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These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
The Israelites Are Oppressed
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
1. These are the names It is the intention of Moses to describe the miraculous deliverance of the people, (from whence the Greeks gave the name to the book;) but, before he comes to that, he briefly reminds us that the promise given to Abraham was not ineffectual, that his seed should be multiplied
“as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore.” (Genesis 22:17.)
This, then, is the commencement of the book, — that although their going down from the land of Canaan into Egypt might have seemed at the time as it were the end and abolition of God’s covenant, yet in his own time he abundantly accomplished what he had promised to his servant as to the increase of his descendants. However, he only mentions by name the twelve patriarchs who went down with their father Jacob, and then sums up the whole number of persons, as in two other passages. (Genesis 46:27, and Deuteronomy 10:22.) The calculation is perfectly accurate, if Jacob is counted among the thirty and six souls in the first catalogue. For it is a far-fetched addition of the Rabbins66 It may he noticed, once for all, that Calvin’s references to Rabbinical expositions of supposed difficulties are generally references to what Sebastian Munster had inserted at the close of each chapter of his version of the Old Testament, which is described as follows in the title-page to its second edition, Basle, 1546: — “En tibi Lector Hebraica Biblia, Latina planeque nova Sebast. Munsteri tralatione, post omnes omnium hactenus ubivis gentium editiones evulgata, et quoad fieri potuit Hebraicae veritati conformata: adjectis insuper e Rabbinorum commentariis annotationibus.” The notion that Jochebed was included in the enumeration, is mentioned by S.M. in the annotations on Genesis 46:27. In that verse, as given in our authorized version, which came must be understood to agree with house, the Hebrew being הכאה. The persons of that house properly of Jacob’s own blood were seventy in number, as appears from the enumeration in that chapter, including a daughter (v. 15) and a granddaughter, (v. 17.) The number in Stephen’s speech is supposed by many to be taken from the Septuagint, which says that nine souls were born to Joseph in Egypt, and so makes the whole amount seventy-five, both in Genesis 46 and in Exodus 1. But Stephen spoke of the number of his kindred whom Joseph sent for, and may reasonably be supposed to have meant thereby Jacob and his eleven sons, with their wives and fifty-three male children, which would amount to seventy-five souls. — W to count in Jochebed the mother of Moses, to complete the number; and it is not probable that a woman, who was afterwards born in Egypt, should be reckoned among the men whom Jacob brought with him. If any object that the seventy are said to have “come out of the loins of Jacob,” the discrepancy is easily explained by the common scriptural use of the figure synecdoche77 The French translation thus explains this figure: “de prendre le tout pour une partie, ou une partie pour le tout,” — to take the whole for a part, or a part for the whole. That he from whom the others sprung is not excluded, we gather from the words of Moses, (Deuteronomy 10:22,)
“Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the Lord thy God hath made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude.”
But there is no reason to add five more, as we read in the address of Stephen recorded by Luke, (Acts 7:14;) for we cannot be surprised that in this mode of expressing numbers this error should have occurred by the introduction of a single letter. Should any objector make this an handle for controversy, we should remember that the Spirit, by the mouth of Paul, does not warn us without purpose
“not to give heed to genealogies.” (1 Timothy 1:4.)
6. And Joseph died. The Rabbins ignorantly conclude from this expression that Joseph died first of his brethren, whereas it is evident that the others were passed over, and his name was expressly mentioned to do him honor, as being the only one then in authority. How long they survived their father, Moses does not say, but only marks the beginning of the change, — as much as to say, the Israelites were humanely treated for a considerable space of time; so that the condition of those who went down with Jacob was tolerable, since, free from all injustice and tyranny, they tranquilly enjoyed the hospitality accorded to them. At the same time, he gives us to understand that, when all that generation was gone, the desire and the memory of the land of Canaan, which they had never seen, might have died out of the minds of their descendants, if they had not been forcibly aroused to seek after it. And unquestionably, since that people were forgetful and careless of meditating on God’s mercies, God could not have better provided for their salvation than by allowing them to be cruelly tried and afflicted; otherwise, as though their origin had been in Egypt, they might have preferred to have remained for ever in their nest, and by that indifference the hope of the promised heritage would have been effaced from their hearts.
