“Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation eventually died. But the Israelites were fruitful, increased rapidly, multiplied, and became extremely numerous so that the land was filled with them. A new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we are. Come, let’s deal shrewdly with them; otherwise they will multiply further, and when war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Today will be the first step in a new journey I have been looking forward to starting for quite some time now. For the next few months, we are going to be working through the narrative of Exodus. Exodus plays a powerful role in terms of creating a context in which Jesus eventually makes sense. It is a reminder that although history doesn’t repeat itself, as God writes His great symphony across the ages, He does sometimes develop in more detail themes He first introduced earlier on in His masterwork. Through the Exodus, God took the next major step forward in terms of revealing Himself to us so that we could be in a relationship with Him. As we journey through this together, we may not cover every single detail, but we are going to be as thorough as we can. Let’s start here near the beginning as Israel finds itself becoming an actual nation (thus fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham) through a process of suffering.
When the family of Israel (formerly Jacob) arrived in Egypt at the Pharaoh’s invitation because of the position and power of he had granted to Joseph, the total size of the group was 70. Well, there’s some debate about that. When you look through the genealogical list in Genesis 46 as well as two different Greek versions of this text, the number is pegged at 75. The numerical disparity is likely simply the result of different approaches to counting heads, and shouldn’t be pressed very hard. One count included Joseph and his wife who were already there as well as some children who were born after the family arrived, while the other simply counted the party that actually arrived. Either way, let’s rephrase that opening just a bit: The group’s size was somewhere in the neighborhood of 70.
That’s a pretty impressive total for just three generations. At least, it is nowadays when we tend to have many fewer children than they did then. The group didn’t stay that size for long, though. As Moses tells us here, they were faithful to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and soon there were a lot more of them. A whole lot more. They quickly numbered into the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands, and finally into the hundreds of thousands. They were a nation…living inside another nation. And the thing was, their host nation wasn’t all that much a fan of just how large and powerful a people they were becoming.
The timeline of Exodus relative to the narrative of Genesis has always been a bit of an interesting one to me. It just seems like Joseph would have loomed so large over Egypt’s history, that forgetting all about someone of his stature and cultural impact would be nearly impossible. How is it that a king could arise who didn’t know anything about him, and who subsequently moved to enslave his entire people?
There are a couple of things to keep in mind here that help us make a little more sense out of the start of this grand story. First, there is a pretty healthy debate about exactly when this whole story unfolded in the broader scope of world history. It is commonly believed that Moses faced off against the famous Pharaoh, Ramses II. The trouble is, the timeline of historical events going on in Egypt and what we see of the story of the Exodus in the text here just don’t line up very well. It is more likely that the storage city identified as Ramses a little bit later in the text was simply renamed by him later, and by the time Moses was writing or a later editor, he simply used the contemporary name of the city instead of whatever it was called during its actual construction.
It is likely that Joseph had his time in the spotlight in the waning days of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt which ended in the 1780s B.C. After this, Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos people who were Semitic like the Israelites. They would have likely been favorable to their genealogical cousins. It was during this dynasty that the people flourished and became so numerous. After the Hyksos Dynasty, though, there indeed came a new dynasty that was truly Egyptian and sought to wipe out the impact and influence of the foreign usurpers who had held sway for too long. As much as they sought to reassert themselves, though, they always held a lingering fear that the Hyksos could return and threaten their power once again. Given that the Israelites shared a common heritage with them, this could be the enemy they feared Israel would support over them.
A much more significant question as we are introduced to this new narrative journey than the date of the various events (although the question of dating is not an insignificant one, and there are many scholars who rightly give it a great deal of attention; my concern here, though, is more for application than apologetic questions of historicity), is why God allowed the people – His people – to be put in this position in the first place? Exodus is a terrific tale of His coming to their rescue when they were horribly oppressed, and establishing them as a people, but why not skip over the oppression? His intervention in history is what led to their being in Egypt in the first place. They went with His blessing. How could He have allowed them to be enslaved and abused for so long before acting on their behalf?
We have to be careful in our answer here lest God come off seeming like He’s either incompetent or else evil. He is neither of those things. The truth that is hard for us to accept sometimes (like, for instance, when it plays out to our short-term disadvantage), is that God allows human history to unfold fairly naturally. He allows us to make decisions and for the consequences of those decisions to play themselves out without generally tinkering too much in our affairs. This is not to say the deists have any kind of a leg to stand on in describing His overall nature. Rather, it is to say that God honors the ability He has given us to make meaningful and consequential choices. He is powerful and wise enough to direct things in the way He wants them to go in spite of the choices we make which seem like they should subvert His desires. He wants for people to be able to freely enter into a relationship with Him and that means not controlling us like robots.
The challenge here is that sometimes, often even, those choices have negative consequences for us or for the people around us. In this case, the choices of the Egyptian people and the way their national leadership changed hands and developed had the consequence of public opinion turning against the people of Israel. They may have been living in their own region of the country, minding their own business, and leaving the rest of the people of Egypt mostly alone, but the potential for their deciding as a group to act in a way that was not in the perceived best interests of the “real” Egyptians made the natives nervous. So, their leadership decided to act in a way that would guard their interests at the expense of the Israelites.
None of this, though, means that God had simply ceded control over to the Egyptians and forgot about His people. He was waiting for the right time. That sounds good from our standpoint looking back on this story, but rest assured, it felt terrible in the moment. The result in this case was that the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians. They were made to do backbreaking labor. And, when this harsh treatment seemed to make them multiply even faster as a people, the Pharaoh focused his efforts on some population control mechanisms that were truly horrible to imagine. We’ll talk about those in the next couple of days, Lord willing.
I suspect you have had to endure a season of waiting like this in your own life. You were waiting for God to do something to make your circumstances better than they were in the moment. You were waiting for Him to bring justice to the injustice you were facing. You were waiting for His healing or His comfort or His action to right some wrong. In the interim, you sought to be faithful. You prayed. You cried out to Him with all your effort and energy. You did everything right as far as you could tell. And yet still you waited. You started to feel like God had forgotten you.
One of the things the Exodus narrative reveals to us is that God has not forgotten us. He has not forgotten you. When the time is right, He will act to right the wrongs you have endured. He will bring justice. He will rescue you. He has indeed already rescued you in Christ. That’s something we dare not forget as we move forward in this journey. The Exodus story is not our story. Our rescue has already come in Christ. What we are waiting for now is not rescue, but for Him to come and finally destroy sin and all its effects. We wait for this not with despair or bitterness or anger, but with hope because God has established Himself in Jesus and in the story of Exodus as one we can trust to not forget us, and to make all things right at just the right time. We trust in the character revealed in part here, and continue to pursue the path of Christ knowing that our labors will never be in vain.
As we continue forward in this journey, there will be many topics we will yet cover together. As we go, though, let us never lose sight of the character of the God being revealed to us here. Even though our times of waiting may grow longer than we’d prefer, our God will not ever forget us. Our suffering and hardships won’t last forever. Justice and judgment will come. We can trust in that with absolute confidence. Over the next few months, we will see together how this great story unfolds and reveals much about the God we serve.