A thorough reading of Exodus makes explicit that Israel does indeed view itself as a distinct, ethnic group. The textual evidence can be summarized with three points. First, Israel’s unique physical and sociological characteristics are attributed to in a number of passages. Secondly, there is a repeated emphasis on familial ties to the patriarchs. Finally, God himself repeatedly affirms his undying faithfulness to the patriarchs and their posterity as motivation for many of his actions.
Israel’s unique ethnic characteristics are on full display in at least five different passages in Exodus. The first, Exodus 1:15-22, contains two firm indications of Israelite uniqueness from the episode of the Hebrew midwives’ courageous attempt to shield Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s wrath. In Exodus 1:19, the midwives are called before pharaoh after refusing the king’s order to kill Hebrew baby boys. When asked by the ostentatious king why the midwives could commit such treachery, they deliver the excuse, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.21
. The cultural implications here lies in the meaning of the hapax legomena translated “vigorous” by the ESV. There is some debate about whether this attribute is physiological as it appears at first glance or sociological. If the latter is true, a better translation is “more involved,” meaning the Hebrew women are more active in their cultural process of delivering their babies while Egyptian women sit back and allow midwives more freedom.22
. This interpretation is possible since the word in its nominal form refers to wild and unclean animals, but ultimately irrelevant.23
. Whether the differences between the women are physiological or cultural, they remain stark and easily identifiable differences nonetheless. If Hebrew here refers to all slave women in Egypt, is the reader then to assume all over cultures give birth in this same lively manner? Thus here in the first chapter of Exodus the reader is confronted with two distinct people groups.
Secondly, the new pharaoh who does not “know Joseph,” clearly takes the Hebrews as a foreign enemy living in the midst of the Egyptian people. This is clear with the martial terms pharaoh uses in Exodus 1:10-12 such as “deal shrewdly,” “war,” “they shall join our enemies,” and finally “they felt sickening dread,” which can also be defined as abhorrence or disgust.24
. These are without question terms designed to stoke ethnic suspicion for cynical political gains, a topic this paper shall return to shortly.25
Suffice it for now to say that for pharaoh’s people, understanding and living out these emotions predicated viewing the Hebrews as a foreign ethnic group. If the issue is at all still in doubt, pharaoh’s command at the end of the pericope seals any such confusion. In Exodus 1:22, he orders his subjects to destroy Hebrew boys by drowning them in the Nile River. Obeying to such a command as noted above predicates distinguishing between Hebrew and Egyptian children. The book’s opening sequence therefore sets the stage for the vicious culture war to come.
The second passage demonstrating the definite ethnic distinctiveness of the Hebrews is the response of pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2:6. The Egyptian princess, upon going down to the Nile’s banks, sees the basket containing the infant Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter immediately attributes the baby as Hebrew. While it is possible, she was able to deduce the boy’s origin based on the circumstance of his finding, it is highly likely this passage indicts a physical difference between Hebrews and Egyptians as well as a sociological one based on the baby’s garments.26
The third text, Exodus 2:11 displays a similar characterization and allows for a similar deduction on the part of the reader as Exodus 2:6 above. Moses, now an adult raised as Egyptian royalty, goes out and witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. The text reads literally, “a Hebrew man from his brothers.” Would Moses feel such an affinity with all slave groups and wanderers in Egypt? Was he so overcome with class-driven rage as to murder the moneyed oppressor? Given the covenantal context of the Pentateuch and the repeated emphasis on familial ties to the patriarchs as demonstrated below, the answer must surely be no. The only tenable conclusion is Moses identified himself as an ethnic Hebrew. How was this possible except for physical and cultural affinity?
The fourth and fifth pieces of evidence are two passages where the narrator identifies foreigners within the ranks of Israel, a designation unnecessary if all of Israel was a racial melting pot. The first occurrence is Exodus 12:38. The verse records a “mixed multitude” leaving Egypt with Israel during the exodus event. Whether these people were slaves of other nationalities, Egyptians, or armed mercenaries matters little.27
. The reality is because others are mentioned at all means Israel must be a distinctive ethnic group at this point. Similarly, Exodus 21:2 in the laws of the Book of the Covenant makes special provision for “Hebrew slaves.” This is not to say the Israelites were not concerned with foreign slaves. On the contrary, their rights are listed just below in Exodus 21:20, 26. The Hebrew slaves rather are specially mentioned because their fate is intertwined with that of the covenant land as further described by the use of Exodus 21:2 in Jeremiah 34:14.28 Once again the reader is left with Israelites making distinctions based upon physical characteristics specific to the family of Abraham.
