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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Exodus 1

Verse 1


(1) Now these are the names.—The divisions between the books “of the Pentateuch are not arbitrary. Genesis ends naturally and Exodus begins at the point where the history of the individuals who founded the Israelite nation ceases and that of the nation itself is entered on. That history commences properly with Exodus 1:7. Exodus 1:1-6 form the connecting link between the two books, and would not have been needed unless Exodus had been introduced as a distinct work, since they are little more than a recapitulation of what had been already stated and stated more fully in Genesis. Compare Exodus 1:1-5 with Genesis 46:8-27, and Exodus 1:6 with Genesis 1:26.

Every man and his household.—“A household,” in the language of the East, includes not only children and grand-children, but retainers also—“servants born in the house”—like those of Abraham (Genesis 14:14). The number of each “household” may thus have been very considerable.

Verses 3-4

(3-4) Reuben . . . —The sons of the legitimate wives are placed first, then those of the concubines. Leah has precedence over Rachel; Bilhah over Zilpah. The children of each wife and concubine are given in order of seniority. The omission of Joseph from the list is explained in the last clause of Exodus 1:5.

Verse 5

(5) All the souls . . . were seventy souls. Comp. Genesis 46:8-27. The number is made up as follows:—Jacob himself, 1; his sons, 12; his daughter, Dinah, 1; his grandsons, 51; his grand-daughter Serah, 1; his great-grandsons, 4—Total, 70. His daughters, except Dinah, and his sons’ daughters, except Serah, spoken of in Genesis 46:7, are not included. If his female descendants were, at the time of his descent into Egypt, as numerous as the males, the entire number of those who “came out of his loins” must have been 132. To form a calculation of the number of persons who entered Egypt with him, we must add the wives of his sons and grandsons, and the husbands of his daughters and granddaughters. A further liberal allowance must be also made for retainers. (See the comment on Exodus 1:1.) It is not perhaps surprising that Kurtz, taking all these classes into account, should calculate that those who entered Egypt with Jacob amounted to “several thousands” (History of The Old Covenant, vol. ii. p. 149, E.T.).

Verse 7

(7) The children of Israel were fruitful.—A great multiplication is evidently intended. Egypt was a particularly healthy country, and both men and animals were abnormally prolific there. Grain was so plentiful that want, which is the ordinary check on population, was almost unknown. The Egyptian kings for many years would look favourably on the growth of the Hebrew people, which strengthened their eastern frontier, the quarter on which they were most open to attack. God’s blessing was, moreover, upon the people, which he had promised to make “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore, for multitude” (see Genesis 22:17). On the actual extent of the multiplication and the time that it occupied, see the comment on Exodus 12:37-41.

The land—i.e., where they dwelt—Goshen (Genesis 47:4-6)—which seems to have been the more eastern portion of the Delta.

Verse 8

(8) There arose up a new king.—A king of a new dynasty might seem to be intended. Some suppose him to be Aahmes I., the founder of the eighteenth dynasty of Manetho; others suggest Rameses II., one of the greatest monarchs of the nineteenth. The present writer inclines to regard him as Seti I., the father of this Rameses, and the son of Rameses I. Seti, though not the actual founder of the nineteenth dynasty, was the originator of its greatness. (See Excursus I. “On Egyptian History, as connected with the Book of Exodus,” at the end of this Book.)

Which knew not Joseph.—It seems to be implied that, for some considerable time after his death, the memory of the benefits conferred by Joseph upon Egypt had protected his kinsfolk. But, in the shifts and changes incident to politics—especially to Oriental politics—this condition of things had passed away. The “new king” felt under no obligation to him, perhaps was even ignorant of his name. He viewed the political situation apart from all personal predilections, and saw a danger in it.

Verse 9

(9) He said unto his people.—It is not intended to represent the Egyptian monarch as summoning a popular assembly, and addressing it. “His people.” Is antithetical to “the people of the children of Israel,” and simply marks that those whom he addressed were of his own nation. No doubt they were his nobles, or, at any rate, his courtiers.

More and mightier than we.—Heb., great and mighty in comparison with us. The more to impress his counsellors, and gain their consent to his designs, the king exaggerates. Ancient Egypt must have had a population of seven or eight millions, which would imply nearly two millions of adult males, whereas the adult male Israelites, near a century later, were no more than six hundred thousand (Exodus 12:37). Wicked men do not scruple at misrepresentation when they have an end to gain.

