The Children of Israel Face Affliction
1These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; 3Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. 5The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
6Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.
8Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. 9"Look," he said to his people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 10Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country."
11So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13and worked them ruthlessly. 14They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
Here we begin a study in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Bible, and the second book authored by Moses. This book continues where the book of Genesis left off. Recall that during a famine, all of the sons of Jacob, and their families, went to Egypt to live, where Joseph was an aide to the Pharaoh. Moses sums this up: "These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt" (vss. 1-5). On his death bed, Joseph prophesied that the children of Israel would one day leave Egypt and return to the land that had been promised them (see Gen. 50:24). The book of Exodus (which is a Greek word meaning, "a going out") is basically about how the children of Israel came to leave Egypt, and then what happened after they left. In this book, due to the affliction they face, the children of Israel drew together as a nation, with God Himself as their leader. God even writes the law for this nation. The book of Exodus chronicles the giving of the law to the children of Israel.
As we study the book of Exodus, it is good to keep in mind that the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt can be seen as being symbolic of the exodus of a child of God from the ways of the world when he receives a new birth through faith in Christ. "Here in the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, is shadowed forth our spiritual deliverance by Christ: they, under Moses, escaped from the tyranny of Pharaoh and the bondage of Egypt; we, by Christ, are set free from the spiritual captivity of sin and Satan" [Willet, Intro]. The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of baptism. The wanderings in the desert are symbolic of our wanderings in the world after regeneration, as we look forward to entrance to the promised land.
A lesson that we can learn from the book of Exodus is that God deals with His own people through affliction. We see in this book "that the Lord, when the people sinned, scourged them, and yet not to their destruction, but to their amendment: it showeth that God is not partial, but will punish sin, even in His own children, and also, that the afflictions, which God layeth upon His children, tendeth not to their aversion, but is sent rather to work their conversion" [Willet, Intro].
The affliction of the children of Israel begins right away in the book of Exodus: "Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them. Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’ So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh" (vss. 6-11). When Joseph brought all his brothers and their families to Egypt, they were warmly welcomed because of Joseph’s privileged position in Pharaoh’s court, and Pharaoh gave them "the best of the land of Egypt" (see Gen. 45:18 and Gen. 47:6). So, it is no surprise that the "Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them" (vs. 7), especially since God promised Abraham He would multiply his descendants (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:5; 17:2,6; 22:17). The children of Israel had entered Egypt with just "seventy" people in all, but they would leave Egypt, some four hundred years later, with "about 600,000 men on foot, besides women and children" (see Ex. 12:37). Such a growth in population over 400 years could have been achieved, according to my calculations, if there was an average of about four children per family (if we assume that families started having children at about an age of twenty). So, I would not call the growth of population miraculous, but certainly the Israelites were blessed by God to sustain such a population growth.
What made the increase of the Israelites surprising was not so much the population growth rate, but that they did not intermingle with the Egyptians. Because of this, the Israelites were able to maintain their cultural identity over the 400 years. However, this maintenance of their cultural identity intimidated "a new king" who came to power: "‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country’" (vss. 9-10). To "deal shrewdly" was just a euphemism for persecute, as is made clear: "So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh" (vs. 11). "Dealing shrewdly" was Pharaoh’s excuse for his sin in persecuting the innocent children of Israel. "When men deal wickedly it is common for them to imagine that they deal wisely, but the folly of sin will at last be manifested before all men" [Wesley, on vs. 10].
