Phil Ryken tells us that you can see every part of Christian experience in Exodus: Christians enslaved to the world, God giving attention to those whom He loves, Christians passing through the baptismal waters of the Red Sea, and gathered in Bible study as they sit around Mount Sinai to receive God’s holy Word. Do you think of Exodus this way? Or is Exodus just an ancient fable of irrelevant people and characters?
Friends, the truth of Exodus is a cause for great excitement. It contains a grand narrative where we see the Old Testament gospel story unfolding marvellously. Read on to find out what the opening verses of Exodus introduce in this grand narrative!
(A) God’s people have their roots in the Old Testament history of Israel (Exo 1:1-4)
The book of Exodus opens awkwardly in medias res, where we are transported into the middle of a story. This is because it is meant to be read as a continuation of Genesis - explaining why it is so important for us to pull the meaning of Genesis into Exodus.
We know that the story of Genesis beings with Creation, where God creates by His Word which brings life, righteousness, and light. But things go terribly wrong in Genesis 3, and sin enters the world. This is the same world of Exodus: a world of brokenness, sin, and death. The “names of the sons of Israel” (Exo 1:1) are actually the names of the main ideas of Genesis (Exo 1:2-4). These men represent God’s promise to bring restoration to a broken and cursed world, for He’s not done with this world, and He has chosen a family to restore it.
These verses show us the descriptors of the people of God, and what these descriptors emphasise.
- “sons of Israel…each with his household” (Exo 1:1a), drawing attention to the idea that they were composed of distinct, individual families
- “descendants of Jacob” (Exo 1:5a), highlighting how everyone belongs to a specific lineage which was a bigger unit than distinct, individual families but is a noticeable community instead
- “People of Israel” (Exo 1:7a), describing a large societal unit, the nation-state
These emphases tell us that the story of Exo 1:1-7 is the story of a nation’s growth. If we remember what transpired in Genesis, this must strike us as shocking! For these main men of Genesis do not tell us the story of heroic idealism and moral perfection, but the story of a broken and horrible family of faith. This is an awful family of murder, incest, betrayal, dishonesty, and poor marriage life. But they are still a family of hope and faith. The reality that God’s people are never perfect, but broken, rings loud and clear. What is shocking is that God somehow uses this broken family to form a nation - an entire group of people bound by identity purpose and direction. So what does God do with a nation? This is the question Exodus addresses.
In case this still feels like an ancient fable of irrelevance, remember that “the people of God” here, in one sense, are those who grow out of this family of faith. In another, they are a holy nation that He called to Himself, in whom He is working and active. This is extremely relevant as the New Testament exhorts us to look to them and see our spiritual lineage!
In the same way that Ex 1:1 makes no sense without all 50 chapters of Genesis, the book of Romans makes no sense without Genesis and Exodus before it. We are not allowed to read the OT as some distinct, ancient, historical lore. Some scholars may do that, but Christians may not, for Christians read their own spiritual legacies into this book. We see ourselves as the Children of Abraham, and the True Israel; we see that Exodus is a book about you and me! Put simply, God’s people have their roots in the Old Testament history of Israel.
(B) God’s people display the covenant blessing of God (Exo 1:5)
We move on to Exo 1:5, and find ourselves introduced to specific details about the descendants of Jacob. Why is this important?
Gen 46 tells us the crazy MediaCorp-esque story of Joseph, where brother betrays brother brutally, but the betrayed becomes the ruler, and eventually extends reconciliation to the betrayer. But this same story reveals the troubling problem of Place - God’s people are not supposed to be there! It isn’t the promised land that God promised Joseph’s forefathers!
But more importantly, the fact that Jacob’s family numbers 70 is also meant to be surprising. In Gen 12, God tells Abram that through him and his family God would pour in all His grace to save this broken world, and gives him the name Abraham. But Abraham is unable to have kids, and we have story after story of Abraham striving to produce a son. He sires a son from his wife’s Egyptian servant, thinking that he has received the heir to the promise. But God says no. The heir to the promise will come through his wife Sarai. Except that Sarai is barren! And Sarai laughs in disbelief but God is far greater than her disbelief, and we get Isaac, the son of laughter. But even Isaac is not the son of promise, and we get Jacob and Esau along with all the disgraceful infighting and tussling - we don’t think this family is ever going to make it - but somehow by the end of Gen we see that this family numbers 70!
Friends, the amazing thing here is that God keeps His promises. God promised Abraham that he would have more descendants than the stars in the sky, and God kept His promise. Think about what you see in church or bible study. Has it ever occurred to you that when we walk into these places, we see God’s promise fulfilled? We see a room full of people all different from ourselves, but all born into God’s family. Here is God making His promise come to pass, by drawing men and women to Himself to make them part of His family. Isn’t it amazing? That’s how Exodus begins!
Gal 3:6-9 tells us that those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. It was first fulfilled in 70 children of Jacob, and now in the church everywhere. We should think of ourselves as those who have seen and received the covenant blessing of God, for God’s blessing and promise to Abraham is still coming true right now. God’s people display the covenant blessing of God!
