Setting His Own Trap: Pharaoh’s Folly and God’s Heavy Wisdom
Text: Exodus 1:15-22
Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?”
And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.”
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them.
So Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”
I really love this world, and I have been blessed to enjoy many good things in my life. I had great parents, I have an excellent wife, and my kids bring me immense joy. Things are pretty swell. But this world does have a lot of darkness in it too. Our history is one of great tragedy. There are wars, sickness, and life lost too soon. What do we make of this? How do we account for great evil? How can we possibly “explain” genocide?
Our text this morning forces us to stare great evil directly in the eye. Pharaoh commands all the Hebrew boys to be killed. This would mean the destruction of an entire race of people, but in fact it would be more than that. Pharaoh is ordering the destruction of the line of the messiah. It would not be an overstatement to say that his plan, if successful, would thwart the salvation of the world! Why does God allow it? What’s going on here?
This morning we will look at that question, but we will also look at the context in which the Bible gives it to us. Remembering what we heard last week, God has put all of this into play, exactly as He has ordained it, to bring about His promised deliverance. This ghastly act sets the stage for the Exodus, and it goes on to set the stage for the salvation made on our behalf by Jesus Christ. As we will see, God knows what He is doing, and He eventually turns Pharaoh’s evil plots against him, judging Pharaoh with the same kinds of evil that he had once tried to use. Jesus does the same against Satan, and so we see how the one who sets the trap later falls into it himself. Even this darkest of scenes points us to the grace of salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
Holy War, Holy Deception?
Our story picks up with Pharaoh desperately trying to destroy the Israelites. He had hoped that bitter enslavement would crush their spirits and decrease their numbers, but that plan had come to nothing. Now in his fury, he commands a sort of genocide. He orders the leading midwives to kill all of the male Hebrew children as they are born. “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live” (Ex. 1:16).
Pharaoh probably hoped that this plan would work in secret. That way he would not have to bear the political repercussions of it. It seemed crazy from the start, and the midwives did not cooperate. “The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive” (vs. 17).
Up to this point, the midwives are clearly heroic. We are explicitly told what their motivation was: “the midwives feared God.” This is righteousness. But what comes next makes things a little more complicated.
So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?”
And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.” (vs. 18-19)
What’s going on here? Most commentators, going back to the early church, have assumed that the midwives were intentionally deceiving Pharaoh in order to find a way out of the dilemma. The midwives are engaged in what is known as a noble lie. In order to prevent a greater evil, they lie and attempt to block the plan.
Now, as I have thought about this story, it occurs to me that it’s actually possible that the midwives aren’t lying. Given what we said about the radical fecundity of Israel at this unique time in redemptive history, the Hebrew women may well have been more “lively” or “vigorous” than what was thought as normal. It’s possible. However, I do think that the text indicates deception. It says that they “saved the male children alive,” implying some intentional action. For his part, Pharaoh is forced to “believe them,” because he doesn’t order their deaths and go find new midwives. He has to change the plan altogether. Perhaps the midwives knew that Pharaoh was trying to protect his public image, and so they told him a story that he couldn’t risk investigating or contradicting.
The history of the church has assumed that these women were lying, and the majority position within Christianity has said that this sort of lying, even for virtuous purposes in such an extreme situation, was a sin. This position might strike us as overly stern, but you should know that it is majority position, promoted by Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and most of the Puritans. They point to the Apostle Paul’s simple statement in Romans 3:8, “And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just”
Of course, there’s a big challenge in the other direction. If these midwives were lying, and if lying is always wrong, then why doesn’t the text give us even the slightest hint of disapproval? It doesn’t. It goes entirely in the opposite direction. The women are blessed: “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them” (Ex. 1:20-21).
You might say that this proves that they didn’t sin. They are blessed. Or you might say that this just shows that God looked passed their sin, seeing that they feared Him, so He blessed their faithfulness even despite its flaws. I can’t resolve the debate this morning. Whatever we say, the midwives are presented as heroes and are rewarded as such.
But don’t miss the last thing. Even though the midwives made their crafty play, Pharaoh still carried out his murderous plan. He just had to come out and make it public. “So Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, ‘Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive’” (vs. 22).
God’s Subversive Providence
No matter what we conclude about the midwives, we do have to admit that they were unable to fully stop Pharaoh’s plan. He’s just forced to come out into the open with it. The Hebrew boys are killed, and they are killed a in a particular way. Pharaoh orders that they be thrown into the Nile.
This is a horrific incident. The girls can live, because the Egyptians will happily marry them. But the boys must die. Pharaoh is trying to snuff out the whole nation of Israel. And he’s essentially sacrificing them to one of Egypt’s great gods, the Nile.
Now let me ask you something. What is the first plague that God brings against Egypt? That’s right. He turns the water to blood. And where does He begin doing this? At the Nile! Exodus 7:17 describes it this way, “Thus says the Lord: ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord. Behold, I will strike the waters which are in the river with the rod that is in my hand, and they shall be turned to blood.’” The very same Nile which is shedding Hebrew blood will be turned to blood by the God of the Hebrews.
