Afflicted & Fruitful | Exodus 1

As we look at this first chapter, we will read of the events that set the scene for the remainder of the book, particularly of God’s marvelous redemption within the first fourteen chapters. Here we see the people of Israel enslaved and slaughtered under the cruel hand of Pharaoh, yet in the midst of such affliction, we are told again and again and again that God continued to make His people fruitful and strong.

THE END OF PATRIARCHS // VERSES 1-7

Within these first verses, Moses gives to us a transition from the days of Genesis to the time of Exodus. The phrase these are the names is also made in Genesis 46:8 as well as being a variation of the phrase that Genesis is structured around: these are the generations… (Genesis 2:4, 6:9, 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2). Of course, beyond this phrase is the list of Jacob’s twelve sons, the patriarchs of Israel, who all settled down to live in Egypt during the great famine that came upon the earth. They were spared through God’s providence since their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, had become Pharaoh’s right hand. And being a man of dreams and visions, God gave Joseph the interpretation to Pharaoh’s dreams about the coming famine. Thus, out of his love for Joseph, Pharaoh had invited all of Joseph’s family to come dwell with him in the best of Egypt’s land.

While none of this is explicitly restated here, Moses clearly expects his readers to be familiar with Genesis before entering into the story of the Exodus. Within Moses’ own day, this was likely because many of the Israelites needed to be refamiliarized with their family history. After all, spending four hundred years in a foreign country is not traditionally the greatest way to form a strong national identity.

For us, we can take these words as a reminder that no one’s life is lived in a vacuum. While we may not know the names of our great, great, great grandparents, we would not be here without all thirty-two of them. Of course, many today tend to believe in absolute personal autonomy to such a degree that they believe themselves to be untethered from the events of the past nor responsible for the events to come (with the convenient exception of climate change!). Yet the reality is that, like the Israelites in Egypt, our lives have been shaped by those who have gone before us as well. But we will return to that thought a little later.

After informing us in verse 6 that the last generation of the patriarchs died away, verse 7 then tells us but the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. This verse should bring, at least, two passages from Genesis back to our minds. The first is the creation mandate (or the first commission) that God gave to Adam and Eve, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The second is the famous scene from Abraham’s life where God called the man of faith outside his tent to look up at the stars and asked him to number them, saying, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). The Israelites, you see, were carrying on both God’s creational blessing and His particular blessing to Abraham as they multiplied across the land, so what could possibly go wrong? It turns out that, while God promises to bless His people, they are also destined for affliction (1 Thessalonians 3:3).

A NEW KING OVER EGYPT // VERSES 8-14

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.

After the Pharaoh whom Joseph served died, a new king of Egypt replaced him. This king had not known Joseph and clearly did not feel any sense of loyalty to Joseph’s family as they continued to multiply in Egypt. In fact, rather than remembering how Joseph’s wisdom saved all of Egypt from the great famine and forced the surrounding nations to beg at their door for food, the new king saw the Israelites as a threat to Egypt’s security. Since they were not Egyptian, he feared that they might side with a warring nation during a military conflict. Thus, this Pharaoh sought to subdue the strength of the Israelites by enslaving them and using them to build up Egypt, particularly through two store cities.

Interestingly, although Pharaoh tells his people that they must deal shrewdly with the Israelites, his wisdom is not very shrewd. Even though his very fear of the Israelites is that they would prove to be traitors within his midst, he also worries that they would escape from the land. He is both afraid of their presence and of their absence, so he settles upon some good old-fashioned subjugation.

However, none of this could end well for Pharaoh. Back in Genesis 12, Abraham (although he was called Abram then) took a trip down to Egypt because of a famine. While in Egypt, the Pharaoh at that time took Abraham’s wife as his own, for Abraham said that she was his sister. Verse 17 then tells us, “But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” This was, of course, the first real display of God’s commitment to bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who cursed him (Genesis 12:3). Thus, if Egypt had already been stricken by plagues because of Abraham’s wife only a few generations before, would it not get stricken again because of Abraham’s offspring, especially when this Pharaoh actively sought the Israelites’ harm!

But while Egypt would certainly be devastated by the LORD on Abraham’s behalf, God did not intervene right away. Rather, for four hundred years (see Genesis 15:13), the Egyptians ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 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. Indeed, lest we think that the Bible is exaggerating by calling their enslavement ruthless, consider this ancient description of an Egyptian master inspecting his slaves upon the Nile:

Now the scribe lands on the shore. He surveys the harvest. Attendants are behind him with staffs, Nubians with clubs. One says [to him]: ‘Give grain.’ ‘There is none.’ He is beaten savagely. He is bound, thrown in the well, submerged head down. His wife is bound in his presence. His children are in fetters.[1]

Does this not beg us to ask the age-old question: why? Why would God let His people suffer for so long in slavery? Perhaps even more significantly, why did He ever bring them down into Egypt in the first place? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob already lived their lives as sojourners in the Promise Land of Canaan, so why did God take His people into this foreign land to be made slaves?

