This week sees us finds us at the beginnning of Exodus in the OT/HB readings and in a section of Matthew’s gospel that begins to introduce more overtly, the opposition Jesus and his followers will face.
Exodus is vital for our understanding of covenant (cf. 2:24), atonement and salvation (see the final plague or act in Exodus 12), and political theology (it is particularly poignant to read of Israel’s harsh treatment at the hands of the oppressive Pharoah on this week of all weeks). In this week’s section, it is the nature and character of God that stands out. In particular, we encounter God’s presence and his name. We are re-introduced once more to the care and concern of a God who is concerned present or “with” his people (see the references to God being with Israel in 3:12, 18; 4:12, 15; 5:3, picking up on God’s promises to be with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob throughout Genesis). And we read the amazingly rich account of God revealing his name, in three stages, to Moses in Exodus 3.
In Matthew, we begin with a cycle of miracles and healings (8:18-9:38) that introduce Jesus’s power over nature and illness and his ability to forgive sins. Dark clouds of opposition appear as Jesus is accused both of having a demon and blaspheming. Matthew then introduces the second block of teaching (after the Sermon on the Mount, 5-7) with the missionary sermon/sending of the 12 (Matthew 10). This section introduces further promises of opposition and hardship for thsoe who follow Jesus (cf. 10:24-25 which neatly connects the opposition Jesus encounters with the expectation his followers should have of similar treatment). Chapter 11 introduces further disputes over fasting, woes on unrepentant Jewish cities. This week’s readings then conclude with two disputes about the Sabbath (12:1-21). The question this week deals with Pharoah’s enslavement of the Israelites.
Old Testament (Exodus 1-6)
1. Exodus 1:10: why does Pharaoh enslave the Israelites?
First of all, is there historical evidence for the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites? Even on a minimalist reading of the historical evidence, there would seem to be good plausibility for some Hebrew presence in Egypt in the thirttenth century BC. Jeffrey Tigay in the Jewish Annotated Bible writes the following on historicity (for a more maximalist approach, listen to this episode from Undeceptions with James Hoffmeier)
So if there was enslavement, then why was it going on? Exodus 1:10 states that Pharoah enslaves the Egyptians for three reasons: he fears that they would multiply further, join Egypt’s enemies in war and take control of the land.
- Multiplying: the people of Israel were fulfilling the creation mandate pretty well. We are told, they “had increased”–literally, swarmed like the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea (1.20). The people of Israel were fruitful and had multiplied (see 1.22). There is strength in numbers and Pharoah fears that the Egyptians will be overpowered by the growing family of Jacob’s descendants, the people (עַם) of Israel.
- War: more specifically, he fears that in war (we are not told with whom), the Israelites would join Pharoah’s enemies and defeat the Egyptians.
- Take control of the land: this verse reads in some translations as “escape the land”. That’s interesting because this fear would have some truth to it, as eventually the Israelites do wish to escape the oppressive persecution of Pharoah and to worship God and offer sacrifices freely to him outside Egypt. Other translations read “take control of the land”, which would also make sense in the aftermath of war.
Pharoah’s persecution has the opposite effect: the more the people of Israel are oppressed, the more they grow (1.12). He then turns to infanticide.
Finally, it is important to note that the slavery of Pharoah competes with Israel’s worship of God (the same word is used for worship and slavery; cf 3:12, עָבַד). But the differences between the two “powers” demanding servitude and worship could not be starker. Pharoah enslaves the Israelites out of fear and treats them harshly. God demands the Israelites’ worship. But he also offers them his loving protection and presence and eventual freedom from oppression. He is not aloof from or apathetic to their suffering. On the contrary, he “sees”, “hears” and “is concerned”. This is a classic text that demonstrates God’s divine pathos.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
List of Questions
- Exodus 2:1: what is the significance of Moses being of the Levite tribe?
- Exodus 3:1: why was it known as the mountain of God?
- Exodus 3:1: so who is Reuel?
- Exodus 3:2-3: why a burning bush?
- Exodus 3:14: what is the meaning of this verse?
- Exodus 3:20: what does it mean for God to “stretch out his hand”?
- Exodus 3:22: how ethical is the plundering of the Egyptians?
- Exodus 4:10: what does it mean for Moses to be slow of speech?
- Exodus 4:16: what does it mean for Moses to be like God to Aaron?
- Exodus 4:24-26: why does God nearly kill Moses? And why does Zipporah’s circumcising of Moses stay his hand?
- Exodus 5:22: where does Moses return to to speak with God? Mount Horeb?
- Exodus 6:12 what does it mean to have uncircumcised lips?
- Matthew 8:22: what is the meaning of this saying?
- Matthew 8: what does it mean to rebuke the wind? What does this say about God and nature?
- Matthew 8:28: why does Matthew have two demon possessed men and Mark has one?
- Matthew 8:32: a bit harsh on the pigs and pig farmers? What does this say about God and nature?
- Matthew 9:9-13: what does Jesus’s choice of associates say about him?
- Matthew 9:16-17: how do these verses relate to fasting?
- Matthew 9:27: why two blind men when Mark has one?
- Matthew 9:29: is healing according to faith?
- Matthew 10:13: how does one’s peace return?
- Matthew 10:34-39: what do these difficult verses mean in context?
- Matthew 10: how do we make sense of and apply these instructions today?
- Matthew 11:12-15: what do these verses mean?
- Matthew 11:28-30: why the references to husbandry (yoke and burdens)?
- Acts 1:20: how common is this kind of proof texting of the Psalms?
- Acts 1:26: how common was the practice of lot casting among early Jews and Christians in this period? What did people think they were doing when casting lots?