In addition to physical characteristics distinguishing Israel from its neighbors in the text of Exodus, there is also a repeated emphasis on literal, genetic descent from one man, Abraham and his line through Jacob. This truth manifests itself through genealogies and the repeated used of relational terminology in describing Israel. In Exodus 1:1-6, though not strictly a genealogy, the reader learns the specific identity of Israel, namely those descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. “children of Israel” is used in 1:1 discussing the literal sons and in 1:7 discussing the whole nation years later in Egypt. The latter is translated by many popular versions today as “people of Israel,” “nation of Israel,” or just “Israelites.”29
. While perhaps technically acceptable, this change deemphasizes the organic connection between the man, his family, and the entire nation. Exodus 13:18-19 crystallizes the point. Here the “children of Israel” left Egypt with a fully equipped army, a reason to be a nation-state if there ever was one. It is here at this juncture however, when the reader is tempted to forget the nature of Israel, that the bones of Joseph are mentioned. The bones serve to remind the reader that Joseph himself told the very same “children of Israel” to carry away his bones with them when God revealed his deliverance. Here again most English translations distort the organic connection between the large, powerful nation and the tiny band of refugees with the same change in terminology above.
Likewise, the book’s second genealogy in Exodus 6:14-25 connects Moses, Aaron, and Phinehas directly to their forebears Levi, and ultimately Jacob. It is also likely Canaanite women are included in Simeon’s family, in order to show that Moses and Aaron come from the most Hebrew of the Hebrew lines.30
. Such a claim is unnecessary if ethnicity is of no concern. Thus as this paper seeks to demonstrate, it is theologically crucial the later nation be made up mostly of the blood descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The last plank in the argument that Israel is a unique and distinctive ethnic group are God’s personal declarations about his relationship to Israel. Exodus expresses this in four significant ways. First, God’s faithfulness to Abraham is stated explicitly as his reason for favoring the Israelite people over other ethnic groups.31
. Secondly, Moses appeals to God’s covenant with Abraham when God threatens to wipe out the Israelites after the golden calf incident. Moses does not simply beg with emotional pleas, rather he implores God to remember his promise to make the patriarch’s “offspring” incredibly numerous.32
. This is impossible if these offspring are not Abraham’s descendents but only a rabble of multicultural proletariats. Thirdly, Moses utilizes the term “God of the Hebrews” throughout the plague narratives to describe God to the Egyptians. This makes no sense if Hebrew is merely a sociological designation. Again was this a Cushite god? A Libyan god? A Canaanite one? Poor pharaoh would have been utterly confused had that been the case. The text is however unequivocal, as is pharaoh. He knows exactly whom he is dealing with, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who created the heavens, the earth, and eventually he will know the God who created Egypt as well.
Finally, perhaps most moving of all, in beautiful parallel language God declares the children of Israel to be his firstborn son in Exodus 4:22.33
. This imagery is especially powerful given the place of the firstborn in later laws such as Deut. 21:17.34
. God is demanding of pharaoh the rights of a father and pharaoh will pay dearly for his neglect. Therefore, God’s firm and undying loyalty to this family of people called Israel, a family directly resultant of the covenant to Abraham, is yet another reason why the Hebrews must have been largely an ethnic unity.
So we’ve defined Israel. Are there other group defined in the text? Next time we’ll take a look.
21) Exodus 1:19 ESV
22) D. K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary, vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman,2007), 80. Lexicon, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), 312.
23) F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs. Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English
24) Ibid, 880-81.
25) Laurel A. Dykstra, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002),
26) Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, 91.
27) Shaul Bar. “Who Were the Mixed Multitude?” Hebrew Studies 49 (2008): 39.
28) J. I. Durham, Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 320.
29) See the ESV, NASB, HCSB, and NIV; exceptions to this include the KJV, RSV, NLT, and ASV
30) Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, 177.
31) Exodus 6:1-5
32) Exodus 32:13
33) Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, 56.
34) Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, 146.