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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 1



(1.) Through the book of generations ( Genesis) the fabric of Divine Revelation has risen like a pyramid in ten successive stages, broad as the creation at the bottom, and narrowing at the summit to a single family, which becomes lost from view in the darkness of Egyptian heathenism. The spiritual history of this family is now resumed, in order to develop facts and principles of universal interest and significance. JEHOVAH’S NAME is to be set in Israel, that, through the life and literature of that nation, the glory of that NAME may be diffused over all lands and ages. The narrative, after the manner so often noticed in Genesis, at the commencement doubles back upon itself for a new departure, and gives a brief review of the grand divisions of the nation; it then proceeds to relate the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs in the vast fruitfulness of the descendants of Israel. The connexion is thus close and logical with the Book of Generations, to which it is grammatically joined by the simple connective particle. The account of the origin of the world, of the race, of the chosen family, and the record of the successive calls of the patriarchs, having prepared the way, the writer proceeds to describe Jehovah as taking up his abode with men. Various ancient records and traditions, proverbs and songs, have been woven together in this work, but the unity of the composition shows that it proceeds from a single hand.

(2.) A very few lines shed upon the centuries of the Egyptian sojourn all the light that the world has received. The sacred writer did not aim to furnish a full history of Israel, but to develop the fulfilment of God’s plans, and hence he hastens over whole ages to the time of the accomplishment of the patriarchal promises. The work thus differs essentially from all secular histories. It is not a history of Israel, but of God in Israel.

The immense increase of Israel in Egypt, whether the time of their sojourn were two or four centuries, precludes the idea of a severe continuous servitude. They were cruelly oppressed only during the last part of their stay. They were by no means a nation of degraded slaves, for they had their elders and scribes, brave warriors, skilled artisans, firm and sober family traditions, and inspiring songs. They had become entangled in Egyptian idolatry, but they had not forgotten the God of their fathers. From Joshua 5:5 we find that the covenant seal of circumcision was set upon the people generation after generation; while a name like Jochebed meaning, whose glory is Jehovah shows that at least in the tribe of Levi the covenant Name was revered.

There was a stern, sharp antagonism between the Egyptian religion, with its magnificent temples, its colossal idols, and its pompous ritual, and the simple spiritual worship of the Hebrew patriarchs; and this antagonism developed more and more in successive generations, and culminated in the conflict wherein Jehovah triumphed over the gods of Egypt. Moses did not create, but localized, spiritual forces that had been gathering for generations. When Israel was fully ripe for the revelation, the I AM spoke from the burning bramble.

Verses 1-6


1-5. These are the names The heads of the tribes are recounted, and the statement of Genesis 46:27 is repeated, that seventy souls went down into Egypt; the writer, from the covenant associations of the number, loving to consider Israel as a seventy-fold people, though at the same time himself furnishing data by which we see that he did not intend to give an exact census. See notes on Luke 10:1-16, and Acts 1:15.

All… that came out of the loins of Jacob The idiom which represents Jacob himself as one of the “souls that came out of the loins of Jacob” gave the original readers no difficulty, and we are not to expect Occidental rhetoric in Oriental documents . See notes on Genesis 46:0.

Verse 7


7. Here is an accumulation of figures to express the vast increase of the children of Israel .

Were fruitful A figure from the seed which multiplies a hundred or a thousand fold .

Increased abundantly Swarmed or teemed; a word applied to the myriad-fold spawn of fishes .

Multiplied… exceeding mighty Literally, multiplied and grew strong (in numbers) exceedingly exceedingly . The fat Nile-land greatly favours fruitfulness both in animals and men, as is attested by travellers from Aristotle and Strabo to Robinson; and Goshen was the “best of the land” for a pastoral people. It was, besides, a border land, where Israel was isolated from the Egyptians. This isolation aided in developing an independent national life, while the descendants of Jacob would in Canaan have become absorbed among the native Hamites. Natural causes are thus ever taken up into providential plans.

Verse 8

8. A new king A new dynasty or reigning family, says Josephus . The language implies a total change of government and principles of administration, such as attend a change of dynasty; not necessarily that so much time had elapsed that Joseph was actually forgotten, but his services were no longer gratefully recognised . Manetho describes two great dynastic changes: the first on the invasion, and the second on the expulsion, of the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings; but whether either of these be the change here mentioned, or, in fact, whether there ever were any Shepherd Kings, are still greatly controverted questions . It seems most likely that this oppression of the Israelites commenced under the eighteenth (Theban) dynasty, which came into power, according to Wilkinson, about B . C . 1550, according to Lepsius about B . C . 1700, and ruled two centuries . Ames I . , (called also Aahmes, Amosis, and Tethmosis,) the first monarch of this dynasty, united and centralized the kingdom, drove out invaders, erected great palaces and obelisks, and commenced a new epoch of Egyptian history . It is natural that he should know nothing and care nothing for the favourite minister or measures of the dynasty which he displaced; yet it is well to understand that this identification is but conjectural .

