SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 35 Exodus 1

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Exodus** 1**. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 49 & 50 (this includes links to all previous Genesis threads)

Exodus 1
New International Version (NIV)
The Israelites Oppressed

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; 3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. 5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.

6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.

22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

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v. 11 The Septuagint adds a third city built for Pharaoh: “On, which is Heliopolis”.
Pithom (aka Per-Atum, Heroopolis and Heroonoplis) is of uncertain location, though a couple of archaeological sites have been suggested. Ramses is almost certainly equivalent to Pi-Ramesses,

from Wikipedia:

Pi-Ramesses (/pɪər.ɑːmɛs/); (Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu, meaning “House of Ramesses, Great in Victory”) was the new capital built by the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt Pharaoh Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great, reigned 1279–1213 BC) at Qantir, near the old site of Avaris. The city had previously served as a summer palace under Seti I (c. 1290–1279 BC), and may have been originally founded by Ramesses I (c. 1292–1290 BC) while he served under Horemheb.

Rashi in his commentaries indicates that Shiphrah and Puah went as far as helping hasten the births, in order to preserve their lives.

The ordered deaths of the boy children is mirrored in the NT in Matthew’s gospel (2.16-18), where Herod orders the all the boys in Bethlehem in order to prevent Jesus from taking over his throne eventually.

First, congrats, we’ve finished a whole book! So, as we start a new book, I have some overview thoughts. Throughout the early books of the Hebrew bible, human suffering is almost always a consequence of sin. (By the later biblical books, such as Job, it’s clear that suffering is not “punishment.”) The slavery in Egypt is the outstanding example in the earliest texts of suffering that is NOT related to sin.

On the other hand, major moral precepts arise from that unjustified suffering. The fundamental issue of biblical morality (the earliest version of the Golden Rule, if you like) is: DON’T do to others what was done to you in Egypt. This refrain occurs many times, I’ll just cite Exodus 23:20: Don’t mistreat strangers, remember that you were strangers in Egypt.

So, why does Israel suffer in Egypt? So that they can learn from the suffering, they emerge as a people who try to build a just society because they know what it was like to live in an unjust society.

The Exodus story, in particular, is often cited by those who want to reject the bible as history. Well, of course. But a story needn’t be historically true, to contain truth. The Exodus story has provided hope for millions who have been enslaved; the enslaved American blacks looked to that story for hope. We’re analyzing it as literature, not as history, and literature can uplift.

For those who are reject the idea of God, my suggestion is that you think of this story as metaphor for critical ethical concepts: Egypt was the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and underlying this story is the concept that Might does not make Right.

Now, to analysis.

Genesis was the story of a family, and the first verses of Exodus transition from the clan/family to the people.

The Hebrew title of the book is Sh’mot, the book of Names, because the opening lines are lists of names. Names and their implications will be important. The biblical literary convention is that the name of a thing or person is its definition, its purpose. The first appearance of the word “name” was back in Genesis 2:20, when Adam named the animals. In Gen 11:4, the Tower of Babel was built “to make a name for ourselves” – .e.g, to define ourselves. In Genesis 12:2, God changed Abram’s name to make it great. Take my word for it that there will be considerable attention to names and naming in future chapters.

Verse 8 is a critical sentence, the NIV translation misses an important connection. The literal translation is, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The word “know” (Hebrew: yo-day-ah) will recur over and over in this story (over 20 times in the first 14 chapters.) The word is translated “to know” but the bible views knowledge as emotional and experiential (rather than simply intellectual.) The word includes intimacy and mutual relationship, even sexual intimacy. And the reverse: “to not know” implies indifference, disassociation, alienation, and disregard.

Pharaoh does not know Joseph – a model of righteousness and humility – so Pharaoh doesn’t know humility. I like the NIV “Joseph meant nothing” to him, that captures the spirit, but misses the echo/repetition of the phrase “to know.” The most powerful echoes of “to know” will be in Ex 3:7, when God says He knows the suffering of the slaves and Ex 5:2 when Pharaoh says he does not know God. Pharaoh begins by not knowing Joseph and not knowing God, and ends (Ex 14:18) knowing that God is God.

