#83. Does Egypt’s king command the Hebrew midwives to kill all male infants OR does Pharaoh command his people to drown them?
#84. Are all the male infants spared OR is only Moses? (Ex 1:15-21 vs Ex 1:22-2:10)


Exodus 1:15–2:10, the story of Pharaoh’s decree to put to death all male-born Hebrews, presents itself in its current form as: first, a failed attempt by Egypt’s king since the Hebrew midwives refuse to comply to the king’s demand, and thus all the newborn babes are spared (1:18); and second, a supposed reissue of the ordinance by Pharaoh to his people, this time specifying to drown the male infants, wherein we learn of the legendary tale relating Moses’ birth and deliverance (1:22-2:10).

Although as the text now sits these two stories can be read as a sequel, in actuality this narrative is a composite of two once independent versions of the story, the Yahwist and the Elohist, each one narrated in slightly different terms.

Noticeable differences are E’s use of the expression “Egypt’s king” (1:15), while J prefers “Pharaoh” (1:22); and while E recounts that the decree was given to two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, which are literary not historical characters,1 J conversely narrates that it is given to Pharaoh’s people, and specifically for the drowning of all male infants.

Furthermore, the first account (E) relates how it was on account of the midwives’ “fear of the god” (1:17) that they refused to obey the king’s decree and were thereby blessed by God—which as we have already seen is a recurring theme in E. Thus in E’s account no male infants die; they are seemingly all spared!

In J’s account, however, this theological emphasis on God’s presence and protective care are completely absent—which is also a feature of J as we have seen elsewhere. And although there is no explicit mention of infants dying in J, the story of Moses’ unique and heroic birth is recounted—namely how, on account of Pharaoh’s decree, he was abandoned (rather than killed) by his mother, let adrift in a basket upon the Nile, and drawn out by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter (2:3-5). Given what is portrayed as a miraculous birth, we must assume that for this narrator other male infants did indeed drown! Yet surprising, as will be revealed later in the narrative (chap 4), Aaron, Moses’ Levite brother, must have also been miraculously saved from Pharaoh’s decree.

The influence of a larger Near Eastern literary culture is detectable in J’s rendition of the Mosaic birth story. Commentators have long noted the similarities between Moses’ birth as recorded in J and the birth of Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2300 BC). Both recount how the births of their political heroes, Moses and Sargon, were forbidden births, and births with religious significance: Moses is descended from a Levite mother—who is named in the later P source (6:20), but curiously never in J—and Sargon from a priestess who is prohibited to bear children. Each child is placed in a basket and put in the river, and each is found, drawn out of the water, and reared by a midwife. Moreover, each story enumerates an etymological pun on being drawn from the water: Moshe means ‘to draw out.’

Clearly we are in the realm of folklore, not historical chronicle2. It is a tale explaining the extraordinary circumstances of an extraordinary founding-figure, created for the purpose of displaying Moses as a political leader and foreshadowing his role as legislator to a later generation of readers. The same literary technique will be adopted by the gospel writers in their presentation of Jesus’ birth. Readers unfamiliar with ancient literature regularly miss this fact.


  1. The names of the midwives are literary in character rather than real. Respectively they translate to ‘Beauty’ and ‘Splendor.’ The names are not attested by any other Israelite women. Cf. Ichabod in 1 Samuel 4:21.
  2. See also Herodotus on Cyrus’s birth (Histories, 1.108-13).

4 thoughts on “#83. Does Egypt’s king command the Hebrew midwives to kill all male infants OR does Pharaoh command his people to drown them?
#84. Are all the male infants spared OR is only Moses? (Ex 1:15-21 vs Ex 1:22-2:10)

  1. Sir, please refrain from using extrabiblical resources as a meausring stick for the bible. If you are questioning the bible, you the bible.

    Having said that,consider what the bible tells as about both Aaron and Moses.The below is very clear, am not sure why you fail to see or understand. Nonetheless, I take it upon myself not to defend the bible, but to present the plain truths in it that you aptly choose not to see.

    Exodus 2:1-2. Notice of Moses’ birth is commented on briefly. Obviously Pharaoh’s decree (Exodus1:16 & 22) jeopardized Moses’ life. The names of Moses’ parents are not given here but in Exodus 6:20 it is learned that his father was Amram and his mother Jochebed (Amram married his aunty from his father’s side) and she bore for him 2 sons Aaron and Moses and 1 daughter Miriam. We are first introduced to Miriam in Exodus 2:4 but are later told of her name in Exodus15:20.

    Aaron was three years older than Moses (Exodus 7:7 says “Now Moses was 80years old and Aaron was 83years old”). Aaron was older than Moses and was not threatened by the decree of Pharaoh which took place at a later date but certainly before the birth of Moses. It only concerned those being born after the decree.

    Miriam was obviously older from the account in Exodus 2:4 &7 ; she watched over the basket containing Moses and was the one to suggest if a nurse be found for the child.

    Feel free to reread the bible, and discover this truth…though God is justified in his judgement,He doesn’t take pleasure in the death of a sinner but desires that he repent and believe.. Dr DiMattei, I pray that the Lord is pleased to save you because you need Him.

  2. Here is an archived copy of John Dominic Crossan’s article about the parallels between Jesus’ birth narrative and Moses’ as the latter’s was told in extrabiblical accounts:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20071203062533/http://members.bib-arch.org/nph-proxy.pl/000000A/http/www.basarchive.org/bswbSearch.asp=3fPubID=3dBSBR&Volume=3d2&Issue=3d2&ArticleID=3d4&UserID=3d0& Here is an excerpt:

    True, if one makes a simple comparison between the infancy narratives in Matthew 1–2 and the infancy narrative in Exodus 1–2, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Both have, to be sure, a massacre of male children (Exodus 1:16, 22 and Matthew 2:16). But in the Exodus account the purpose of the massacre is to kill the Israelites; Moses just happens to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Matthew’s infancy narrative, the massacre is decreed precisely to kill Jesus. The similarity between the gospel account and the biblical story in Exodus is only at the level of narrative element and not at the level of narrative function or narrative structure. The similarity could easily be dismissed as mere narrative coincidence. But the situation is quite different when we look at the developments in the story of Moses’ infancy that had occurred by the time Matthew wrote.

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