Verse 10

(10) Let us deal wisely.—Instead of open force, the king proposes stratagem. He thinks that he has hit upon a wise scheme—a clever plan—by which the numbers of the Israelites will be kept down, and they will cease to be formidable. The nature of the plan appears in Exodus 1:11.

When there falleth out any war.—The Egyptians were in general an aggressive people—a terror to their neighbours, and seldom the object of attack. But about the beginning of the nineteenth dynasty a change took place. “A great nation grew up beyond the frontier on the north-east to an importance and power which began to endanger the Egyptian supremacy in Western Asia” (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. ii. p. 2). War threatened them from this quarter, and the impending danger was felt to be great.

They join also.—Rather, they too join. It was not.likely that the Hebrews would have any real sympathy with the attacking nation, whether Arabs, Philistines, Syrians, or Hittites; but they might regard an invasion as affording them a good opportunity of striking a blow for freedom, and, therefore, attack the Egyptians simultaneously with their other foes. The Egyptians themselves would perhaps suppose a closer connection between them and the other Eastern races than really existed.

Get them up out of the land.—The Pharaohs of the nineteenth dynasty were excessively jealous of the withdrawal from Egypt of any of their subjects, and endeavoured both to hinder and to recover them. Immigration was encouraged, emigration sternly checked. The loss of the entire nation of the Hebrews could not be contemplated without extreme alarm.

Verse 11

(11) Task-masters.—Heb., chiefs of tributes. The Egyptian system of forced labour, which it was now resolved to extend to the Israelites, involved the appointment of two sets of officers—a lower class, who personally overlooked the labourers, and forced them to perform their tasks, and a higher class of superintendents, who directed the distribution of the labour, and assigned to all the tasks which they were to execute. The “task-masters” of the present passage are these high officials.

To afflict them.—This was the object of the whole proceeding. It was hoped that severe labour under the lash would produce so much suffering that the number of the Israelites would be thinned, and their multiplication stopped. Humanly speaking, the scheme was a “wise” one—i.e., one likely to be successful.

They built for Pharaoh treasure-cities.—By “treasure-cities” we are to understand “magazines”—i.e., strongholds, where munitions of war could be laid up for use in case of an invasion. (In 1 Kings 9:19, and 2 Chronicles 8:4, the same expression is translated “cities of store.”) The Pharaohs of the nineteenth dynasty gave great attention to the guarding of the north-eastern frontier in this way.

Pithom.—This city is reasonably identified with the “Patumus” of Herodotus (ii. 158), which was in Lower Egypt, not far from Bubastis (Tel Basta). It is mentioned in the inscriptions of the nineteenth dynasty under the name of Pi-Tum (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. ii. p. 128). It was, as the name implies, a city of the sun-god, and was probably not very far from Heliopolis, the main seat of the sun-god’s worship.

Raamses.—Pi-Ramesu, the city of Rameses, was the ordinary seat of the Court during the earlier part of the nineteenth dynasty. It appears to have been a new name for Tanis, or for a suburb of Tanis, which overshadowed the old city. Rameses II. claims to have built the greater part of it; but it was probably commenced by his father, Seti, who made the defence of the north-eastern frontier one of his main cares. The name must be considered as a mere variant rendering of the Egyptian Ramessu or Ramesu. The site is marked by the mounds at San.

Verse 12

(12) The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.—This result was not natural. It can only be ascribed to God’s superintending Providence, whereby “the fierceness of man” was made to “turn to his praise.” Naturally, severe and constant labour exhausts a nation, and causes its numbers to diminish.

They were grieved.—This is scarcely strong enough. Translate, “They were sore distressed.”

Verse 13

(13) With rigour.—Forced labour in Egypt was of a very severe character. Those condemned to it worked from morning to night under the rod of a task-master, which was freely applied to their legs or backs, if they rested their weary limbs for a moment. (See Records of the Past, vol. viii. p. 149; Chabas, Mélanges Egyptolo-giques, vol. ii. p. 121). The heat of the sun was great; the burthens which the labourers had to carry were heavy, and the toil was incessant. Death often resulted from the, excessive work. According to Herodotus, a single monarch, Neco, destroyed in this way 120,000 of his subjects (Herod, ii. 158).

