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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 1

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The Book of Exodus is entitled “The Second Book of Moses” in the Tyndale Bible, and it is noteworthy that the RSV has retained this ancient designation. In what sense, we may inquire, is it a “Book of Moses”? Of course, Moses is the most prominent human character in this book, but that cannot be the reason why it is a “Book of Moses,” because Genesis is called The First Book of Moses, in which there is no reference at all to Moses. Thus, the only way in which the five books of the Pentateuch may be understood as the Books of Moses is in the sense that Moses is the author of them. The very first verse of this chapter has a bearing upon this question.

Verse 1

“Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt (every man and his household came with Jacob).”

This and the following six verses are a parenthetical statement placed here for the purpose of bridging the gap in Israel’s history just recounted in Genesis 37—50. The time-span covered by this parenthesis is more than four hundred years, reaching from the settlement of Jacob’s posterity in Egypt to the Exodus, about to be related here.

“Now these are the names” It is regrettable that here the translators used their own words instead of the words of the text which are literally, “AND these are the names.”(F1) So it is that here very early in the sequence of the books of Holy Scripture we have an example of that near-universal practice among the sacred writers of beginning their books with the simple coordinate conjunction “and.” The fact that many translations change the word to “now” has no bearing on the truth. All of the sacred writers seemed to be conscious that they were contributors to the One Book of God’s revelation to mankind. In the Pentateuch, where this word, “and” is the first word in all five books except Genesis, it also has the utility of supporting the view that a single author wrote all five books, a view which we accept.

A careful study of these opening lines of Exodus reveals the certainty that what we have here is a CONTINUATION of Genesis. One theme, one purpose, one great Coordinator, one design, and one Person, throughout the Pentateuch and the entire Bible, attest to its amazing unity.

The name “Exodus” was apparently first given to this book in the Septuagint (LXX), about 250 years or so before Christ, the same being the theme of the first fifteen chapters. Prior to that time, the Hebrews called it, [~We-Elleh] [~Shemoth], from the first two Hebrew words of the book which mean, “And these are the names.”(F2) There are countless ancient examples of naming books after the first two or three words.

“Every man and his household came with Jacob” As noted frequently in this series, one of the invariable characteristics of the sacred books is the repeated recapitulation of significant events, with new information included in each repetition. (See the Introductions for Genesis, and also for Exodus.) The new information here is the fact that the total number who went down into Egypt was a far greater number than the mere total of those who were named. Here it is clear enough that each of the sons of Jacob brought “his household” with him, and in view of the fact that Abraham’s household (Genesis 14:14) included 318 fighting men, to say nothing of women and children, it becomes plain enough that the migration to Egypt by Jacob was by no stretch of imagination a SMALL event!

Verses 2-6

“Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: and Joseph was in Egypt already. And Joseph died, and his brethren, and all that generation.”

Regarding the number “seventy,” see comments on this under Genesis 46:7. All of the alleged “difficulties” regarding “the seventy,” and Stephen’s “seventy-five” (Acts 7:14) disappear altogether when it is seen as evident that different frames of calculation were used, some included the family of Joseph (who were already in Egypt), and some evidently included children of Joseph born after Ephraim and Manasseh, some included wives of sons, or wives of grandsons, or counted certain deceased ones, or excluded them … etc. All Biblical references to this event are absolutely correct. The Septuagint (LXX) reference to “seventy-five” includes five of Joseph’s posterity not included in those who “went down into Egypt with Jacob.”(F3) Also, the number “seventy” is symbolical, and is designed to show the completeness of the Hebrew migration to Egypt.

Verse 7

“And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

This verse summarizes the developments of some four centuries, thus recording the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the effect that their posterity would become a mighty nation, innumerable as the stars of heaven and numberless as the sands of the seashore. Some scholars like to quibble about whether or not such a population increase within the space of four hundred years could actually have happened. God says that it did happen, and that settles the question. For those who need help with such a question, it is pointed out by demographic specialists that without artificial checks against it, populations tend to double every twenty-five years. Rawlinson applied this law as follows: “Even supposing the “seventy” with their “households” to have numbered no more than 500 persons when they went down into Egypt, the people, unless artificially checked, would have exceeded two millions at the expiration of three centuries — that is to say, 130 years before the Exodus!”(F4)

The specific meaning of this verse goes far beyond what might easily have occurred in the natural growth of populations. Note the five-fold statement:

“… were fruitful,
… increased abundantly,
… and multiplied,
… and waxed exceeding mighty;
… and the land was filled with them.”