7. And the children of Israel were fruitful.88 שרף, rendered in A V increased abundantly, — occurs first in Genesis 1:20, where it is rendered bring forth abundantly As a noun it signifies reptiles. מאד, meod; in A V exceeding is repeated twice after עצמו, they waxed mighty; but may properly be considered as augmenting the force of each of the preceding verbs. — W To what an extent they increased Moses relates in the 12th chapter, viz., to the number of 600,000, besides women and children; which was certainly an incredible increase for so short a time. For, though 430 years be counted from the date of the covenant with Abraham to the departure of the people, it is clear that half of them had elapsed before Jacob went down into Egypt; so that the Israelites sojourned in that land only 200 years, or little more — say ten years more. How then could it come to pass that in so short a time a single family could have grown into so many myriads? It would have been an immense and extraordinary increase if 10,000 had sprung from every tribe; but this more than quadruples that number. Wherefore certain sceptics, perceiving that the relation of Moses surpasses the ordinary ratio of human propagation, and estimating the power of God by their own sense and experience, altogether refuse to credit it. For such is the perverseness of men, that they always seek for opportunities of despising or disallowing the works of God; such, too, is their audacity and insolence that they shamelessly apply all the acuteness they possess to detract from his glory. If their reason assures them that what is related as a miracle is possible, they attribute it to natural causes, — so is God robbed and defrauded of the praise his power deserves; if it is incomprehensible to them, they reject it as a prodigy.99 French, “un monstre incroyable:” an incredible prodigy. But if they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the interference of God except in matters by the magnitude of which they are struck with astonishment, why do they not persuade themselves of the truth of whatever common sense repudiates? They ask how this can be, as if it were reasonable that the hand of God should be so restrained as to be unable to do anything which exceeds the bounds of human comprehension. Whereas, because we are naturally so slow to profit by his ordinary operations, it is rather necessary that we should be awakened into admiration by extraordinary dealings.
Let us conclude, then, that since Moses does not here speak of the natural course of human procreation, but celebrates a miracle unheard of before, by which God ratified the truth of his promise, we should judge of it perversely, and maliciously, if we measure it by our own feeble reason, instead of meditating with reverence upon what far transcends all our senses. Let us rather remember how God reproves his unbelieving people by the Prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 51:1) For, in order to prove that it would not be difficult for Him, in spite of the small number to which the Israelites were reduced, to produce a great multitude, He bids them look into “the hole of the pit from whence they were digged,” viz., to Abraham, and Sarah that bare them, whom he multiplied though alone, and childless. Certain Rabbins, after their custom, imagine that four infants were produced at a birth; for as often as they meet with any point which perplexes them, they gratuitously invent whatever suits them, and then obtrude their imaginations as indubitable facts; and proceed foolishly, and unseasonably, to discuss that this is physically probable. There are Christians, too, who, with little consideration, have imitated them here, contending that what Moses describes is in accordance with experience, because the fecundity of certain nations has been almost as great. We indeed sometimes see confirmed by remarkable examples what the Psalmist says, (Psalm 107:36,) that God “maketh the hungry to dwell” in the wilderness, “that they may prepare a city for habitation, and sow the fields, and plant vineyards, which may yield fruits of increase; and he blesseth them also, so that they are multiplied greatly;” as also, that “He turneth a fruitful land into barrenness,” and strips it of inhabitants; but the design of Moses is to shew, that there never was any fecundity, which was not inferior to the increase of the people of Israel. Hence his comparison between the seventy souls, and the multitude which proceeded from them, that this special blessing of God might be distinguished from ordinary cases; hence too the accumulated expressions, which undoubtedly are meant for amplification, that “they were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” For the repetition of the adverb, Meod, Meod, marks an unusual abundance, Nor do I reject the conjecture of some, that in the word שרף, sharatz, there is a metaphor taken from fishes, but I know not whether it is very sound, since the word is used generally for any multiplication.
