Be fruitful, multiply—and expect opposition—Exodus 1:8-14

Although being fruitful and multiplying (Exod 1:7) is a good thing, it can also provoke opposition from those who wrongly feel us threatening. Instead of treating Joseph’s benevolent legacy as a blessing for Egypt, a new Pharaoh was about to persecute Joseph’s people. Joseph had great favor with the Pharaoh of his day, but eventually a new Pharaoh, and probably a new dynasty of Pharaohs, arose who did not know Joseph or care about his legacy. Joseph had amassed grain in cities to provide for Egypt in the time of need (Gen 41:35, 49), but this new Pharaoh, forgetting Joseph’s benevolence, forces the Israelites to build “storage cities” (Exod 1:11; what the Hebrew designation seems to mean elsewhere).

If Joseph entered Egypt in the time of, or was otherwise somehow associated with. the Asian Hyksos dynasty, the later Egyptian reaction against the Hyksos would have carried over into a reaction against the Israelites. The fear that the Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies in a war would make some sense after the Hyskos were driven out, since they, like the Israelites, were from Asia.

Verse 7 says that the Israelites became very, very strong; in verse 9 the new Pharaoh warns that the Israelite people had become stronger than his own people. (God had promised to make Israel a mighty nation, Gen 18:18; later another enemy fears that Israel is too mighty, Num 22:6; and God promises to drive out mightier nations before Israel, Deut 4:38; 7:1; 9:1; 11:23.) Pharaoh thus wants to repress them, lest they multiply, fight the Egyptians, and go up from the land (Exod 1:10). The divine irony is that Israelites were already multiplying, the repression multiplied them still more (1:12), and that God would fight the repressers and take Israel up from the land.

The term for Israel “joining” Egypt’s enemies in 1:10 is the same root [ysf] for “Joseph” and might constitute a play on words. The term for the masters “oppressing” the Israelites in 1:11-12 (what God had predicted for Israel in Gen 15:13) does not appear again in Exodus until Exod 10:3—where the Lord demands that Pharaoh “humble” himself before the Lord. Israel suffered because Pharaoh imposed “servitude” on them (Exod 1:14; cf. the same term in 2:23; 5:9; 6:6, 9); but God exchanged that servitude for a better one, the service or worship of God (using the same term, 12:25-26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1-5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42). That is, the Lord made them his own servants instead of Pharaoh’s. But in contrast to Pharaoh, the Lord did not approve of treating servants ruthlessly (the term for ruthless rule in 1:13-14 appears elsewhere in Scripture only in Lev 25:43, 46, 53; Ezek 34:4).

God was even now preparing a deliverer through whom he would liberate his people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We cannot always see God’s activity in the short term. But while God sometimes works in hidden ways at first, the ultimate future belongs to him.

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Getting too comfortable in Egypt?—Exodus 1:1-7

Exodus opens where Genesis leaves off: Jacob and his family settled in Egypt (Exod 1:1-5), and Joseph and his generation died (1:6). Although Joseph’s generation died, their descendants were fruitful and multiplied and filled the land (1:7), far beyond all normal, natural expectations.

In so doing, they were fulfilling the ancient mandate and pattern offered in creation: God commanded his creatures to be fruitful, multiply, and fill their spheres of existence (Gen 1:22), including humans (1:28). God reiterated these commands after the flood (8:17; 9:1, 7). God promised Abraham that he would make him fruitful and multiply his descendants (17:6; cf. 22:17), a promise also reaffirmed to Ishmael (17:20), Isaac (cf. 26:4, 24), and Jacob (28:3; 35:11; 48:4). Their multiplication is already noted in Gen 47:27, and now reaffirmed here in the opening lines of Exodus. God will reaffirm this promise again in Lev 26:9.

As for “filling the land” (Exod 1:7), Jacob’s descendants are again fulfilling the mandate at humanity’s creation; the Hebrew term for “land” is the same Hebrew term for “earth” in Gen 1:28. Paul later apparently applies this biblical principle of multiplication to spiritual progeny. As believers today, we want to be fruitful and grow (Col 1:6, 10, using a word for “grow” from the most common Greek translation of Gen 1:28). We can do this in part by raising children in the faith (cf. Gen 18:19; Deut 6:7) but also by evangelism (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20; which uses the same term for “grow” as in the description of the Israelites growing in Egypt in Acts 7:17).

