When All is Bleak

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 10, 2016

Exodus 1:1-2:10 From Slavery to Salvation: When all is Bleak

Today we are beginning a new series on the book of Exodus. My plan is to spend about three months—April through June—on this series. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get through the Red Sea Crossing, from Exodus 1 through Exodus 15 in the next 12 or so weeks. Then we’ll take a break and do a different series. And then we’ll come back to Exodus and do a series specifically on the 10 Commandments.

You probably know that Exodus is the second book of the Bible. But do you know what the word “exodus” means? It means—“to leave.” “Exit.” It comes from the Greek translation of the word for “going out” used in Exodus 19:1. It describes, of course, the main action of this book: the nation of Israel leaving their slavery in Egypt.

God brought his people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and rescued them from their slavery. It is the central salvation story of the Old Testament.

That’s why I am calling this series “From Slavery to Salvation.” We are going to hear again the central Old Testament story of redemption. And, in the process, we are going to see how it prepares the way for the story of Jesus Christ. We’re going to see that ancient Israel’s story is also our story.

Bad News
But before we get to the story of salvation, we need to begin with the story of slavery. As I often say: In order to understand the good news, we have to begin with the bad news. And the book of Exodus begins with bad news.

When we gather here on Sunday mornings, we usually celebrate. We want to be a church of joy, and we want our gatherings to reflect the joy of belonging to Jesus. So we put greeters at the door with smiles on their faces and we sing upbeat songs about God’s Amazing Grace and we generally try to make your time here a positive experience.

But the truth is, not everybody comes here on Sunday morning on top of the world. For one thing, there’s a lot of bad news in our world. Terrorist attacks in Brussels and San Bernardino and Paris. Christians being systematically driven out of the Middle East. A national election here in the U.S. that looks like it could go in any number of unpredictable directions.

Plus, a lot of us come here with a lot of personal concerns. Health situations that are not ideal. Marriages that are on the rocks. Family strife that does not show any signs of resolution.

As much as we want to come and celebrate and affirm our faith in God, sometimes it is hard because the evidence does not always indicate that God is in control. Sometimes it seems like God has stepped away from his desk, and things have spiraled in the wrong direction.

That’s how it seemed at the beginning of Exodus. The people of Israel have been in Egypt for a long time (about 400 years, according to Genesis 15:14), and things have not gone well for them. They are enslaved. They are being persecuted. They are under threat of genocide. It seems like God has forgotten all about them.

But we are going to see today that: even when all is bleak, God is still at work. Even in the midst of suffering and trial, God has not forgotten His people.

We’re going to go through the first chapter and a half of Exodus today, and we are going to divide it into three sections. These section titles come from my friend Matt (some of you remember him from his visit in January). As we go through this part of the story we are going to see that: God’s promises are never defaulted; God’s purposes are never thwarted, and God’s people are never abandoned.

Be Fruitful and Multiply
So, first: God’s promises are never defaulted. When God makes a promise, you can count on Him to keep it, every time.

Let’s look at the text, Exodus 1:1-7:

1These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah;3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.

6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

The first thing you notice about the book of Exodus is that it joins a story already in progress. In fact, in the original language, the first word of the book is “and”—“and these are the names of the sons of Israel”—like it is picking up where a previous work has left off.

And that is the case. This is a continuation of the story told in Genesis.

Genesis, you may recall, tells the story of one particular family: the family of Abraham. It focuses on his life, the life of his son Isaac, the life of Isaac’s son Jacob (who becomes known as Israel), and the lives of Jacob’s 12 sons, with particular attention paid to Joseph.

Joseph, of course, was the owner of an amazing technicolor dreamcoat who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. He ended up in Egypt, where he proved his worth and was raised to second in command of the entire country. Thus, when a severe famine hit the region Joseph was in a position to provide food to his brothers and his father. Eventually, the whole clan, about 70 people in all, moved down to Egypt.

And that’s where the book of Genesis ends. In fact, verse 6 here is a bit of a restatement of the very last verse in Genesis: “Joseph died.” Genesis ends with the sons of Israel—the patriarchs of the famed 12 tribes of Israel—living in Egypt, far from the land that God had promised them; and Exodus begins with them dying.

But even here, we see that God is at work keeping his promises.

It was about two years ago that we did a series of sermons on the life of Abraham; (we had some paintings of scenes from his life up here on the wall, just like we now have these very cool paintings by Hannah Thurman depicting the life of Moses) and if you remember Abraham’s story you know that one of God’s major promises to Abraham was that he would be the father of a great nation. (Genesis 12:2) That’s what Abraham means: “father of many.” (Genesis 17:5) God told him his descendents would outnumber the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).

But, much of Abraham’s story was a struggle to see that promise fulfilled. He went many years without a legitimate child and his wife Sarah only gave birth to Isaac at a very advanced age. Even three and four generations later, with the 12 sons of Jacob, Abraham’s family was relatively small at 70 people.

