Exodus in Greek literally means “the road out,” and the title in Japanese, Shutsu Ejiputo-Ki, means “an account of leaving Egypt.” That’s not a bad description of the first part of the book, and this is the last one I got to on my first attempt (age 8) to just read the Bible start to finish. That’s because the later part of the book shifts into law portions, which I found boring back then, so I skipped ahead to Samuel.
I originally had a post written for this that centered around the idea of taking out crimes on the descendents of those who committed them. After all, that’s what’s happening here, as the descendents of the person responsible for enslaving Egyptians (Joseph) are themselves in turn enslaved.
But this morning at church we found out that one of the pastor’s daughters had died yesterday, and I felt like I had to look at this passage from a different perspective.
This is the first place, but certainly not the last, where the Bible deals with infants dying. It’s always a uncomfortable or even horrifying experience for modern people to read these passages, because for us the death of children is inherently tragic and unanticipated. We have children by choice, we have fewer of them, and we’re used to children surviving to adulthood. The much repeated truism that “no parent should outlive their child” reflects accurately the emotional impact it has on us.
What should be even worse to us moderns, though, is that this isn’t necessarily how people have looked at infant death in the past. That idea that infant death is unexpected and thus unfair is the product of our changing views of children, reliable family planning, and above all modern medicine. If you were living at a time when a woman would have more than 10 pregnancies in her lifetime (assuming she didn’t die during an early one, a common occurrence), that several of those pregnancies would be miscarriages or stillbirths, and that most of the children who were born would die before the age of ten… these stories are different.
Don’t get me wrong – I think all parents at all times have felt a sadness when children they wanted die. But it was a sadness that people expected, a part of life. That’s what makes these passages even more inconceivably awful to consider: that there was a time when they wouldn’t have felt so inconceivably awful.
And then there’s the issue of children as wanted, and as someone living in Japan I can’t help but consider the role of the midwives in this story. First of all, just two of them? For a great and numerous people? Methinks the latter is an exaggeration. But getting past the math, they’re ordered by the new pharaoh (presumably from a new dynasty) to kill all male children who are born as a way of reducing the male population of Israelites (in a culture with polygyny it wouldn’t have done much to reduce the overall population, but their chief worry was that the Israelites could provide support for invading armies). They refuse because they fear the LORD and come up with a decent lie to avoid punishment. The pharaoh then ominously decides to take matters into his own hands at the end of this chapter.
But why go to the midwives first? My guess is that midwives then may have had the same role they played in pre-modern Japan. They weren’t just around to help you deliver the children you wanted, they were also there to get rid of the children you didn’t. Sometimes that meant very risky abortions, but frequently it meant infanticide. In fact, abortion rights were expanded in Japan precisely for this reason. Their worst “serial killer” of all time was a midwife who eventually decided that she knew better than the women she helped whether they could afford to have children, which was the only reason she was caught. Infanticide virtually disappeared once safe abortion was made available, and as contraception has gradually (at a much slower pace than in the US) become more available, abortion rates are falling as well.
And that last bit points to how, even though there was a time that infant death was expected or even considered an acceptable form of “birth control,” it was still not what families really wanted. Families wanted to have a certain number of children who would grow up healthy and continue on their family lines. It’s just that back in the day having a ton of kids and hoping enough survived was your only way of assuring it.
It’s no consolation to a grieving parent to say that their anguish is a sign that we live in a better time now, and yet that’s true. People often focus on how awful it was to be a woman in the Bible, or a slave, but it was probably worse than anything to be a child. And unfortunately Exodus is one of the worst books for repeatedly pointing this out.
That’s the best that I can do to rationally reflect on this chapter. Let’s just say it hurt to read it today.
The Japanese: sedai “generation” (v 6), obitadashii “large, innumerable” (v 7), keikoku suru “to warn” (v 9), nukarinaku “without mistakes,” toriatsukai “treatment,” zouka “increase,” kuitomeru “to check, to prevent, to hold back” (v 10), kyouseiroudou “forced labor,” juuroudou “heavy labor,” kasuru “to impose,” gyakutai suru “to oppress, to abuse,” busshi chozou “supply storage” (v 11), ken’aku “dangerous, threatening” (v 12), kokushi suru “to mistreat, to overwork” (v 13), nendokone “clay dough, i.e. mortar,” renga “brick,” obiyakasu “to threaten, to coerce, juuji suru “to engage in,” kakoku “stern, harsh” (v 14), hanahada “very” (v 20), kodakara “the blessing of children” (v 21), hourikomu “to throw, to fling” (v 22).
A lot of new words here, and they all set the mood for Exodus, with its themes of slavery and oppression.