The Pharaoh did not really have a valid reason to persecute the Israelites. They were not causing any problems. They were a peaceful people. They undoubtedly contributed to the economy. There was no real earthly reason to deal harshly with them. As often happens, the blessings of God on His people aroused the jealousy of the wicked. Beyond this, there was undoubtedly spiritual warfare being waged here. The devil ever seeks an opportunity to attack God’s people. More specifically, the children of Israel, throughout human history, have often been targeted for persecution. These episodes of persecution are manifestations of the prophesied enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (see Gen. 3:15). "Note, it has been the policy of persecutors to represent God’s Israel as a dangerous people, hurtful to kings and provinces, not fit to be trusted, nay, not fit to be tolerated, that they may have some pretence for the barbarous treatment they design on them" [Henry, on vs. 8ff]. "No people in recorded history have suffered as the Hebrew people have suffered, but every nation or ruler that has persecuted the Jews has been punished for it. After all, God’s promise to Abraham was, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you’ (Gen. 12:3)" [Wiersbe, on vs. 11].
As a result of the persecution, quite a change had taken place in the lives of the Israelites: "They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly" (vs. 14). The new Pharaoh had turned their sweet lives into "bitter" ones. The Israelites, who through the fine service that Joseph had given him, once were favored by the Pharaoh, were now reviled by the entire nation of Egypt. Unfortunately, in life, change happens. "The place of our satisfaction may soon become the place of our affliction… Those may prove our sworn enemies whose parents were our faithful friends; nay, the same persons that loved us may possibly turn to hate us: therefore cease from man, and say not concerning any place on this side heaven, ‘This is my rest forever’" [Henry, on vss. 8-14].
But why would God let such a change take place for His people? Why would he allow their lives to go from prosperity to bitterness? First, let us note that this affliction upon the children of Israel was foretold by the Lord to Abraham, many years before it happened: "Then the Lord said to [Abraham]: ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years’" (Gen. 15:13). Abraham was given many great and wonderful promises: This one (one may think) wasn’t one of them! I guess we have to take the good promises of God with the bad! (These promises are bad, of course, from a human point of view.) There are many promises of God, I dare say, that we humans feel we could do without. For instance, there are many promises concerning the wrath of God to come in the end-times. Then also, Jesus promised: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). We naturally do not want "trouble"; this is a promise most of us feel we could do without.
So now we ask, why would God promise trouble for us? Let us return to the case of the Israelites. Let us hear from a few eminent commentators on why the Israelites experienced persecution in Egypt (many of these may apply to our own situations): "1. That the Israelites should hate the impure manners and superstitions of Egypt. 2. That by this means they might be stirred up to pray to God for their deliverance, and to long for the land of Canaan. 3. That God might take just occasion to show his judgments upon Egypt. 4. That the Israelites also might be occasioned hereby more justly to shake off the Egyptians cruel yoke. 5. That God’s goodness and power might be seen, in supporting His people and increasing them even in the midst of their affliction. 6. That the Israelites remembering their cruel bondage in Egypt, should have no mind to go thither again" [Willet, on Ch. 1]. God allowed the persecution of the Israelites "to prepare Israel for their inheritance. The rough schooling they had in Egypt served to develop their muscles and toughen their sinews. Also their bitter lot in Egypt and their trials in the wilderness were calculated to make the land that flowed with milk and honey the more appreciated when it became theirs" [Pink, 11]. All of Joseph’s generation was gone (see vs. 6), so "the desire and the memory of the land of Canaan, which they had never seen, might have died out of the minds of their descendants, if they had not been forcibly aroused to seek after it" [Calvin, on vs. 6]. We can apply many of these same reasons to our own troubles. For instance, God will often send trouble our way in this world to make us long for our promised land.
God allowed the persecution, but He stood with the Israelites through the times of trouble. The effect of the persecution on the Israelites was not what the Egyptians intended: "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly" (vss. 12-13). The persecution did not weaken them, but made the Israelites stronger, and brought them together as a nation. A similar result has occurred throughout the history of the church, whenever she faced persecution. "Times of affliction have often been the church’s growing times: being pressed, it grows. Christianity spread most when it was persecuted: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church" [Henry, vs. 8ff].
The Egyptians must have realized that there was a higher power behind the strengthening of the Israelites. But rather than bow to God in humility and repent from persecuting God’s people, the Egyptians chose to defy God, and "worked [the Israelites] ruthlessly."