The Lord’s great project to rescue his fallen creation from the baneful effects of sin did not cease with Joseph and his brothers. Ex. 1:1-7 has shown us that the Lord was with the people of Israel in creational blessing in order to achieve his saving purposes for the whole world.
But nothing is ever quite so straightforward. Everything looks to be in place for the deepening and widening of that blessing and for the liberation of the creation from its bondage to decay but, hold on, not so fast. There’s a great problem looming in v.8.
1. The cosmic conflict
A new king is on the throne, “who did not know Joseph”, which also means he did not know the Lord and was not in tune with the Lord’s purposes. The Pharaoh of Joseph’s day welcomed his whole family and knew, to some degree, that God’s blessing centred on this people. But this new king knows nothing of that and the upshot of his ignorance is going to be trouble.
Sin and evil are not going to be overcome without a great struggle. And whether his new king is aware of it or not, that struggle is of cosmic proportions and is going to be centred, in earthly terms, right under his nose in Egypt.
The Lord has blessed his people and is determined to make them a blessing to the whole world. But sin is not going to go quietly; Satan is not going to lie down and be a good boy. The very reason why there is a need for redemption – the presence of sin and evil in God’s good creation – will mean the most intense battle and a great burden of pain and suffering.
In just a few words, the opening of this book has set the scene for the rest of the Bible story. We’re dealing with a broken creation that is under the power of sin and death. To loosen that grip and rescue the creation is going to mean the LORD God doing battle with all the forces of evil and chaos.
And it is at the point where that clash takes place that the church ever finds itself. We need to understand that the battle has come a long way since those days in Egypt; in fact, the most decisive victory has been won by Jesus on the cross and nothing has ever been the same since. But until his return in glory, the war will continue; the outcome is not in doubt but still there is a fight to be fought and a race to be run.
We said last time that this opening chapter raises the issue of identity for us and here it is again. As the Lord’s people we are engaged in a holy war, in a cosmic struggle to see his good and gracious purposes for the world enacted. That means an approach to life that is ready to engage, appropriately, in the struggle.
2. Cursing those who are blessed
So, because he did not know Joseph, the new king feared the people of Israel and began to oppress them, enlisting the help of his own people against them. The battle lines have been drawn.
In vv.11-14, life got very uncomfortable for the people of Israel. They found themselves at the eye of the storm in the cosmic battle and suffered as a consequence. It is not possible to be the Lord’s agents of blessing in the world and not be called upon to suffer in order to take forward those gracious purposes.
Israel discovered that and were often reluctant to shoulder the burden. But the greatest pain was born by our Lord Jesus and not unwillingly. It was in him that the pain reached its most intense expression, it was in his life and ministry that the conflict came to be seen most clearly (just look at the number of demons he encounters).
Yet the calling to be agents of blessing in the world does not end with Jesus: “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” he tells his disciples. And in his ministry Paul is conscious that he is filling up in his body what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body (Col. 1:24). We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find the same being true in our own experience.
As the Lord blesses us as his people and seeks to further his purposes both in and through us we will find that trouble seeks us out, because the world, like this new king, does not know the Lord and does not know his people (as John tells us in 1 John 3:1).
But this trouble for Israel doesn’t thwart the Lord’s purposes back there in Egypt. Their almost miraculous growth in numbers was both the sign of his blessing on them and a signal for the battle to commence. And when the heat came down, he continued to bless them – “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (1:12).
Trouble will not cause the Lord to leave the field or go soft on his purposes. As Israel was oppressed, so she grew. How often that has been seen in church history and can be expected to be seen in our own day, too.
3. Delivered by midwives!
But, as you might expect, the continued blessing of God on the people of Israel leads the new king to ‘up the ante’. He goes to the Hebrew midwives and orders them to kill the boys they deliver but to spare the girls. Again, the nature of this threat to life shows us that this is a conflict that has at its heart the very future of the creation and God’s purposes for it.
No doubt the new king made his point to the midwives with all the eloquence of power and intimidation, but they were not cowed. We aren’t dealing here with skilled politicians and diplomats but normal everyday women – but women of faith. When the Lord’s purposes are being challenged, it doesn’t necessarily require a national leader to sort things out; what counts more than anything is faith in God. That’s what we need to have.
Well, these valiant ladies refused to obey the king and allowed the boys to live. When the king demanded to know why they told him that the Hebrew women were so strong they’d got it all sorted before they could get there (they were lying, of course).
So, the battle is plain for all to see and so, too, are the tactics the Lord’s people are to use: deception. Really? Well, the Lord certainly blessed Shiphrah and Puah, giving them families of their own.
No doubt there are many who would want to take issue with what I’ve just said. Surely lying has no part to play in furthering the Lord’s purposes in the world? Are we to lie to potential converts and tell them that following Jesus is a pain-free experience?
What are we to say about this incident? Isn’t lying wrong? Shouldn’t they simply have told the truth and trusted the Lord to save them? I think there are a number of things to bear in mind here. This is what we might call a no-win situation for the midwives and they choose to do the lesser of two evils. The reason they do so is out of reverence for life, which is a reverence for the Lord of life.
They weren’t told by the Lord to lie but, in this complex and highly pressured situation, it was, in its own way, an expression of their faith in the Lord. The same would later be true of Rahab when she lied about the spies and was commended for her faith.
It’s all too easy at this distance and in our safe and cosy environment to debate the rights and wrong of this sort of behaviour but there are times when life is very complex, when we are faced with less than attractive options on all hands. What we must not fail to see in these women is their genuine commitment to life because of a genuine commitment to the Lord. The fight is sometimes very messy and we may as well acknowledge it.
But there’s only so much these women can do; the battle is far bigger, far more intense. Although we can see that the Lord has been active in blessing his people, so far he has stayed firmly behind the scenes. The question could fairly be asked, where is the Lord? And that becomes even more urgent when in v.22 Pharaoh orders that “every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile”.
What will become of his people now? The stage is nicely set for a deliverer to arise and for the Lord to show himself clearly in the lives of his people. Just as in the fullness of time, he sent forth his son to be born of a woman...