The entire episode of the midwives [Exodus/Shemot 1:15-21] is likewise presented poetically, in a manner beloved of ordinary folk. Conversations of this nature between the great king, who was revered by the Egyptians as a deity, and the Hebrew midwives (Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, etc.) would not be conducted literally in the form described. Yet it is precisely to its poetic character and the simplicity of its presentation that the narrative owes the impression it leaves on the mind of the reader or listener.
The attributive Hebrew applied here to the midwives represents the first use in Exodus of this term, which is due to recur a number of times in the continuation of the Book….
In Egyptian texts, the aforementioned Egyptian term refers to enslaved people, who were compelled to do forced labour in the service of Pharoah. In the Bible the children of Israel, or their ancestors, are called Hebrews particularly when the writer has in mind their relationship to the foreign environment in which they find themselves (for example, Gen. xiv 13: Abram the Hebrew; Jonah i 9: I am a Hebrew, etc.), and more especially when they are in the position of slaves (for instance, in Gen. xxxix 14, 17, Joseph, when in Potiphar’s house, is described as a Hebrew man or Hebrew servant (slave); so, too, ibid. xli 12: A young Hebrew, a servant of the captain of the guard). Here is Exodus, whilst the children of Israel are still free men, they are called by their honoured designation, children of Israel, even when Pharoah speaks of them (v.9). But after the commencement of their servitude, they are usually referred to as Hebrews….
— from Umberto Cassutto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus***
Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) produced commentaries** on Exodus and parts of Genesis which I thoroughly recommend. His insights into the language and history of the text contribute enormously to the reading. He is often cited by Nechama Leibowitz, a great source in her own right.
Cassuto disagreed with the “Documentary Hypothesis,” instead proposing — based, in part, on extensive studies of other near eastern literatures — that an oral tradition, including a number of ancient epics, became part the Torah text.
His historical/literary method distances him from some Orthodox scholars. Jonathan Safren, editor of Moed — Annual for Jewish Studies, has the following to say in a 2004 on-line note, however:
Cassuto’s commentary is still useful, though biblical scholarship and
Semitic philology have moved on since his days…. His approach towards
the ways the laws are arranged – often by association – is an original
Fusty? Maybe. Valuable? Definitely
Cassuto’s volumes may look intimidating and/or dated at first, but don’t be daunted! His style is academic, and the mode of transliteration is outdated. In addition, translator Israel Abrahams frequently uses words that send me scurrying to my dictionary.
For example, “exordium”* appears in the first commentary sentence of A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Some of these words turn out, in my opinion, to be succinct and useful literary expressions; many simply make me grateful that the SAT is long behind me.
Once you give Cassuto and his translator a chance, though, you’ll find him a great companion in reading Exodus.
* I’ll save you the trip: “The beginning of anything, esp. a discourse, treatise, etc.,” according to my OED.
** The commentary on Exodus appears, sadly, to be out of print. Many synagogue and JCC libraries have copies, however. There are also used copies available from Abe and e an ebook. (I’ve never used the latter, and love my paper copy, but I imagine that an electronically searchable format could have its uses.)
*** Please see Source Materials for citation and more details.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.