But in verse 7 we see all that changing: “but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”

There are echoes in this verse of the beginning of Genesis, when God told the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). God is now keeping his promise to Abraham by growing his descendants at an exponential rate. God is keeping his promise to turn one family into a mighty nation.

So here’s the lesson: God’s promises are never defaulted. As my friend Matt says:

We never will take a promise of God to the bank and be disappointed because God says, “I’m sorry, I just can’t make good on that one. And I’m not insured.” No. Every one of them stands. Not a one of His promises fall to the ground. God’s promises are never defaulted. (Matt Mitchell, unpublished sermon)

The King of Egypt
Let’s move to the next section. God’s purposes are never thwarted. What God plans to do, He always accomplishes; even when opposition rises against Him.

Moving on in Exodus, verses 8-10:

8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 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.”

The population explosion among the children of Israel is not good news for everyone. A new king rises to power in Egypt. What this probably means is a dynastic change. The royal family that Joseph served is replaced by a new family that cares nothing about Joseph’s history. Instead of seeing the Israelites as allies, this new king perceives them as a threat. They are not ethnically connected to the Egyptians. So if an enemy attacks Egypt, it’s possible the Israelites will side with Egypt’s enemies.

So, the king does what politicians have been doing since the beginning of time: he plays the race card. He scapegoats the Israelites for being different—for being “other”—and blames all of Egypt’s problems on them. He convinces the Egyptians to turn on them and enslave them. Verse 11:

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.

A brief word about history here. There are no records surviving that tell the story of Israel and the Exodus from the Egyptian point of view. This should not come as a surprise, ancient people were not exactly in the habit of commemorating humiliating defeats, and the Exodus certainly ended up being humiliating for Pharaoh.

As a result, we do not have sources outside of the Bible to tell us exactly when the Exodus occurred or who was Pharaoh at the time. 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that Solomon began building the temple 480 years after the Exodus. We know with quite a bit of certainty that the temple was built in or about 962 BC. If the 480 years is accurate, that would put the Red Sea crossing right around 1440, when a man named Amenhotep II was Pharoah. He was preceded by Thutmose III, who would be the king who enslaved the Israelites.

On the other hand, it is possible that the number 480 is meant to be more of an approximation. At that time, a generation was considered to be 40 years. So when the Bible says the temple was built 480 years after the Exodus, it might mean to say that it was built 12 generations later. In reality, the generations change not every 40 years, but every 25, which would make the time span between the Red Sea and the temple considerably shorter.

Thus, some scholars have suggested a date of 1260 BC for the Exodus. That would put it in the reign of Rameses II, and would make the Pharaoh of chapter 1 a man named Seti I. I believe these are the names used in the Cecil B. DeMille movie, and it explains why one of the store cities was called Rameses.

At any rate, even though the king of Egypt is not named, it is clear that he is taking a stance in opposition to God. The Pharaohs are clearly the villains of Exodus. But, in spite of the harsh treatment, the Israelites continued to thrive. Verses 12-14:

12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

The inhumane work conditions were not enough for Pharaoh. So he hatches a plan of infanticide. Verses 15-16:

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

If Pharaoh is worried about the Israelites as a fighting force, his solution is to kill all the warriors. Kill the boys, and eventually all the girls will intermarry with the Egyptians and Israel as a separate people will cease to exist.

So Pharaoh calls in Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. They are probably not the only midwives for Israel (there would have been way more work than two people could have done alone) but probably representative of all the midwives, perhaps the heads of an association or something like that.

Pharaoh gives them appalling instructions. He tells them that their job is no longer to help bring out life, but to take it. Verses 17-21:

17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.

I love that scripture emphasizes that these ladies feared God. Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 that we should not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Obviously, Pharaoh was powerful and scary, but these women were not afraid of him. At least, they were not afraid enough to do what they knew was wrong to do. So they feared God more than man, and they did the right thing.

Now, it appears that these two ladies tell a lie in verse 19. Certainly, they don’t tell the whole truth. If they had told the truth—if they had said: “Your law is lousy one, Pharaoh”—they almost certainly would have been killed. Instead, what they do is make a sort of jest of Pharaoh. They say: “Our women aren’t like your women. Our women our strong and vigorous and they often give birth before we even get there.” It probably wasn’t a total lie, but it was definitely an insult to the Egyptians.

At any rate, this Pharaoh appears to be “a few bricks short of a pyramid” (Ryken, p.43) and he accepts this explanation. God honors the midwives for their courageous act of civil disobedience, and the boy infants of the Hebrews are spared from indiscriminate slaughter.

Here’s the point: God’s purposes are never thwarted. Even though things looked bleak. Even though Pharaoh was plotting and scheming death, God used the bravery of these women to thwart Pharaoh’s plans and maintain his purposes.

