One of the stories that has dominated the news the past several years is the plight of the refugees – millions of refugees. I’m sure all of us would say that our hearts go out to those who have lost their homes, or have had to flee their homes because of war and killing in their homeland. We’ve seen pictures and videos of them risking their lives in overcrowded, rickety boats crossing the Sea, or trekking for miles along the roads and through the fields. Seeing all this reminds us of how much we have to be grateful for and how much we probably take for granted. I’m sure none of us will go to bed tonight with the fear that while we sleep a bomb might flatten our house.
A number of countries have been quite generous and hospitable in welcoming the refugees. At the same time, other people have concerns about refugees entering their country. Of course, there are a few racists who simply do not want people in their homeland who are different than they are. But in addition, others have concerns simply because there are so many refugees entering their country, and in the case of some European countries, they have been for many years, so they already make up a sizeable percentage of the population. They speak a different language, adhere to a different religion, have different values, abide by a noticeably different way of life, and sometimes show little interest in adopting to the host culture. In some cases, the birth rate is significantly higher among the immigrant population compared to the host country, so some people fear what their country will be like in several generations.
How would it make you feel if this was your country? Would you be able to put fear aside and welcome the many refugees? Or would you feel afraid? Uneasy? Nervous? Concerned about the future of your homeland which seems like it’s hardly your homeland anymore? It’s hard to see your country become something different than you have known.
This also illustrates how very contemporary the Bible is. For back in the Old Testament we find a very similar situation. Recall how a young Israelite named Joseph was sold by his brothers. He was taken as a slave to Egypt where he was falsely accused of a crime and put in prison. A number of years later he correctly interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream that there would be seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of famine. So in gratitude for interpreting the dream, the Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of storing grain during the years of abundance and then distributing the grain when the famine struck.
Just as Joseph interpreted, after the seven years of abundant harvests, the famine struck – not just in Egypt but in the surrounding regions as well. Joseph’s own family, still living in the land of Canaan to the north of Egypt, eventually came to Egypt in search of food. Even though these were the brothers who sold him many years ago, in the end Joseph welcomed them for he saw how God used their treachery to place Joseph just where he needed to be so years later he could prepare Egypt for the coming famine. The Pharaoh also welcomed Joseph’s family, which numbered about 70 people, and he gave them the best part of the country to live in and tend their herds, a very fertile part of the country called Goshen. More than 300 years passed, and then we read in Exodus 1:6-10:
Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.
Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
The Pharaoh surveyed the land and it seemed wherever he looked there were more Israelites. Of course, he was glad to have them because of the free labor they provided. But now there were so many he was afraid, and so he decided to deal shrewdly with them. You can hardly blame the Pharaoh. In fact, some might call it wise leadership on his part. He saw a potential problem, a problem that as he saw it could threaten the well-being of his country, and so he was taking steps to thwart it before things got out of hand.
While that approach may seem wise at a human level, the Pharaoh did not bother to check this out with God. Of course, since the Egyptian rulers back then were viewed to be divine themselves, the Pharaoh certainly saw no need to consult with the God of these multiplying Israelites who were but foreign slaves in his land.
In the coming weeks we will look at how this all played out as we study the book of Exodus and look especially at how God used one man named Moses. Moses was far from perfect, but in the end he was surrendered to God, and thus God was able to use Moses in incredible ways. There are many lessons for us to learn from the events of the book of Exodus and from the life of Moses.
The word “exodus” comes from two Greek words. The first is the word “ek” which means “out of” and the second is the word “hodos” which means “road” or “way”. So exodus refers to “the way out.” God provided the Israelites with a way out of their Egyptian bondage. God delivered them from slavery. In this sense, the principles we see in the book of Exodus still apply to us today, because God hasn’t changed; He still delivers His children from bondage.
There are, of course, many things that can have power over us, that can grab hold of us and enslave us. Only God is strong enough to deliver us from these things. It may be a particular sin that we can’t break free from. It may be negative or destructive attitudes that we can’t shake. We may be controlled by pride, or beaten down with guilt over past sins. It could be unhealthy ways of relating to others. Or it may be shame, either over something we did or perhaps over something that was done to us. Perhaps we are consumed with bitterness toward someone who wronged us. Maybe selfishness rules our lives, or emptiness and meaninglessness engulfs our lives. There may be certain dispositions, such as laziness or apathy, that rule our lives. Or perhaps we are crippled by certain fears, and these fears enslave us.