8. Now there arose a new king. When more than one hundred years had been happily passed in freedom and repose, the condition of the elect people began to be changed. Moses relates that the commencement of their troubles proceeded from jealousy, and from the groundless fear of the Egyptians, because they conceived that danger might arise from this strange nation, unless they hastened to oppress it. But before he comes to this, he premises that the remembrance of the benefits received from Joseph had departed, because it might have in some measure mitigated their cruelty, had it still been unimpaired. It is probable that this oblivion of the gratitude due to him arose from the moderation of Joseph; for if he had demanded great privileges for his people, and immunity from tributes and burdens, the remembrances of the saving of the country by an Israelite would have been famous for many ages; but it appears that he was content with the kind hospitality afforded them, that his brethren might dwell comfortably, and without molestation in the land of Goshen, because he wished them to be sojourners there until the time of deliverance arrived. And in this way he best provided for their safety, lest being thus ensnared, they might have fallen into the nets of destruction. But in proportion as the moderation of the holy man exposed them not to jealousy and complaint, so was the ingratitude of the Egyptians less excusable in forgetting, after little more than a single century, that remarkable benefit, which should have been everywhere preserved in their public monuments, lest the name of Joseph should ever perish. Their unkindness, then, was intolerable, in refusing that his kindred and descendants should sojourn with them, since they ought to have ascribed the safety of themselves and their country, after God, to him, or rather under the hand and with the blessing of God. But this disease has always been flagrant in the world; and certainly it is good for us that evil should ever be our reward from men for our kindnesses, that we may learn in the performance of our duty to look to God alone, since otherwise we are unduly addicted to conciliate favor and applause for ourselves, or to seek after more earthly advantages. Still it was no common return which the Israelites had liberally received during more than 100 years for Joseph’s sake, that they lived comfortably in a proud, avaricious, and cruel nation. Nevertheless, whatever happens, although we are not only defrauded of all recompense, but even although many of whom we have deserved well conspire for our destruction, let us never regret having done rightly; and, in the meantime, let us learn that nothing is more effective to restrain the desire of doing wrong, than those ties of mutual connection, by which God has bound us together.1212 “Nous faisant servir les uns aux autres;” causing us to serve one another. — French. But, although the favor conferred by Joseph had been forgotten by all, the shame and sin of ingratitude cleaves especially to the king; in whom it was more than base to forget by whose industry and care he received so rich a yearly revenue. For the holy Patriarch, by buying up the land, had obtained a fifth part of the produce as a yearly tribute for the king. But so are tyrants accustomed to engulf whatever is paid them, without considering by what right it is acquired.
9. And he said unto his people. That is to say, in a public assembly, such as kings are wont to hold for consultation on public affairs. As if Moses had said that this point was proposed by the king for deliberation by his estates; viz., that because it was to be apprehended that the Israelites, trusting in their multitude and strength, might rise in rebellion, or might take advantage of any public disturbance to shake off the yoke and to leave Egypt, they should be anticipated, and afflicted with heavy burdens, to prevent their making any such attempt. This Pharaoh calls1313 נתחכמה. In A V., Let us deal wisely If C. be justified in saying that חכם if often employed for the wisdom which is evil, it is very much more often used for wisdom in a favorable sense. — W “dealing wisely with them;” for though the word חכם, chakam, is often taken, in a bad sense, to mean “to overreach with cunning,” still in this case he concealed under an honest pretext the injury which he proposed to do them, alleging that prudent advice should be taken lest the Egyptians might suffer great loss through their carelessness and delay. This was common with heathen nations, to profess in their counsels, that what was right should be preferred to what was profitable; but, when it comes to the point, covetousness generally so blinds everybody, that they lose their respect for what is right, and are hurried away headlong to their own advantage. They make out too that what is advantageous is necessary; and so persuade themselves that whatever they are compelled to do is right. For that specious yet fallacious pretext readily occurs, and easily deceives, that, when any danger is apprehended, it ought to be met. By the tragic poets, indeed, that detestable sentiment, occupandum esse scelus, “that we should be beforehand in crime,” is attributed to wicked and desperate characters; because our nature convinces us that it is unjust and absurd; and yet is it commonly considered the best mode of precaution, so that only those are accounted provident who consult for their own security by injuring others, if occasion requires it. From this source almost all wars proceed; because, whilst every prince fears his neighbor, this fear so fills him with apprehension, that he does not hesitate to cover the earth with human blood. Hence, too, amongst private individuals, arises the license for deceit, murder, rapine, and lying, because they think that injuries would be repelled too late, unless they respectively anticipated them. But this is a wicked kind of cunning, (however it may be varnished over with the specious name of foresight,) unjustly to molest others for our own security. I fear this or that person, because he both has the means of injuring me, and I am uncertain of his disposition towards me; therefore, in order that I may be safe from harm, I will endeavor by every possible means to oppress him. In this way the most contemptible, and imbecile, if he be inclined to mischief, will be armed for our hurt, and so we shall stand in doubt of the greater part of mankind. If thus every one should indulge his own distrust, while each will be devising to do some injury to his possible enemies, there will be no end to iniquities. Wherefore we must oppose the providence of God to these immoderate cares and anxieties which withdraw us from the course of justice. Reposing on this, no fear of danger will ever impel us to unjust deeds or crooked counsels. In the words of Pharaoh, all is otherwise; for, having given warning that the Israelites might, if they would, be injurious, he advises that their strength should in some way or other be broken. For, when we have once determined to provide for our own advantage, or quiet, or safety, we ask not the question whether we are doing right or wrong.
