Exodus 1-2: The Lord remembers his people - 11th May 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Genesis 15:1-21

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Often people come to the Bible hoping to find an instruction book, but instead they find it to be a story book. That’s certainly the case with a part of the Bible like this section of Exodus that we’re studying over the next few months. We often say, don’t we, that the Bible is like an instruction manual for living in God’s world. But then you come to a chunk like today’s reading and you find it’s not like that. It’s story; it’s talking about things that happened to other people a long time ago and far, far away. Where are the instructions?

Of course there are parts of the Bible that give clear instructions on things, but then lots more is like this. It’s narrative; it’s story. Exodus in particular is a cracking story, no one can deny that. The big events – burning bush, plagues, Passover, red sea, mount Sinai – they’re massive, famous action sequences. But is it relevant for our lives? Because after all, action films are a lot of fun, but they don’t often teach us much about life, do they? You don’t watch Transformers or Die Hard to get good advice on how to live.

So how do we read a book like Exodus in a way that is useful to us? Because after all, we’re told in 2 Timothy 3:16 that ‘all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness.’ Paul, who wrote that, was talking principally about the Old Testament. That means Exodus. Even though it’s about people long ago and far away. The thing we need to keep in mind as we read Exodus if we’re going to find it useful for us is this: God is the hero of Exodus, and God has not changed. When we read Bible stories we often do it asking the question “what does this teach me about myself?” That’s not the best question to ask. If we really want to see how the Bible is relevant we need to ask the question “what does this teach us about God?”

In Exodus we see God in action. And as we do that, we get to know him better. That’s the beauty of narrative, of story. If you want to get to know someone, you don’t just look at them and see what you can observe there and then – eye colour, what sort of clothes they wear etc. You want to know their story, if you really want to understand them. As we read Exodus we will get to know God’s story. We’ll see how he relates to his people, how he reacts to enemies etc. And in fact as we go through the story it’s like we’re up close with them – it’s like we walk through the events with God and his people. Up close, in the action in the way that we’re not if we’re just hearing about stuff we should do. This is God’s story. And so it’s acutely relevant to us.

But in this first bit God doesn’t seem to be up close, he seems pretty distant. He had made promises long in the past. But now… nothing. Let’s get into the story.

Exodus 1:1-22  These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family:  2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah;  3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin;  4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.  5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.  6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died,  7 but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.  8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.  9 "Look," he said to his people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us.  10 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."  11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.  12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites  13 and worked them ruthlessly.  14 They made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.  15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah,  16 "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."  17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.  18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, "Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?"  19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, "Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive."  20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.  21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.  22 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."

So here’s where the story begins. If this were a film it would be the bit right at the start, before the main title music plays, shot in black and white with sad music playing over the top. The bleak beginning.

Except that it’s not really the beginning of the story, is it? This story began many hundreds of years before. That’s why we had that reading earlier on from Genesis. We know, because we’ve heard, that many years before this God made some specific promises. God called Abraham and told him that through his descendants he would restore this broken world. And so for that to happen he would make them into a great nation, and he would give them a good land to live in. That’s all there in the background. Exodus is not a whole new story, it’s more like a new chapter in an old story. The story of God’s plan to re-make the world. So how are things going in that story?

Well the writer flags it up straight away, doesn’t he? In one way, things are going great. Verse 5: the family of Israel, Abraham’s descendants, went down to Egypt as a group of seventy, and now, verse 7, there are lots of them. “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.” This is great! God’s promises to Abraham are being fulfilled! But it’s not all rosy, is it? They don’t have a land yet, do they? Far from it. They’re living in someone else’s land: Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. He is the big baddie on the scene. And straightaway, verse 9, Pharaoh starts trying to unpick God’s promises. He sees the very numerousness of the Israelites not as a blessing, but as a threat. So he starts doing everything he can to squash them back down.

So the stage is set. In the red corner, we have God, who has made his promises to his people, he has bound himself in covenant to them. In the blue corner we have Pharaoh, who in every way stands against God’s plans and his people. The battle lines are drawn. Who will win?

But before we get carried away with the action we need to remember, don’t we, that in the middle of this battle are the people. And at this point in the story, things look very bleak for them. It must have felt pretty terrible. Second class citizens in a powerful country; completely under the cosh of this tyrant ruler who increasingly wants to destroy them. It’s not nice is it? I mean, Pharaoh’s not just making life inconvenient for them; this is ruthless. In verse 14 it says he made their lives bitter. He’s going after their babies, for goodness sake. It doesn’t get more cruel and painful than that. And all the time God seems silent. There are no burning bushes or red sea crossings yet. At this point it’s all quiet.

It’s easy sometimes when we read Bible stories to think “oh it must have been easy for God’s people back then. God was doing such amazing miracles it must have been easy to keep trusting him.” That’s not the picture we have here though, is it? Here they are suffering acutely and God is not displaying his power. Over many years. Bits of the Bible like this are helpful to us precisely for that reason. Because often that’s where we live our lives: not in the heights of drama, more in the long periods of waiting. Not when God is all guns blazing, more when he is behind the scenes.

That’s where he is in this passage. Behind the scenes. Remember how I said we must begin by asking that question ’what does this tell us about God’? Well here’s the big thing from today: God is Lord, even when he’s behind the scenes. God is in control and he remembers his people, even when that’s hidden from our view.