Pharaoh’s residence seems at this time to have been at Zoan, otherwise called Tanis, or Avaris, a city of Lower Egypt, on the east bank of the Tanitic branch of the Nile, once a large and strong city of the eastern frontier. (See Isaiah 19:11; Isaiah 19:13. ) Zoan is the Hebrew name which became Tanis in Greek, while Avaris is an Egyptian word in Greek letters, all the names having the same meaning “House of departure” in evident allusion to the frontier situation of the city . “The field of Zoan” is dwelt upon by the Psalmist (Psalms 78:12; Psalms 78:43) as the scene of God’s wonders in Egypt, and Manetho tells us that King Salatis, the first of the Shepherd line, made this city his residence in harvest time and garrisoned it with 240,000 men . It was evidently the great frontier fortress towards Syria during the Shepherd period, and was the last stronghold of that dynasty when they were allowed to depart by capitulation. (Josephus, Contr. Revelation , 1.) It had a splendid temple to Set, the Egyptian Baal, the sacred enclosure of which can now be clearly traced. This temple was ornamented with numerous obelisks and sculptures by Rameses II., of the nineteenth dynasty, and the present grandeur of its ruins attests its ancient splendour. Twelve fallen obelisks, which were transported down the Nile to this spot from Syene, show with what magnificence Zoan was adorned by the Egyptian kings. Mariette and De Rouge have recently exhumed here sphynxes and colossal statues, bearing the marks of the Shepherd period, and proving beyond doubt that this was a flourishing seat of empire before the time of Moses. (Thomson, in Smith’s Dictionary.)

The great fertile plain in which this city stood, which originally extended thirty miles east of Tanis to Pelusium, “of old a rich marsh land, watered by four of the seven branches of the Nile, and swept by the cool breezes of the Mediterranean,” is now, by the subsidence of the coast, almost covered by the great Lake Menzeleh. (Poole, in Smith’s Dict.) Pharaoh probably divided his residence between this city and Memphis, and it will be seen that Zoan was so near to Goshen that Moses and Aaron could easily pass and repass in their interviews with Pharaoh. See Concluding Notes at close of chapter. (1.)

Verses 9-10

9, 10. And he said unto his people This implies consultation of a king with his counsellors in an epoch of transition or revolution, and suits well the time of Amosis . Before his reign Egypt was divided into several kingdoms Thebes, This, Memphis, etc . , between which there were constant struggles, the different dynasties ruling side by side . Under Amosis, Thebes became supreme .

More and mightier than we Not that they really outnumbered the Egyptians, but the new king is alarmed at the rapid increase of an alien population which, from its religious antagonism, could not become assimilated with the Egyptian nation . See Introduction, (2 . )

Verse 10

10. There falleth… any war Literally, When wars arise . (Nordh . Gr. , 752.) He saw that there was being developed in the midst of his empire a hostile nation, which would be a dangerous internal enemy in time of war, and might at any time assert its independence.

Get them up out of the land This incidental remark shows that Israel had not forgotten the great national promises made to their fathers, and that their national hopes were not unknown to the Egyptians even before Moses arose.

Verse 11

11. Taskmasters Chiefs of tribute . The words are noteworthy, since they are found designating the same officers both in Hebrew and Egyptian . The Hebrew word שׂר , Sar, is an exact transcription of the Egyptian title applied in the Theban monuments to the officer appointed by the kings of the eighteenth dynasty to superintend captives employed in making bricks . This rank is there denoted by a long staff and by the giraffe symbol . These “taskmasters” were men of rank, carefully distinguished in the monuments from the subordinate overseers, as they are by the sacred writer . Exodus 5:6. The Hebrews were not reduced to slavery, since they still had their houses, flocks, and herds; but were employed in forced labours on the public works . By this oppression the king hoped to break the spirit of the people, and also their physical power .

Built… treasure-cities Magazines or depots for provisions and ammunition . The monuments represent captives in great numbers employed in such work . Pithom and

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Raamses These are Egyptian names, and are often found upon the monuments. Pithom, Brugsch makes the Egyptian Pa-Tum, House of Tum, the sun-god of Heliopolis; while Rameses or Raamses means Son of Ra, or the Sun, and was the name of many Egyptian kings. These cities were about twenty-four miles apart, in the Wady Tumeylat, on the line of the canal that once connected the Nile with the Red Sea. Like the name Pharaoh, (Ph-Ra, the Sun,) both of these names set forth the sun-worship of the Egyptians, and the reigning king was regarded as the representative of Ra, the Sun, upon the earth.

