1. Pharaoh’s Fears and Israel’s Faith (Exodus 1)
Introduction to This Series
“The trouble with the Bible … is that so much of it is Old Testament. And the trouble with the Old Testament is just that. It is old. Now, of course, for some things, oldness speaks of permanence and lasting, even increasing, value. For other things, oldness spells outmoded, obsolete and irrelevant. Which category does the Old Testament belong to?”1
In the prologue to his excellent book, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today, Christopher J. H. Wright raises a question which troubles many Christians today. And for those whom it does not trouble, it should. It is with a great deal of enthusiasm and expectation that I commence this Old Testament study, beginning with the Book of Exodus.2 I believe we will find, as Wright’s excellent book shows, that the Old Testament is a book rich in relevance to the New Testament saint.
Specifically, this series begins with the “birth” of the nation Israel, as described in the Book of Exodus, a book rich in themes which will recur in the Old and New Testaments.3 While we will not cover this book in a thorough, chapter-by-chapter analysis, we will begin our study in chapter 1, which sets the stage for the drama of the Exodus.
Introduction to This Message
Francis Shaeffer has written a book entitled God is There and He is Not Silent. Without disagreeing with this book or its message, I do believe that there are times when God is there, but He is, at least from our perspective, silent. I believe that you can see this in the Psalms when the psalmist cries out to God, as it were, “Where are you, God?”4 Have you not experienced times in your life, especially times of adversity, when it appeared as though God was not present? The period of time depicted in the first chapter of Exodus is one of those times—a time when from all appearances, God was silent. Nevertheless, God was there. We shall learn to see His hand in those “silent times” as we study this first chapter of Exodus more carefully.
Linking the Past and the Present
Verses 1-7 serve to link the events of the Book of Genesis5 and those recorded in the Book of Exodus. These two books were intended to be understood in relationship to each other.6 Verses 1-6 sum up the history of Israel as a clan, as described more thoroughly in Genesis, chapters 12-50. These six verses remind us that all that is going to take place in this book is directly related to what has gone before as described in Genesis.7 The curse of God in Genesis 3 included hard toil, which is surely the lot of Israel in Egypt. The salvation of mankind, as promised also in Genesis 3, was through the birth of a child. So too it was through the birth of a child (Moses, Exod. 2) that God provided a deliverer for His people. As men strove to provide themselves with security and significance by the building of a city and a tower, using bricks and mortar, so Egypt sought to secure herself by forcing the Israelites to build cities with bricks and mortar (compare Gen. 11 with Exod. 1:14; 5:1ff.).
Most importantly, this portion of the introduction to the Book of Exodus (Exod. 1:1-6) links the existence and rapid growth of Israel as a nation to the covenant which God made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:12ff.), and which He reiterated to the patriarchs (Isaac: Gen. 26:2-5, 24; Jacob: Gen. 28:13-15). The sons of Israel and their families numbered 70 (v. 5) when they arrived in Egypt,8 a mere clan. But when the “sons of Israel” leave Egypt, they do so as a great nation (Exod. 1:7, 12, 20; 12:37).
Verse 7 fills in a nearly 400-year gap covering the period from the death of Joseph9 to the time of the Exodus. If it were not for this verse and the remainder of chapter one, we would know little of this period of time.
A moment’s reflection will cause us to remember that there are other periods in history which are likewise neglected in the biblical record. There is, for example, the 400-year period of silence between the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example), and the books of the New Testament.10 There is also the period of silence from the time of the close of the New Testament canon (the Book of Revelation) to the present day.
What should we conclude from those periods in time which biblical revelation seems to pass over unmentioned? Shall we say that these periods of time, the events and the people involved, are of no concern or interest to God? Certainly not. Shall we say that because God is silent about these times (at least in the Scriptures), He is not only uninterested, but also uninvolved?
