The website of Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Exodus chapters 1- 15

Ostensibly chapters 1 to 15 of the book of Exodus are about how the Israelites were slaves and how God brought them to freedom through signs and wonders. The main objective of this story, however, is to explore factors that transcend human life and world’s events. For this, the chapters use literary recourses such as metaphors and symbolic images.

The book begins with the Israelites having been in Egypt for almost four hundred years,[1] greatly multiplying their numbers. “And the land was filled with them,” suggesting at the same time that a feeling of “too many of them, not enough of us” is triggering a crisis.

The oppressive measures engendered by this sense of Egyptian perceived catastrophe prompted the Israelites, who until then had been living by their wits, to cry for God’s help.

Having never appeared to Joseph and apparently having left the Hebrews hanging in Egypt for hundreds of years, God heard their moaning:

God “looked upon the Israelites and took notice of them.” [2]

The question of “what was God doing, during those years when the Israelites were under the Egyptians” -a question repeated, in different manners, almost every time human beings face unexplainable suffering – is almost heard behind the text. And when God finally makes His presence felt, so is the question: “Well, my Lord, what took you so long? What were you doing during all those years of hard labor? “[3]

The answer comes already in the first chapter of Exodus, verse 7, where the book says:

The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased significantly to fill the land with them.[4]

The Israelite’s “filling of the land” is the fulfillment of God’s design:

God blessed them and said, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”[5]

The demographic explosion experienced in Egypt is the realization of this blessing spoken at the world’s creation, followed by the subsequent blessing of numerous offspring to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

On the other hand, Pharaoh’s oppressive, anti-life measures are in direct opposition to God’s creation project.[6] Exodus here tells us that the God of Israel is not what Pharaoh is.

“Israel saw in Pharaoh’s trend towards destructive and de-humanizing brutality, not the magnificence of the pyramids but the ugliness of a civilization which spent its surplus capital to provide lavish entombment and expensive perpetual care for upper-class corpses, while the bodies of slaves were tossed to the crocodiles or into a common grave.” [7]

In envisaging a society that will be the opposite of Egypt, in which justice prevails, human life is held sacred, and every individual has equal dignity,[8] the book of Exodus opens not with God’s intervention but with three consecutive scenes of resistance against the established social order.

In the first, Pharaoh instructs the Hebrew midwives to murder all male children born to the enslaved people; but the midwives refuse the king’s order.[9]

In the second, a Hebrew woman hides her infant son from Pharaoh’s men, and Pharaoh’s daughter conspires with her to save the boy, again in direct contravention of the king’s order.[10]

In the third, Moses- a child product of this disobedience- slain an Egyptian for striking a slave,[11] fled from Egypt, and took up the life of a shepherd.

In all three cases, women and men violate the law of the state simply because they think it is the right thing to do, not because they were ordered to do so.

            The message here is clear: God loves those who resist the injustice of the state. It is to those that he reveals himself, and those whom he is willing to help.” [12]

            Exodus begins not with God’s intervention in human affairs but by telling us about the human capacity to understand right from wrong and the capacity to act upon that understanding. As Exodus begins to realize, God intervenes only in the last recourse when human beings have exhausted all their ability to redress the world to its course.

[1]  This is established in Ex. 12: 40

[2] Ex. 2: 25

[3] PLOTZ, DAVID: “Moses and God, the Sitcom,” “Blogging the Bible,” June 07, 2006

[4] Ex. 1: 7

[5] Genesis 1: 28

[6] FRETHEIM, TERENCE, E.: Exodus: Interpretation, (Kindle loc. 2052)

[7] SILVER, DANIEL JEREMY: A History of Judaism, Vol. 1, p. 38

[8] SACKS, JONATHAN: Covenant & Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption, (Kindle loc. 275)

[9] Ex. 1: 15- 21

[10] Ex. 1: 22- 2: 10

[11] Ex. 2: 11-14

[12] HAZONY, YORAM: The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, pp. 143-144