And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph . . .
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.
The Book of Exodus opens amid the roaring flames that heated the brick kilns of Egypt. Blood mixed with tears and sweat, and tinted the new mortar under the cruel lashes of the taskmasters. Slowly the walls of Pithom and Raamses rose from the desert floor, troves for the treasures of Egypt. They were made by the groans and anguished cries of a people sorely oppressed. This was the work of slaves and the slaves were the children of Israel, the members of God’s chosen nation. We look on in amazement and ask—Why?—Why such grievous affliction?—Why was it even necessary for Israel to tarry in Egypt?
To this latter question, Joseph already had given an answer. He told his brothers, “And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” There was a famine, ordained by God, covering the face of the earth. God had sent Joseph beforehand to make preparations by putting in storage of the bounties of Egypt. Thus many thousands of people were being saved from death; and thus also the children of Israel were brought to abide under the care of their brother amid the plenty of Egypt. But yet, this answer by itself does not satisfy us. Surely God could have made some other provisions for Israel whereby they might have stayed in Canaan. The food could have been sent to them by camel; or, at least, they could have returned to Canaan as soon as the famine was over. It was evidently the will of the Lord that Israel should remain in Egypt for an extended stay. This much was implied when God spoke to Jacob on the way, “Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation.”
A deeper reason for Israel’s extended sojourn in Egypt we may find by examining the preceding history of Jacob’s children. For many years already they had been associating, and intermingling with the Canaanitish peoples of the land. The result was that they were falling deeper and deeper into sin; witness the massacre of Shechem, and the sins of Judah with Tamar, to say nothing of the countless iniquities that Joseph as a boy had faithfully reported to his father. The distinctiveness of the family of Israel as a people dedicated unto God was swiftly disappearing. Given a generation or two more among the wicked inhabitants of Canaan, it would have been completely gone. It was necessary for the survival of Israel as a distinctive nation that they should be removed to a portion of the earth where they could dwell alone, until such a time as the Canaanitish people had filled their cup of iniquity and could be destroyed. For this the land of Goshen in Egypt was suited, and God provided that they might dwell there. In a sense it was a chastisement for their sins and a banishment from the promised land; but at the same time it was a deliverance from the countless temptations which they were not yet strong enough to bear.
But there was also another reason why Israel was sent into Egypt; perhaps it was the most important reason of all. Already many years before God had made it known unto Abraham. “Know of a surety,” He said to Abraham, “that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” God was planning to deliver His people out of bondage. He would reveal Himself as Jehovah, the God Who is ever faithful to His promises, by judging the oppressors of His people, by delivering His people with many miraculous wonders out of the power, of their enemies, by feeding them with bread from heaven, by giving to them the revelation of His commandments, and generally by making them partakers of many glorious, typical blessings. God was planning to reveal His Gospel more clearly than ever before through many marvelous demonstrations of His grace and power. For this the scene was being set when God sent His people into Egypt.
For a time, even after the death of Joseph, the life of the children of Israel was peaceful and quiet. Joseph’s work and influence had been very great; the Egyptians continued to show their appreciation for what he had done in their attitude toward his family. True, the Egyptians did not seek to associate with the Israelites, for they were shepherds and the Egyptians considered that a disgrace. But the children of Israel were left unmolested to dwell amid the fertility of Goshen. Their sheep were well fed, and they had opportunity to learn about farming and many other trades from the highly civilized Egyptians. They prospered, and the Lord multiplied their number so that they became very great.
This very ease of life, however, eventually became for them a temptation in itself. The children of Israel became attached to the land of Egypt. Life was pleasant and they enjoyed Egypt’s rare and delicious foods, its fish, its cucumbers and melons, its garlic and leeks. Seldom did they think anymore of the promised land of Canaan as something to be desired. They had little longing to return. Joseph’s coffin was still with them, but its testimony they neglected. In effect, they disdained the covenant promises of God because of their love for the fleshpots of Egypt.
But God looked down from heaven and saw the complacency of His people. He also knew what should be the cure. He set a new king on the throne of Egypt “which knew not Joseph.” It was not that this king did not know about Joseph, who he was and what he had done. Joseph’s renown was too great to be forgotten even after several hundred years. But this king did not care. He felt no real appreciation for Joseph and no obligation to his heirs. He looked upon the Israelites as aliens, intruders in his land. He hated them and determined that they should be destroyed. He had been given over unto a reprobate mind by God.
