Again and again we hear the “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. I wonder, is this fair? Why was it necessary to prolong the devastation of Egypt this way? Would Pharaoh really have given in much earlier? I believe Pharaoh’s heart was already arrogant, self-centered and turned against God. I believe he was already exceedingly sinful, with a heart of stone toward God and his people. God started with what was already there, and then highlighted it to humble Pharaoh, Egypt and any who would ignore him. Even if Pharaoh had relented much earlier, how long would it have been before he changed his mind and chased after Israel. How much more would they have suffered when he caught them? Even after all this, he does just that. It is only by God’s intervention that his people are freed, his name is feared, and his holy and ever-loving character is shown and understood.
The plagues and the plight of Israel culminate in the most memorable of them all. A story which has largely focused on second born and younger sons now centers greatly on the first-born. On this night, all of Egypt learned what it is to mourn the death of an oldest child. And Israel, with their doorposts smeared in the blood of sacrificial lambs, understood the cost and the sacrifice associated with freedom. The imagery is not lost. It is the center of the gospel story. By the death of the firstborn is anyone granted adoption as sons and daughters of God, younger children, chosen for covenant relationship. Through the blood of a perfect, innocent, sacrificial lamb is anyone freed from bondage, slavery, to sin, Satan, and death. This lasting ordinance is still observed by Jews around the world, and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, which the Passover foreshadowed, is still celebrated by Christians.
The signs and the plagues…Where do I begin in discussing all of this?
Wisemen and sorcerers of old seem to have had some power! When Aaron threw down his staff and it became a serpent, Pharaoh’s wise men were able to do the same. These men certainly rival the likes of Chris Angel or Dalia. But then Aaron’s staff/serpent ate the others. Even the first plague seemed not much of a match for them. God turned the Nile into blood. Some have tried to argue that this was not really blood, but some kind of poisonous algae or mineral. Yet it came across all of the Nile, immediately with no warning. And, it even effected water already drawn from the Nile, collected in pots and cisterns. Not to mention, neither the Egyptians or Hebrews were so naïve that they couldn’t tell the difference between infected water and blood. But how did the magicians replicate this? Perhaps theirs was a deception to make water resemble something like blood, in limited quantity.
I have heard several theories over the years attempting to explain or argue away the plagues. One interesting idea links these events to the eruption of Thera, or another great volcano, and attempts to show how all of these plagues might naturally occur, in this order. It is interesting, and I am no geologist or climatologist, but this is less than convincing for me. Another popular idea purports each plague to challenge a specific Egyptian god. One problem with this lies with plagues three and four, lice/gnats and flies. Although most of the plagues seem to correspond with great Egyptian gods, I can’t seem to find any Egyptian gods particularly associated with either of these. But I do not at all doubt that the plagues were meant to challenge the gods. God used these to reveal himself and his power to Israel and to Egypt. He used these to display his superiority over any gods Egypt worshipped, and Israel may be tempted to carry with them when they left. And as he moves onto plague four, he even more greatly displays his sovereignty over all things by confining the plagues to Egypt alone, and not afflicting Goshen or the Israelite people.
Moses is one stubborn and reluctant hero. He has God’s promise and miraculous powers; he has the message of God and his mission. Yet he resists as much as he can. “I am nobody who will be listened to.” “I don’t speak so well.” “They haven’t listened to me.” “They don’t like me.” God confronts every one of his objections, even appoints Aaron to help him. No wonder God was angry with Moses! Job was berated by the divine being, for less. Jonah studied the insides of a whale for refusing and running from God. I think Moses got off pretty easy. Have you ever resisted God’s calling or leading in your life? Have you ever tried to refuse his plan for you – whether it was a call to the mission field or a word for a neighbor? Many of us do, and almost always it turns out for us like Moses. God gets his way, but the path becomes harder for us when we first resist.