Personally, I conclude that there are times when God is there, but when He is silent. By this I mean that God is at work, but that He is not, at that moment in time, telling us what He is doing, nor is He publicly displaying His purposes or His power. At such times (and at other times as well) God is at work providentially. He is at work behind the scenes, and in ways that at the time are not immediately apparent. Verses 8-22 focus on the particular things which God was doing during this period of persecution which are important to the purpose of the Book of Exodus. These verses give us a great deal of insight into those periods of time when God appears to be silent, when He is at work providentially, bringing His purposes to pass, or preparing history for another of His dramatic interventions into the affairs of men.
Lest we conclude that God is altogether silent about certain periods of history, let me remind you that even though God may not record the history of a certain period in detail, He will often foretell of the events in order to prepare those who will live in such times. For example, this 400-year period of time was the subject of a divine revelation to Abraham, long before it would take place:
Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16).
This brief prophetic description of this dark period of time in Israel’s history is proof of the faithfulness of God with regard to the fulfillment of His promises. Abraham’s descendants did dwell in Egypt, under bondage, for 400 years. They were brought forth, and with great riches given freely by the Egyptians. They did return to the promised land, just as God had promised.
So too events occurring in other periods of time concerning which the Scriptures have been silent (the 400-year inter-testamental period and the time from the close of the New Testament canon until now) have been foretold in advance by means of prophecy. Through Daniel (e.g. chapter 2) the kingdoms of the world were foretold. And through various Old and New Testament prophecies, the events of the last days and of the return of Christ are described. Thus, God has prepared men, in advance, for those periods of relative silence.
As we leave verses 1-7 let us keep two words in mind which will enable us to summarize the role of this section. The two words are CONTINUITY and CONTRAST. We are reminded of the continuity of God’s program by the fact that the promises and purposes of God commenced in the Book of Genesis are continued in the Book of Exodus. We see the contrast between these two books: a small handful of men entered Egypt to dwell with Joseph, but a great multitude will leave Egypt with Moses to dwell in the promised land. It is this rapid growth of Israel, in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and in preparation for possessing the land, which was the result of God’s providential dealings with Israel under the cruel hand of the Egyptians.11 Let us look then at the providential hand of God in this period of Israel’s history.
A New King and a New Policy
When Joseph brought his family to be with him in Egypt, they came to the “best of the land” (Gen. 47:6,11). Even at this time there was an underlying prejudice against the Israelites as Hebrews (Gen. 43:32) and as shepherds (Gen. 46:34). There is considerable disagreement among the scholars as to the identity of this “new king, who did not know about Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Much of the problem hinges on the date of the Exodus, a matter which we shall not discuss here in detail.12 Keeping with an early date for the Exodus, it is most likely that the king referred to here was new in a very significant sense. He represented not only a new person, but also very likely a new dynasty.
An Asiatic people of Semitic origin (thus, related to the Hebrews) began to migrate into Egypt, eventually gaining control of the government at a time of weakness and confusion during the Second Intermediate Period. The Hyksos13 ruled for about 150 years during the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, from about 1700 to 1550 B.C. The Hyksos kings were “Egyptianized,” assuming the title of Pharaoh,14 and adopting the gods of Egypt. The Hyksos capital was very close to Goshen where the Israelites had settled in Egypt. It would seem that the “new king” of Exodus 1:8 was a Hyksos king, and he would thus truly be “new” as Moses has indicated, especially if he succeeded an Egyptian king. Note also that he is not called an Egyptian. In the light of these considerations, Davis suggests the following rendering of verse 10: “Come on, let us [Hyksos] deal wisely with them [Israelites], lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when war occurs, they join also unto our enemies [the Egyptians], and fight against us [Hyksos], and so get them up out of the land.”15
If indeed a small minority of Hyksos had gained control over Egypt, it is not a surprise that these “foreigners” would have had no knowledge of Joseph. In fact, there would very likely be a tendency to try to blot out the past and to create a new allegiance to the Hyksos dynasty. It would also explain the fear of the Hyksos king that the Israelites might join with their enemies (the Egyptians) to overthrow their (foreign) rule.
The fears of the Pharaoh (be he a Hyksos or an Egyptian) are of interest: “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 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” (Exod. 1:9-10).