Behold, the people. It not unfrequently happens that the minds of the wicked are aroused to jealousy by the mercies of God, acting like fans to light up their wrath. Nevertheless, the very least proof of his favor ought not on that account to be less agreeable to us, because it is made an occasion to the wicked of dealing more cruelly with us. In fact, God thus attempers his bounty towards us, lest we should be too much taken up with earthly prosperity. Thus the blessing on which all his happiness depended banished Jacob from the home of his father, and from his promised inheritance; but yet he assuaged his grief with this single consolation, that he knew God to be reconciled to him. So also his posterity, the more they experienced of God’s goodness towards them, the more they were exposed to the enmity of the Egyptians. But Pharaoh, to render them hated, or suspected, refers to their power, and accuses them of disaffection, whereof they had given no token. Yet he does not accuse them of rebellion, as if they would take armed possession of the kingdom, but that they would depart elsewhere; whence we may conjecture, that they made no secret of the hope which God had given them of their return. But this seemed a plausible excuse enough, that it was anything but just for those, who had of their own accord sought the protection of the king, to be freely sent away; and thus1414 “Comme de faict Isaie dit que les Egyptiens ont eu plus de couleur de tenir le peuple de Dieu en servitude, que les Assyriens, qui les sont venus molester sans titre;” as, in fact, Isaiah says that the Egyptians had more excuse for keeping God’s people in servitude than the Assyrians, who came to molest them without pretext. — Fr. Isaiah speaks of it. (Isaiah 52:4.)
11. Therefore they did set over them. The Egyptians devised this remedy for gradually diminishing the children of Israel. Since they are subjects, they may afflict them with burdens, to depress them; and this slavery will weaken and decrease them. But their power over them as subjects should not have been carried so far as to impose upon inoffensive persons, to whom they had granted free permission to reside among them, these new tributes; for they ought first to have considered upon what conditions they had been admitted. The exaction, then, by which Pharaoh broke faith with them, was in itself unjust; but the crime to which he proceeded was still greater, because he did not simply seek for pecuniary advantage, but desired to afflict the wretched people by the heaviness of their burdens. For the Israelites were not only compelled to pay tribute, but were put to servile labor, as Moses immediately adds. As to the two cities, it is doubtful in what sense they were called miscenoth1515 מסכנות, miscenoth The LXX. alone gives some countenance to C.’s last interpretation of this word, by rendering it πόλεις ὀχυρὰς. — W This word is sometimes taken for cellars and granaries, or repositories of all things necessary as provision; but, as it sometimes signifies “fortresses,” it will not be an unsuitable meaning, that they were commanded to build with their own hands the prisons, which might prevent them from departing. For it is clear from many passages (Genesis 47:11; Exodus 12:37; Numbers 33:3) that Rhameses was situated in that part of the country, and we shall presently see that the children of Israel went out from Rhameses.