Thus, it was the infinite power and resources of the Almighty God Himself that providentially aided Israel in becoming a mighty nation. Nothing could have been great or powerful enough to have thwarted the purpose of the Eternal. This was the same Power that intervened at the Red Sea, at Jericho, and down long centuries afterward on Calvary.

These first seven verses enter into the narrative here in the form of a parenthesis, condensing the history of more than four centuries into this short paragraph. What a necessary prelude to the events about to be related! Genesis closed with the status of Israel having been established as that of a relatively small minority newly immigrated from Canaan and permitted to dwell in the wild and uninhabited grass lands of Goshen (the Nile Delta), and by reason of the deserved popularity of Joseph, whose authority in Egypt at that time was practically unlimited, enjoying the protection of the most powerful government on earth. Exodus begins with all of the basic elements of the picture drastically altered. Israel was no longer small, but mighty; they were no longer free, but had been reduced to slavery; their slavery placed them in the forced-labor armies of an ambitious and powerful Pharaoh. Another king “who knew not Joseph” had come to power; the same mighty world-power that at first had shielded and protected them was at this time their bitter enemy; and the terrors of genocide clearly threatened them! All such changes lay within the confines of this little paragraph. However, one thing had not changed, and that was the eternal purpose of God who had determined that in “the seed” of Abraham all the families of mankind would be blessed. All of the complicated and synchronized details of thousands of years of human history were being controlled and directed from heaven, making sure that “in the fullness of time” Elijah II (John the Baptist) would point out the Messiah and identify him as “The Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” and that God Himself would declare it from heaven in broad open daylight upon the banks of the Jordan, that, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Verses 8-14

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land. Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. And the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard service in the field, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field of their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor.”

“A new king … who knew not Joseph” The time at which this unhappy event took place is not given. We do not know whether or not the new king was of a different dynasty, or if he was merely some successor to the throne who did not regard the history or obligations of previous rulers. In any event, the accession of this unnamed ruler meant the end of all privileges for the Jews. Even their lands and their liberties were taken away, and they were reduced to slavery and pressed into service as forced-labor battalions employed in the ambitious building projects of a tyrannical and unscrupulous monarch. From the human viewpoint, Israel was doomed, their situation being absolutely hopeless.

“The children of Israel are more and mightier than we” This statement of Pharaoh confirms the fact of the numerical strength of Israel. Egypt at that time could hardly have had any less than two or three million citizens. Therefore, the figure of over 600,000 fighting men (Numbers 2:32), indicating a population in excess of 2,000,000, is perfectly reasonable in the light of what Pharaoh said here.

“Let us deal wisely with them” Pharaoh did not fear an armed uprising of Israel, for they were without weapons or military experience, but he did fear the fact that any invader would not fail to seek the aid of so vast a population of slaves who by this time already detested and hated the Egyptians. Thus, it was no imaginary danger that Pharaoh saw, but it was a danger that his own evil policies had caused and aggravated.

The word “wisely” here means “shrewdly,” and in context it also identifies the contemplated action as wicked. The purpose of Pharaoh was that of cutting down on the fantastic growth of the Israelites, also that of breaking them in spirit, and producing in them a mind-set that would have made their escape impossible. However, in this action against God’s people, Pharaoh positioned himself as an antagonist of Almighty God, making Pharaoh a type of Satan himself for all time to come! In this verse, Pharaoh “enters into conflict with the God of Israel,(F5) whose purpose was to bring Israel up “out of the land,” whereas the purpose of Pharaoh was that of preventing them from escaping “out of the land” (Exodus 1:10).