The Israelites were becoming comfortable in their new homeland. Yet God had promised them a different land, and the time would be coming when they would need to be happy to leave, despite the difficulties of translocating an entire people and their livestock. A new pharaoh, and possibly a new dynasty of pharaohs, was about to shake things up for Jacob’s descendants (Exod 1:8-14).

(For other posts on Exodus, see

A Mother’s Courage—Exodus 2:1-6

Moses’s mother was courageous to hide him for three months (Exod 2:2), but how long can one hide a baby who cries and needs to be breastfed? Rather than endanger the family any longer, his mother Jochebed (named in 6:20; Num 26:59) finally complied with Pharaoh’s orders for newborn males to be cast into the Nile (Exod 1:22). If parting with a newborn would be difficult, one imagines that parting with one’s child that one had nursed for three months would be even more difficult.

Instead of simply casting the child unprotected into the river, however, Jochebed patches a papyrus container for him and leaves him in the reeds by the bank of the Nile (2:3). Moses’s big sister, Miriam, undoubtedly also very attached to him by now, watches from a distance to see what will happen (2:4). Anyone who found the container could simply take it; more frighteningly, crocodiles can smell flesh from a distance even on land, and might find in the container a convenient meal. (Still, the container may have fully enclosed, 2:6.) If nothing else happened, the child would die of dehydration.

Yet the language used here suggests more than a mere attempt to prolong the infant’s life a bit longer. Jochebed waterproofs the papyrus container, and the Hebrew term for the container, which probably derives from an Egyptian word for a chest or coffin, appears only one other place in the Hebrew Bible. It appears repeatedly in Gen 6 through 9—for Noah’s ark. Jochebed probably knew the story of Noah’s ark; Exodus’s audience surely knew the account. As God kept alive the future of humanity and other creatures, this ark was now meant to protect the baby—who was also a promise for the future.

Moses’s location among the reeds (Exod 2:3, 5) would also prove striking for repeated hearers of the story, as members of Exodus’s first audiences undoubtedly were. The term recurs later in the exodus narrative—and always elsewhere in the Pentateuch—in the phrase typically translated into English as the “Red Sea.” Literally, in Hebrew, this is the “sea of reeds.” (Such a designation does not mean that its water was shallow; it could have acquired the name locally from reeds growing on its banks.) Moses is preserved among the reeds by the Nile; later, he will lead his people to safety from the Egyptians through the “sea of reeds.”

Miriam soon recognizes God’s providence. No crocodile or ordinary visitor finds her brother; it is the daughter of Pharaoh, surrounded by her entourage of young ladies, walking by the river. (One should not exaggerate the status of Pharaoh’s daughter, as movies that must simplify the story naturally do; Pharaohs typically had many wives and many children, so she was not likely Pharaoh’s only daughter.) One of her slaves brought the container to Pharaoh’s daughter, and when she opened it, the baby was crying. Sometimes we can look the other way or feel overwhelmed and helpless when we hear reports about injustices. But whose heart can resist the cry of a truly needy baby? (And what baby long separated from its mother’s milk and enclosed in such a container would not cry if it were awake?)

It’s no surprise, then, that Pharaoh’s daughter was moved. Yet Pharaoh’s daughter knew precisely what she had found: she recognized that this was one of the Hebrew children, presumably because she knew that Hebrew children were to be cast into the Nile. Miriam seized the moment, with a boldness and sense of impunity that might have eluded an adult. She offered to find a Hebrew nurse to breastfeed the child (2:7), and Pharaoh’s daughter, still knowing full well what she was doing, regularly agreed. Her father’s decree would not affect her own choices.

Contracting out even one’s own children to peasants or slaves for breastfeeding was not uncommon, and nursing a child of Pharaoh’s daughter would put Moses in a different category from the infants being thrown into the Nile. (If Pharaoh’s daughter had not had babies of her own—she may remain young and unmarried at this point—she would not be able to produce milk in any case.) Moreover, Moses would be returned almost immediately to the breast he longed for, the family would be safe, and Jochebed would even be rewarded for her efforts. It was customary to pay wages to poor but free wetnurses. To be paid to nurse one’s own baby, however, was clearly a remarkable turn of events. (It’s something like getting paid to study and teach the Bible—those of us who have that privilege ought to be very grateful for it!)

Through three different young women—Moses’s mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter—God was subverting Pharaoh’s plans. Pharaoh would not mind allowing an exception here and there, such as for his daughter; but this exception would bring freedom to God’s people, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in a sea of reeds.