Tyranny is Nothing New (Nor is Resistance)

The Politics of Scripture

Through confrontational or subversive tactics, God empowers human agents to restore God’s liberating and salvific will for the creation.

1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and 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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then 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.”

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Exodus 1:8—2:10 (NRSV)

The beginning of the book of Exodus offers insights on how tyranny emerges and how people who believe in human dignity can resist it. Tyranny refers to an oppressive monopoly of power that controls the body politic through fear and cruelty. Yet, however undefeatable tyranny may appear, the belief that human dignity is a divine gift inspires courageous and creative strategies of resistance. Through confrontational or subversive tactics, God empowers human agents to restore God’s liberating and salvific will for the creation.

The Emergence of Tyranny and Resistance

Tyranny emerges at times of transition and change; times in which fear of the other dominates the scene; times in which the world is polarized and divided between us and them; times in which power is misused by the tyrant (Pharaoh in this case) to dehumanize the other (the Israelites). But even as tyranny feeds on xenophobia and fear of the other, and as it tries to dominate those whom God created to be free and to live with dignity, agents of resilience, resistance, and transformation emerge: In this narrative, we meet midwives, whose fear of God supersedes the fear of the other that the tyrant perpetuates. We witness Moses’s parents, who go on in faith and wisdom with their ordinary lives in the face of violence. And we are shocked when Pharaoh’s daughter uses her power and privilege to undo the very foundations of tyranny by showing surprising compassion and empowerment to the marginalized.

The narrator notes two significant markers for a time of transition and change. First, the Israelites grew in number and strength (Exodus 1:7). This is a fulfillment of God’s commandment to the first two humans: “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:26–28). While the growth of the Israelites is in line with God’s intentions for creation, Pharaoh does not view this as a blessing, but rather as a threat. The second change that the narrator highlights is that a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8).

The Joseph narrative in Genesis 37–50 offers a fairly positive relationship between Joseph and the Egyptian king. Joseph, after all, saved Egypt and Canaan from a severe famine. At the same time, there is also a memory of Joseph turning the Egyptians into slaves for Pharaoh (Genesis 47:13–26). It is ironic that, after Joseph turns the Egyptians into slaves for Pharaoh, we are told in Exodus that Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. In my judgment, the phrase, “who did not know Joseph,” does not mean that Pharaoh had never heard of Joseph. The new king constructs a new monopoly of power by intentionally erasing the memory of the goodness that the “other” (in this case, the Israelites) can offer and by viewing them as a threat that needs to be tamed and controlled. 

In order to construct this monopoly of power, Pharaoh employs a few tactics that the reader can easily detect in his words. First, Pharaoh frames the relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites as a binary opposite of “us vs. them.” Pharaoh uses similar words to those of the narrator to speak of the blessing of the Israelites, but Pharaoh’s discourse adds an important twist: “they have become more numerous and more powerful than we” (Exodus 1:9). Second, Pharaoh’s discourse ventures into hypothetical scenarios of war, conflict, unrest, and treason in order to stir the emotion of fear in his audience (1:10). Polarization, labeling the other as a threat, stoking fear of the unknown—together, these become a perfect recipe for the tyrant to use to monopolize power and to mobilize violence and oppression. Pharaoh’s claim to power is ratified by involving the ones who buy into his propaganda of fear and suspicion; these ones then become culpable for listening to his malicious wisdom and for participating in his oppressive plans. Indeed, “let us deal shrewdly with them” (Exodus 1:10) turns into a ruthless forced labor regime that crushes the Israelites and makes their lives unbearable with bitterness (Exodus 1:11–14).

Tyranny is irrational. It is driven by its worldview of binary opposites, fear, demonization, and dehumanization of the “other.” When the other slips from tyranny’s destructive plans, tyranny only produces more cruel schemes. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more they multiplied and spread (Exodus 1:12). The irrationality of Pharaoh’s tyrannical strategy is exposed when he orders the abhorrent killing of the Hebrew newborn boys. If Pharaoh truly fears that the Israelites would join any enemy that would attack Egypt, then why doesn’t he drive them out of Egypt (Exodus 1:10)? Pharaoh’s fear is not that the Israelites would dominate the Egyptians, but rather that they would flee from Egypt. It seems that Pharaoh wants to keep them because of the forced labor they could perform for his construction and agricultural projects. But again, if he wants to keep them as an enslaved labor force, then why would he kill the newborn boys, who are prospective laborers? It is possible that these two stories of forced labor and infanticide are from different traditions, but as they stand now they show that Pharaoh’s tyranny is irrational. There is no logical explanation for it—it is driven by fear, bigotry, and hatred for the other. But this foundation for Pharaoh’s plans to obliterate the other is inherently fragile, and therefore doomed to fail.