A. W. Pink notes one potential reason for Israel’s slavery, saying:

But why did God allow the descendants of Abraham to suffer such indignities and trials at the hands of the Egyptians? Ah, does not the book of Genesis again supply the answer! Was the wicked treatment of Joseph by his brethren to pass unpunished? No, that could not be. They, like all others, must reap what they had sown; reap the bitter harvest not only themselves but in their offspring too, for the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. So it proved here, for it was the “fourth generation” (Gen. 13:15) which came out of Egypt. Four generations, then, reaped the harvest, and reaped precisely “whatsoever” had been sown; for just as Joseph was sold in slavery, and carried down into Egypt, so in Egyptian slavery his brethren and their children suffered![2]

Again, we might initially revolt against such a thought because we think ourselves to be largely severed from our forefathers, but it is, nevertheless, a cold, hard reality of life in this broken, sin-scarred world of ours. Of course, we should be careful to note that no child will ever be damned by God because of the sins of his or her parents. We are each only condemned by our own sins. Even still, children very often do carry earthly consequences of their parents’ sins with them throughout their lives. Just ask Canaan, who was cursed because of his wicked father, Ham. Or ask any child with a physical or mental ailment due to their mother’s drug habit while pregnant. Let this remind us again that we do not live our lives in a vacuum. How we live our lives will have a very real, very lasting, consequence upon those who come after us, especially our children. Will we leave a legacy of faith and perseverance like Abraham or one of sin like Jacob’s sons?

Indeed, because of God’s eternal and unbreakable promise to Abraham, the Israelites were still His people. While it is impossible to fully answer any question of why God permits the suffering of His people, we know with great certainty that He does so for His people’s ultimate good and, most importantly, for His own glory, and the same is true here.

One of the benefits of the Israelites’ slavery was that it kept them from becoming Egyptian, from blending into the Egyptian society entirely. Given the wealth and power that Egypt possessed at that point in history (it was the most powerful nation in the world, after all!), would it not have been terribly easy for the Israelites to steadily become more and more Egyptian, especially whenever they lived in the best of Egypt’s land! In this way, God used slavery to keep the Israelites from being deceived away from the promises given to Abraham by the comforts and ease of Egypt, and He continues to use affliction to pull His peoples’ eyes away from the vaporous trinkets of this earth and onto the treasures that cannot be destroyed (Matthew 6:19-21).

Another benefit of slavery was the continued growth of Israel, as we read in verse 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. Spurgeon notes that this is always the pattern of how God works, saying:

Whenever there has been a great persecution raised against the Christian church, God has overruled it, as he did in the case of Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites, by making the aggrieved community more largely to increase. The early persecutions in Judea promoted the spread of the gospel; hence, when after the death of Stephen the disciples were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles, the result is thus given: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” So, too, when Herod stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church, and killed James, the brother of John, with the sword; what came of it? Why Luke tells us in almost the same words that Moses had used: “The word of God grew and multiplied.” Those terrible and bloody persecutions under the Roman Emperor by no means stayed the progress of the gospel; but strangely enough seemed to press forward for the crown of martyrdom. The church probably never increased at a greater ratio than as when her foes were most fierce to assail and most resolute to destroy her… The Reformation… never went on so prosperous as when it was most vigorously opposed. You shall find in any individual church that wherever evil men have conspired together, and a storm of opposition has burst forth against the saints, the heart of the Lord has been moved with compassion… Be patient, then, my brethren, amidst the persecutions or trials you may be called upon to bear; and be thankful that they are so often overruled for the growth of the church, the spread of the gospel, and the honor of Christ.[3]

With all of that in mind, now is a good time to call our attention to a theme that will be recurring in the book of Exodus and very much throughout the Bible: God seems to care very little about working in ways that we might call efficient or practical, and He certainly steers clear of comfortable and convenient. Of course, these are the very hallmarks of human wisdom, since we will almost always judge the wisdom of an action by its efficiency, practicality, comfortability, and/or conveniency. God, however, loves to flip human wisdom on its head by working so far beyond anything that we can even ask or think. He loves to remind us that we are characters in His story, not the other way around, by showing us that we exist on His time and in dependence of Him. Four hundred years is a greater period of time than the age of the United States, yet for the Maker of time, it held no more weight than a fraction of second. The LORD operates for His glory on a scale that we cannot begin to fathom. Thus, let us live in light of that truth, as a people who know that the hard road leads to life, that losing our lives is best way to preserve them, that humility is only path to exaltation. Let us forsake human wisdom in favor of acting according to what will give the most glory to God.