He feared the numerical strength of the Israelites, and sought to diminish them. He feared that they would become allies with the enemy against their rule, and would overcome them and leave Egypt. Interestingly, everything Pharaoh feared came to pass, in spite of his diligent efforts to prevent it. The reason is, of course, that the Pharaoh’s plans were contrary to the purposes and promises of God with regard to His people.
Pharaoh’s plan, which was readily adopted by the people, was to enslave the Israelites, and to tighten their control over them. A substantial part of this plan seems to be that of intimidation and oppression, so demoralizing and frightening the Israelites that they would not dare to resist their masters. In addition, their value as slave labor would be utilized to strengthen the nation both economically and militarily. The storage cities of Pithom and Rameses16 were built by the Israelites with brick and mortar,17 and the fields were worked by them as well. Josephus claims that Israelite manpower was also used to dig canals.18
Just as Israel had greatly multiplied during the time of Joseph (cf. Gen. 47:27) and after his death (Exod. 1:7), so they continued to multiply under the cruel hand of their taskmasters: But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians19 came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly (Exod. 1:12-13).
The Egyptian response to the continued phenomenal numerical growth of the Israelites was to increase the workload and to intensify the harassment and cruelty imposed on them by their taskmasters (1:14). It is apparent that these tactics did not work, which led to an even more evil plot directed against the people of God, as outlined in verses 15-21.
Pharaoh and the Midwives
Considerable time had passed since the first stage of oppression had been initiated, as described in verses 1-11. Frustrated by the utter failure of previous administrations to curtail the rapid growth of the Israelites, concern seemed to have turned to near panic. It was one thing to outnumber the Hyksos, a mere fraction of the population of Egypt. It was quite another to threaten the Egyptians themselves. The birth rate must be dramatically changed. To bring this about, the Pharaoh turned to the Hebrew20 midwives,21 two of whom are mentioned specifically here,22 either as specific examples, or as leaders.
Pharaoh’s demands are incredible. First of all, this is an abominable act of violence against the innocent. Second, I am amazed that Pharaoh passes on all responsibility for the death of these Hebrew infants. He wants the midwives to solve this national dilemma of the Hebrew birth rate. The plan is virtually unworkable. How were the boy children to be “terminated”? Were the deaths to look accidental? How could Pharaoh expect any Hebrew woman to call for a midwife if it were known that all boy babies were somehow dying at their hand? I see here a poorly conceived (pardon the pun) plan, decreed by a desperate man.
The midwives feared God more than Pharaoh, and so they refused to put the infant boys to death (1:17). This infuriated the Pharaoh, who summoned the midwives and demanded an explanation. They respond that the Hebrew women were in such good physical condition that their children were born too quickly, before they could even arrive to help (1:19). Whether or not this was the full explanation,23 it ironically points to the affliction of the Israelites as a boon to child-bearing, rather than as a hindrance. The previous plan had backfired in the Pharaoh’s face. Hard work produced more Hebrew babies.
For their fear of God, these midwives were rewarded in two ways. The first blessing is more immediately evident than the second. The first blessing was that of being fruitful themselves: “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families of their own” (Exod. 1:20-21).
Hyatt suggests one possible reason why child-bearing may have been a special blessing to these midwives: “It is possible that barren women were regularly used as midwives; if so, their reward is that they become fertile and have families.”24 The blessing of bearing children was not denied the Hebrew women, and neither was it denied the Hebrew midwives.
There is another blessing not as apparent but very significant, I believe. If someone asked you the names of the midwives, what would you answer? From this text you could quickly respond, “Shiphrah and Puah.” Now if I asked you the names of any of the pharaohs mentioned in this chapter, could you respond from this text? No! Many have speculated as to the identity of the pharaohs, but this is still speculation. Think of it, the highest official in the land, old “what’s his name.” These men’s names were known and feared by millions, but we don’t even know who they were. And this in spite of such massive projects as the building of pyramids and extensive efforts as mummifying the bodies of kings.
