Chapter 1

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The descendants of the eleven sons of Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher) who came with their households to Egypt and the descendants of Joseph (who already was there at that time) increased greatly in number after all members of the first generation in the land had died. (1:1-7; regarding the “70 souls” (“75 souls” [LXX]), see the comments on Genesis 46:26, 27, and the accompanying note.)

The “new king” who arose in Egypt may well have been a man with whom a new dynasty had its start. His not knowing Joseph may signify that he gave no recognition to Joseph and the service that he had rendered for the Egyptians. In his Antiquities, (II, ix, 1), Josephus specifically mentions that the “crown” had “come into another family.” The new ruler perceived that the sizable population of Israelites, the descendants of Jacob’s sons, posed a potential threat to the Egyptians, as he feared that, in a time of conflict, they might side with the enemies of the Egyptians. Therefore, he instituted forced labor, impressing the Israelites into hard service for building projects (the store cities of Pithom and Raamses [Pithom, Ramesse, and On, that is, Heliopolis (City of the Sun), LXX]) and agricultural operations. The oppressive measures did not prevent an increase in the Israelite population, but it did make life bitter for the people. (1:8-14)

In view of the continued increase of the Israelite population, the Egyptian ruler determined to stop it and commanded the midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Sepphora and Phoua [LXX]) to kill all baby boys immediately at birth and to preserve only the lives of the baby girls. The Hebrew text indicates that the midwives were Hebrews, as were the Israelites. Josephus, however, referred to them as “Egyptian midwives,” indicating that, as Egyptians, their greater loyalty would have been to the ruler so that they would not have been inclined to “transgress his commands.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 2) The Septuagint would allow for this understanding, for it identifies them as “midwives of the Hebrews,” which could be understood to mean that they were appointed as midwives for the Hebrews. It appears that the two midwives, likely heads of the other midwives for the Hebrew community, could not bring themselves to kill the baby boys. They had a fear of God, possibly meaning (if they were Egyptians) that they had a sense of accountability to a deity. Hebrew midwives would have had a wholesome fear or regard for their God. (Exodus 1:15-17; see the Note section.)

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, demanded to know why the midwives had not killed the male babies as he had instructed them to do. They answered that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptian women. Even before the midwives arrived to assist in the delivery, the Hebrew women had already given birth. The Israelites continued to increase in number, and the action of the midwives led to God’s blessing them, for they came to have their own families. Pharaoh determined to continue a campaign of genocide, commanding his subjects to throw every Hebrew male baby into the Nile River but to preserve the female babies. (1:18-22)


Targum Jonathan mentions that the chief Egyptian magicians Jannis (Jannes) and Jambres told Pharaoh that, “by the hand” or power of a child to be born to the Israelites, all the land of Egypt would be destroyed. This prompted Pharaoh to seek the death of all the Hebrew male babies. Josephus wrote (Antiquities, II, ix, 2) that one of the sacred scribes told the king that a child would be “born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low and would raise the Israelites,” and that this one would “excel all men in virtue and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages.”