Verse 12: the word “oppressed” implies rape, pain and enslavement. The text says that enslavement originated with pharaoh’s political outlook. If the pharaoh is Ramses II (the most common assumption), this makes sense. A few centuries earlier, the eastern delta had been invaded by the Hyskos, a conglomeration of ethnicities with lots of Semites, who ruled lower Egypt until their expulsion in 1500s BCE. So, during the 19th Dynasty (about 1300 – 1200 BCE) fear of invasion from the east, and that the Israelites might “join our enemies” is compatible with the known Egyptian politics of that era.

Historically, Ramses II (reign roughly 1290 – 1224 BCE) moved his administrative center to the eastern delta, and undertook huge building projects that would have required enormous labor.

Verse 11: Pithom and Raamses are both names known in Egyptian sources, but the exact location is unclear. Pithom is from Egyptian, meaning “House of Atum” implying a major temple to that god, which could mean many sites, but most archaeologists think Tell el-Maskuta in the Wadi Tumeilat in the northeastern delta. As Prof P (welcome back!!!) has mentioned Raamses is assumed to be the palace of Ramses II. (For those who believe the story is entirely fictional, I do want to point out that there is plenty of indication that the author(s) were very familiar with the Egyptian court, farming, etc. )

In verse 15, the E-author has Pharaoh personally in charge, and the Israelites seemingly shoulder-to-shoulder with the Egyptians. (The J-author has the Jews segregated, living in Goshen only.)

The slaying of the boy babies will have repercussion later when the firstborn of Egypt is slain. We’ll talk about it when we get there, but the biblical notion of justice is a very harsh one to us moderns. And Prof P has noted the similar birth-massacre at Jesus’ birth, where the author(s) of that text want to portray Jesus as the “new” Moses.

It seems the opposite to me. In your next post, you cite Ex 14:18, which reads (ESV) “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” The way he “got glory” over the chariots and horsemen was to kill them. And the way he set up this opportunity for glorification was to harden Pharaoh’s heart, to make him pursue the Israelites. Verse 14:4 combines the thoughts — “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.”

I don’t see any other way to interpret this than God showing off, by first making Pharaoh chase the Israelites, and then slaughtering his army. It seems the epitome of “might makes right.” A modern analogy would be the evil gunslinger in a Western, goading a clumsy farmer into a gunfight that he doesn’t stand any chance of winning.

There certainly doesn’t seem to be a general moral principle against slavery or oppression, because in subsequent books, God has Moses do the same, or worse, to the inhabitants of Canaan. He explicitly gives rules for warfare (Deuteronomy 20:10): For distant cities, offer them the option of bondage to the Hebrews. If they resist, kill all the men, and enslave the women and children. But for cities inside the boundaries of the “Promised Land,” do not even give them the option of bondage. Just kill them all — men, women, and children.

Note that since the Israelites have been in Egypt for 400 years, nobody in Canaan has done anything to them, nor have their ancestors for the last 10 generations or so. This is simply might makes right.

For the life of me, I don’t see any “critical ethical concepts” here. IMO the only thing instructive about the portrayal of God in Exodus is how primitive he seems, compared to the modern concept of a perfect and loving God. Here, he’s going out of his way to arrange things so he can “gain glory.” He wants admiration, and he’s willing to commit mass murder, or order it committed, to achieve that. He seems more like Ares in the Iliad, glorifying in slaughter, than the Heavenly Father preached today, and it’s interesting to trace the evolution of God from ancient to modern times.

No one else is interested in discussing?

Anyhow, Tony, I can see how you could read it that way, but I think that’s reading through a modernist’s eyes. For the writer(s) of the time, God’s actions are all about Justice. “Getting glory” is not just by flexing His muscles, but by demanding Justice – a very harsh justice by our standards, but justice nonetheless. The Egyptians mistreated the Hebrews, and are mistreated themselves by plagues. Pharaoh ordered the death of the Hebrew children, and the Egyptian first-born are killed. The Egyptian soldiers threw the Hebrew babies into the Nile, and they are drowned at the Sea. As I say, a very harsh justice – we don’t believe in having children suffer for the sins of their parents, but the ancients thought that was simple reality. The children do suffer from their parent’s misbehaviors, as a nation suffers from the misbehaviors of its leaders.