Unfortunately, some have failed to see that the omission of the names of the pharaohs is deliberate, and in contrast to the naming of the midwives.25 What a gracious gift of God to these two God-fearing Hebrew midwives—He records their names for an example to believers throughout the centuries. God doesn’t really care that much about the name of the king, king “what’s his name,” but He is intimately concerned with Shiphrah and Puah, for they trust and obey Him. What better honor than to be known and remembered by God.
As I have considered the naming of the midwives but not the Pharaoh’s, my mind turned to some interesting passages of Scripture. I am reminded of the biblical proverb which says, “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, But the name of the wicked will rot” (Prov. 10:7), and of the psalmist who prayed: “May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. … May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth” (Ps. 109:13,15).
God cares not about your position or your prestige in life, my friend. He cares only if you fear Him and have trusted in His Son, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. If you are His child, by faith, He knows you by name. If not, no matter what your earthly splendor or power, you are a “what’s his name” to God, and you will spend eternity away from His presence.
The futility of the Pharaoh’s military conquests and building projects is typified by this poem of Shelley:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.26
Overshadowing the figure of the Pharaoh, the heroes of our chapter are Shiphrah and Puah. They feared God more than men. They applied that fear of God to the practical outworkings of their day-to-day lives. They lived their faith where God had put them. It was not such a dramatic thing to do (daring, but not dramatic), but it revealed a faith that would not disobey the living God. Would that there were more saints of this variety today—saints who would live out their faith in whatever arena God has placed them, a faith that if necessary will defy the highest power in the land.
A Final Futile Effort
Pharaoh’s attempt to indirectly destroy the Israelite boy children had miserably failed. What he had attempted to do in a clandestine, underhanded fashion, Pharaoh will now demand openly: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live’” (Exod. 1:22). The intent of this decree is obvious. Pharaoh hopes not only to destroy the boy babies, but to enslave all the girl children, thus wiping out Israel as a distinct nation in one generation.27 What Pharaoh failed to discern was that he was simply a pawn of Satan, who was seeking to wipe out the seed from which Messiah was to come:
What Pharaoh did was, without his knowledge, a battle of the “serpent” against the “woman’s seed” (Gen. 3:15). For with the extermination of the Jews the coming of the Redeemer would have been made impossible, because, since Abraham, the promise concerning the Seed of the woman and the Treader-down of the serpent was definitely connected with this people (Gen. 12:1-3; John 4:22; Gal. 3:16).28
The struggle between Satan and “the seed” is one that can be found throughout biblical history. Satan has sought to corrupt the seed through the Canaanites (cf. Gen. 38; Num. 25). Now, at the time of the Exodus, he seeks to annihilate the seed by murder. Later on Satan will employ the jealousy of Herod, who will attempt to overthrow the “King of the Jews” by murdering many innocent children (Matt. 2).
The decree to murder the boy babies by drowning them is a part of Satan’s diabolical plan to destroy the seed which will destroy him. Once again Pharaoh puts the responsibility for killing infants on someone else, this time, the Egyptian people it would seem, or perhaps, the Hebrew parents: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). It is this command which provides the backdrop for the drama of chapter 2, where the deliverer of Israel is born.
The application of these verses to the present American abomination of abortion on demand should be obvious. There is a deadly sequence of events in Exodus 1 which closely parallels the origins and rise of abortion in America. It begins with a disdain for those who threaten our self-interests. The Egyptians disdained the Israelites who seemed to endanger their position of power and prestige, just as Americans disdain children as an economic liability and an unwanted burden. The killing of the Israelites began as a matter of national policy, just as the Supreme Court’s decision opened the door to the mass slaughter of the innocent unborn. The killing is subtle at first, and then much more blatant. Pharaoh seemed to want the midwives to arrange for the death of the boy babies, making murder appear to be a result of the birth process. Finally, the boy babies were commanded to be thrown (after their birth) into the Nile. So too in our day, the abortions which once were allowed early in pregnancy now are performed very late, and children are also terminated after birth as well. Just as the murder of the babies was selective (boys only) in Egypt, so we kill babies for being of the “wrong” sex or for having a possible imperfection which may make our lives inconvenient. Let us not avoid seeing the great similarities between the murder of the infants in that day and in our own. Let us be like those midwives and have no part in such murder.