Verse 12

12. More they afflicted… more they multiplied But God was with the oppressed, and the immense national vitality which has made Israel the wonder of history began to be developed in proportion to the oppression, so that the Egyptians became distressed (with fear) before the children of Israel . Compare Numbers 22:3.

Verses 13-14

13, 14. The nature of their toil is here more fully described .

Hard bondage Rather, hard labour in clay and bricks, and all (kind of) service in the field. They were not made house-servants, or employed as artisans in any kind of skilled labour, but were set at the coarse work of brick-making for the great public buildings, canal digging, raising water from the river for irrigation, which is specially toilsome in Egypt, and similar rough outdoor labours. This remark applies only to this time of special oppression. Josephus says that they built the pyramids; but the great pyramids are made of stone, and were standing when Joseph went down into Egypt. A vast amount of brick was required for the walls of cities, fortresses, temple-courts, and private as well as public buildings. They were made of the Nile mud mixed with straw, and of clay without straw, baked in the sun, and their manufacture was a government monopoly. Immense piles of these bricks the ruins of ancient works, many of them stamped with the hieroglyphs of the Pharaohs are now found in the land of Goshen.

The opposite engraving represents a painting at Thebes, in the tomb of an officer of Thothmes III., of the eighteenth dynasty, and delineates all the processes of Egyptian brick-making, foreign captives being the labourers, directed by Egyptian task-masters.

It is a noteworthy fact, that, in an inscription of the twenty-second year of Amosis, alien labourers of some pastoral nation, like the Israelites, are described as carrying blocks of limestone from the Rufu quarries to Memphis. This, like the opposite picture, shows that events precisely like those narrated in the text were, according to the best chronology, transpiring in Egypt at the time when the Israelites were there.

Verses 15-16

15, 16. A second and far more cruel edict now went forth . Herodotus shows (vol . 2:84) that medical theory and practice were highly perfected in Egypt, medical specialties being carefully cultivated; and the monuments show that the women were accoucheurs. Shiphrah and Puah were superintendents of the midwives, and are here designated the midwives, as Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker are called the butler and baker in Genesis 11:1. This orderly superintendence of all industries is abundantly illustrated on the Theban tombs.

When ye… see them upon the stools When ye look upon the birth, ( Targ. Onk.) At the very moment of birth they were to destroy the child, if a male, as they could easily do even before the mother had seen it. This edict was probably aimed specially at the leading families of Israel, for such only would be likely to employ a professional midwife. See Concluding Notes. (2.)

Verses 17-19

17-19. But the midwives feared Feared the (one only) God rather than Pharaoh, and would not execute his murderous mandate . Their excuse was plausible, for childbirth is usually easy with women of the pastoral class, especially in the East . Burckhardt and Tischendorf relate that the Bedouin mother seeks a spot by a spring or stream, and bears and dresses her infant without aid . She even sometimes alights from her camel to bear her child, which she washes in the sand and then resumes her place .

Verse 20

20. God dealt well with the mid-wives Augustine well says: “Not their falsehood, but their mercy, kindness, and fear of God, were rewarded . For the sake of the good, God forgave the evil . ” It was well that the fear of God kept them from murder; it had been better if it had also kept them from falsehood .

Verse 21

21. Made them houses Built up their families, increased their posterity, in reward for their preservation of the posterity of Israel . This, in the Hebrew idiom, is to “build a house . ” Comp . 2 Samuel 7:11; 2 Samuel 7:27.

Verse 22

22. Every son… ye shall cast into the river The Nile . This third and most sweeping edict is now promulgated, by which all Pharaoh’s subjects are commanded to become executioners of the Hebrew children . The command was so inhuman, and so contrary to the interests of the Egyptians themselves, that it is not likely that it was ever enforced for any length of time; but it gave legal opportunity to any who desired to destroy the children of Hebrew families who seemed for any reason specially dangerous . Hence the fears of the mother of Moses . This massacre has, moreover, historic parallels . When the servile class in Sparta became formidable from numbers, the Spartan youth were sent out with daggers to murder a sufficient number to remove apprehension. Diodorus relates that before the time of Psammetichus that is, all through the Old Testament period simple jealousy often led the Egyptian kings to put foreigners to death. And this cruel edict opened the schools and the palace of the City of the Sun to the saviour of Israel! And how we glance from the massacre of Goshen to that of Beth-lehem; from the bulrush ark to the manger; from prostrate Ra to Satan falling like lightning from heaven; from the saviour of a nation to the Saviour of a world! CONCLUDING NOTES (see book comments) Chronology of the Exodus. (1.) The period of the Israelitish sojourn in Egypt is expressly declared in Exodus 12:40 to have been 430 years . This harmonizes with the prediction made to Abraham, Genesis 15:13: “Thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them 400 years;” which language is also quoted by Stephen in his discourse in Acts 7:6. But the Samaritan and Septuagint text of Exodus 12:40, give a different reading, which makes the 430 years cover the whole “sojourn” of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in Canaan, as well as that of the Israelites in Egypt, extending thus from the arrival of Abraham in Haran to the Exode . This would make the Egyptian sojourn only two hundred and fifteen years .

