1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. 8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 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. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. 15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
History is full of irony. For instance, consider the following:
Ronald Reagan Is Shot By His Own Bulletproof Limo
As Reagan exited a luncheon address in D.C., Hinckley fired six shots, wounding three members of the president’s staff. The sixth bullet hit the side of Reagan’s limousine and, rather than stopping there (as happens with most people’s limos) ricocheted off the bulletproof armor and lodged itself in Reagan’s chest.
80,000 Safety Buttons Recalled For Being Unsafe
In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission…went so far as to distribute 80,000 lapel buttons promoting toy safety, and therein lay the rub. The buttons were soon discovered to be unsafe, and universally recalled, because somehow they went out without the Commission noticing that they had sharp edges, paint that contained way too much lead, and tiny clips that could be broken off and eaten by children.
Health Guru and Jogging Author Jim Fixx Dies of a Heart Attack While Running
Jim Fixx was one healthy dude. He wrote “The Complete Book of Running”, thought it’s hard to imagine how this book was more than a couple pages long (Chapter One: Running Fast. Chapter Two: Running Slow). He lectured about how running and a healthy diet promoted longevity. And then, in 1984 at age 52, he dropped dead from three massively blocked arteries during a routine jog.
Cane Toads Meant To Help Australia’s Ecosystem… Destroy Australia’s Ecosystem
In the 1930’s, people in northeastern Australia had a problem worse that just living in northeastern Australia. One of their major crops, sugarcane, was being ravaged by cane beetles, particularly the greyback beetle and the frenchi beetle…Having heard cane toad success stories from Hawaii and other places, Australian officials introduced a few hundred cane toads into Queensland. The toads quickly spread, aided by their lack of natural predators, and by 1980 there were more than 200 million of them. Problem was, they didn’t control the cane beetle. There were other, easier sources of food, which the toads won by out-competing Australia’s native frog species, and the cane fields didn’t offer much daytime protection from what few native predators (birds, etc) DID learn to hunt the toads. So the toads stayed away from the cane fields. But they went everywhere else.
Since the 1940’s, there have been marked reductions in numerous Australian snake, reptile and crocodile species. Since the toads are poisonous, there are constant cases of pets and humans being injured from toad toxin, and various water and fish supplies have been contaminate. Not to mention, nobody wants their country coated in huge, disgusting toads. Cane growers had no choice but to go right back to chemicals to control the beetle population. As for controlling the toads, farmers have hatched a number of plans, including one that involves releasing parasites to curb the toad population.
Daredevil Bobby Leech Dies From Slipping on an Orange Peel
On July 25th, 1911, circus performer Bobby Leach became only the second person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, back before the X Games made it an official event in 1912. Despite riding the monstrous falls in a metal barrel with minimal padding and fracturing both kneecaps and his jaw, the invincible Leech recovered and went on to a life of surviving swims in whirlpool rapids and generally being a man among men.
…Until 1926, anyway, when Leech was touring in New Zealand and slipped on an orange peel, injuring his leg. The leg became gangrenous, had to be amputed, and Leech died in his bed just after the operation, the opposite death you’d expect from an iron-bellied daredevil. At least Evel Knievel died of heart complications from too many blood transfusions after his spectacular wipeouts. Bobby Leech died from a fruit skin.
Kind of makes you chuckle, doesn’t it? Ironies are amusing because they are so very unlikely. What is interesting to note is how many important historical moments hinged on ironic happenings.
I could not help but think about irony as I read the first chapter of Exodus. This chapter marks the beginning of the great and crucial story of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It looks back to Genesis, particularly to the covenant that God made with the patriarchs and to the arrival of Israel in Egypt in the persons of Jacob’s house. It also looks forward, ultimately to Jesus Christ and the exodus He offers all who will come to Him in faith and repentance. Jesus is the second and superior Moses who leads us out of bondage to sin, death, and hell and into the glorious light of salvation.
Exodus, then, is a book whose importance cannot be overstressed. It teems with significant revelations about God and about what it means to be the people of God. Interestingly, it also teems with irony, especially here in our introductory chapter.
Consider, for instance, the following.
I. The Irony of Israel’s Oppression Arising From a King who Didn’t Remember While Israel’s Salvation Arose From a King who Couldn’t Forget (v.1-8)
Israel’s trouble in Egypt begins with an earthly king, a pharaoh to be exact, who did not remember the house of Israel or the promises and provisions extended to it by an earlier Pharaoh. You will remember the great story of Joseph and his dramatic but bumpy ascendancy to the top of the Egyptian power structure. Joseph became so powerful in Egypt that he was second only to Pharaoh himself. But by the time of the Exodus, that was ancient history.
