How human rule goes bad (Exodus 1:1-11)

Open Exodus 1:1-11.

By the end of Genesis, one of Abraham’s descendants was bringing divine wisdom to the greatest ruler of his day. In Joseph, Pharaoh saw the spirit of the heavenly sovereign (Genesis 41:38). He followed Joseph’s advice, and many lives were saved.

So is there hope in human rule? After all, human rulers are God’s servants, to limit violence on the earth.

Unfortunately, our human rulers always end up as self-serving. Four centuries later, Egypt has a new king, one who does not know Joseph (Ex 1:8). That means this Pharaoh does not know YHWH either.

The Exodus is not just about the heavenly ruler releasing his people from Pharaoh: it is about the heavenly ruler revealing himself to Pharaoh. The goal is that Pharaoh will know YHWH as earth’s true ruler (5:2; 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:10 and so on). Exodus 1–15 is a confrontation between rulers, a kind of war—a challenge over who rules. It is a kingdom conflict—the paradigmatic kingdom confrontation of the Old Testament.

The new Pharaoh operates out of fear—the fear of losing power. The core drivers of evil are lust for power and fear of losing it. Pharaoh’s fear is that “the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (1:9). Pharaoh’s fear develops into oppression, though our English translations do not capture the subtlety of the Hebrew text. After all, Pharaoh’s fear that he might lose his slaves — that they might leave the land (1:10) — is quite perceptive, given the way the Exodus narrative plays out.

According to the NIV, Pharaoh says, “We must deal shrewdly with them” (v.10), so he puts slave masters over them (v.11). The word translated shrewdly (ḥā·ḵām) rarely has negative connotations: it is usually translated wisely. The same root word was used when Joseph was described as discerning and wise (ḥā·ḵām in Gen 41:33, 39). Our politicians do not say, “Let’s do something devious” as implied by popular English translations. It would be better to understand Pharaoh’s intentions like this: “Ok, there’s a threat here, and wisdom requires us to take pre-emptive action to address the threat and protect ourselves.”

The politic of fear is very much alive in our democracy today. Politicians identify groups whom they perceive as a threat — sometimes people within the nation, sometimes outsiders. No politician says, “We must act shrewdly against these people.” What they say is, “We need to be wise and act now against these people.” The Bible encourages us to question our politicians’ motives and proposed actions in the light of how the heavenly sovereign wants his people cared for — the kingdom of God versus the way humans rule.

According to many translations of verse 11, Pharaoh’s proposed “wise” action is to appoint slave drivers (NLT, GW, GNB), slave masters (NIV, NCV), or taskmasters (ESV, NRSV, RSV, KJV, NASB, ASV, Amp, DSSV, HCSB). These are strongly negative words, connoting oppression. There is a word in the Hebrew language that connotes the horror and lack of dignity associated with abusing workers. This word (nā·ḡǎś) is used several times in the Exodus story (3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14).

However, in 1:11 the word is śǎr which has exactly the opposite connotations: it implies the dignity associated with a royal appointment or princely position (as in Exodus 2:14 and 18:21, 25). In Genesis 12:15, we even saw this word used for the princes of Pharaoh. With 368 occurrences in the Old Testament, it easy to demonstrate that it is a word connoting honour. The pie-chart shows how it is translated in the English Standard Version:

SarIsNotTaskmaster
Word Study (Logos Bible Software): śǎr

So, why have our translators used a shame word where the Hebrew text used an honour word? We are about to hear of the evil actions of these officials, but that does not justify the mistranslation. By flattening out the text, they miss the implicit critique of how humans rule. An evil ruler can make his actions look like those of a good ruler.

In fact, the way this story is narrated, this Pharaoh’s actions have several similarities to the actions of the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day:

Genesis 41 Exodus 1
Pharaoh recognizes a threat to the people of Egypt: the coming seven-year famine. Pharaoh recognizes a threat to the people of Egypt: the Hebrew people.
Pharaoh accepts Joseph’s proposed action to avert the disaster (appointing Joseph to stockpile food), labelling it “discerning and wise.” Pharaoh proposes action to avert the disaster (appointing officials to stay on top of the Hebrews), labelling it “dealing wisely.”
Pharaoh has Joseph store massive amounts of food in all Egypt’s cities (41:48-49) Pharaoh has the Hebrews build store cities (1:11)

So what’s the difference? The difference is the motivation behind the action. Joseph was following the heavenly sovereign’s wisdom, which is focused on saving many lives. The Pharaoh of Moses’ day is following his own wisdom, which is focused on saving his own power. The entire Biblical narrative contrasts the wisdom of the heavenly ruler with the wisdom of earthly rulers.

This contrast—the wisdom of the heavenly ruler versus the wisdom of earthly rulers—forms the shape of the Exodus story. It continues through Israel’s story. It is a frequent topic in the prophets. It comes into sharp focus in the person of Jesus when the rulers crucify him as a threat to their power. Paul develops this theme in some detail in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. This recurring motif is the story of the kingdom of the world (the world in rebellion against God) versus the kingdom of the heavenly ruler.

Certainly, Pharaoh’s appointed officials acted shamefully as earthly wisdom calls them to do to retain power. The verb ʿā·nāh meaning to afflict or oppress is used in 1:11 and repeated in 1:12. The affliction consists of oppressing the Hebrew people with heavy labour demands, using them as slaves to build store cities for Pharaoh (1:11). But Pharaoh never presented this oppression as his goal. Human rulers don’t tell us that they are appointing officials to oppress us, but their actions can lead to state-sanctioned evil. When our translators flatten the story out like this, they are not helping Bible readers to recognize how human government can easily descend into oppression.

We have seen the word ʿā·nāh before: God warned Abram that his descendants would be oppressed by a foreign king (Gen 15:13). Our narrator critiqued Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar with the same word (Gen 16:6). It was also used in describing Shechem’s rape of Dinah—forcing himself on her (Gen 34:2). This king of Egypt is forcing himself on the Israelites. This is how earthly rulership goes wrong: humans are not God, so they must use force to keep people under their grip. Ex 1:11-14 describes how human wisdom progressively spirals down, dehumanising the rulers and the people they oppress.

The Bible is constantly subversive of human rule. Human rule is absolutely necessary, and sometimes helpful. But as the Pharaohs show: it always turns evil eventually.

In the long term, only God can handle power.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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