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Torah Commentary Blog

by Bettijane Eisenpreis

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase..”
Exodus 1:8-10

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Sound familiar? The new head of government comes in and he refuses to acknowledge anyone in the old power structure. Okay, so a lot of years have passed since the reign of the Pharaoh who had the dream which Joseph interpreted, that same Pharaoh who hired Joseph to handle the food storage in Egypt. But Egypt was a highly developed civilization. I am sure there were history books, or history scrolls, telling of the Great Famine and the Israelite slave who rose to the rank of Prime Minister.

“And he knew not Joseph,” as we learned it in Sunday School is a political, not a factual, statement. Pharaoh did not want to acknowledge that Joseph and Joseph’s people had existed as a legitimate force in Egypt. He saw the Israelites as foreigners and a potentially disruptive element in Egyptian society. He might have phrased his point this way: “If we allow those people in, they are going to take our jobs, marry our daughters, and side with our enemies.”

This Pharaoh had unseated the previous regime, the one that did “know” Joseph. Joseph and the Hebrews were allies of a government that Pharaoh had overthrown. It could be that he was more worried about the Hebrews siding with his enemies within Egypt than some hypothetical enemy nation outside of Egypt.

There is another part of the quotation that indicates trouble for the Hebrews. In the old JPS Bible, the passage above was translated in basically the same way, except for one word. The Hebrew word that is here translated as “shrewdly” was rendered as “wisely.” Pharaoh says, “Let us deal wisely with them.”

I looked up “wise” in my dictionary. The first definition is “having wisdom or discernment for what is true, right or lasting.” The second is “exhibiting common sense, prudent.” “Shrewd, crafty” comes in a distant third. Of course, when we find out what Pharaoh intends to do to the Hebrews – force them to perform slave labor, kill their male babies – we realize that the translation of the Hebrew word as “shrewdly” is exactly what Pharaoh means.

Pharaoh wants to deal shrewdly with the Children of Israel. But is he wise? He condemns a whole people out of fear – fear that they are different from the rest of the Egyptians, that they have their own religion, that they have outgrown their region of Goshen and are spreading into the rest of Egypt. He is attempting to spread hysteria among the Egyptians so that they will go along with his policies of slavery and genocide.

Pharaoh is an absolute monarch with total control of his people. You would think that what he says would be enforced as the absolute law of the land. But it isn’t; first of all, the Israelites multiply in record numbers. Secondly, the midwives Shifrah and Puah save the male babies. And besides that, there is the miracle of baby Moses who is set afloat in the Nile and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. A series of miracles … or are they?

Of course, it is probably all a story, but with a nugget of truth and an important lesson. As we know from history, there are always going to be people, like the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter, who are going to step up and do the right thing. Is this a miracle? Yes – look at the Righteous Gentiles who rescued Jews in the Holocaust at the risk of their own lives. It is a miracle, and it isn’t. If we believe in a righteous God, a force for good in the universe, then we believe that good will triumph in the end. It may take 400 years, but we have to believe and work toward making it happen.

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