(I don’t want to bring Deuteronomy or subsequent books into this discussion, I was focused on the Exodus story itself. Yes, I agree there are inherent contradictions between some of the books/authors, but there’s little/none of that here where the story – even from different authors – forms a coherent whole.)

The “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” will be an interesting discussion, but I’d like to defer it until we get there. For the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart; it’s not until the 6th plague that God seems to take away his free will. The pursuit to the sea is ambiguous; in Ex 14:5, Pharaoh and his courtiers “changed their minds” and three verses later, God "hardened their hearts. So, in every situation, the individuals changed their minds of their own volition first.

On slavery: The text was written for its time. It couldn’t forbid slavery and expect people to follow it. It does severely limit slavery (mostly, slavery is voluntary for a fixed period of time, to pay off debt.) And it forbids the mistreatment of slaves.

So on the one hand slavery was cruel, while on the other, cruelty was forbidden. Since it’s so hard to tell what part of the story is factual and what part is meant to provide dramatic lessons, how do we know which was more likely with regards to how slaves were treated?

I think this is also one of the earliest examples of another fundamental issue of biblical morality, that of the proud being humbled and the humble being lifted up. Isaiah 2:11 says “The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” We see a little bit of that with Jacob and Esau, and with Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really explicit in God’s reasoning here, I think.

It’s not the slavery itself that is cruel, it’s the mistreatment of slaves. The cruelty of the Egyptians is in the way they harshly treated the Israelites, even including attempted genocide by killing all the male babies.

On the other hand, when we get to the Law of Moses, we will see that the Jews are commanded to treat their slaves fairly in contrast to how they themselves were treated in Egypt.

Its hard for modern sensibilities to muster up praise for even a kinder, gentler system of slavery. But for the period it was quite a radical idea that your slave had certain rights to be treated fairly and the right to his own freedom under certain conditions.

Sorry, I can’t let these go unchallenged.

For example, Ex 21 (NASB): 20If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property."

So if you only beat a slave badly enough that he takes three days to die, no harm, no foul.

As for freeing them after six years, that’s only for male Hebrews. And only after he is given Sophie’s choice of either freedom, or staying with his wife and children. If he wants to keep his wife and children, he has to submit to serving for life. Exodus 21:5.

At least male Hebrews get the choice. Female Hebrews have no such option; their default term is life. However, they can’t be sold to foreigners, and they can become free by marrying the owner’s son. Or they can marry their owner, and these lucky ladies are guaranteed that he must sleep with them regularly, even if he takes more wives. Exodus 21:10.

But all of the above is only for the Chosen People. Bad as it is, it’s really more like indentured servant than slave. A Hebrew male can even choose to sell himself into bondage for six years.

It is foreigners, whether bought or won by conquest, who are really slaves. And they are true chattel slaves; they serve for life, and their children serve their master’s children, forever. Leviticus 25.

So please, a little less Cliven Bundy about how good they had it.

The concept behind Ex 21:20 is that there is no longer a direct causal relationship, and so the master is given benefit of the doubt, and he is losing his financial investment.

Please, I’m not saying treatment of slaves was wonderful. I’m saying that, if you compare to other law codes of the time (or even later), there are significant restrictions on treatment (and mistreatment) of slaves. Hammurabi’s Code, as an instance, makes no statement whatsoever about mistreating slaves; there are several laws about what to do with people who help runaways. For another instance, most Southern states in the US prior to 1865 had no laws protecting slaves, but lots of laws about runaways.

As I say, one needs to judge and understand a document by the times it was written, not by modern standards.

That certainly wasn’t my intent. I was responding to Quicksilver’s question, “So on the one hand slavery was cruel, while on the other, cruelty was forbidden. … how do we know which was more likely with regards to how slaves were treated?”

I was trying to point out that from the perspective of the text, slaves in Israel were treated fairly compared to the Jewish slaves in Egypt who were treated cruelly. Today naturally we judge any type of slavery as cruel on its face, and we would be appropriately appalled to see the system of slavery described in the Law used today. But that wasn’t the perspective at the time.