The new Pharaoh called together his people and counseled them thus, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.” With these words we gain an insight into the character of Pharaoh; he was a man of extreme jealousy. This gave rise to endless confusion and contradiction within him. On the one hand, he was extremely envious of the prosperity of the Israelites. They had evidently become much stronger than the Egyptians were themselves. This Pharaoh could not bear. It touched his national pride. But, on the .other hand, Pharaoh also realized how much the prosperity of Israel contributed to the wellbeing of Egypt. The Israelites were strong and willing workers. Should they choose to leave the land it would be an irreplaceable loss. Basically, however, Pharaoh was motivated by a hatred for Israel’s God It was well known in Egypt that Israel’s strength was due to the greatness of its God. The driving ambition of Pharaoh’s heart was to prove that he could dominate over Israel and its God. In his wicked ambition, Pharaoh became a fool.
The folly of Pharaoh soon became evident in his plan of action. He set taskmasters over the Israelites to afflict them, forcing them to work for the Egyptians. Had Pharaoh been a wise and discerning man, he never would have followed this course. He would have seen that, as long as the Israelites were left in peace, they were losing all desire to leave the land. They were a quiet and submissive people who readily obeyed the proper authorities. Moreover, while working willingly, they were contributing much more to the Egyptian economy than they ever would under force. But God’s goal was the opposite of Pharaoh’s, and, as always, He used the folly of the wicked to bring it to pass. Under the oppression of the Egyptians, the children of Israel began to look once again at the promise received through their fathers that they “would be delivered from this land; Their earthly prosperity being threatened, they looked more and more to the deeper covenant joy which they had in the presence of their God. God used Pharaoh to bring His chosen people unto a gradual conversion of life. In this way they were blessed and grew stronger than ever before.
The more Pharaoh, saw his goal receding, the more he became determined in his folly. The Israelites had been assigned the task of building Pithom and Raamses, treasure cities for Egypt. In this work the Egyptians forced them harder and harder. The lives of the children of Israel became bitter under the rigor of their bondage. They labored from morning till evening under the burdens of brick and mortar and in the most menial tasks of the field. It only served to thwart the plans of Pharaoh and to realize the will of God. Israel grew and multiplied as never before.
Finally Pharaoh became desperate. The glory of Egypt was dimming rapidly before the growing strength of Israel. Drastic measures, had to be taken, He issued an order that seemed certain to cut short the growing strength of Israel. He summoned the two women, Shiphrah and Puah, who were in charge of the Hebrew midwives, and, charged them to slay all of the male children at birth. The plot was meant to be a secret one. All of the midwives of Israel were to be commanded to watch carefully when attending a birth to see immediately whether the child was male or female. If it were a female child, it might be allowed to live; but if it were a male child, it was to be stifled before the parents even knew whether it lived. In this way the strength of the Hebrews would be curtailed while the women would remain to perform the work. Supposedly these measures would be stopped as soon as the strength of Israel was sufficiently reduced.
What Pharaoh failed to figure was the faith of the Hebrew midwives. They believed in God and would not willingly take part in the destruction of His people. Moreover, the Hebrew women were strong and healthy, usually requiring very little assistance in delivery. When summoned to a home, the midwives merely lingered on the way until after the child was born. Once the parents knew that the child lived, it was no longer required that the child be slain.
It was not long before Pharaoh learned that his command was not having effect. In a fit of anger, he summoned Shiphrah and Push and accused them, “Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?” The women merely explained the fact, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.”
The wickedness of Pharaoh would not be stemmed. Casting all pretense of secrecy aside, he issued this inhuman command, “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.” It was Satan declaring open war against the church.
Israel’s life in Egypt had become very bitter. They labored in bondage with persecution and pain. Not only did they suffer, but the lives of their children and of their nation were being threatened. But behind it was the will of their God, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:6). He was turning the hearts of Israel back to Him again. Once again the children of Israel looked upon the coffin of Joseph and with joy remembered its testimony of faith, “God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.”