Let me ask you one more question. We’ve pointed out the first plague. Now, what is the last plague? That’s right. It’s the death of the Egyptian firstborns. God sends an angel of death to kill all of the firstborn boys who do not take refuge under the Passover blood. This was not a randomly cruel judgment. No. This was eye for an eye. God was judging Egypt, and He was judging them with the kinds of judgments they had carried out against Israel. Pharaoh had tried to kill Israel by attacking its boys and using the Nile. Yahweh, then, destroyed Pharaoh by killing the smiting the Nile and eventually killing the children of Egypt. The trap that evil men set was turned against them.
Perhaps something similar is happening with the midwives. Pharaoh, having broken trust with Israel, is now being tricked himself. Or we could zoom out and look at the big picture of the biblical imagery. The women, having been deceived by the Serpent in the garden, is not fighting back against the forces of the serpent by deceiving him and leading him to his doom. God’s providence is still at work, and His is making use of even dark times to bring about His purpose and His plan.
More Reversals in Christ
This tragic incident in Israel’s history showed up again in the gospel, only in a new way. Matthew 2 tells us of a new evil king, a new Pharaoh who wants to kill the all of the Israelite boys, the evil king Herod. What else happened in that story of Herod and the young Jesus? Well, there were the Magi. They were given a command that would have led to murder, and they disobeyed that command. Sound familiar? But there’s one more thing, and it makes all of this really fascinating. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the young Christ child and His mother Mary to Egypt. “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word… that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I have called My Son’” (Matt. 2:13, 15).
Why is that so incredible? It is because the reversals have continued and gotten even greater. In an important way Israel has become Egypt, and Israel’s ruler has become Pharaoh. God will actually redeem Israel from itself, and He starts doing this by sending His own son to Egypt! Jesus first goes to literal Egypt, which serves as a sort of haven for Him, and then He goes to spiritual Egypt, the covenant-people of Israel who have fallen into sin and apostasy.
Looking at this larger context ought to humble us. It ought to show us a little about how God works, and it ought to drive us to wonder at His power and His wisdom. God knows that great evil must be met with great cunning and great power, and we must confess that we do not understand any of it, nor can we. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:11:33).
God allowed Pharaoh to store up evil for the Egyptians, and then He later turned those tools against Pharaoh in order to provide deliverance for His people. In Christ, God also shows us that His own people can become Egyptians due to sin. They can choose their own Pharaohs who, in turn, try to thwart God’s providence. God defeats this too, turning their own weapons and plans against them, reversing the players and turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh in order to enjoy the fruit of His salvation. Even these dark scenes set us up for a salvation that is all of grace.
What should we make of all of this? It’s truly heavy stuff.
First, this should cause us to remember the reality and gravity of sin. These evil men are being driven by their sin to commit terrible actions, and we have that same potential within us. If you don’t think you could act like Pharaoh or Herod, it might be because you’ve never had the power or the opportunity. But be honest with yourself. How do you react when you are threatened, when you are cornered? When you get desperate, do you act in ways that contradict what you normally think about yourself? Sin can surprise you. It can make you behave in strange and foolish ways. It can take control. This should cause us to fear and to repent.
Second, this also shows us the terrible curse of sin at large. You see, Pharaoh is a picture of Satan and his terrible reign. He is the serpent king trying to destroy the seed of the Woman, and this is the holy war that has been raging since the Fall. What makes it worse, Satan has this power because Adam and Eve gave in to his temptations. And so this evil is our collective fault as descendents of Adam. It should drive us to remorse and to cry out for deliverance.
After we have understood this, then we can see God’s hand at work in this dark providence. It is not His “fault” that it is happening, and yet, at the same time, He is not taken by surprise or forced to react to it. He knows how to use it and redirect it towards His good purpose. He allows the evil man to set the trap which into which he will later fall.
God turns the tools of the serpent against Him. He lures Satan into the trap of death itself, and He condemns the condemner, all while remaining just. God causes the one who laid a trap to fall into it, or in the classic words of Shakespeare, He has him hoisted on his own petard. God defeats death by death, and He does this ultimately by allowing His Son to die so that we might live. Let us fall on our faces before this majesty.
And we do also see a picture of human faithfulness. Whatever you answer about the specifics of the midwives’ conduct, they do fear God and they do refuse to comply to Pharaoh’s evil command. They are right to disobey. We must likewise refuse to comply with sinful orders, even if they come from people who have true authority over us. And we must never compromise our faith, no matter what earthly power should threaten us.
How can we do this? How can we take this risk? Only by trusting in God. If we do right, we can be assured that He will come to our aid. And should He will to allow us to be tempted unto death, we know that He will deliver us through the jaws death. He will not leave us in the dust. No, He will bless our sacrifice and raise us up again to eternal glory.
Let us trust our God and resolve to only do what is righteous. Let us hold fast to the gospel of Christ and rely on it to deliver us from all evil powers. And let us take comfort in knowing that our God sends His people into the darkness in order to destroy the darkness with their light.
Let us pray.