The portion of Shemot tells us of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and sets the stage for their redemption over the three following portions. It recounts how Jacob’s small family grew into a mighty nation and how the Egyptians came to oppress them. It also relates Moses’s development from birth to leadership.
Descent into Slavery
Our portion opens with the descent of Jacob’s family into Egypt. The text identifies the heads of families who traveled with Jacob in a list almost identical to that of Genesis 46, emphasizing the connection between the books of Genesis and Exodus. The Torah goes on to describe the process under which the Israelites are enslaved.
The Egyptians are intimidated by the Israelites’ massive growth. Pharaoh tells his advisors they must deal wisely with the Israelites, lest they grow too numerous and join forces with Egypt’s enemies. His approach is three-tiered: slavery seems to be ineffective in stemming the growth rate, and when his initial effort to enlist the help of the midwives servicing the Israelites in murdering the male infants fails, he orders all Israelite male infants to be thrown into the Nile river.
Tradition relates that Pharaoh tricked the Israelites into becoming slaves. At first, grateful for everything their host country had done for them, the Israelites agreed to join a national building project which included both Egyptian and Israelite volunteer workers. Over time, the Egyptians stopped participating in the efforts, but the Israelites remained until what had started as a voluntary project became mandatory.
Points to Ponder
This is the very first example of “anti-Semitism”. What is Pharaoh accusing the Jewish people of? How does that connect with other examples of anti-Semitism throughout history?
A Leader is Born
Despite the order to kill all Hebrew male infants, a couple from the tribe of Levi gives birth to a baby boy. The mother hides her son for as long as she can — three months — before placing him in a waterproof basket on the riverbank among the reeds. The child’s sister watches after her young brother, and when the baby is discovered by the daughter of Pharaoh, she offers to find her a wet nurse for him.
According to a tradition based on the verse in 1 Chronicles 4:18, Pharaoh’s daughter’s name was Batya, which means daughter of God. She is recognized for her righteousness in saving Moses’s life.
Young Moses is named and raised by the daughter of Pharaoh in the Egyptian palace. The Torah recounts his adventures as he reaches adulthood.
Three episodes are described in which Moses comes to the aid of those less fortunate than himself. In one incident, the reaction of the recipient is not related, in the third, Moses receives gratitude, but in the second incident, the ungrateful parties threaten to turn him in to Pharaoh. Moses is forced to flee Egypt, and subsequently finds a wife and starts a family.
While Moses is settling into his life in exile, the Torah relates the degree of the Israelites’ suffering. God observes their oppression and decides the time has come to release them from their bondage.
Points to Ponder
Many movies about the life of Moses portray his shock at discovering he is a Hebrew. Is this supported by the text? Do you think others in Egypt knew his true identity?
The Burning Bush
Moses takes over herding his father-in-law’s sheep. One day, as he is herding the sheep, he comes upon a strange sight: a bush that burns but is not consumed by the fire. Once He has Moses’s attention, God tells him to go to Egypt and take the Israelites out of slavery.
What follows is a fascinating exchange, as Moses tries to argue his way out of the job. Citing everything from his own inability to speak effectively to the Israelites’ possible unwillingness to accept him, Moses concludes with a simple request: send anyone else but me. At this point, God gets upset with Moses and insists he go, promising his brother Aaron will accompany him.
The Burning Bush appeared in the Horev region, an area named for its harsh, dry conditions, today identified with the Sinai Desert. The name Horev appears several times throughout the rest of the Bible (see Exodus 17 and 33, Deuteronomy 1 and 4, 1 Kings 19 and Psalms 106 for some examples).
The Jewish people remain connected to their Biblical heritage even today. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, an operation to capture outposts in the Sinai region was named Operation Horev.
Points to Ponder
Based on His conversation with Moses, it appears God has more in mind for the Israelites than simply their physical freedom from slavery. He outlines His plan to take the people out of Egypt and bring them to a land flowing with with milk and honey. Along the way, they will serve Him at this very place. What, then, is the Bible’s vision of true freedom? Is this how you would define freedom? Why or why not?
Return to Egypt
Upon returning from Horeb, Moses asks his father-in-law’s blessing to go back to Egypt and see how his people are faring.
As Moses prepares for the journey, God appears to him again, reassuring him that those who sought to destroy him are dead. He also warns Moses that Pharaoh will not be quick to acquiesce to freeing the people. He tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that He can kill his firstborn.
Along the way back to Egypt, Moses and his family stop overnight at an inn. While there, God seeks to kill Moses. His quick-thinking wife, Zipporah, saves him by swiftly circumcising their second son.
The episode highlights the significance of ritual circumcision in Jewish law. Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself at the age of 99, and all subsequent descendants at the age of eight days, in Genesis 17. Upon arrival in the land of Canaan, in Joshua 5, the entire generation born in the desert is circumcised, as they did not perform the ritual during the forty years in the desert.
Points to Ponder
Why does God address Moses again? What new insight does He provide that He could not relate at the Burning Bush?
Moses and Aaron Arrive in Egypt
The Torah tells us now that it is not by chance Aaron was on his way to meet his younger brother; God had sent him! When they finally meet, they gather the elders of Israel and tell them of God’s plan to redeem the people. The elders believe the two brothers and bow in appreciation of God’s promise.
The two then appear before Pharaoh to deliver God’s message. Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge God and instead increases the Israelites’ workload.
We are told that Pharaoh had appointed Israelite overseers above the Hebrew slaves, with Egyptian taskmasters over them. When Pharaoh commands that the slaves must continue producing the same quota of bricks without being provided straw, the overseers are beaten because the slaves are not able to comply.
The Hebrew overseers appeal to Pharaoh, but he calls them lazy and turns them away. They then turn on Moses and Aaron, telling them that instead of helping, they have made everything worse.
Devastated, Moses complains to God that he should never have been sent. God assures him He has a plan, and by the time He is done, Pharaoh will not only free the people, he will “drive them from the land” with a strong hand.
Points to Ponder
- What does Moses tell Pharaoh the Israelites want? Is this a lie? Why or why not?
- Notice how Moses’s tone changes from the first to the second time he addresses Pharaoh. What do you think he hopes to accomplish?
- God already told Moses that Pharaoh would not agree to release the Israelites immediately (see 3:19-22, 4:21). What is Moshe’s complaint, then, at the end of the portion?