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. (Exodus 1:8-14)
Explanation of Passage
Verse 8 is clearly a transition in the text and in the history of redemption. All of Joseph’s generation had passed and there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. This is a more significant transition that we may realize at first glance. The language of the text is not so much implying that this new King was ignorant about Joseph, but he did not know him in that he did not honor Joseph, and more importantly that he did not know and reverence Joseph’s God, the One True God. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is an active rebellion and rejection of Joseph and his God.
In the new King’s rejection of Joseph, he looks at the people of Israel and sees how great they are, how God has multiplied them, and how productive and prosperous they are, and he starts shaking in his boots. So then he comes up with this plan. When verse 9 tells us that he “said to his people…”, “his people” is to be understood as his government officials, his advisers, and those in the inner ring. In verse 10 he says, “let us deal shrewdly with them,” or “wisely with them.” So this is not something that is a public broadcast out to the whole nation. It is an elitist Egyptian conspiracy against the Hebrew people. So they come up with a plan which they believe will hinder the growth and progress of the Hebrew people.
So at first, they are trying to act shrewdly with the people of Israel. Their purpose was to inflict them with heavy burdens as verse 11 says, yet I believe that purpose was disguised at first. At first they were just given specific tasks, which seemed necessary or at least wise and useful. They were to build these two store cities where food, supplies, and such things would be stored, maybe even a military store. After all, this was Joseph’s plan generations before, but now this storage effort is done in the name of false gods.
Basically, this was an effort to place economic oppression upon the very productive and fruitful Hebrews. The Hebrew fruitfulness was not just children, but economic and agricultural fruitfulness. This task to build these store cities would’ve taken the men away from their economic productivity and placed in service of the state doing public works projects.
But what’s the problem for the Egyptians? God continues to bless the people of Israel. The more they are oppressed the more they are blessed. So this strikes a great fear and dread into the Egyptians for the people of Israel. What kind of God continues to multiply a people that is being burdened with heavy burdens? So, a sign of things to come, the Egyptians dig their heels in and crank up the oppression. Now the Israelites are no longer doing specified public works projects, they are ruthlessly worked in all kinds of work, such that their lives were made bitter. And this goes on for years.
Dominion versus Tyranny
What we have is a conflict of religion and ethics between the Egyptians and Hebrews, which is setting the stage for the building conflict in the Exodus story. To us in our modern eyes, we might initially see our passage today as more of just a political conflict. While that is a true part of it, that is simply an outworking of the religious and ethical conflict. As modern people we typically fail to see the religious nature of all of life, and the inescapable religious nature of politics. Government, politics, economy, industry, and family were all out-workings of religion for the Egyptians and Hebrews. They are for us two and everyone inescapably – they were just more self-conscious of it than many today. But as there is nothing new under the sun, the Egyptian religion, at least the spirit of it, as it is played out in the political realm, is in the world today repackaged as progress, science, and professional opinion. So let us examine for a few minutes the religious and ethical conflict as it is played out in our text of Holy Scripture today.
First, just as a preliminary, I would have you note that as we read in verse 8, revolutionary regimes purposefully forget history. This is not a lack of education, it is the education. The education, an outworking of their religion. The Egyptians did not believe in historical chronology. Any Egyptologist will tell you, you simply cannot accurately date the chronology of Egypt based on the Egyptians own records, what little they made. Rebellion against time and history is rebellion against God because time and history are God’s. Time and history belong to the Creator who made all things. And we as creatures are not the creator and thus are placed in time and history by God and receive our time as a gift that we cannot change. As creatures, we are not and cannot be sovereign over time. And one of the problems of the ancient Egyptian religion is that they did not believe in the Creator/Creature distinction. They were polytheistic, believing in many gods, yet they were also Monophysites, meaning that they believed all had one nature. The Pharaoh was divine, but he was not just one of the gods, he was the gods. So they had no clear Creator/Creature distinction, and thus no proper categories of time and history.
So, according to his religion, the new king rejected time and history by rejecting Joseph and all the great and wonderful things he had done in and for Egypt to save and prosper her. That person and time did not exist according to this new king. Conveniently, this is the same spirit among the Marxists today who do not know our forefathers or their God, and they seek to destroy history – taking down monuments, blatant revisionist history in the text books, things like that. Forgetting history is a critical step for any totalitarian takeover. If you can get the people you want to oppress to forget their heritage, their people, and their place, then all they have is you. You are their people and place. And that is wicked and ungodly. And that is one reason we have begun our Church history series during our teaching time here at Hope Baptist. So contrast the new king of Egypt with what is a constant refrain throughout the life of Israel in Scripture – they are constantly told to remember this, remember that, remember how God did this and how God did that. God wants us to remember His great works, which are the story of history. Forgetting them is a great danger. Unlike this new king, let us never forget the goodness of God in all His works and kindness toward us in our lives and in the lives of our fathers. May we always be grateful for all of God’s provision throughout time that we might always have reason for thankfulness on our minds and so be armed against the enemy. Forgetfulness of God’s good works toward us is ingratitude.