“To afflict them with their burdens” The very purpose of compelling the Israelites to “serve with rigor” (Exodus 1:14) was that of reducing their numbers. There can be no doubt that the kind of service they were forced into would have resulted in the death of many. Paintings from the tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes, 15th century B.C., show: “The full meaning of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt … back-breaking tasks performed in the field and construction work … by forced labor.”(F6)

The significant thing about the paintings is that they show the Israelites working practically naked, clad only with small loin cloths; and when this is considered in the light of the daily temperature outdoors at certain seasons of more than 130 degrees it must be considered a marvel that they survived at all.

“They built … store-cities Pithom and Raamses” It is upon this reference that many scholars base their principal arguments favoring a 13th century B.C. date for the Exodus, as opposed to the earlier date about the end of 15th century B.C. (For a fuller discussion of the date of the Exodus, see the introduction.) All Bible students should keep in mind the uncertainty of all dates assigned to Biblical books. There is a lot of guessing connected with dating most of the books of the Bible. As Robinson stated it with regard even to the books of the N.T.:

“The consensus of textbooks which inform the student within fairly agreed limits when any given book of the N.T. was written rests upon much slighter foundation than he probably supposes.”(F7)

What is true of the N.T. is doubly true with regard to the O.T. Despite the difficulties (and there are difficulties), we prefer a date for the Exodus of about 1440 B.C., as advocated by Unger,(F8) and as brilliantly defended (and, as far as we are concerned, proved) by Archer who accepted approximately the same date, 1445 B.C.(F9) For us, the insurmountable objection to the 13th-century date is that it requires setting aside a number of Scriptural passages, namely, 1 Kings 6:1 ff; Acts 13:19-20; and Judges 11:26. It is characteristic of many who advocate the later date that they do not hesitate to contradict the Bible and arrogantly set aside texts from the Holy Bible, calling them “forgeries,” and declaring them to be “untrustworthy,”(F10) That type of exegesis is unacceptable.

It is only a gross ignorance which can deny Bible passages upon the basis of dates constructed from Egyptian history and founded upon the indefinite and uncertain “discoveries” of archaeology. “Egyptologists do not know under which dynasty, much less under which king, the Exodus took place.”(F11) There is a gap of about one-third of a millennium that up until now has simply not been satisfactorily resolved in untangling the mystery of Egyptian history. “The result is that the best and the most learned of modern critics vary in their dates for the Exodus by as much as 332 years, some placing it as late as 1300 B.C., and others as early as 1600 B.C.”(F12) As for ourselves, we accept 1 Kings 6:1 ff as the Word of God, and from that, taking about 1000 B.C. as the date of Solomon’s accession, we have an approximate date of about 1440 B.C. for the exodus.

“And they made their lives bitter” God’s people, sooner or later, must reckon with the savage hatred of that whole portion of humanity who are not God’s people. No matter how long the saints may dwell in peaceful coexistence with those who are of this world only, at last and finally the issue must be faced, and the inevitable result is stated here. “They made their lives bitter.”

There was design in Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel, his purpose having been, as is invariably the case with Satan and his followers, that of the extermination of Israel. The first phase of Pharaoh’s oppression sought to break the spirit of Israel by forced labor under the greatest of hardships, and it was also thought that this would reduce their numbers. It failed. And then Pharaoh openly launched upon a course of genocide, ordering the murder of all the male children at the moment of their birth. Who can fail to see in that brutal edict the outcropping of the same satanic hatred that ordered the execution of all the male children of Bethlehem and vicinity who were two years and under in age (Matthew 2:16-18)?

Verses 15-18

“And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: and he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it be a son, then ye shall kill him, but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men-children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive?”

“Shiphrah … Puah” “These women were not Egyptians but Hebrews, no doubt heads of the whole profession who were expected to communicate their instructions to their associates.”(F13)

This diabolical commandment of Pharaoh revealed the heartless, savage nature of Israel’s enemies. “Kill all the male infants at birth!” Satan himself must have dictated this royal edict.

