“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Exodus 1:8
There are seventeen people named in the first section of the book of Exodus, from which today’s Old Testament lesson is taken. The author of the book, which we will be reading from on Sundays for most of the next three months, does a fine job of setting up his story. He begins with Jacob, the last of the great patriarchs, who resettled his family in Egypt. He gives the names of all twelve of his sons, from whom Israel’s tribes are descended. He recounts the birth of Moses, the eventual hero of the story. His older sister, Miriam is named, and we’re even introduced to Shiprah and Puah, the midwives who delivered him. Seventeen people are named, but the narrator can’t quite recall just who was king in Egypt.
This is certainly intentional, and highly ironical. Because the king of Egypt—probably the Pharaoh Rameses II—was undoubtedly the most important man in the world at the time. He held absolute power in the world’s most aggressive state. He was owner of all property in the world’s wealthiest state. The art and literature of the world’s most advanced culture celebrated his exploits. If he was, in fact, Rameses II, he had a harem so large that he left behind at his death a hundred sons and fifty daughters, whose descendants formed a social class, the Ramesids, that dominated Egyptian society for decades after his death. He was worshipped as a god in life, and a massive monument honored him in death. His was not a name anyone of his time could forget. But to the narrator, he is simply “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Pharaoh is personally unimportant but symbolically essential. He is a central figure in the long story of God’s redemptive work. He is the man of pride, the one who challenges God’s authority and defies His laws. He is the oppressor, the murderer, the coward and the fool. This nameless king, he is the persecuting emperor to the ancient Christian, the cruel plantation overseer to the slave, the Fuhrer to the concentration camp captive, the abusive husband to the battered wife. He may be your boss, your mother-in-law or your elected representative. And probably, sometimes, he’s you.
He is a villain fitting for a drama so grand as the Exodus. The Old Testament, in truth has none greater. What God reveals in Egypt, at the Red Sea, in the wilderness establishes the deepest convictions of Israel’s faith. The pattern set in the Exodus, with Pharaoh’s defeat at its heart, comes to completion when the beloved Son is crucified and risen, conquering sin and death forever. God must have a proper enemy, an epitome of gravest of sins, and in Pharaoh we see a figure cut squarely for the part.
Above all, Pharaoh is a man of pride. He recognizes no limits to his capacities and actions. He must be master, and he will let no rule or sentiment stand in the way of his intentions. He claims God’s absolute rule over all things for himself. The prophet Isaiah sketches for us his inner monologue: “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, I will make myself like the most high.”
We see this in plainly in the series of steps Pharaoh takes to oppress the Israelites. He imposes a series of penalties on them that deprive them of fundamental human rights, basic freedoms granted by God to all people created in His image. Saint Thomas Aquinas famously wrote that there are three primary moral goods known to all people. The first is the right to life itself. The second is the right to live in society with others, particularly for the purpose of having children and caring for them. The third is the right to know the truth and to obey its dictates. No just ruler can deprive people of life, society or truth. Innate human dignity demands that the freedom to seek and secure these goods must be inviolate.
But Pharaoh’s actions deprive the Israelites of all these fundamental human rights. He denies the Israelites’ ability to live freely by forcing their men serve as slaves to build his garrison cities. He tries to destroy their capacity for family life by forcing men and women to live apart.
When this fails, he resorts to ordering midwives to kill the Israelite boys. The command is murderous, and the method he devises is appalling. But by requiring the agents of life to take life away he is also undermining the trust that is necessary to life in an ordered society, especially in moments of peril, like the birth of a child. By killing the male children, he intends to cut off the future of this people, to destroy a generation of leaders and perhaps he also intends to claim the women for his own purposes.
Later parts of the story will reveal Pharaoh to be an enemy of the truth as well. He breaks his promises repeatedly and refuses to allow the Israelites to serve God freely by going to the wilderness to offer sacrifice at His command.