Exodus begins with an acknowledgment of these earlier events, but then shows us how very long ago the events of Genesis really were.
1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. 8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
So this new king “did not know Joseph,” meaning, of course, the house of Joseph, as Joseph was long dead and buried. Did he really not know, or was it simply that the time of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt was so long ago that this new king did not feel bound by it? Did he know it only as ancient history, a long-ago story that was no longer binding on him and his household? Whatever the motivation or reasons for it, this new leader of Egypt did not acknowledge the place of Israel within Egyptian society or the protections and promises that first accompanied that place.
He had forgotten the promises made to Israel, either intentionally or not. By choice or ignorance, he did not remember. And this is very ironic? Why? Because Israel’s oppression came about as a result of his not remembering. And how is that ironic? Because whereas Israel’s oppression arose from a king who did not remember, Israel’s salvation arose from a King who could not forget. Forgetfulness led to their persecution. Remembrance led to their salvation.
How did remembrance lead to their salvation? Who was the King who could not forget? Why, He was none other than Yahweh God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Pharaoh forgot, therefore Pharaoh persecuted. The Lord God remembered, therefore the Lord God saved. And what did He remember that led Him to save? He remembered the promises He had made with Israel, the promise to never leave them, to never abandon them, but, instead, to prosper them and to deliver them from a distant and hostile land. Consider the promise, the covenant, that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15.
3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “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. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
Ah! God made a promise! When? From our reckoning, a long, long time ago, but from His reckoning, only a second ago, a millisecond ago. He made the promise to Israel’s earthly father, Abraham, and to the generations that would follow. It is a significant fact, yet a promise is only as good as the power of the promise-giver’s word and the strength of his remembrance. Fortunately for us, God never forgets His promises. God always remembers!
In Genesis 8:1, after Noah and his family have survived the harrowing flood, we read, “But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” The salvation of Noah and his family hinged on the power of God’s remembrance and faithfulness.
After God destroyed Sodom, Genesis 19:29 says, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.” Lot was saved because God remembered.
In Genesis 30:22, we read that, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.” Rachel became a mother because God remembered.
In the next chapter of our study, Exodus 2, the cries of God’s enslaved people reach his ears.
23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
Israel was saved from oppression because God remembered His people and His promises.
In Numbers 10:9, the Lord instructed Moses to blow trumpets as he led the Israelites against their enemies in battle. “And when you go to war in your land against the adversary who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies.” Israel conquered and claimed and entered the land of rest because God remembered them.
In Psalm 98:3, “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” His love is bound up with His remembrance. It is founded on His remembrance. He has not forgotten us. He has not forgotten His promises to us. He remembers and He loves.
God made a covenant with Israel and God remembered His covenant. Covenant and remembrance: these are vital components of our understanding of who God is.
That is also true on this side of the cross, the need for covenant and remembrance. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 11, in Jesus’ words of institution over the Lord’s Supper, passed on to us by Paul, we read this:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Do you see? The new covenant is in His blood. He has covenanted with us in His crucifixion and resurrection to redeem us, to save us. In His covenant, He remembers us. The Father does not forget the blood of His Son or the lives of those washed in it. He has made a covenant with the world through Jesus, that all who come to the Father through the Son will be saved. He remembers His covenant. Interestingly for us, we are called on likewise to remember the covenant, likewise not to forget: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
We remember our great God because, in His love, He has remembered us, just as He remembered Israel.
Israel’s oppression arose from one king’s forgetfulness. Israel’s salvation arose from another King’s remembrance.
II. The Irony of Israel’s Growth and Expansion Occurring in the Midst of an Intentional Effort to Cause the Exact Opposite. (v.9-14)
There is another irony here, namely that Pharaoh got the exact opposite of what he intended in persecuting Israel. He intended to subdue and crush Israel. Instead, as he hammered against them, Israel grew and thrived.
9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.
“The best laid schemes of mice and men,” wrote Robert Burns,”Go often awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” Behold the futility of earthly thinking detached from the mind and heart of God. Pharaoh perceives a threat, so he strikes out with rage. God perceives His promise, so He prospers with grace and love. What Pharaoh intended for evil, God intended for good. Pharaoh’s inflictions did not have the desired result.
12 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.
Instead of realizing the shallowness and faultiness of their own carnal minds, the Egyptians simply upped their devious efforts.