And I’m saying that you and Dex inadvertently cited parts of the Pentateuch that resulted in a misleading impression. You cited the treatment prescribed for Hebrew indentured servants, not for foreign slaves.

The Israelites were foreigners in Egypt, and from the perspective of the text they were especially despised foreigners — we saw a few chapters ago that it was detestable for Egyptians to even eat in the same room with them. The Pentateuch’s commands regarding foreign slaves do not have the clement provisions afforded to fellow Hebrews, and regarding especially despised foreigners, which is the proper analogy, the order was to exterminate them, which is worse than anything the Egyptians did in Exodus.

As a side note, modern scholarship appears to indicate that ancient Egypt was also reasonably humane toward its slaves, foreign or not, so again, the attempt to show that the clemency of the Law of Moses greatly exceeded other cultures of the time (Hammurabi was several centuries earlier) does not seem to be valid, even compared to a country ruled by an absolute monarch like a Pharaoh.

Okay I’m coming a little late to the party but here’s something that’s never made entire sense to me:

I know Pharaoh does this to try and control their population - but why only boys? Wouldn’t boys make better/stronger slaves for him? Why not the girls? Or half and half? Or, I don’t know. Just one of those little niggly things I’ve always wondered.

Yes, not to mention that if population control is the goal, it’s much more effective to limit the number of women than of men. And not to mention that he could have gotten the best of both worlds by castrating, rather than killing, the boys.

But that’s fighting the hypothetical. The story says he killed the boys, so we have to go from there. From a storytelling perspective, the narrator is establishing that Pharaoh is evil, and deserves whatever bad things will happen to him — although as usual in these stories, it’s his subjects who bear the brunt of the punishment, rather than the ruler whose orders they were following.

New thread for Exodus 2

I’m a little late in here, but I have to correct some gross mis-representations regarding the form of servitude mentioned in Exodus 21 (which makes this a little off-topic, but it’s been raised, so I’ll respond):

That’s only for a wife (and the children thereof) who were non-Jewish slaves, and were given to him by the master in the first place. That verse is basically saying that the master has the right to use the guy as a stud for his chattel slaves. It is not considered proper that a Jew should get so attached to them that he’d prefer eternal servitude over freedom (although the option does exist).

You make that sound like it’s a chore. What are we, Victorians, that we should think of the woman as a passive victim of the necessity to perpetuate the species? Sex is this maid-wife’s PRIVILEGE, just as food and clothing are, and the verse in question is emphasizing that she is to be privileged just the same as a wife who was not acquired in the “servitude” manner. AND, if the owner does not wish to marry her or give her to his son in marriage, he is obliged to free her. (Exodus 21:8 and 21:11). The default term is not “life,” unless the marriage option is invoked.

I see no textual grounds for saying any of that. The text clearly says that this chapter pertains to Hebrew slaves, and the commentaries I’ve seen, including the Cambridge Bible, agree. Foreign slaves are dealt with in Deuteronomy, apparently written much later. And there is nothing that suggests a male slave servicing a flock of females. The text doesn’t say “a female slave to whom he’s grown attached,” it says “his wife.”

Wow. If your idea of women’s lib is that a 13-year old girl gets all the sex she wants with the 60-year old man who bought her, then yes, I guess I’m a Victorian.

I probably would have let this go if you hadn’t alleged that I “grossly misrepresented” the text. I’m still willing to wait until we get to chapter 21 for further discussion.

Tony Sinclair:

It says “if his master gives him a wife” and then says “the woman and her children belong to the master.” This could only be consistent with the overall body of law if the woman was the “property” type of slave, i.e., a foreign one.

MARRIED her. Or had his son marry her. Marriage is, ideally, supposed to include sex, isn’t it? Certainly better than for her to be married to a guy who refuses to touch her. And if the master doesn’t do either, she’s free. The concept of marriage where both parties freely choose their mates hasn’t always been the norm in society, and in some parts of the world, it still isn’t. That doesn’t make the expectation of sex within the marriage any less so.