Resisting Tyranny

As the madness of tyranny heightens, threatening the lives of the helpless Israelite newborn boys, signs of resistance crack open rays of hope for liberation. Resistance to tyranny (suggests Exodus 1–2) happens when no one expects it, in ways that no one has envisioned, and by people no one has considered.

Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives who helped the Hebrew women deliver their babies, were commanded by the king of Egypt to kill the Hebrew newborn boys and to let the Hebrew newborn girls live. The identity of the midwives is left ambiguous and the history of interpretation has different views on whether they were Hebrew or Egyptian. Either way, the midwives defied the king’s decree and let the Hebrew newborn boys live. The narrator explains that they have put themselves in this risky position, resisting the king’s orders, because they feared God. When the king confronted the midwives, the midwives told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. While Pharaoh sought to underline the ethnic difference between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, invoking a framework of “us vs. them,” the midwives turned this paradigm on its head. Difference here is a source of life, not a source of death as Pharaoh had envisioned it. Pharaoh’s assumptions about ethnic and gender superiority were undermined by the female power of the Hebrew women and the midwives of the Hebrews. 

In addition to undermining Pharaoh’s “us vs. them” propaganda, the episode of the midwives shows that there are agents of resistance to tyranny, who cause life to spring forth because their fear of God is greater than their fear of a tyrant and the fear that the tyrant perpetuates (Exodus 1:17). The courage and shrewdness of these midwives were rewarded by God, who gave them families (Exodus 1:20–21). This is the first action attributed to God in the book of Exodus. God takes the side of life and human dignity and those who advocate for them. God takes the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. God takes an explicit stand against oppressive ideologies and those who perpetuate them. It’s intriguing to note that God appeared in the story because there were courageous women who stood against the tyranny of a king. Liberation from oppression is not a divine initiative here, but rather a human initiative represented by the midwives who were helping a new reality to be birthed.

Meanwhile, Moses is born, nurtured, and hidden. Resistance to tyranny in this scene is happening on multiple levels and in many ways. Sometimes the ordinary things of life, like marrying, bearing children, and caring for one’s family are forms of resistance. When tyranny tries to undervalue life and when it seeks to separate family members from one another, a simple and yet profound way of resisting is to live an ordinary life. Existence is resistance. Furthermore, with poetic irony, the boy’s mother uses the very thing that was supposed to be the means of killing the Hebrew boys—the Nile—to save her baby. In some contexts, with wisdom and courage, the very means that are used to oppress can be used to overcome powers of death. 

The peril returns and intensifies, however, when the boy is discovered by the daughter of the very man who had issued the kill order. But in a surprising twist, Pharaoh’s daughter is moved with pity towards this Hebrew boy. Compassion overcomes the ethnic and socio-economic divides between Pharaoh’s daughter and the boy. She defies the decree of her father and decides not to throw this Hebrew boy into the Nile; instead, she takes the advice of the boy’s sister, who volunteers to find a Hebrew wetnurse (of course, the boy’s own mother). Thus, Moses (a Hebrew) ends up being raised in Pharaoh’s palace.

When tyranny sustains itself based on the fear of the ethnic other, it may be resisted by people of privilege who speak up against this tyrannical propaganda of “us vs. them,” and by insiders who use their power to cross the boundaries, taking the side of the powerless outsiders.  Pharaoh’s daughter was not the only one to cross boundaries in this story; the boy’s mother and sister did so as well. So it was that one of the greatest leaders of the Hebrew people grew up in Pharaoh’s palace. Moses’s dual identity as both a Hebrew and an Egyptian deconstructs Pharaoh’s worldview of “us vs. them.” Likewise, Pharaoh’s daughter’s treatment of Moses shows that not all Egyptians were cruel. Even an Egyptian of high standing could resist the cruelty of the Egyptian king and advocate for human life and dignity.

Finally, while Pharaoh targeted the Hebrew boys, thinking (perhaps) that girls would be of little use in a rebellion, it is notable that all of the agents who worked to rebel against his ruthlessness were women: the two midwives, Moses’s mother and sister, Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants. Women from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds showed Pharaoh (and they show us today) that women are strong, courageous, and creative. They defy the decrees of the tyrants and resist fear with shrewdness, wisdom, and compassion. May we all follow their example.

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