From a human perspective, things in Egypt have gone “from bad to worse” so far as the Israelites are concerned. A sojourn which began with a royal welcome by decree became slavery and then deteriorated to a plot to kill the Hebrew boy babies and to enslave the girl children. It would seem that things could hardly get worse. One might wonder if God was aware of what was taking place, and, if so, why He was not more involved.
As we consider the events of Exodus 1 we need to recognize that there are several points of view. From the human perspective, there is the selfish and sinful motivation of the Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, willing to sacrifice the Israelites to their own self-interest. There is also the perspective of the Israelites who may well have wondered where the God of their fathers was. The perspective of the Hebrew midwives should be our model. While they did not understand all that was going on, they did fear God, and they refused to obey the orders of Pharaoh when they were contrary to the will of God.
Then too there is the supernatural perspective which recognizes in all of the events of this chapter the hand of Satan, seeking to thwart the purposes of God by using the rulers of this world to his own ends. The battle between the Serpent and the seed is not to be overlooked in this Egyptian episode.
Finally, there is the divine perspective. God was achieving His purposes and promises largely unnoticed by any of the actors in this divine drama. The affliction and bondage of which God had foretold Abraham (Gen. 15:12-16) is fulfilled in this first chapter of Exodus. Through the bondage and adversity of those 430 years (cf. Exod. 12:40) a number of purposes were being providentially fulfilled. Let me briefly enumerate some of the “blessings” which resulted from the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt.
(1) Israel was spared from absorption by the Canaanites through intermarriage by being sent to Egypt, where that nation’s prejudice precluded the kind of intermingling which was common in Canaan (cf. Gen. 38).
(2) Judgment on the Canaanites was delayed until her sins were filled to the brim (cf. Gen. 15:14-16).
(3) The light of God’s salvation was taken to the Egyptians by the Israelites. The multitude of those who left Egypt included some who were Egyptians.
(4) Israel was enabled to grow from a handful of people (70 men) to a great multitude. Can you imagine a clan of 70 men attempting to possess Canaan?
(5) God was preparing Israel physically for the rigors required in the wilderness and militarily for the warfare with the Canaanites. Also, God was preparing for the economic needs of the nation with a forced savings plan that put necessary capital in the hands of the Israelites when they left Egypt (cp. Gen. 15:14; Exod. 12:35-36).
Noting these benefits of the Egyptian sojourn, we can see that God was providentially working for the benefit of His people. We can therefore derive several principles from this passage which will help us in those times when the hand of God is not evident and when the forces of evil seem to be prevailing.
First, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not actively involved in bringing them to pass.
Second, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not aware of it and when every appearance points to the contrary.
Third, when this is the case, God has often previously announced prophetically what He is going to do during such times of apparent silence.
Fourth, when God is “silent” we must live by faith (as at all other times) and by the principles of His word.
Fifth, God’s purposes are as easily achieved in adversity as they are in comfort, and as readily accomplished through unbelievers as through the saints.
Sixth, there are great similarities between these experiences of Israel and the events of the last days before our Lord’s return.29
Finally, I want to say a word about God’s “editorial policy” as it is reflected in this chapter. The fact that God chooses to describe, in sketchy terms, a period of 400 years is an evidence of His sovereignty. But God does things for a purpose. As I thought through the message of this chapter, I realized that God has a purpose for what He does not say as well as for what He does reveal in the Scriptures. God has chosen to say little about the 400 years of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. The emphasis of what He does say is on the good intended which God was bringing out of the evil Pharaoh, Egypt, and the Evil One (cp. Gen. 50:20).
