Persecution and Promise
Do know of a person who comes in halfway through a movie to a TV show and then starts to ask questions about the story, the plot, or the characters? Why did that character do that? Now, if you don’t know a person who does this, then maybe you are this person. Now if you begin reading the story of Exodus you will be able to piece together some of the story. However, you will find out very quickly (actually in the first verses) that you are missing the beginning of the Story. In Hebrew, the book of Exodus begins with a conjunction, and. Right at the very beginning, you notice that you are not starting a new book but a new chapter of a book or the second book in a series of books. So what can we learn from these opening verses that help us understand the first portions of this story of Exodus?
Promise to Jacob
One of the first aspects where you can see that you have missed a part of the story is that the first verse speaks of the sons of Israel who came with Jacob. If you didn’t know the story that preceded this verse, you would think the sons of Israel and Jacob were two different people. However, we know that Israel is Jacob and Jacob is Israel. But we need to turn back to Genesis chapter 46 to help us understand this journey. “And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:2–4). You notice here that Jacob is referred to as Israel and Jacob as well. The Lord who had made a covenant with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac promised three things to Jacob; that he would make him into a great nation in Egypt, he would be with him in Egypt, and he would bring him out of Egypt. Now we do not have time to be able to unpack all of these promises here, but we notice something strange in this promise, God would bring him out of Egypt but Joseph (who we will get to) will close his eyes. Here this promise is made to Jacob and also his sons as the great nation that he speaks about. So when the author of Exodus, Moses, writes the sons of Israel he speaks of the sons of Jacob meaning all the branches and twigs from that family tree. God had made a promise that he would bring them out (which is what Exodus means). However, the book of Exodus starts that they are still in Egypt.
Promise of Joseph
The second aspect that we need to notice is that only pages before Joseph, whom we find out was already in Egypt died. Now, Joseph died at the end of Genesis, but before he died, he made the sons of Israel promise him something, “And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from her.” (Gen 50:24–25). Again, we see the connection between Joseph to the promises of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Something we will see continues in the story of Exodus. But Joseph has died, but his bones are still in Egypt. And more importantly, Joseph told his brothers, the sons of Israel that God would visit them and bring them up out of the land. However, in the opening verses, we find out that the Sons of Israel still live in this land. The author of Hebrews explains that Joseph was speaking about the Exodus by faith, “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the Exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Heb 11:22).
Promise to Abraham
God had promised Jacob that he would make him into a great nation down in Egypt, and this is what happened. The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong (vs 7). But this promise was not a new promise that was made to Jacob it was a promise made to Abraham when God appeared to him and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). This promise was received by Abraham by faith (Gen 15:6). We see this promise given to Abraham is now fulfilled, they are no longer a small family or a small community they are a nation. But moments later God makes another promise to Abraham when he says, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Gen 15:13–14). We see more promises here in this passage, 1) they will be sojourners; 2) servants; and 3) afflicted. We know that before the people of Israel are brought out of this land things are going to get a lot worse before they get a lot better. However, we also notice something more, that God will bring judgment upon this nation that afflicts them. That they will come out with great possessions.
But we notice that in all of this, something changes out of the sons of Israel’s control but not out of God’s control. That the blessing of being fruitful and multiplying is seen to be a great threat to the new king of Egypt. We discussed this briefly last week when we looked at the dating of Exodus. We are not told which new king it is, it would have been a lot easier if Moses had written the name of the Pharaoh, but we do not know. The focus is that he did not know Joseph, Joseph who had saved Egypt was forgotten and now he sees the sons of Israel as a threat. Joseph was there years before because of his brothers’ sin and jealousy. All in God’s providence as Joseph said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). We will see this in the story of Exodus, horrific and horrible things will happen to the people of God and yet God’s providence and sovereignty shine forth, all for his glory.
The many layers here are quite mind-boggling to consider. Mainly, God had promised that the sons of Israel would grow into a great nation, God had promised, through Joseph that he would visit his people, and God had promised to Abraham that his people would be afflicted for four hundred years. He also promised that he would bring them out of this land. What we see here is Pharaoh speaks exactly of these promises. He sees them increase, he begins to afflict them, and he is worried that they would escape from the land. God’s promises are found in the words that come from Pharaoh’s mouth. Moses continues to explain, “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.” (Exodus 1:11). We will see this clearly as we go through this story, but notice here how Pharaoh has them building for him, and some have even suggested places of worship. Pharaoh means “great house” and yet God is the one with the humble house filled with his glory at the end of the book. But we will see that the People of Israel will be builders and servants to the one true living God who does not place a heavy burden upon their backs.
However, in all of this, there is one thing that Pharaoh did not consider, and that is the God of the sons of Israel. He did not know who their God was. He was worried about the people of God, but not the God of his People. By the end of the Story Pharaoh will know all about the God of the Bible, the maker of heaven and earth. That all power is in his hands, and that even includes the pharaoh’s heart.
Purpose amid threat
However, in all of this opposition and oppression notice how God’s promise is continued to be fulfilled to those who went before. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” (Ex 1:12). In the face of adversity, the people of God continued to grow and flourish. That the things you would assume work against each other are only tools that God used to be able to grow his people. God’s ways are not our ways. It would be like a gardener spraying everything with some poison and the plants continued to grow rather than wither, they flourished and grew better than before. Glorious comfort can be found in this one verse. The enemy is attacking the people of God and it seems like they will find their victory, but instead, it only makes God’s people stronger.
We see this clearly in the words of Jesus when he says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18). If we were to reword this promise Jesus gives to Peter to the time of Exodus, it would be something. I will save my people and the plans of Pharaoh will not prevail against my plans. God uses the threat to fulfill his promise. It is only when the heavy burden and affliction are placed upon the backs of the people of God that they finally cry out to be delivered from this slavery and seek to find a new land.
Now we know, even if we have never read the book of Exodus and only the Book of Genesis, we know what the outcome will be because God the one who had made the heavens and the earth had made a promise to Jacob, Joseph, and Abraham, that he would bring his people out of this bondage and slavery. He would make them grow into a great and mighty nation. He would give them the land which he had shown Abraham. God has been faithful to fulfill all of his promises to date and we know he will fulfill his promises because he is faithful and true and he cannot deny himself. However, we do not know at this point how he will fulfill his promises.