And of course Pharaoh dismissed Moses and the word from God. They were told he would! God said he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. In his letter to Rome, Paul uses this and God’s selection of Jacob over Esau as example and proof of what we today call predestination. Election is a central theme of the Bible and a defining characteristic of Israel. Through a chosen group of people God makes known his presence, his character, his desires, and carries out his plans so that the world will know who he is. Through a chosen people God brought his Son, the Messiah, to conquer sin and Satan and restore his relationship with mankind. Election, based on God’s logic and purposes, not on man’s deservedness, rings throughout the Bible.
Chronologically, we are jumping ahead only 4 generations. At the opening of Exodus, we are probably about 350 years removed from Israel and the ending of Genesis. In the greatest sense, this is not that long, but it was enough time that Egypt has forgotten about Joseph and turn in their opinion of the Hebrews. In this time, one of God’s promises has been fulfilled – in spades. The Israelites “were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (NIV). With a short memory and an awareness of the number of the Israelites, Pharaoh grows fearful; and, fear of others, fear of change, fear for loss of power or standing, has long motivated peoples to villainize and mistreat others. In Egypt, this unfounded fear spread to the point that there seems no outcry, only agreement, with the actions taken to enslave and oppress these peaceful neighbors. I think, along with fear came the realization of convenience. The ambitious building projects of Egypt required an immense workforce, and slave labor was the easiest way to meet this demand. Israel was ripe for the taking.
In this climate comes Moses. Born in secrecy, hid for months, and then floated down the Nile with hopes of some fortunate rescue. In God’s providence, the baby is rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised amongst the palace of Egypt. Somehowhe knows he is not Egyptian, but Israelite. At around 40 years old, Moses identifies with his blood relatives, and strikes an Egypt to rescue an Israelite. Having killed an Egyptian, he flees into Midian, the land in Arabia, just east of the Red Sea. What is it with women at wells? Moses meeting Jethro and Zipporah represents the third time a man finds a wife at a well.
The saga of Israel the nation begins in this wilderness setting of Midian, when Moses encounters the burning bush on Mt. Horeb. Here he God himself calls out to his chosen leader. Here God introduces himself, for the first time it seems, by his personal name Yahweh. The word, the name itself is a mystery. Jewish, biblical and linguistic scholars cannot fully explain this name or its meaning. It seems derived from the Hebrew word for “to be”, “I am who I am”. The name indicates the eternality of God. At the same time it display the sovereignty of his diving will. And again, it likewise affirms his real presence with and faithfulness to his chosen people.
The beginnings and ancestry of the Hebrew people comes to an end. As Jacob’s life comes to a close, we now understand where these people came from, how they came to be in Egypt, and their special relationship with God Almighty. They are certainly not a perfect people. They are definitely not known for honor. But they are wise; they are survivors; and above all, they are especially blessed.
Jacob’s description of God’s promise at Luz (Bethel, Genesis 28) ironically resembles the words spoken to Adam and to Noah, with a slight Abrahamic flavor – “be fruitful and increase in number”. In subtle, and not so subtle ways, the story of Genesis serves to trace the history of God and man, and the unique position of the nation of Israel. Some believe thewritings of the Pentateuch (first five books of our Bible) serve merely to establish the history and nationality of Israel and to present their right to possess the land of Canaan. I don’t believe this is the only purpose, but it certainly seems to be one. Through 50 chapters we see that this particular land was promised, repeatedly, by God himself to the ancestors of Israel. We see that, in addition, they have fairly bought or conquered portions of this land and their ancestors rightly retain that ownership. They’re forefathers are buried here. We also see, time and again, that through the generations their relatives, the ones inhabiting Canaan now, were cursed and predicted to be servants of Israel.
The saga of God’s creation and his interaction with mankind is just beginning.
A family is reunited, a people are saved, and a patriarch worships in joy. Goshen is the northern end of the Nile river, around the delta; known as lower Egypt because the Nile runs south to north. The Goshen region was fertile and good for crops and for livestock. Pharaoh called it the best land in Egypt. So why wasn’t it a center of their society? For one, it was good for livestock and apparently Egyptians held low regard for shepherds. It was also the end of the great river, the prize of Egypt and a realm of her gods. They preferred to be further up river, where it ran stronger and they were closer to the home of the gods. So Joseph wisely settles his family here, where they can tend the animals, farm, and stay separated from the main Egyptian centers. Jacob brings 66 immediate family/descendants from Hebron in Canaan to Goshen in Egypt. This is hardly a nation as God promised Abraham, but it will soon grow into one. And they do not go alone. God goes with Jacob, as he always stays near his people. Hebron (where the name Hebrew comes from?) was in the area of Mamre, south of Jerusalem. This was where Abraham had lived and where he and Sarah were buried.