It occurred to me that God’s “editorial policy,” as reflected in Exodus 1, is diametrically opposed to that of the media today. If we were to read a secular account of this period in Israel’s history, we would have much more space devoted to the afflictions of the Israelites. We would have gruesome pictures, in full color, of sweaty Israelites, stumbling along in the slimy mud pits, making their bricks. We would have numerous “human interest” stories, all focusing on the plight of these people and the cruelty of the Egyptians.
This is not the emphasis of Exodus 1. Oh, we are told of the cruelty of the Egyptians and of the sufferings of the Israelites, but the emphasis of the chapter is on the faithfulness of God to His purposes, His promises, and His people. The thrust of the chapter is that in spite of Egypt’s efforts, God’s people miraculously grew in number and in strength. In all of this, God was preparing His people for deliverance and Egypt for judgment. God’s purposes were sure, and those whom God blessed were those who feared Him. God’s “editorial policy” is to deal briefly with human grief and misery, and to focus upon God’s grace and faithfulness. When you look at our chapter in this light, you can see that this is the case.
Let me ask you about your “editorial policy.” Every one of us “edits,” as it were the circumstances of our lives. The worrier edits out all of the good things, all of the positive possibilities, and highlights every element of possible pain and disaster. The grumbler edits out all of the blessings of God and focuses on those things which were painful and unpleasant. Faith edits life’s circumstances differently. It recognizes all of the evils of this life, but it does not emphasize them. Faith chooses to focus upon the purposes, the promises, and the power of God, and looks for His hand at work, preserving His people, and preparing them for the blessings which are to come. I urge you, my friend, to establish an “editorial policy” for the circumstances of your life which is like that of Moses, the human author of Exodus.
3 “It would be hard to find a single major topic of Old, or even New, Testament that is not exemplified in the Book of Exodus. Many of the themes, used later in the Bible, actually take their rise in this book, in the interpreted experience of Israel, through the great events that led to her foundation as a people.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 19. I highly recommend Cole’s commentary as the first commentary you purchase in your study of the Book of Exodus.
5 Genesis may have been written about the time of the Exodus. Since we believe Moses to be the author, it could not have been written sooner than shortly before the Exodus. Genesis would have provided an excellent backdrop for the Exodus, providing Israel with a reminder of her roots and of the basis for God’s blessings which were soon to be experienced.
6 “The initial ‘and’ found in the Hebrew makes clear that Exodus is not a new book, but simply the continuation of the Genesis story, and the fulfillment of the promises made to the partiarchs. But this is an appropriate place for a break: it is the last time in the Pentateuch that ‘sons of Israel’ is used to describe Jacob’s immediate family. From now on, the phrase will be a collective patronymic, describing the whole people of God, formed like any Arabic tribal name.” Cole, p. 53.
7 There are certain literary allusions which are intended to make these connections between Exodus and Genesis. For example the expression, “were fruitful and multiplied” (Exod. 1:7), is an allusion to the early chapters of Genesis: “The Hebrew deliberately repeats three verbs used in Genesis 1:21,22 which may be translated ‘were fruitful … swarmed … became numerous.’ This increase was interpreted as God’s promised blessing on His creation. A considerable time had passed since Joseph’s death: at the very shortest reckoning, Moses was the fourth generation after Levi (Nu. 26:58) and he may have been many hundred years later (Ex. 12:40).” Cole, p. 53.
8 In Genesis 46:26-27 the number of the direct descendants of Jacob, minus the wives of his sons, is 66 (v. 26), with the total number who came to Egypt numbered at 70 (v. 27). In the Septuagint (Greek) translation of this text, the number is 75 which agrees with Acts 7:14. There are various possible solutions to this problem. Davis suggests that the explanation is that the count of 75 would include the five grandsons of Joseph. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 44.
“The sons are arranged according to their mothers, as in Genesis 35:23-26, with the sons of the two maidservants appearing last. The number of males that accompanied Jacob is given as 70 in verse 5. This is in agreement with a similar number which appears in Genesis 46:27 and Deuteronomy 10:22; however, the Septuagint reading of this text and Acts 7:14, which is apparently a quotation from the Septuagint text, reads seventy-five souls. … Notice that in Genesis 46:26 the figure of the descendants of Jacob is given as only sixty-six. This is due to the fact that Jacob, Joseph and his two sons were not included in the calculation.” Davis, p. 44.