12. But the more. Moses relates the contest between the mercy of God and the cruelty of the king of Egypt. When, therefore, the wretched Israelites were tyrannically afflicted, he says that God came to their aid, and so powerfully that his interference was successful. Thus was that wicked and deceitful design frustrated, which the Egyptians had set on foot for destroying the Church. Thence may we, too, conceive the hope, that whatsoever the wicked imagine against us will come to nought, because God’s hand is greater, and shall prevail. But we must bear afflictions patiently, because he would have us struggle against, and rise under the weight imposed upon us;1616 “A la facon de la palme;” like the palm-tree. — Fr. and because we know that it is the peculiar office of God to oppose himself to unjust counsels, in order that they may not succeed, let us learn to abstain from all deceit and violence, lest we wantonly provoke God. But this passage is especially intended to console the believer, that he may be prepared to take up his cross more patiently; since God is sufficient to supply the help, to which the wrath of the wicked must finally yield. What is said in the second part of the verse, that the Egyptians1717 ויקצו, C., And they were burdened with anxiety In A V., And they were grieved The verb קוף is generally taken for to loathe — W were grieved, means, that they became more anxious, as they saw that they availed nothing, and that their unexpected increase threatened still greater danger; for, since they feared the Israelites before they had afflicted them, no wonder that they felt alarmed lest they should avenge themselves when provoked. And hence the profitable instruction may be gathered, that while the wicked proceed to horrible crimes in order to insure their safety, the Almighty visits them with the very just return, that thus their anxiety is augmented. Some render it, “the Egyptians hated the people of Israel;” and so the word קוף, kutz, is sometimes taken, but the construction of the passage demands the rendering which I have given.
13. And the Egyptians made. Thus Moses informs us that, so far from being induced to kindness by their fears, they were rather hardened, and spurred on to greater cruelty; for the wicked do not perceive that God is against them, when their perverse strivings are unsuccessful; and if this thought ever arises, still the blind impetuosity of their folly hurries them forwards, so that they doubt not to be able in their obstinate lust to prevail even in opposition to God; as will be made clearer in the progress of this history. The cruelty of the exactions is expressed, when he says that “their lives were made bitter,” nothing being sweeter than life; therefore, it appears, that their miseries were extreme and intolerable, which made life burdensome. He confirms this in other words, and also specifies their tasks, that they were engaged “in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of (similar) services.” He twice repeats that they were treated with rigor, i e., harshly.1818 “Par lequel mot il intend inhumanite, ou grande rudesse;” by which word he means inhumanity, or great severity. — Fr.
15. And the king of Egypt spake. The tyrant now descends from the open violence and cruelty which had availed nothing, to secret plots and deceit. He desires the infants to be killed at their birth; and commands the midwives to be the instruments of this dreadful barbarity. We read of no such detestable example of inhumanity since the world began. I admit it has occasionally happened, that, upon the capture of a city, the conquerors have not spared even children and infants; that is to say, either in the heat of battle, or because the defense had been too obstinate, and they had lost many of their men, whose death they would avenge. It has happened, too, that an uncle, or brother, or guardian, has been impelled by the ambition of reigning to put children to death. It has happened, again, that in the detestation of a tyrant, and to destroy the very memory of his family, his whole offspring has been slain; and some have proceeded to such cruelty against their enemies, as to tear the little ones from their mothers’ breasts. But never did any enemy, however implacable, ever so vent his wrath against a whole nation, as to command all its male offspring to be destroyed in the midst of peace. This was a trial, such as to inflict a heavy blow on men of the utmost firmness, much more to bring low a fainting people, already weary of their lives. For, at first sight, each would think it more advantageous and desirable for them to sink down into an humbler state, than that the wrath of their enemies should be thus provoked against them by the blessings of God. And it is probable, such was the prostration of their minds, that they were not only sorely smitten, but almost stupified. For nothing else remained, but that the men should die without hope of offspring, and that the name and race of Abraham should soon be cut off, and thus all God’s promises would come to nought. In these days, in which we have to bear similar insults, and are urged to despair, as if the Church would soon be utterly destroyed, let us learn to hold up this example like a strong shield: seeing that it is no new case, if immediate destruction seem to await us, until the divine aid appears suddenly and unexpectedly in our extremity. Josephus falsely conjectures that the midwives were Egyptian women, sent out as spies; whereas Moses expressly says, that they had been the assistants and attendants of the Hebrew women in their travail; and this erroneous idea is plainly refuted by the whole context, in which it especially appears that they were restrained by the fear of God from yielding to the sinful desire of the tyrant. Hence it follows, that they were previously possessed with some religious feeling. But another question arises, why two midwives only are mentioned by name, when it is probable that, in so great a population, there were many? Two replies may be given; either that the tyrant addressed himself to these two, who might spread the fear of his power amongst the others; or, that, desiring to proceed with secret malice, he made a trial of the firmness of these two, and if he had obtained their acquiescence, he hoped to have easily succeeded with the others; for shame forbade him from issuing an open and general command.