Secondly, when people are forgetful of God’s goodness toward them and their fathers, and so become ungrateful to God, they then become fearful when they see God’s goodness toward others. The new king was fearful of the fruitfulness of the Hebrew people. Specifically, tyrants fear the thriving of their subjects, they fear God’s blessing of their subjects, their growth, productivity, and fruitfulness. Tyrants fear when their subjects grow in self-reliance. Tyrants need to be needed. This is why there is such a push of hatred from the regime media right now against the rise in homeschooling. They are fearful that more and more people are realizing that they don’t need the regime education for their children to be educated and successful. Tyrants need to be needed. This is why tyrants oppress and burden people with heavy burdens of bureaucracy and regulation and taxes and such – to stifle their growth and make themselves necessary to the lives of all. This is because if a religious state’s subjects are more prosperous, it shows they are not the ultimate or strongest God. It shows the state cannot provide better than the hard work of obedience under God. Egypt could not allow the Hebrews to grow more prosperous than the Egyptians, because it would’ve shown that the Egyptian religion was not necessary and that there may be a better and stronger God.
I would like to point out again here, that this was not a mere political conflict. It was deeply religious.
On the religious nature of the enslavement of the people of Israel by the Egyptians, Gary North writes, “The Egyptians wanted the fruits of godly behavior and God’s visible blessings without having to humble themselves before that God and His laws. They believed that by capturing God’s people, they could enslave God Himself. By enslaving the Israelites, they believed that it was possible to bring the God of the Israelites under subjection. This was a common belief of the ancient world: when a nation defeated another nation in battle, or otherwise subdued it, the gods of the defeated nation were themselves defeated. The Egyptians thought that they could trap the God of the Hebrews, as someone might ensnare a wild stallion, by capturing its ‘harem.’ They would use the Hebrews as living amulets or talismans – magical devices that could be manipulated in order to call forth powers of the gods. They understood that the Hebrews had a special relationship with a God who provided them with wealth and knowledge. They knew that it was better to enslave such a people (and such a God) than to destroy them.”
So essentially, if the Egyptians could harness the incredible productivity of the Hebrews to be used for their own benefit, used under their authority, and for their agenda, then Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods would be seen as the greater gods, for the Hebrew God would be subservient to them.
Third, oppression is not a strategy for victory. The thing that the Egyptians thought would bring them victory made them losers. The more the people of Israel were oppressed, the more they were blessed – the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. This reality is something that ought to be very hopeful for those who are being oppressed to various degrees. The oppressed can take comfort in knowing that their oppressors will not win, for they have chosen a losing strategy. God has placed it in the mouth of His people as they sing His praises throughout all ages in the songbook of the Church – many Psalms directly ask God to deliver the oppressed and judge those who do the oppressing. It is not wise to go up against the songs and prayers from God that His Church has been singing for a couple thousand years, and that Jesus Himself has been singing and praying through the voice of His Church. Being a tyrant is a losing strategy, and that means that should we find ourselves under such a regime, we should be glad that our victory is somewhere on the horizon.
Fourth, tyranny and statism are antithetical to the dominion mandate. Tyranny seeks to consolidate power into a centralized elite group or person. The dominion mandate given by God to Adam, confirmed again by God to Noah tells men that we are to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Tyranny saps up the necessary resources to take dominion, multiply, and “fill the earth.” Tyranny consolidates and takes, it does not multiply and bear fruit for others to enjoy. So who will win? A religion of consumption and self-preservation or a religion of productivity and fruit bearing? Consuming without producing is also a recipe for disaster. Consuming while oppressing the producer is a lot faster disaster.
The gods of Egypt have been thoroughly defeated, but their age old folly remains repackaged in our nation today. But this time we know the enemy’s playbook.
How to Take Over a People
So what is our counterattack? What plays do we run? The Hebrews were basically overrunning Egypt. How do we do that?
First, through conversion by preaching the gospel. The gospel has been clearly revealed in Jesus Christ which we are to preach unto all nations. It is the power of God, undefeatable. It is a powerful weapon which not only adds one to our side, but takes one from the enemy’s side.
Second, multiplication through having children. We’ll talk more about babies next week, so suffice it to say that the Hebrews were having much more children than the Egyptians, and the Egyptians saw that and were afraid. Today’s secularists are not having children. The opportunity is ripe to outproduce them very quickly.
