Exodus 1:10 | Unselfishly Shrewd

Wisdom is usually thought of as a good thing but wisdom can also be abused. The word I would use to describe wisdom abused is “shrewd”. A shrewd manager for example would be someone that is a smart manager but maybe uses that smartness to an unfair advantage. Shrewd brings with it a hint of the devious. The book definition of shrewdness is good judgement that results in an advantage so my definition is too narrow. Shrewd can be a good advantage as well as a devious advantage. The Egyptian King in Exodus chapter one makes a judgment based in the devious shrewdness.

10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with [the Hebrews] or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” Exodus 1:10 ESV

These people living in Egypt have grown in number and the king has become afraid of what damage they could cause if war broke out. That is a reasonable fear for a king to think about but the second half of his thought betrays his greed to keep the Israelites when he says he does not want them to “leave the country”. Because of this desire to keep them as a benefit to his society the author states that the king wanted to deal shrewdly with them.

The result is that the king came up with a plan of selfish advantage. That plan specifically was to require the midwives to secretly kill any baby boys as they are born. That would be a very shrewd plan indeed. Fortunately, it was not executed very well.

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” 20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. Exodus 1:19-20 ESV

While the king wanted to be shrewd the midwives in response were also shrewd and responded with a lie to cover their own rebellion against his order. The midwives used wise judgment (including lies) toward an advantage. Where the king was acting in selfish advantage the midwives acted in unselfish disadvantage. Their lie could have cost them their jobs or even their lives to do the right moral thing. Because of that unselfish act God blessed the midwives.

While shrewdness seems negative on the face it is not always the case which brings me to a command from Jesus to the disciples that has always been intriguing to me. Jesus commands the disciples to be shrewd but he explains the principle used by the midwives in Exodus.

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. Matthew 10:16-17 ESV

The power structure was out to get Jesus (evidenced by his crucifixion on trumped up charges) and Jesus tells the disciples to be smart in their interactions with kings and rulers. Shrewd as snakes is clearly descriptive of the Egyptian king. If he was afraid of the Israelites rising up but still wanted their service in his land then secretly killing boys would qualify as being shrewd as snakes.

Yet look at the second half what Jesus told the disciples. Jesus asked them to also be as innocent as doves and this idea is perfectly represented by the midwives and their actions to defend against the evil request of the king. They lied to the king in an unselfish disadvantage. They took a risk to be shrewd yet they did it innocently. Christ sends his sheep into the world to share the good news that Jesus will restore for us the relationship with our Creator. The good news is that Jesus saves. It is my charge from Jesus to be shrewd about how I interact with those that are hostile. But the shrewdness Jesus demands must be innocent and unselfish toward all.