17. But the midwives feared God. Moses does not mean that they were then first affected with the fear of God; but he assigns this reason why they did not obey his unjust command, viz., because reverence towards God had greater influence with them. And certainly, as all our affections are best directed by this rein, so also it is the surest shield for resisting all temptations, and a firm support to uphold our minds from wavering in seasons of danger. Now, they not only dreaded this crime as being cruel and inhuman; but because purer religion and piety flourished in their hearts; for they knew that the seed of Abraham was chosen of God, and had themselves experienced that it was blessed; and hence it was natural to feel, that it would be an act of very gross impiety to extinguish in it the grace of God. We must also observe the antithesis between the fear of God and the dread of punishment, which might have deterred them from doing right. Although tyrants do not easily allow their commands to be despised, and death was before their eyes, they still keep their hands pure from evil. Thus, sustained and supported by reverential fear of God, they boldly despised the command and the threatenings of Pharaoh. Wherefore those, whom the fear of men withdraws from the right course, betray by their cowardice an inexcusable contempt of God, in preferring the favor of men to his solemn commands. But this doctrine extends still more widely; for many would be1919 This somewhat harsh expression is thus translated in Fr. ver., “veulent estre sages en despit de nature;” would be wise in spite of nature. more than preposterously wise, whilst, under pretext of due submission, they obey the wicked will of kings in opposition to justice and right, being in some cases the ministers of avarice and rapacity, in others of cruelty; yea, to gratify the transitory kings of earth, they take no account of God; and thus, which is worst of all, they designedly oppose pure religion with fire and sword. It only makes their effrontery more detestable, that whilst they knowingly and willingly crucify Christ in his members, they plead the frivolous excuse, that they obey their princes according to the word of God; as if he, in ordaining princes, had resigned his rights to them; and as if every earthly power, which exalts itself against heaven, ought not rather most justly to be made to give way. But since they only seek to escape the reprobation of men for their criminal obedience, let them not be argued with by long discussions, but rather referred to the judgment of women; for the example of these midwives is abundantly sufficient for their condemnation; especially when the Holy Spirit himself commends them, as not having obeyed the king, because they feared God.
18. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives. He was not reduced to a more moderate course by equity or mercy; but because he dared not openly expose to slaughter the wretched and harmless infants at their birth, lest such atrocity should arouse the wrath of the Israelites to vengeance, He therefore secretly sends for the midwives, and inquires why they have not executed his murderous command? I doubt not, however, that he was restrained rather by the fear of rebellion than by shame.2020 Lightfoot, in his Sermon on Difficulties of Scripture, (Pitman’s edition, 7. 209,) says, “How many, in expounding that place, do roundly conclude, they told a lie to save their stake; when, as I suppose, it were no hard thing to shew, that the thing they spake was most true,” etc. And, again, in his “Handful of Gleanings out of the Book of Exodus,” vol. 2. 