For the week of January 14, 2023 / 21 Tevet 5783
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23
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So they 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. (Shemot/Exodus 1:13-14)
The embryonic nation of Israel was preserved via God’s providence by migrating to Egypt through the unusual and painful circumstances that led to Joseph’s rise to prominence there. For some time, not sure exactly how long, the growing nation prospered in their temporary home. Eventually, an Egyptian king arose who became suspicious of them. He was concerned Israel would one day ally themselves with Egypt’s enemies, leading to Egypt’s demise. In an attempt to undermine such a possibility, the king imposed an oppressive policy to enslave Israel. As this failed to weaken the growing Hebrew nation, life for Israel got a lot worse before it got better, as the king decreed the murder of the Hebrew baby boys at birth.
From what we can tell, Israel suffered a long time, hundreds of years in fact, as slaves in Egypt before God sent Moses and his brother to rescue them. That this was foretold to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:12-16) is little consolation for what must have been an unbearable situation. Later biblical history informs us that the vast majority of Israel’s suffering was due to its failure to live up to its covenantal obligations. There are several occasions when repentance brought almost immediate relief. But that’s not the case here. There is no indication whatsoever that Israel’s suffering was due to anything on their part, good or bad, except for their simply being there, a situation that had been originally determined by God for their welfare.
As I was preparing this message, I struggled to find meaning through Israel’s centuries-long oppression in Egypt. I was on the brink of deeming this period as utterly futile. I hate futility. I get very unsettled when I lose grasp of meaning. I don’t think I am alone. Even materialistic naturalists (those who believe the universe came into existence through nothing more than energy and matter plus chance), who reject that there is any objective meaning to life, can’t seem to live like that and so seek to find meaning anyway they can. Then, there’s the typical, “Everything is for a reason,” line that seems to make people feel better even if the mysterious reason is beyond comprehension.
In the case of Israel in Egypt, I do believe there is a futility aspect to it at least for the individuals who lived through it. There were innumerable Israelites, who were born into, lived through, and died in that most oppressive state. Perhaps the expectation of returning one day to the Promised Land provided some relief. We don’t know. We also don’t know how faith in the God of their fathers encouraged them day by day. If the behavior of the wilderness generation later on is any clue to the depths of their faith, then it was pretty shallow. I will come back to the futility in a moment.
From a big-picture viewpoint, Israel’s experience in Egypt wasn’t futile. God used their hardships there as a pressure cooker to develop Israel as a nation. Note that Israel didn’t come into being through the normal processes experienced by other people groups, but rather by God’s particular design. The Promised Land, likely due to its geographical peculiarities as a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe, was home to a wide variety of people groups and influences. It’s possible that the clan that arose from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would not have been able to become the substantial nation it did without the Egypt years. Also, if the political establishment in Egypt would have remained friendly to Israel, they may have been absorbed into the Egyptian people and would have not wanted to leave. The antagonism they experienced served to ensure their distinctiveness and their acquiring the Promised Land. Moreover, Israel’s experience in Egypt serves to illustrate the oppression all people are under. This sets up the great redemption God desires for all people through the Messiah.
All that might satisfy our yearning for meaning. It makes us feel better when reading about their hardships to see that there was a grand purpose behind it all. But what about them? They wouldn’t have been aware of any of this. The best they could have done was endure. In fact, some may have preferred an early death rather than continuing to go through such painful futility.
And that might be exactly how you are feeling right now. Like the Israelites, we may not know the grand purposes we are serving. Moreover, I am not convinced that everything that happens is for some precise intentional reason. And yet, we do know that according to the New Covenant Writings, based on stories like Israel in Egypt, that God uses everything for the good of his people (see Romans 8:28). This may not completely alleviate the pain we feel when confronted by apparent futility, but, if we let it, it will help see us through.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version