That’s the way all through this passage isn’t it? God may not be centre stage but he’s working away tirelessly behind the scenes, overturning Pharaoh’s evil intentions. Pharaoh’s almost like Mickey Mouse in that scene from the Sorceror’s apprentice in Walt Disney’s Fantasia – have you seen it? Do you know the one? Mickey Mouse is being overrun with enchanted brooms, and to stop them he takes an axe and chops them up. But every time he does that the bits just turn into more brooms and the problem gets worse. That’s what it’s like here isn’t it? Verse 12: “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” Pharaoh intends to put fear into the Israelites, but it results in the Egyptians being afraid. God is overturning things behind the scenes. He tries to shrink the Israelite population, and it grows. There’s the scene with the midwives, sent to do the unthinkable of killing the babies they’re supposed to be delivering. But they fear God; they can’t do it, so they make up that great comedy line about these vigorous Hebrew women, popping out these babies before anyone can get there like toast out of a toaster.

The more Pharaoh curses the people, the more God turns it into blessing. God is lord, even when it’s behind the scenes. But then the more God blesses, the more Pharaoh ramps up the cursing. So it’s amazing and it’s painful at the same time.

This is our God in action. Again and again through history we’ve seen God doing similar things with his beleaguered and persecuted people. In the first couple of centuries after Jesus an early Christian called Tertullian coined that memorable phrase “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The more people have tried to crush God’s people, the more God has turned that round into growth. It still feels horrible to be in the middle of persecution, as it did for the Israelites. But God has a way of turning it into growth. That is our confidence for our brothers and sisters who are suffering in places like Nigeria and Syria at the moment. Their circumstances may have changed, but God hasn’t.

And then, right as the tension is building up, it’s like the camera cuts away. From the big scale stuff, all of a sudden we zoom right in on one small incident in the middle of it all.

Exodus 2:1-10  Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman,  2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.  3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.  4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.  5 Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it.  6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said.  7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?"  8 "Yes, go," she answered. And the girl went and got the baby's mother.  9 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him.  10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water." God has raised up a saviour.

All of a sudden we’ve gone from the big picture to the small picture. Why do we cut away? Don’t you want to know what’s going to happen to all those Israelites, with their baby boys? Why do we just zoom in on one? It’s a bit like the beginning of Star Wars, where for the first few minutes it’s all lazers and space ships and the forces of evil and then all of a sudden the camera cuts away and you meet young Luke Skywalker working on a farm. All that action is going on and now we’re just looking at this little detail. It happens because actually this little story is where the most important action is. God thought of this long before George Lucas did. Because if you really want to see where God is concentrating his work, if you really want to see where the encouragement is, you need to look here, at this one baby boy. He is the centre of the action. The story of God’s people at this point hinges on him – his story is the most important bit of it.

And again, see the irony as God works behind the scenes, turning the persecution upside down. This poor mother at her wits end, facing the prospect of having her baby boy taken from her. She lays him in a basket – interestingly the Hebrew word for basket here is same word as ‘Ark’. This has the fingerprints of God all over it. The river, the place of death, becomes the place of life. Of all people, along comes Pharaoh’s daughter. She finds him, he cries, she feels sorry for him. She knows this is a Hebrew baby, one of those condemned to die in the river by her own father, but she feels sorry for him. She doesn’t know what to do, and then this quick witted little girl, his sister, steps in. “shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” So she does, and in an amazing turn of events his own mother is paid to bring him up. He ends up growing up safe in the very house of the enemy, Pharaoh. The princess calls him “Moses”. Literally, ‘drawn out’. This baby is ‘saved’ – Moses.

This is the epicentre of God’s action. God is raising up a rescuer who will represent them in every way. In many ways his story is their story; he faces the dangers they face; he faces the death that has been decreed for them; and he is rescued – drawn out through the water – just like they will have to be. Moses’ story is their story. If you want to see the hope for the people of Israel, zoom in on Moses. The hopes and fears of all the years are met here in the life of this one baby boy.

That’s true for us as well, isn’t it? Our hope is not in our own circumstances, it’s bound up in the story of another. As you look at your own circumstances at the moment it may be that you feel fear like the people of Israel did. Well know that for us too God has raised up a rescuer; one like us who has faced the perils that face us. He has died our death, but God has brought him through it to new life in the most surprising way. You’re anxious because you want to know what’s going to happen to you, you want to know how your story is going to turn out. But don’t look at your story, look at his. If want encouragement, look to Jesus. God is at work, behind the scenes. And he’s provided a rescuer.

You see God may be hidden from view, but he’s not absent. Not at all. Look at those last couple of verses of the chapter, verse 23: “Exodus 2:23-25  During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

The time of waiting may be long and painful, but God is there and he knows. In their slavery the Israelites cried out, and their cry for help went up to God.

Cry out to God. Learn from the Israelites – cry out to God. When things are going badly we often react in different ways. Some people retreat and get grumpy. Some people offload their troubles on friends or spouse. Exodus says, cry out to God. He is there even when he’s hidden from view. He hasn’t forgotten his commitment to his people. He hears his people’s cry. And he’s provided a rescuer.

We leave with God ‘remembering’ his covenant. Has he ever forgotten it? No, as we’ve seen, he’s been carrying out his promises, behind the scenes, even as the people feel forgotten and cut off. Bu this phrase ‘he remembered his covenant’ means that now all of a sudden he’s about to act dramatically. God here is up on his haunches like a panther ready to pounce. It’s like God pulls back the bow, ready to let fly. What’s coming next? Next week.

What has this passage taught you about God? How is that relevant for your life now?