357, he has a short dissertation, headed, “The words of the Hebrew Midwives not a lie, but a glorious confession of their faith.” In opposition to Calvin, he considers them to have been Egyptian women. In the answer of the midwives two vices are to be observed, since they neither confessed their piety with proper ingenuity, and what is worse, escaped by falsehood. For the fabulous story which the Rabbins invent to cover their fault, must be rejected, viz., that they did not come in time to the Hebrew women, because they had warned them of the wicked design of the king; and so it came to pass that they were not present when they were delivered. What can be more tame than this invention, when Moses shews in his narrative that they were guilty of falsehood? Some assert that this kind of lie,2121 “Qui tend a faire plaisir;” which tends to give pleasure. — Fr. which they call “the lie officious, or serviceable,” is not reprehensible; because they think that there is no fault where no deceit for the purpose of injury is used.2222 Mendacium dividitur ratione culpae et finis; officiosum, jocosum, et perniciosum. — S. Thom., a. 2. Mendacium officiosum dicitur, quod committitur solum causa utilitatis propriae vel alienae; e.g., quis dicit, se non habere pecuniam, ne iis spolietur a militibus. — Dens. Tractatus de reliquis virtutibus justitiae annexis. Coloniae, 1776, tom. 3, p. 396. The subject is discussed by Peter Martyr, Loci Communes, Classis Secunda, cap. 13, with much reference to the Treatises of Augustin de Mendacio, in which this passage is treated of. In Augustin’s letter to Jerome, 82., speaking of the “mendacium officiosum,” he says, “non tam usitatum est in ecclesiasticis libris vocabulum officii.” But I hold, that whatever is opposed to the nature of God is sinful; and on this ground all dissimulation, whether in word or deed, is condemned, as I shall more largely discuss in explaining the law, if God grants me time to do so. Wherefore both points must be admitted, that the two women lied, and, since lying is displeasing to God, that they sinned. For, as in estimating the conduct of saints we should be just and humane interpreters; so also superstitious zeal must be avoided in covering their faults, since this would often infringe on the direct authority of Scripture. And, indeed, whensoever the faithful fall into sin, they desire not to be lifted out of it by false defences, for their justification consists in a simple and free demand of pardon for their sin. Nor is there any contradiction to this in the fact, that they are twice praised for their fear of God, and that God is said to have rewarded them; because in his paternal indulgence of his children he still values their good works, as if they were pure, notwithstanding they may be defiled by some mixture of impurity. In fact, there is no action so perfect as to be absolutely free from stain; though it may appear more evidently in some than in others. Rachel was influenced by faith, to transfer the right of primogeniture to her son Jacob; a desire, undoubtedly, pious in itself, and a design worthy of praise, anxiously to strive for the fulfillment of the divine promise; but yet we cannot praise the cunning and deceit, by which the whole action would have been vitiated, had not the gratuitous mercy of God interposed. Scripture is full of such instances, which shew that the most excellent actions are sometimes stained with partial sin. But we need not wonder that God in his mercy should pardon such defects, which would otherwise defile almost every virtuous deed; and should honor with reward those works which are unworthy of praise, or even favor. Thus, though these women were too pusillanimous and timid in their answers, yet because they had acted in reality with heartiness and courage, God endured in them the sin which he would have deservedly condemned. This doctrine gives us alacrity in our desire to do rightly, since God so graciously pardons our infirmities; and, at the same time, it warns us most carefully to be on our guard, lest, when we are desirous of doing well, some sin should creep in to obscure, and thus to contaminate our good work; since it not unfrequently happens that those whose aim is right, halt or stumble or wander in the way to it. In fine, whosoever honestly examines himself, will find some defect even in his best endeavors. Moreover, by the rewards of God, let us be encouraged to the confidence of thus obtaining good success, lest we should faint at the dangers we incur by the faithful performance of our duty; and assuredly no danger will alarm us, if this thought be deeply impressed upon our hearts, that whatever ill-will our good deeds may beget in this world, still God sits in heaven to reward them.