9 In verse 6 the expression “now … but” seems significant to me. The sons of Israel were indeed blessed on account of Joseph, but even after his death, Israel continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Ultimately it was not Joseph who was the cause of Israel’s blessings, but God.
10 Even in the period of the life of our Lord, there is a great deal of disproportion (time-wise) evident in the gospels. A fair amount of space is devoted to the birth of our Lord, a very little space to His early childhood (Luke 2:39-52), and a great deal of space to the three years of His earthly ministry (with the greatest emphasis given to the last week of His life). We see selectivity everywhere in the Bible, in terms of what periods of time God has chosen to depict.
11 “Assuming that the original group to enter Egypt was at least 140 persons (the number 70 of verse 5 includes males only), the original population would have had to have doubled fourteen times to produce the number who took part in the exodus (about 2,000,000). This apparently reflects special divine blessing and intervention as promised in the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Gen. 12:2; 15:5).” Davis, pp. 47-48.
12 The vast majority of liberal scholars, along with a few conservatives, hold that the exodus took place in the thirteenth century B.C. As a rule conservative scholars hold to an earlier date of the exodus, in the fifteenth century (ca. 1440 B.C.). For a more extensive discussion of the issues from a conservative viewpoint see Davis (pp. 16-33), or Cole (pp. 40-43). There is also an excellent article cited by Davis entitled: “The Time of the Oppression and the Exodus,” by John Rea found in Grace Journal, II, No. 1 (Winter, 1961), pp. 7ff.
14 “Pharaoh is not a personal name, but the equivalent of ‘king of Egypt’ (vv. 8, 15, 17). The Egyptian word … means ‘great house.’ In the third millennium B.C. it designated the royal palace, but by 1800 B.C. it had become an epithet for the king. In the XVIIIth and XIXth dynasties it was a royal title, and by the ninth century it was prefixed to the royal name (e.g. Pharaoh Shishak).” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 58.
19 The term “Egyptians” here may indicate that the period of Hyksos rule has ended, and that the oppression begun by them was continued and even increased by the Egyptian rulers (cf. Rea, p. 8). The general population of Egypt, who had to support such oppression, was the same, even when the government changed hands.
20 There is some discussion as to the precise meaning of the term “Hebrew” here, since it is used in both a narrow and in a broader sense: “The name ‘Hebrew’ is derived from the name ‘Eber’ (the opposite, on the other side; Gen. 10:21, 24; 11:4, 15), and rests, apparently upon a family migration, unknown to us, of the forbearers of Abraham from ‘beyond’ the Jordan … the word ‘Hebrew’ is at first the description of pre-Abrahamic-Semitic family groups. … Only later did the name become the national description of the Old Testament covenant people as a political and ethnic unit, in contrast to other though related peoples. …” Erich Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 111-112.
I personally understand these midwives are Israelites. It would have been only natural for the Israelite women to turn to Israelite midwives for help in child-bearing. Also the term “Hebrew” is repeated in 16 with reference to the Israelite women.
21 “The Hebrew word ‘midwife’ … literally means ‘one who helps to bear.’ The midwife aided at childbirth by taking the newborn child, cutting its umbilical cord, washing the baby with water, salting, and wrapping it (cf. Ezek. 16:4).” Davis, p. 50.
23 I am inclined to see here a less than complete answer to the Pharaoh. I doubt that what was said was untrue, however. What was not said was that the midwives refused to obey the king of Egypt, choosing rather to obey God than men. Such a bold statement may have cost these women their lives.
25 Hyatt, for example, writes, “… the writer apparently does not know his name.” Hyatt, p. 58. This is an even sadder observation when we realize that Hyatt does not even seem to know the name of the author—Moses, and that he thinks Moses didn’t know the name of the Pharaoh even though he grew up in the home of the Pharaoh.