Exodus 1

Exodus begins with a reminder of the state at the end of Genesis. Jacob’s entire family had moved to Egypt where Joseph already was. Jacob and Joseph were dead by the time the narrative of Genesis closed, and now we read that Joseph’s entire generation (all of Jacob’s children) died. “But” (however bleak things seem, Exodus will never let us be morose for long) “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly” (v7). There is no explicit reference, but this is another pointer back to Genesis. In Genesis 12:1-3 God promised to make Abram a great nation, a blessing which was then repeated to his son Isaac and his son Jacob, so we would expect Jacob’s family to be growing. What’s more surprising is that God didn’t promise only blessing to the family but also trials. In Genesis 15:13-16 God told Abraham his offspring would be servants in a foreign land and “afflicted for four hundred years”. Surely those Israelites who remembered this word must have been encouraged by the fact that God’s plan wasn’t falling apart but was being worked out even by Pharaoh, and even more so that he had promised it would end. That is some of the history behind Exodus, now for the story.

The new king did not remember that Joseph had saved the land of Egypt and is now worried that his family are going to harm it since they are so numerous. Interestingly, the climax of his concern is that they would “escape from the land” – something he brought about by seeking to avoid it. It is because he made their lives unbearable that God rescued his people – though of course that is always how God had planned it.

The first of Pharaoh’s three plans was to make the Israelites slaves who would work hard for Pharaoh and so their spirits and strength would drain. Conversely, the population “multiplied” and “spread abroad”, which meant that the Egyptians “were in dread of the people of Israel”. Looking back as we can, it is clear that God’s hand was involved in building up the nation of Israel so the Egyptians would have been wiser to fear God. Their response, instead, was to force the Israelites to work even harder.

Pharaoh’s second plan was even crueler. He summoned the Hebrew midwives and commanded them to kill any new-born Israelite sons. As with the previous plan, the response in the text is “but” – God would not let this plan succeed either and the midwives refused to follow orders. The result was blessing for the midwives (whose names have been recorded to this day) and that the Israelites “multiplied and grew very strong”. Ironically, Pharaoh’s plan to wipe out the men who he thought were the threat was thwarted by women – a theme that continues in chapter 2.

Whether the midwives were right to lie when they were called in front of Pharaoh (or even, if we want to try to slip out on a technicality, whether they did) causes debate. I’m not really going to get into it. Narrative is meant to be narrative and isn’t primarily to teach theology or ethics – though of course it does both. A couple of comments though: it was an extreme situation where the future of God’s salvation history hung in the balance, it was before the commandment not to lie had been given and they were commended not for what they said but their fear of God (v21). Certainly this can’t be used to argue that lying is a small thing.

Pharaoh’s third plan was equally vile – and one that all Egyptians could join in with. All young Israelite boys were to be thrown into the Nile – which was a semi-God to the Egyptians. And here the narrative switches to “a man from the house of Levi”. There is no decisive defeat of Pharaoh’s plan with God. The agony for the Israelites and suspense for the reader will continue until it is revealed whether the Nile-god could defeat Israel’s God.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you can order the entire of history for your ends – the salvation of many many people. I praise you that you have complete authority over all natural and supernatural powers and will not be bested. Thank you for the promises you have made to us – to save us from this world into your perfect Israel. Please help me to take hope and to trust that everything, whether or not I can see how, is your plan for your world. Amen.


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