Verse 14

(14) In morter and in brick.—It has been questioned whether the Egyptians used brick as a material for building. No doubt temples, palaces, and pyramids were ordinarily of stone; but the employment of brick for walls, fortresses, and houses, especially in the Delta, is well attested. (See the Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund for July, 1880, pp. 137, 139, 143, &c.) Pyramids, too, were sometimes of brick (Herod. ii. 136). The manufacture of bricks by foreigners, employed (like the Israelites) as public slaves, is represented by the kings upon their monuments.

All manner of service in the field.—Josephus speaks of their being employed to dig canals (Ant. Jud. ii. 9, § 1), and there is a trace in Deuteronomy 11:10 of other labours connected with irrigation having been devolved on them. Such labours, under the hot sun of Egypt, are exhausting and dangerous to health.

And all their service . . . was with rigour. Rather, besides all their other service, which they made them serve with rigour.

Verse 15

(15) The Hebrew midwives.—Or the midwives of the Hebrew women (ταῖς μαίαις τῶν Έβραίων, LXX.). The Hebrew construction admits of either rendering. In favour of the midwives being Egyptians is the consideration that the Pharaoh would scarcely have expected Hebrew women to help him in the extirpation of the Hebrew race (Kalisch); against it is the Semitic character of the names—Shiphrah, “beautiful;” Puah, “one who cries out;” and also the likelihood that a numerous and peculiar people, like the Hebrews, would have accoucheurs of their own race.

Verse 16

(16) Upon the stools.—Literally, upon the two stones. It has been suggested that a seat corresponding to the modern hursee elwilâdeh is meant. This is a “chair of a peculiar form,” upon which in modern Egypt the woman is seated during parturition. (See Lane, Modern Egyptians, vol. iii. p. 142.) But it does not appear that this seat is composed of “two stones;” nor is there any distinct evidence of its employment at the time of child-birth in Ancient Egypt. The emendation of Hirsch—banim for âbnaim, is very tempting. This will give the sense, “When ye look upon the children.”

Verse 17

(17) The midwives feared God.—The midwives, whether Hebrews or Egyptians, believed in a God who would punish wrong-doing, and therefore resolved not to obey the Pharaoh.

Verse 19

(19) The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women.—This was probably true; but it was not the whole truth. Though the midwives had the courage to disobey the king, they had not “the courage of their convictions,” and were afraid to confess their real motive. So they took refuge in a half truth, and pretended that what really occurred in some cases only was a general occurrence. It is a fact, that in the East parturition is often so short a process that the attendance of a midwife is dispensed with.

Verse 20

(20) Therefore God dealt well with the midwives.—Heb., and God dealt well, &c. The reason is stated in Exodus 1:21. It was not because they equivocated and deceived the king, but because they feared God sufficiently to disobey the king, and run the risk of discovery. If they had been discovered, their life would have paid the forfeit.

Verse 21

(21) He made them houses.—God rewarded those who had showed tenderness to young children, by giving them children of their own, who grew up, and became in their turn fathers and mothers of families. There is no indication that the “houses” spoken of were Hebrew ones.

Verse 22

(22) Every son that is born.—The LXX. add “to the Hebrews,” but without any necessity, since the context shows that only Hebrew children are meant.

Ye shall cast into the river.—Infanticide, so shocking to Christians, has prevailed widely at different times and places, and been regarded as a trivial matter. In Sparta, the State decided which children should live and which should die. At Athens a law of Solon left the decision to the parent. At Rome, the rule was that infants were made away with, unless the father interposed, and declared it to be his wish that a particular child should be brought up. The Syrians offered unwelcome children in sacrifice to Moloch; the Carthaginians to Melkarth. In China infanticide is said to be a common practice at the present day. Heathen nations do not generally regard human life as sacred. On the contrary, they hold that considerations of expediency justify the sweeping away of any life that inconveniences the State. Hence infanticide is introduced by Plato into his model republic (Rep. v. 9). Almost all ancient nations viewed the massacre of prisoners taken in war as allowable. The Spartan crypteia was a system of licensed murder. The condemnation to death of all male Hebrew children by Pharaoh is thus in no respect improbable. On the other hand, the mode of the death presents difficulties. For, first, the Nile was viewed as a god; and to fill it with corpses would, one might have supposed, have been regarded as a pollution. Secondly, the Nile water was the only water drunk; and sanitary considerations might thus have been expected to have prevented the edict. Perhaps, however, the children were viewed as offerings to the Nile, or to Savak, the crocodile headed god, of whom each crocodile was an emblem. At any rate, as the Nile swarmed with crocodiles throughout its whole course, the bodies were tolerably sure to be devoured before they became putrescent.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.