The truth is, we are all in need of deliverance, a way out of our predicaments. And the good news is that God is still the same God He was more than 3,000 years ago with the Israelite slaves who needed deliverance. God is still there for us, to free us from those things that we do not have the strength to break free from on our own. As we look to God and depend on God, He will provide us with an exodus, with a way out.
But it’s not only deliverance that we need. What we need most of all is the Deliverer. If it is only deliverance we seek, just being set free from something that controls or enslaves us, we will never know freedom and victory, for even if God should free us from what controls us at the moment, it won’t be long before something else fastens its grip on us. God has the power to free us from any earthly power or hold the evil one may have over us. But to experience on-going freedom, we must seek not only deliverance but the Deliverer.
It’s crucial that we seek, develop, and nurture a day-by-day relationship with the living God so that we can not only be set free but so that we can continuously live in freedom. And as we will see later in our study, just as God was daily with the Israelites in the cloud by day and the fire by night, so God will be with us every moment of every day to provide for us, to direct out lives, and to set us free from all that would rob us of the fullness of life God desires for us.
Not only are we all in need of both deliverance and the Deliverer, but was also need an anchor for our lives in the midst of a constantly changing world. As we read, a new king, or Pharaoh, came to power who had no idea who Joseph was or what he had done for the Egyptian people. When he saw all the Israelites he didn’t see the past assistance they brought to Egypt but rather he saw a future threat, and so he acted shrewdly toward the Israelites. Vs. 11-14 describe their plight:
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
Once the Israelites were privileged guests in Egypt; now they are slaves straining under the toil of their hard labor. Nothing in life stays the same, and their situation changed about as drastically as is possible.
We, too, experience change in our lives. Some changes are rather minor and we adjust to them with ease. But other changes are more challenging to deal with. Maybe you found yourself working for a new boss. Not only was he difficult to work for, but he had no knowledge of nor any interest in your past contributions. All of your hard work and long hours are now irrelevant. It used to be a joy to get up every morning and go to a job you loved. Now it’s a chore that brings you no pleasure.
Or perhaps you’ve had to deal with a sudden change in your family life. Maybe death robbed you of a family member. Or a major illness struck you or someone close to you. Or out of the blue the one who vowed to share all of life with you walked out the door. All of a sudden you have to make major readjustments to your life.
Or simply the aging process brings change to our lives. Some of that is good; we become more mature and experienced and hopefully wise. But then we start on the downhill side of that trajectory, and try as we might we just can’t do all the things we used to. One of the few things we can be sure of in life is change.
But if change is a sure thing, even more sure is the presence of God with us to help us adapt to those changes, as Israel would experience in dramatic ways. The circumstances of life may change, but God never changes. God is the sure and solid anchor to hold us steady in the midst of even tumultuous change. As Scripture reminds us, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He has promised that He will never leave or forsake us.
So when change is thrust upon us, change that we would not have chosen, it gives us the opportunity to trust in God in new ways. It provides the soil in which the roots of our faith can deepen and our trust in God can grow stronger. If life were both constant and constantly good, our faith would remain weak, anemic, and immature. For then we would never have to really trust in God. But when change swirls about us and redirects our lives in unexpected ways, we are pushed to trust in God in new ways. And then we discover that God is still there for us, His love remains constant, and He is always faithful.
Related to change, we can also expect a certain amount of conflict and opposition in life. For the Israelites this meant more than forced labor. It also became a fight for survival. We read of this in the rest of Ex. 1, beginning at vs. 15:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
First Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites with forced labor, then he tried to reduce their population by killing all the male babies. No way could Joseph and his family have anticipated the conflict that would come to their descendants in Egypt.