(C) God’s people were waiting in Egypt – blessed in a cursed world, and not home yet (Exo 1:5-6)
But there is still a problem - a problem of Place. In Gen 35:9-13. God appears directly in-front of Jacob and gives him His Word: You shall have the exact same blessings from Gen 12 “I will make you a great nation, be fruitful and multiply." Do what your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Adam did, and I will give you a special land- the land of your parents. You will be part of My plan to restore the whole world.
That’s how we know they aren’t supposed to be in Egypt, for they are supposed to be in the land that God has promised them!
We see similarity here in how we still haven’t received in full everything God has promised us. Like the Israelites, Genesis wraps us in to think: When are promises of God going to be fulfilled fully?
So how does God bring His people to the right place - the home that their hearts long for, where they will finally find rest? Before we answer that question, we must first understand how they ended up in Egypt.
We learn the people of God ended up in Egypt through Joseph, and then through the following of Jacob all the way to Egypt. Gen 46:1-7 tells us the dramatic story of God speaking to Jacob after he realises that his beloved son, Joseph, is actually alive. What would you have expected God to have said after the ordeal Jacob had been through? Surprisingly, God’s message is not: “here’s your son, I kept my promise”, but “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation” (Gen 46:3). This must have shocked Jacob. God promised to bring him to the not-promised-land, and make him a great nation there. And God even promises His personal presence, saying, "I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Gen 46:4).
This is beautiful.
God gives Jacob the most tender of promise: “I myself, your God, will bring you down, and your beloved son himself will close your eyes”. Friends, this is a God who keeps His promises, and is gentle to His servants in mercy. He is a God not so far away, but near to our hearts, and who promises us intimate presence.
Jacob’s response in Gen 46:5-7 is what is meant in Exodus 1. This is the faithfulness of God leading one man first into Egypt as a slave, and the rest of his family to follow because God has provided for this family.
Two things that happen to them in Egypt in these opening verses of this book are important for us as we think about the context of the Pentateuch (Exo 1:6-7). Firstly, we are told that “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation” (Exo 1:6). This is a result of the curse first mentioned in Gen 3:19. It also shows us that the Bible does not accept death as a fact. It accepts it as a reality of a cursed world, but not the way life was designed, for life was designed to not end according to the Bible! Gen 1 tells us that when God designed those fruits He put seed in them. They did not progress through a cycle - they were fruit. Just as it was Adam and it was Eve (not baby Adam and baby Eve), it was seed. And until God cursed the world, there was no death. But Genesis 3:19 happens, and the genealogy in Genesis 5 tells us that now, we die. This world is under the curse, for human beings rebelled against God and receive from Him the just punishment for their sins. That’s why Joseph dies, all his generation dies, and so will all of us. Ecclesiastes presses this reality into our face - we’ll all die! But they don’t just die. They die in the wrong place! God’s promises are not fulfilled yet.
But there's also a blessing in Exo 1:7, when we are also told that “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” The conjunction “But” (v7) informs us that there is a change from this curse. God makes them fruitful, increase greatly, multiply, and become exceedingly strong, just like the command given in Gen 1:28 (c.f. Ps 105:24). Here, Moses takes the covenant blessing formula, unwraps it, and then re-wraps it. The keywords are unwrapped, then wrapped again, and all of the covenant blessing is wrapped into the sentence structure. The point here is one simple thing: God is amazing. For He keeps His promises, and He keeps them abundantly. They are only fruitful because someone blesses them with fruits they only increase because God causes it to be so; they only multiply because God is with them; and they are not just strong but exceedingly so! James 1:9 tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God, and we see here that the people of God are the blessed ones in the land, even in a cursed world.
The idea of being blessed is something that we might readily say, but struggle with deeply. We know this to be true. Think about the brokenness of this world everywhere around us! Just today, or the day before, we know that so much of our lives are broken. We struggle with this truth that God’s people are blessed, but Genesis and Exodus are precisely about this: God blesses His people, and pours it out on a world that does not deserve it. Even when things aren’t going my way, I know the comfort of His presence, the affections He has for me in Christ, the patience for my sin for He has. Friends, this theme of continuity is something you can get only out of a narrative, because the story is not yet over.
Do you feel the tension? There is blessing and curse; healing and brokenness.
Heb 11:13-16 tell us that these characters we’ve met thus far “died in faith, not having received the promise…but as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
As we stop at Exo 1:7, we stop as people of God who are frustrated and alienated, but hear God saying that there is more. Those before us died not having received the promised land, but they saw and greeted them from afar. Do you know the feeling? This feeling where your life doesn’t feel like it’s done yet, and you wonder if this is all. Surely the victorious Christian life is more than this. Surely there is more. We learn here that there is something ahead, not something we’ve been to before, and the only thing calling us to look forward to that city is a Person. The one our hearts have always longed for, that we’ve longed to see, but haven't seen yet.
As the people of God faced with the problem of Place, we’re not home yet. Even in a cursed world, we’re waiting, and each day a grind with all the brokenness chugging on. Whatever we struggle with, remember this: this world is not our home. Something far better lies ahead, and that thing is Jesus Christ.
Join us today in humble prayer. Go before God and ask, "Will you by faith bring me forward till I see your face?