Open Exodus 1:12-22.
Exodus 1 provides real insight into what’s wrong with the powers in the world. To keep people under their control, rulers afflict them with heavy burdens (1:11 ESV). But you can’t squash people so easily: the heavy burdens Pharaoh placed on the Hebrews only made them stronger (1:12). And that’s why rulers become progressively more brutal (pě·rěḵ in 1:13, 14).
This cyclic progression into greater brutality is driven by fear (qûṣ) — the fear of losing power. These few verses (1:11-14) summarize the entire narrative of what goes wrong when humans grasp power that should be in God’s hands. The keywords associated with evil rule recur throughout Scripture: wisely/shrewdly, oppress/afflict, slaves, heavy burdens, ruthless/brutal, bitter life, hard service, fear/dread. The same cycles of oppression recur in all contexts where humans grasp power.
These politically loaded words are not incidental to the Bible’s story. They are the definitive shape of human sin. When people rebel against the divine ruler by grasping his power, this is the evil that results. It is precisely from this sin, this oppression, that God will rescue his people as the Exodus story unfolds.
Even after he has rescued them, God’s own people will dishonour his name by oppressing each other — with devastating consequences (e.g. Ezekiel 34:4; Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). This is not how systematic theology typically defines sin, yet it is the essence of sin in the Biblical narrative. Because we have not read Scripture as the story of God’s rule, we have not understood sin as grasping that rule for ourselves, with all the attendant horrors of humans dominating each other.
When earthly rulers find oppressing those they fear is ineffective, they resort to their ultimate weapon: death. From executions to warfare and genocide, human history reeks with the smell of death behind the parade of those in power. Pharaoh’s “Plan B” is to eliminate the male children. His “wisdom” tells him this will avert a future uprising against his power.
His plan doesn’t work. The Hebrew midwives refuse to be dehumanized. They put their own lives on the line by disobeying Pharaoh, because they fear God rather than Pharaoh (1:17, 21). Fearing the heavenly sovereign rather than the earthly powers is the beginning of wisdom. The midwives are therefore agents of the one who saves lives rather than the one who takes lives to retain power.
If you’re interested in discourse analysis, you’ll notice a subtle literary twist in 1:15-18. Their oppressor is usually called Pharaoh—115 times in Exodus. The Egyptian word literally means “Great House” and, by metonymy, came to refer to Egypt’s government and so the position of their great ruler. But thirteen times, our narrator refers to him as king of Egypt. The difference is subtle, but may convey meaning. For example, a news writer might normally use the President, but switch to the leader of the United States in a paragraph where he wants to imply that the power of that office is limited geographically and does not extend to other peoples. When the unusual phrase occurs three times as in does in 1:15-18, the change is hardly accidental:
- The king of Egypt instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill the male Hebrew children (1:15-16).
- But the midwives feared God so they did not do what the king of Egypt instructed them (1:17).
- The king of Egypt calls the midwives to account, but they palm him off with a story that emphasizes the difference between the Hebrews and the Egyptians (1:18-19).
Their true ruler, God, rewards the midwives for their courageous behaviour (1:20-21). Shockingly, Pharaoh reacts to this resistance against his power by trying to dehumanize all his people (1:22). That’s how evil progresses.
Pharaoh cannot completely dehumanize his own household: his daughter takes pity on the precious little person she draws from the river (2:6).
Only those who recognize our heavenly monarch and fear him above all will have the wisdom and courage to resist the evil demands of earthly rulers like Pharaoh.