It’s a remarkable agenda he has set for himself, a catalogue of dastardly deeds. And all for the sake of a relatively small group of people, living peaceably among their neighbors. For like so many men of pride, Pharaoh seems to be driven by fear. He must eliminate the Israelites, he tells his council, because if conflict comes, they will side with the enemy. He has no good reason for this assumption. In fact, their ancestor, Joseph, had saved the Egyptian nation in its great hour of peril.
But as they flourish, Pharaoh can’t help but see their success as a threat to His unchallenged mastery, perhaps because unlike his other subjects, they will not worship him as a god. He uses a telling metaphor to describe the population growth of the Israelites. If the enemy comes, he warns his counselors, the Israelites will rise up and inundate the land. To overwhelm, to inundate, to push past the banks. No Egyptian would have missed his point. He was comparing this relatively small group of foreigners to the mighty Nile, the wonder and the constant threat of Egyptians. Pharaoh was revered as a god by his people because they believed he alone could control the Nile’s floods. But here he confesses that he lives in fear of both the river and of the Israelites’ unpredictable surge. It’s a remarkably prescient thing for this king to say, because his own life will end soon enough beneath the surging wave, his chariot wheel stuck in the mud.
Prideful people are always fearful. That’s why they tend to surround themselves with flatterers and fools, people to stroke the ego and to allow themselves to rest secure in their own superiority. It’s also why they always choose the weak and vulnerable to be targets of their aggression. Pride’s foundation is built on lies, and what a man like Pharaoh fears most is the world discovering how impotent he really is.
Pharaoh, of course, fails at every turn. He is reckless, piling horror on horror, perhaps because he has begun to believe his own pretensions of absolute power. As Augustine says in one of his commentaries, when the devil seizes the saddle, “like an ignorant and rash rider, he hurries it over broken ground, drives it into ditches, dashes it over precipices, spurs it into obstinacy or fury.” Pride goeth before a fall, often because it induces such remarkable stupidity.
For all Pharaoh’s stratagems, the Israelites keep on being fruitful and multiplying, just as the Lord had commanded in the beginning. Their common life and their faith remain intact, despite it all. They live with the dignity of the free even when oppressed as slaves. God raises up heroes among them: midwives who refuse to obey an unjust command. An ingenious mother, who makes a safe hiding place for her little boy, a brave little sister who thinks very well on her feet. Pharaoh and everyone around them are shown for fools, scratching their head at the athletic vigor of those Hebrew women.
In a remarkable turn of events, one of Pharaoh’s intended targets will grow up in his own household. His name was Moses, a name given to him by his royal discoverer. In Hebrew that means something like “drawn from the water.” But in Egyptian, it means “son.” Pharaoh’s daughter wanted to be sure that her little discovery had a secure place in the family, that he would be brought up with all the advantages of the royal household. Moses was called son, but he would serve another Father. He would become the savior, the one who spoke for God and declared His unshakeable will. A baby found crying in the reeds, Moses would in time command that same king to let God’s people go. On that day Pharaoh, the one they called the most powerful man in the world, he would have no choice but to obey.
“For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty,” Isaiah would warn another king centuries later, “against all that is lifted up and high, against all the cedars of Lebanon, against all the high mountains.” Or as another brave woman would sing in time, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath lifted up the lowly.” The future belongs to the slaves, for they trust in the Lord. God protects and defends his own, those who are patient and steadfast, those who respect their limits and give praise and honor to Him to whom it is truly due.
The author couldn’t quite remember his name, that king who knew not Joseph. And why not forget him, for all he loved was, in time, taken from him, as is always the case for men like him. He is dead, lost in the sands of time. His only legacy are his many sins, which will cry against him on the day of judgment. But the Savior lives and reigns in glory, in the company of His saints. The humble endure forever.
 Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, 7.
 White, Thomas Joseph, OP. Exodus. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016.
 Isaiah 14:13-14.
 Summa Theologiae II.I.94.2.
 Stuart, 69.
 Stuart, Douglas. Exodus. The New American Commentary, Nashville: B & H, 2006, 65-66.
 qtd. in Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. II.4.1.
 c.f. Stuart, 61.
 Stuart, 93.
 Isaiah 2:12-14.
 Luke 1:52.