21. He made them houses.2323
The accuracy of Calvin’s criticism is undeniable, namely, — that as the Hebrew pronoun is of the masculine form, ordinary usage would forbid our considering this clause to be spoken of the midwives; and yet that the masculine and feminine pronominal affixes, distinguished respectively by a final ם or ן, are not used with such inflexible regularity as to preclude all debate. In fact, Moses has used the masculine pronoun ם at the end of ver. 17 of the next chapter, where a feminine pronoun
should have been expected. In the clause under consideration, V. has the ambiguous pronoun eis, whilst the LXX. has ἐποίησαν ἑαυταῖς, which is a departure from the Hebrew text in both words. —
The gloss in the Geneva Bible is, — “i.e., God increased the families of the Israelites by their means.” Lightfoot, Harmony 2. 108, on the contrary, explains the expression, “For which, their piety, God marrieth them to Israelites, for they were Egyptian women, and builded up Israelitish families by them.” “Triplex hic difficultas, (says Poole,) 1. Quis fecit? 2. Quibus? 3. Quid?” The balance of comments appears to favor Calvin’s solution. It is not at all my opinion that this should be expounded as referring to the women, and I am surprised that many interpreters have been grossly mistaken on so dear a point. All are agreed that the pronoun is masculine, and therefore, according to ordinary usage, should refer to males; but because the two letters ם and ן are sometimes used interchangeably, they have supposed that the two clauses of the verse must be connected, and both referred to the women. But there is no need of this, since the sentence runs very well in this way: — “The people multiplied and waxed very mighty, and it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made them houses,” i e., the Israelites; as much as to say, that through the piety of these women, they obtained an abundant offspring. And because some saw that a suitable meaning could not be elicited by this false interpretation, they have imagined that, by the inspiration of God, well-fortified houses were built them by the people, where they might be secure from the attacks of their enemies. Nothing can be more puerile than this conceit. But lest readers should puzzle themselves unnecessarily on this not very perplexing point, let us inquire what the Hebrews meant by this expression, “to make houses.” When God promises (1 Samuel 2:35) that he will build for Samuel “a sure house,” there is no question that he refers to a stable priesthood. Again, when he declares (2 Samuel 7:27) that he will build a house for David; and when a little afterwards we read in David’s prayer, (v. 27,) “thou hast revealed to thy servant, saying, I will build thee a house,” the royal dignity is clearly to be understood. It is plain, too, from the address of Abigail, that this was a common mode of speaking, where she says, (1 Samuel 25:28,) “the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house.” Now, it is quite unsuitable to the female sex and name that a woman should be made head of a family. Whence it appears that the words are forcibly2424 “Tire par les cheveux;” dragged by the hair. — Fr. wrested if we say that God made a house for the midwives; but it will be most applicable to the whole people, that it was multiplied by God, until it arose like a perfect building to its full height. The conclusion is, that the Israelites owed to the exertions of two women the fact, not only that they survived and were preserved, but also that they flourished more and more, in order that thus the glory of God might shine forth with greater brightness, since he so marvelously preserved his people when very near destruction by these weak instruments. But Moses puts the word “houses” in the plural number, because the people were built up by the increase of the offspring of separate families.
22. And Pharaoh charged. If he had not been transported with wrath and struck with blindness, he would have seen that the hand of God was against him; but when the reprobate are driven to madness by God, they persevere obstinately in their crimes; and not only so, but, like the deranged2525 “Vertiginosi, vel phrenetici.” — Lat. “Phrenetiques, ou demoniacles.” — Fr. or frantic, they dash themselves with greater audacity against every obstacle. It is indeed commonly the case that cruelty, having once tasted innocent blood, becomes more thirsty for it; nay, in general, wicked men, as if excited by their course, grow hotter and hotter in crime, so that there is no end nor measure to their iniquity; but here, in this very desperate rage, we must perceive the vengeance of God, when he had given up the tyrant for the devil to destroy him, whilst we also remember his design both to try the patience of his people as well as to set forth his own goodness and power. The tyrant, finding that his snares and deceit availed nothing, now shakes off fear and flies to open violence, commanding the little ones to be torn from the breasts of their mothers and to be cast into the river. Lest there should be any lack of executioners, he gives this charge to all the Egyptians, whom he knew to be more than ready for the work. He spares the daughters, that, being enslaved and allotted to the Egyptians, they might produce slaves for their masters, whilst by them the races and names could not be preserved. Here it may be worth while to meditate on a comparison with our own times. Antichrist, with all his murderous agents, leaves in peace those who by their treacherous silence deny Christ, and are prepared to embrace as slaves every kind of impiety; neither does he exercise his cruelty, insatiable though it be, where he sees no manliness to exist; and he exults and triumphs, as if his end was gained, when he perceives any who had some courage in professing their faith fallen into effeminacy and cowardice. But how much better is it for us to die an hundred times, retaining our manly firmness in death, than to redeem our life for the base service of the devil.