Most of us don’t like conflict and unsettling circumstances, and we’d just as soon avoid opposition. When people turn against us or when circumstances take a turn for the worse we may become angry, or sink into depression, or ask God, “Why.” Yet we can be sure that God is at work. And sometimes God’s purpose is to disrupt our lives, to unsettle us to the point of motivating us to move on to the next thing God has for us – something we would not embrace if our circumstances remained pleasant and satisfying.
For a long while the Israelites were happy in Egypt. They were together as a family. When Joseph’s family arrived, the Pharaoh of that time gave them Goshen, the best of the land (Gen. 47:6). Their needs were taken care of. Why move on when you’re in a good place already?
Imagine if there would have been no cruel Pharaoh ruling in Egypt, abusing the Israelites as slaves and killing their children, if things remained pleasant and happy for the Israelites. When Moses returned to Egypt after tending sheep in the wilderness for 40 years and said to the Israelites, “The living God has brought me here to lead you out of Egypt,” how do you think the Israelites would have responded? They probably would have said, “What? We’re not going anywhere. This is our home. We like it here. It’s safe. The land is productive. It’s a good place to raise our children. Nice health benefits. An attractive retirement program. An excellent quality of life. We’re staying put!”
But God’s purpose for Israel was not for them to remain in Egypt; His purpose was that they would make their home in the Promised Land. Apart from the conflict, hardship, and opposition they encountered from the new Pharaoh, it’s unlikely that the Israelites would have been motivated to leave Egypt no matter what Moses would have told them. Why would they want to uproot themselves from what had become their home and try to settle in a land already inhabited by others – some of whom were fierce and cruel and certainly would not have rolled out the welcome mat for them?
Sometimes God needs to prod us to leave our comfort zones, to be willing to risk taking a step of obedience into the unknown. Without some kind of conflict or some kind of unfavorable circumstances, we’re usually content to remain where we are. As long as we are happy in Egypt, it’s difficult to step out in faith and begin moving toward the Promised Land.
Now I should clarify that just because we have encountered some kind of conflict or challenge, that doesn’t automatically mean God is calling us to move on. Sometimes God’s purpose is that we stay and grow where we are. If, for instance, we find ourselves with a new boss who makes work miserable, it could be God’s way of nudging us to make a change we would not have considered if our job were going well. Or it could be that God is calling us to stay, and grow in patience and perseverance, to learn to love someone who is difficult to love. It takes wisdom and discernment and perhaps the counsel of others to know the difference – should I leave or stay, go or grow?
Either way, God has called us to be a pilgrim people. We must beware of becoming stationary in our walk with Christ. Unpleasant circumstances may be God’s way of moving us on to a new step of obedience. Or they may be God’s way of moving us on in our growth in Christ and growth in character as we persevere through the challenges. Either way, God’s call is for us to move on with Him, for to remain in the same place is to become stagnant in our faith. And God’s purpose for us is that we enjoy the adventure of growing and changing and developing as His disciples as we follow Christ day-by-day.
We are a pilgrim people, always moving toward Christ in growing faith, maturing Christ-likeness, and increasing obedience, and obstacles or roadblocks are sometimes the means God uses to direct our growth. As the outstanding missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, once wrote, “It doesn’t matter how great the pressure is; what really matters is where the pressure lies. Whether it comes between you and God or presses you nearer His heart.” The Israelites would discover that the pressure exerted on them by the new Pharaoh was a means God chose to bring them nearer to His heart and His purposes for them.
We are all on a spiritual journey. The book of Exodus, while it may seem ancient and far-removed from our world today, is a helpful guide for our journey, to help us live in such a way that the pressures of life press us nearer to the heart of God. For the book of Exodus, while describing the true-to-life experience of the Israelite people in their deliverance from Egypt, on another level pictures for us our own deliverance from sin, pride, fear, complacency, and all that would hold us captive.
And then it directs us to the source of forgiveness, freedom, and a life full of meaning and purpose. Through this book God calls us to set our feet in a new direction, to take new steps on the path of obedience, all the while anchoring our lives in the faithfulness of the unchanging God. As we do so we will discover a larger, more compelling vision of the greatness and faithfulness of God, and we will enjoy a new sense of His transforming power at work in our lives, helping us to become all God made us to be.