Understanding the way something begins, I think, is vitally important to understanding that thing itself. Sometimes, we are tempted into thinking that the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a story separate and apart from the stories we’ve read in Genesis over the last month or so. That was the story of creation and the patriarchs; this is the story of Israel, the plagues, and of Moses and such. One of the most life giving parts of reading the Bible as we are – as part of a plan – (along with the awesome, seriously, they’re really good, resources that we have access to) is that it invites us to read the story as a cohesive unit. What we see in Exodus is the continuation of the creative, redemptive work we’ve seen God at the center of from page one of Genesis. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that what God does on a macro level in creation we see him do in the particular context of the nation of Israel in Exodus (just look at the language of Exodus 1:7 and compare it to the language of Genesis 1:28). So, what does the way in which Israel’s Exodus starts teach us about God that is congruent with what we’ve already seen and learned about his character in Genesis?
The first 15 or so chapters of Exodus tell the story of a contest between God and Pharaoh. Those of us who have been reading the story already know this isn’t going to end well for the man on the throne in Egypt. But, it’s important that we read it well and see the dynamics of power and how they are at play in this story. In doing so, I think, we can learn something important about God’s Kingdom at this juncture of the story that we can and should carry with us as we continue reading.
So, at the very beginning of the story of the exodus, we see Pharaoh using his power to oppress and to take life. He’s most likely the most powerful person on the planet. It is in that context that we see a dynamic begin to emerge that is all too common in the human experience – a dynamic between having power and the desire to protect that power at all cost. He fears the strength of the Israelites and orders the Hebrew midwives to kill the baby boys so that they do not become too strong and overtake Egypt. God’s desire for Israel (and they’re the same words God speaks to Adam and Eve in the beginning of Genesis) is that they would be fruitful and multiply. Pharaoh steps in, claims to be the authority in that place, and seeks to put an end to the creative power of God that is on display both in creation and in Israel. God’s power creates and sustains. Pharaoh uses power to oppress and to destroy. Death is a hallmark of the kingdom of the Pharaoh; life is only of Yahweh. From the very beginning the lines are drawn in the sand and we’re about to see who’s take on life is right.
It’s also really important that we see the way that God demonstrates his power over Pharaoh. In the story of the baby boys and the midwives we see that God gets glory over the king of Egypt through the faithful response of a few relatively powerless people. It’s subversive, and it’s unexpected, and, it’s beautiful. The plans of the most powerful man on Earth spoiled by two women who were slaves in his empire but faithful to the King of the universe. Or, as the people of Israel prepare to leave Egypt after God systematically dismantles the powers of the Egyptian gods in the plagues (that’s another blog post in and of itself) we see that it is the women of Israel who take all of the riches of Egypt with them as they leave. Again, God works to turn both ancient and modern understandings of power on their heads. We see a God who chooses to partner with those who were marginalized and oppressed in the pillaging of Egypt – the most powerful nation on the planet.
They question for us today as followers of Jesus informed by the good character of God as displayed in the exodus story is, “Whose understanding of power will we live by?” In so many ways, this story invites those of us reading it thousands of years later to consider whether or not we’ve bought into the Pharaoh’s understanding of life or if we will faithfully participate in the story God continues to write.
In Genesis, we see an all-powerful God create humanity and then partner with us in his ongoing creative work. In Exodus, we see this God demonstrate his power over Pharaoh in the deliverance of a small nation of slaves through the faithful participation of some of the most powerless members of that people. And, most clearly, we see the power of God on display in the life, death, and life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharaoh of Egypt seeks to control and accumulate more power. That’s the narrative of his kingdom. And, if we’re honest it’s the narrative of the kingdoms in which we live most of our lives. But, in the Kingdom of God we encounter one who calls us to faithfully follow as he gives his power away in service, in self-giving love and ultimately, in death. In the ultimate paradox, the death of God demonstrates the power of his Kingdom. God’s power proves too much for the Pharaoh and his armies in Exodus, and, praise God, it proves too much for sin, death, shame, and guilt in the story of Jesus and in our lives. The story of Jesus, the story of self-giving love and of relationship challenges any sort of narrative that puts us on the thrones of our own Egypt.
May we have eyes to see the way that God continues to work with Kingdom power among the displaced, the marginalized, and the forgotten as he continues to invite us into true, abundant life.
That, I think, makes for a really good beginning to this story.