“The birth-stool” This was a form of chair upon which women in labor sat during the act of giving birth. “The Hebrew word [~’obnayim], meaning `two stones,’ has two meanings, the stool itself, and the double stone of a potter’s wheel.”(F14) From this, it may be inferred that the original birth-stool was merely a pair of stones upon which the woman in travail sat during child-birth. “This double meaning may also have been connected with the Egyptian belief that God creates men and fashions them into various shapes on a potter’s wheel, just as the potter fashions pottery in his workshop.”(F15) Of course, such a belief was erroneous, but even the holy writers were evidently aware of it, apparently basing some of their arguments upon it (see Romans 9:19-24).

The midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s executive order, and Israel went right on multiplying more than ever just as they did after the imposition upon them of the brutal forced labor (Exodus 1:12). Incidentally, such forced labor is known as the corvee. The obvious failure of the royal strategy prompted this confrontation between the midwives and Pharaoh.

Verses 19-22

“And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them. And God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them households. And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”

“Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women” Although the entire testimony of these midwives must be considered false, because the primary purpose of it was to deceive Pharaoh, it is also evident that essential elements of fact were included in their reply. It was true that the Hebrew women were unlike the Egyptian women, as attested by pictures excavated from the ancient tombs and dated about 1400 B.C., showing that the Egyptian women were more delicate and essentially smaller in stature. The big-boned Hebrew female slaves are depicted wearing heavy garments and obviously possessing much more vigor than the Egyptians. It was false, of course, that the Hebrew women were delivered before the midwives could assist them.

“And God dealt well with the midwives” It is amazing that some students find it hard to understand how God could have rewarded such liars! However, we find no difficulty with such a question. God rewarded those midwives, not for their falsehood to Pharaoh, but for their fear of God and for their aiding his purpose of multiplying the Israelites. In this first encounter between God and Pharaoh, God was gloriously victorious, just as would be the case in all subsequent phases of the conflict. Langley thought that the midwives made a fool of the king:

“Don’t miss the humor in this passage. The midwives made clever use of wit and excuse. Pharaoh comes off as a ludicrous fathead. The joke is on the king, and everybody knows it but him! So, while they laugh the king right out of his court, God wins another round and moves victoriously on.”(F16)

“Because the midwives feared God, he made them households” The meaning of this is that, “He blessed them with marriage and many descendants.”(F17) Exactly this same phrase is used with reference to David’s house (2 Samuel 7:11).(F18)

“Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river” The commandment, in context, means merely that all of the Hebrew males are thus to be destroyed. Nevertheless, interpreters have struggled with the passage. The Hebrew rabbis explained the general nature of the order thus:

“Pharaoh purposely stated the order in general terms, for it would have been improper for so highly civilized a nation to discriminate so openly against the Hebrews, but the officials had been told in confidence that it was applicable to Hebrew infants only.”(F19)

“Ye shall cast into the river” Some have inferred from this that the order to exterminate Hebrew males applied only to that portion of the Hebrew population living near the king’s residence and in that vicinity along the Nile. Josephus relates an interesting tale in connection with this event, and, while unprovable, there appears to be merit in it. We include Jamieson’s comment on it:

“Josephus tells how Pharaoh had been forewarned by one of his magi, that a Hebrew boy about to born would inflict a fatal blow upon the glory of Egypt and raise his own race to liberty and independence. It is quite possible that the apprehension of such a danger might have originated the cruel edict.”(F20)

Josephus was not very likely to have been influenced by the N.T. record of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, so it is evident that this tale of Pharaoh’s motivation for slaughter of innocents could be authentic. That it so nearly parallels what happened in Matthew 2 is amazing to say the least of it. Robert Jamieson was impressed by this, stating that:

“Thus, by the conduct of Pharaoh, the ancient church (Hebrew) in its infancy was opposed by persecution and peril precisely similar to that which, at the commencement of the N.T. church, was directed by Herod against the children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).”(F21)

The most astounding thing about this event is that the very action which Pharaoh took in his purpose of destroying Israel was exactly the thing that placed a Hebrew man-child in the very bosom of the king’s family, making him, at last, the heir to Pharaoh’s throne! How past finding out are the ways of God! Where in the literature of any nation, or of all nations, is there anything to approach the inspired drama of what leaps up before us in Exodus?

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-1.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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