Let me ask you a question: Whom do you fear? Who pulls your chain?

Other people seem so big to us. They loom large in our eyes. The Bible calls that the Fear of Man. And it’s understandable because people can do a lot to hurt us by what they say or do to us.

But it’s also foolish because the biggest, most powerful person in the world that opposes us is a nobody compared to God.

As the hymn goes:

This is my Father's world.
O let me ne'er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

A Prince of Egypt
But the threat to the Israelites isn’t over. You can see who is calling the shots in Pharaoh’s heart. “He was a murderer from the beginning.” (John 8:44) He progresses in this chapter from racism to infanticide to all-out ethnic cleansing. Verse 22:

22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.

He deputizes the entire nation to kill Hebrew children. It’s genocide. The river that gives Egypt its life is now to become a river of death. Things look really bleak for Israel.

But here’s our third point: God’s People are never abandoned. Even when things look their darkest, God’s people are not left alone.

Chapter 2, the story of Moses’ birth. It’s a story filled with clues that God is still in control. Verses 1 and 2:

Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.

They aren’t named here, but they are named in Exodus 6:20. Moses’ father was named Amram. His mother was named Jochebed. And when they give birth to a son, they do what any parent would do: they seek to protect him. Imagine that, having a child and keeping it secret from the world. For 3 months she kept her son hidden. “Hush little baby, don’t you cry.” Imagine the stress, the fear, that any neighbor could betray you, at any moment.

And, eventually, it becomes impossible to conceal the child any longer, so Jochebed hatches a desperate plan. Verses 3 and 4:

3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

The word for basket here is the same word used in Genesis to describe Noah’s Ark. She coats it in tar and pitch, just like Noah covered his boat. God saved Noah from the flood, now he’s about to do the same for this child.

Ironically, by putting the baby boy into the bulrushes, Jochebed is doing exactly what Pharaoh decreed should be done: she’s putting him in the Nile. But she is not putting him there to kill him, she’s putting him there to save him. Verses 5 and 6:

5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.

This does not appear to be good news. Of all the people who would be expected to obey Pharaoh’s orders, you would think his daughter would be at the top of the list. Bathing in the Nile, she finds this basket with a crying baby. She opens it and discovers a Hebrew baby—what other baby would be in the river? The next thing she should do is shove him under the water.

But, the Bible says, “she felt sorry for him.” Then the baby’s sister, who is probably Miriam (Exodus 15:20), clever girl, springs into action. Verses 7-9:

7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”

8 “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother.9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him.

In an instant, Pharaoh’s daughter decides she will raise this child as her own. But she needs a wet nurse. She needs someone who can provide him with milk. So the girl offers, sweet as candy, to go fetch a Hebrew woman who can nurse. And, just like that, the child’s own mother has him back at her breast. In his earliest, most formative years, Moses will be raised to hear the songs and stories of Israel.

And then, verse 10:

10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”

This child, whom God is going to use to lead his people out of Egypt, is afforded the finest education then available in the world. He is raised as the grandson of the man who wanted him killed. He is taught how to lead, how to govern, how to fight, how to organize. Everything he will need to form God’s people into a great nation, he receives from those that would be his enemy.

And the princess names him Moses. Moses sounds like the Hebrew word for “draw out.” It’s a fitting name, because she drew him out of the water. But more than that, it is a prophetic name, for this is the one who will draw God’s people out of slavery.

The lesson is, God’s people are never abandoned. Even when things were at the bleakest, God had not left them alone. He did not forget His promises. His purposes were still being accomplished. He had a plan to rescue His people.

Greater than Moses
Of course, that sounds a lot like another story from the Bible. Moses was a savior, but he was not the Savior. There was another one coming, one who was greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:3).

Like Moses, Jesus was born into a world that was dangerous and hostile. Like Moses, Jesus’ life was threatened by the rage of a deadly king. Like Moses, Jesus was protected by his parents when they escaped to Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus was given a name to match his destiny. They called him Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

In all of this, God was working out his plan down to the last detail. Even when things were bleak, God was at work.

I don’t know what you are going through right now. Maybe things are good for you right now. Rosy and bright. I hope so. I want that for you.

But for many of you, there are significant challenges right now. Things seem gray and bleak. You feel like an oppressed Israel wondering if God has left you all alone.

He has not. If you belong to God through Christ, you are never abandoned.

God has said, “I will never leave and I will never forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

And He means it.

And the reason we know that is Jesus Christ.

• He is the fulfillment of every one of God’s promises. They are all “YES in Him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
• He is the fulfillment of every one of God’s purposes. He is the “fulfillment of the ages.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
• He is God’s presence, in the flesh, dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

We know that God is at work when all seems bleak because of Jesus.

And we can put our trust and our hope and even our fear in Him.