13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
But the harder they hit, the more the people of God prospered. How could this be? For one thing, Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel had the undoubtedly unintended consequence of shaking God’s people out of their complacency and reminding them that Egypt was not their home. The cruelty of Pharaoh awoke the people to the reality of their comfort in a foreign land. Perhaps Israel, too, had forgotten. Perhaps, Israel, too, needed to be reminded of the covenant and of their covenant-keeping God.
Charles Spurgeon put it beautifully:
In all probability, if they had been left to themselves, they would have been melted and absorbed into the Egyptian race and lost their identity as God’s special people. They were content to be in Egypt and they were quite willing to be “Egyptianized.” To a large degree, they began to adopt the superstitions, idolatries and iniquities of Egypt. And these things clung to them, in later years, to such a terrible extent that we can easily imagine that their heart must have turned aside very much towards the sins of Egypt. Yet, all the while, God was resolved to bring them out of that evil connection. They must be a separated people—they could not be Egyptians, nor yet live permanently like Egyptians, for Jehovah had chosen them for Himself, and He meant to make an abiding difference between Israel and Egypt…In order to cut loose the bonds that bound them to Egypt, the sharp knife of affliction must be used; and Pharaoh though he knew it not, was God’s instrument in weaning them from the Egyptian world, and helping them as his church to take up their separate place in the wilderness, and receive the portion which God had appointed for them.
Amazing! Pharoah pushes the Israelites into enslavement…but at least they were enslaved together. And there, in their chains, they talk again of the old ways and of who they really are. They speak of the God of their fathers, of the covenant and the promises. They speak of their true home, the promised land, and, as they speak, their hearts turn Godward. They begin to pray again, to unite again. They grow discontent with this foreign home of oppression and yearn to walk in the will of God.
And God prospers them. Even in their misery, God prospers them. God blesses them with growth and with children and with a renewed sense of identity and purpose. Even through their tears, they live.
It is a blessed irony: Pharaoh’s oppression is used as an instrument of salvation in the hands of God.
III. The Irony of Fear Leading to Salvation Whereas Pharaoh Intended Fear to Lead to Annihilation (v.15-22)
Pharaoh panics. His plan is not working. So he comes up with something harder, something more diabolical, something positively demonic.
15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
He commands the midwives, “Kill the baby boys!” Surely they will do so, for Pharaoh has a weapon that has never failed him to this point: fear. These midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are but two women and he is the mighty Pharaoh. Surely they will tremble before him and they will obey. They will cower in fear before his might and do his bidding. Pharaoh intends to create fear in the midwives, and their murderous obedience will create fear in the Israelites, and the people of God will wilt and fall in their grief. That is Pharaoh’s plan: fear-induced annihilation.
But herein we find irony yet again. The midwives do indeed fear, but not as Pharaoh thought they would. He intended fear that would lead to annihilation. They feared, but it led to Israel’s salvation. Why? Because they feared another more than they feared Pharaoh.
17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Pharaoh intended fear to lead to annihilation, but, in fact, fear led to salvation as the midwives feared God more than Pharaoh. As a result, the midwives are true heroes while Pharaoh is a true heel. It has been noted that Moses nowhere names Pharaoh. Certainly he could have. He does not name Pharaoh, but he does name these humble midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. This is almost certainly intentional. In doing this, Moses is almost certainly making a statement about the nature of true greatness. A mighty man who does not fear God is unworthy of a name, whereas two humble women who do are worthy of being named.
There is even further irony in this scene, as Victor Hamilton notes:
There is surely some irony in the fact that because the midwives befuddle this pharaoh, God gives each a house(hold). Most Egyptologists believe that “Pharaoh” in Egyptian means something like “Great House.” Those who pull the wool over the eyes of King Great House end up with their own houses.
The “Great House” will become homeless while the homeless will be given a great house. Ancient Egypt now must be dug out of the earth where it is buried, but Israel has a home and a name even now. It is an amazing irony, and one that we must heed!
Safe in the Hands of the Covenant-Keeping God
Indeed, Exodus 1 is pregnant with irony. Yet, undergirding it all, is a simple and profound truth: to be safe in the hands of the Covenant-Keeping God is to be in the safest place at all. Israel was allowed to go through great trials, yet the forgetfulness of God was not one of them. In fact, nothing could separate Israel from the love of God.
That is a truth that is at the very heart of the gospel. We who have been delivered from the bondage of sin, death, and hell cannot be separated from the love of God. We are safe in His hands. We are secure in His grace. He remembers. He never forgets. The promise at the end of Romans 8 was Israel’s promise as well as our own.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.