Third, through economic productivity. Pharaoh saw this in the Hebrews and wanted to take it for his own and use it for his own public works projects. He sought to squash the Hebrew productivity and increase state productivity. Yet, God continued to bless the Hebrews. The more inflation and other forms of economic oppression we face the more we will be tempted to despair in our productive efforts. But we ought not because like the Hebrews God can make our efforts bear forth great fruit even with the enemy trying to pick it all for himself. God can produce more fruit than the enemy can take for himself.
Whether it is conversions through preaching, multiplication through child bearing, or business production, uncontrolled growth – growth outside the bureaucratic plan – is a destabilizing factor for planned economies.
In all these things, we need to be wise and obedient to Christ. When verse 10 tells us that they planned to deal shrewdly with Israel, that language is serpent language. The imagery of the Pharaoh being the seed of the serpent is beginning. Our job is to outwit the serpent as Christ did and do so remaining innocent and pure as Christ did. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wits plus ethics in action is dominion taking.
As we think about these things, we have to recognize that the people of Israel lived this bitter life of slavery for a long time. For many years that were under bitter and hard service. Many of them died in that condition. It is quite a while until they are delivered and given the victory. For now and a while, their lives are bitter and hard beyond imagination. Why did God allow them to experience such bitterness and difficult and hard service? Why did He put them through that? There are probably a great number of reasons, but one stands above them all, and that is that men might look upon their estate and see the suffering servant, the only Savior of the souls of men and the only Healer of Nations, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the true and ultimate Israel and in looking upon the condition of the former Israel we look through their circumstances to the circumstances of The Light which created this shadow in Scripture.
The Hebrews suffered for a long time, but it is nothing to the suffering of our Lord. The Hebrews were yet sinners, a number of them even apostatizing under this. Yet Jesus Christ is the pure light and treasure of heaven, second person of the Holy Trinity who put on human flesh. He is utterly without sin. Therefore, one millisecond of such suffering that He endured is an incomprehensibly large length of time for such a pure one to suffer. The purity and holiness of Jesus Christ makes the time of His suffering far greater than what it seems to our eyes. He was not a sinner deserving of pain and suffering. He is the sinless one.
Yet this is what Christ did, and He did it for our sins, and the angels of heaven gasp in utter amazement when they see it. Christ bore our burdens – He bore our sin on His shoulder as He nailed it to the cross. He condescended to the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2. He drank our bitter cup of wrath for our sin. He tasted bitterness, that we might not live forever in bitter agony.
Furthermore, consider how the more the people of Israel were oppressed the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. When we look through to Christ we see that when He was crushed for our iniquity on the cross, it was for the sins of many. The more the judgment of God came down upon Him on the cross, the more His blood was spread abroad for sinners of all nations and peoples of the earth.
Maybe you are in here today and you recognize your life is of course way easier than the burdens the Hebrews bore in Egypt. Yet, if you’re honest, your life is pretty hard right now. Maybe you are absolutely wearied by your sin and your sin struggles, and you long to be free from it, yet it keeps piling heavier burdens on your back and putting more bitterness on your tongue. Maybe your sin struggle today is that you are toiling under the law. Working and working to be accepted by God. Maybe you have put yourself under the unbearable burdens and curse of the law and you feel like you are about to be crushed.
Wherever you are at, come to Jesus Christ today. Bring your burdens to Him. Bring your bitterness and your heavy load to Him. Bring your sin and all it’s entanglements to Him. Take the unbearable yoke of salvation by the law to Him and trade it in, trade in your sin for the yoke of Christ, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He does not seek to drive us into the ground like Pharaoh to the Hebrews. He Himself was already driven into the ground for us, and He rose up again. The work of our salvation is done and the law’s demands are accomplished for us by this Jesus Christ. His yoke is easy and His burden is light because He bore it all for us. So come to Him and have life, have rest.
As much as the tyranny of sin has hurt and scarred your life, Christ wins the contest with the serpent. As much as sin has destroyed, Christ gives life even more. Where there is sin, grace abounds all the more. Christ gives and restores more than is taken and destroyed. His forgiveness is greater than the sin we have committed. The healing in His wings is more thorough than the death sin brought. Christ wins the contest. His life is greater than death. The wages of Christ are greater than the wages of sin. The more we have sinned, the more grace abounds.
What love! How can this be? The love of Jesus Christ is beyond comprehension. Let us not be like the new king of Egypt and forget the love of Jesus Christ toward sinners as us. Let us never forget what He has done and given for us, lest we sin in becoming ungrateful and do not give thanks that is due to God for our salvation. We deserve to be enslaved to sin and Satan and destroyed forever. But in Christ, the more we sinned, the more Christ forgave, and we are made no longer slaves of sin and Satan, but slaves of Christ whose yoke is easy and burden is light.