THE SEED & THE SERPENT // VERSES 15-22

After God already flipped Pharaoh’s best wisdom upon its head by multiplying Israel through the very slavery that was intended to keep them from multiplying, the king set his mind upon another solution to the Israelite problem: infanticide.

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.”

The extermination of boys rather than girls makes sense given Pharaoh’s military paranoia. Hebrew girls could easily become Egyptian servants, even wives, but boys would grow up to be men who could wield swords, spears, and bows. Of course, didn’t men also constitute Pharaoh’s workforce? Explaining the logic of this plan, Stuart notes that:

If the policy were successful and the Israelite numbers were reduced sufficiently, it could simply be suspended at any time. Males would not die off suddenly. Since all males already above infancy age were allowed to live and grow up to adult slavery, this was obviously a long-term policy of population control. Its impact would be primarily psychological at first, and only as years went by and boys who would have lived did not reach fighting age would it begin to have real effect on the internal security situation—that is, about twenty years later.[4]

But, again, Pharaoh’s plans do not work as intended. Pharaoh was clearly so sure of his authority as king that he truly expected Shiphrah and Puah to go from delivering babies to slaughtering them. Thankfully, however:

But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

The midwives feared God more than they feared Pharaoh, which gave them the courage to disobey his direct order, risking execution and/or torture. While there is much debate over whether or not the midwives lied to Pharaoh and whether or not they sinned in doing so, we do not have time here to enter into that debate. I hope throughout this series to address such matters later in the week. For now, I will simply say that, while their words could have been technically true, they seem to be clearly deceiving Pharaoh. But, no, I do not think their deception was sinful. The text itself seems to confirm this by telling us that God dealt well with the midwivesand because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. The LORD directly rewarded their deceiving report to Pharaoh. Why?

Although the text does not tell us, the Israelites reading what Moses wrote would have certainly known that Pharaoh’s headdress was often adorned with a cobra. This is significant because Pharaoh is very much playing the part of the Serpent. Recall that back in Genesis 3:15, God prophesied to the Serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This, indeed, is one of the many battles throughout history between the Serpent and woman, between his offspring and her Offspring. It is, therefore, no mistake that Moses records this conflict of infanticide as primarily occurring between Pharaoh and two Hebrew midwives. Pharaoh, in his arrogance, became the Serpent’s offspring, a son of Satan, desiring to strike out the lives of little children. And when the midwives would not accomplish the task, he only doubled down: 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.”

We do not know how many Hebrew boys were slaughtered in Egypt, but we do know that women like Shiphrah and Puah risked their own lives to save as many as they could. And although they may have appeared powerless next to Pharaoh, they are the ones that ultimately prevailed in battle. Moses alludes to their triumph over Pharaoh by recording their names, while purposely withholding his. Indeed, its almost like Moses is depicting Pharaoh as having lost something of his humanity, becoming nothing more than his office. You see, Pharaoh’s name and legacy are doomed to be forgotten, both presently and in the age to come. Shiphrah and Puah, however, received an earthly blessing and shall also receive an eternal reward. By fearing God, these women cast their faith upon the Offspring of woman that was to come, the One who would crush the Serpent’s head with His bruised heel.

They looked forward to that day, while we look back upon it. But even with Christ’s defeat of Satan through the cross, the war continues on for a little while longer. We see this very clearly in the infanticide that continues to be committed, known as abortion. Here there is not one figure like Pharaoh who is ordering the slaughter; instead, the Serpent whispers lies of success and comfort that will be more conveniently gained without children (notice how he often works through worldly wisdom).

One day, this too shall pass. Christ will soon return to make His triumph known visibly by remaking the cosmos, and all such sin and death will forever be destroyed. Until that day, even as we lament such continued atrocities as abortion, even as we hear news of the present-day suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and even as we ourselves walk through trials and afflictions, let us give thanks that the gospel will never cease to prevail and that the gates of hell will not stand against Christ’s church. Indeed, let us rejoice that, under our Father’s sovereign hand, our affliction yields fruitfulness for His kingdom.


[1] Cited from Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 30.

[2] A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, 11-12.

[3] Cited in Ryken, Exodus, 32-33.

[4] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, 78-79.

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