To start the second book of Tanakh, we are once again given a list of the names of Jacob’s sons, and are reminded that (in addition to Joseph), seventy people came from the family to Egypt. Joseph has died, as have his brothers, and all of the other members of their generation. The generational change has occurred, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph (Exodus 1:7-8).” Without the protection of Joseph’s name and reputation as being the one who helped Pharaoh and saved Egypt from the famine, the people are essentially an unknown, and rapidly growing, foreign entity. Knowing the ongoing issues that Jews have dealt with throughout history for being different and prosperous, we can predict that this doesn’t spell good things for the children of Israel.
Pharaoh says to the Egyptians, “‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when war comes to us, they also join themselves with our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ Therefore they set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ramses (Exodus 1:9-11).”
Here, we have the first evidence of anti-Semitism and oppression of the Jewish people, a tragic reality that continues throughout history. Pharaoh is scared of the Israelites, and that their loyalties won’t be to him in times of war. Therefore, instead of treating them well, or absorbing them into society, or providing incentives for them to develop loyalty to Egypt, he takes the alternative route: slavery and oppression. He discriminates against the people, and decides that the best course of action is to enslave them, so that they’ll be too weak to oppose Pharaoh’s regime. As someone who enjoys studying Jewish history, I’m saddened to see that this pattern literally extends to biblical times, and despite the development of so many aspects of humanity, still continues today.
In spite of their status as slaves, the Israelites continue to multiply. “And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shifra and the other Puah; and he said: ‘When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, you will look at the birth-stool: if it is a son, then you will kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she will live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive (Exodus 1:15-17).” Here, we have the story of two heroines. Pharaoh wants to stop the Israelites from reproducing, by engineering a generation of no male babies. The midwives of the Hebrew women, who some commentators think were Israelites themselves, and others say were Egyptian midwives who served the Israelites, do not fall in line with this plan. If we go with the opinion that they are Egyptians themselves, then they fall, in my opinion, into the category of righteous gentiles. They save the baby boys out of fear of God, and in doing so defy Pharaoh. They lie to him, saying that the reason the boy babies continued to live was because the Israelite women were built differently from the Egyptians, and gave birth too quickly for the midwives to arrive. In doing this act, the midwives effectively save the Jewish people, by refusing to kill the babies.
The midwives are blessed for their bravery and their actions. However, Pharaoh is not to be thwarted in his plan to destroy the Israelites. “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you will cast into the river, and every daughter you shall keep alive (Exodus 1:22).” This horrific pronouncement ends the first chapter of Exodus/Shemot. It sets up the events that will bring Moses to the forefront of the biblical narrative, and will shape the entire future of the Jewish people.