for his death. It may appear as though in the realm of this king nothing can escape the pull of fear and death, but this little basket tells a different story.

The boy’s sister watches as the daughter of Pharao comes to the river to bathe, and she finds the basket and opens it and sees the little boy who is crying and she picks him up. She knows exactly what she is doing. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She recognizes that he is a child from the slave community, a child under death sentence from her father – and yet she doesn’t throw him into the river. She obeys a different law than her father’s and thus becomes part of the conspiracy of grace that resists Pharaoh’s fury.

Now the boy’s sister steps forward, another accomplice in this conspiracy, and smart as a whip she asks with all innocence if perhaps her royal majesty would like her to go and get her a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her? And before you know it, the little boy is back in his mother’s arms.

This is how the great story of Israel’s liberation begins: With Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, whose fear of God gives them the courage to ignore the king’s command. With a mother and a sister whose love inspires them to be creative and incredibly bold at just the right moment. And with the king’s own daughter, who doesn’t obey her father’s deathly decree, but responds with compassion to the child’s vulnerability. Together these five women resist the pull of fear and death, and their actions align with God’s life-giving and liberating intentions and work. In later chapters of Exodus, God takes direct action with great displays of power against those who stubbornly oppose the freedom of God’s people. But here in the opening chapters, the power of God is almost hidden. God is barely mentioned, and yet God is at work. The shadow of Pharaoh may be squatting in the dark corners of every birthing place, but courage and grace make a bright light. Remember those names: Shiphrah and Puah.


[1] Exodus 1:8

[2] In Moses, Man of the Mountain, first chapter