Paul follows this Sept. chronology in Galatians 3:17. We have, then, what are called a long and a short chronology of the Exodus . The short period is adopted in our chronology, (Usher’s) which sets the Exode at B . C . 1491, two hundred and fifteen years after Jacob went down into Egypt . As yet we have not data for deciding with certainty between the two periods, but the census of the Israelites at the Exode is usually deemed to favour four rather than two centuries of Egyptian sojourn. To balance up authorities on this matter gives little light, and the question would seem to have been doubtful in the time of Josephus, since he expressly commits himself to both sides in the same treatise. Compare Antiq., 2: 15 with Exodus 2:9. See notes on Exodus 12:40.

Egyptian chronology is at present so wholly unsettled that it is rash to dogmatize, and wise to wait patiently till more light comes from the monuments. The most famous Egyptologists differ from each other by centuries in regard to the date of the Exodus. As mentioned above, Usher’s date, B.C. 1491, stands in our English Bible; Poole fixes it at 1652, (Smith’s Bib. Dict., art. Chronology;) Rawlinson at 1650, ( Ancient Hist., p. 61;) Wilkinson at first made Thothmes III. the Pharaoh of the Exode, about 1460, ( Anc. Egypt, vol. i, pages 76-81, English Edition,) but has since decided for Pthahmen, (Meneptah I.,) of the nineteenth dynasty, who came to the throne about B.C. 1250, (Rawl., Her. App. to book ii, chap. viii;) and so Brugsch, ( Hist. de l’Egypt, 1: 156,) who makes Rameses II., the father of Pthahmen, to be the Pharaoh of Exodus 1:0. This is the view of Stanley and many others. Lepsius and Bunsen make the Exode to have taken place under the nineteenth dynasty, and Bunsen fixes about 1320 as its date. Ewald, Winer, and Knobel identify the Pharaoh of Exodus i, with Amosis of the eighteenth dynasty, as in our note. This view is learnedly defended by Canon Cook in the Speaker’s Commentary.

The whole story of the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings, though so generally accepted, rests solely on the confused and contradictory account of the priest Manetho, who lived more than a thousand years after the alleged events, and fragments of whose work have been handed to us by Josephus and Syncellus, and hopelessly confused with fragments from another Manetho of uncertain date and authority. No trace of the Hyksos is found in the monuments so far, in Herodotus, Diodorus, or the books of Moses. Hengstenberg, Havernik, and many others, consider the whole story as a confused Egyptian legend of the Exode. Blackie, in his Homer, well sets forth this view. ( Homer and the Iliad, 1: 36.) (2.) חאבנים , (Exodus 1:16. ) The word occurs in only one other place, Jeremiah 18:3, where it is rendered the (two) wheels, (of the potter,) in the margin, frames or seats . Five different interpretations are suggested, not noticing proposed alterations of the text, as by Furst, etc .

1. Gesenius, in Hebrews Lex., makes it the midwife’s chair, on which she sat before the woman in labour.

2. Gesenius elsewhere makes it the bath tub or trough ( badewanne) in which the child was washed. So De Wette.

3. Smith’s Dict. quotes Lane’s Modern Egyptians to show that it means the chair used in aiding delivery, showing that the modern Egyptians have the same custom, and such a chair is said to be represented on the monuments of the eighteenth dynasty. Auf dem Geburts-stuhle, Van Ess. But neither of these interpretations explain the dual form.

4. Ewald interprets the word adverbially as meaning instantly, like the German, flugs; English, “ on the fly.”

5. Fagius ( Crit. Sacr.) follows the interpretation of J. Kimchi and others, who refer the word to the vagina, the labia uteri. Thus La Haye, ( Bib. Max.,) who renders cum in ostiis vulvae prolem videritis. So Keil and Knobel, who seem to settle the question.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.