I got ahead of myself a couple of days ago. It is here in chapter 47 that we see exactly how and when Pharoah came to own all the land, livestock and people of Egypt. Apparently, the people of Israel were excluded from this, as they acquired land and remained distant from Egyptian life.
Many today say we are over-populated and there isn’t enough to feed everyone. Yet every day thousands of tons of food are thrown away in America alone. In Joseph’s time, all of the near east (maybe the world?) fell victim to a true food shortage. The famine effected Israel in Canaan, and peoples even more distant. But thanks to the understanding which God gave Joseph, Egypt was prepared and able to help the world maneuver these difficult times. I especially love Joseph’s words to his brothers when he finally reveals who he is. “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” What a perspective. He sees the bigger picture, and humbly views his circumstance through God’s eyes, always making sure to give glory and honor to God. How much better would our demeanor and even our lives be if we learned to take this same perspective?
A slight back-track: yesterday I spoke with someone who asked about all this name changing. Why do the significant characters receive new names? Changing our names is not so common to us these days. However it still occurs. In the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches, new Christians often receive new names (Biblical names). The same is seen in Muslim converts, especially converts from Western cultures. The Pope chooses a new name. Kings, even today, often take new names on their coronation. When kings conquered other nations and kept their rulers as vassal (servant) kings, or when they appointed someone to a new position of power, they gave them new names to go with this. Such is the case with Joseph. He is no longer the slave and prisoner; he is now a ruler of Egypt. He is no longer the Canaanite; he is an adopted Egyptian. A new name represents a new life, purpose, meaning, relationship, or position. When God covenants with the ancients (and some of the apostles) he gives them new names signifying the new relationship and the change in their lives. They no longer carry the identify of their former self, but take the new identity shaped by their relationship with God.
Thirteen years had passed since Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites. Thirteen years he lived as a slave to Potiphar, and then as a prisoner. For the last two of those thirteen, he waited for the cupbearer to remember him and in some way help bring his release. During all this time, Joseph had no signs of redemption or reason to hope. That’s not as long as Abraham waited to see God’s promises fulfilled, or as long as Moses will pout in the desert before God sends him back to Egypt. But it’sstill thirteen years of heartache and difficulty. Have you found yourself in a season of trial, or pain, or waiting? Have you wondered how long it will last, or when you might hear from God or find some relief? Don’t lose faith; don’t give up. Don’tgive up hope. Don’t give up on God. We cannot understand his ways or his timing (like we learned from Job), but if these biblical accounts teach us anything it is to persevere and know that there is an end to our suffering.
And what a reversal Joseph experienced! He had a unique, God-given history with dreams. His dreams helped bring him to his lowest. And his understanding of dreams, and ability to used by God to decipher dreams positioned him to become the second most powerful person in the known world! Talk about from rags to riches. His was from prison to royalty. Not only was he second in charge of the greatest empire of the time, but he increased the holdings and wealth of Pharaoh as well. Historians and archeologists tell us there was a period in Egypt when the Pharaohs suddenly and inexplicably rose to own all of the land, and even the wealthiest of Egypt were beholden to them. I think we see how that happened.
Then, by a twist of “fate”, Joseph comes face to face with his brothers. He hadn’t seen them for more than 20 years by now. With his Egyptian name and Egyptian persona, and the passing of time, they didn’t recognize their younger brother. But he knew them. How his heart must have leaped and ached all at once to see them again. But he had to know how much they had grown and changed before revealing who he was. So Joseph toyed with them and tested them.
Not everything we encounter in the Bible is pleasant. Some of it is difficult to understand. Some of it seems even repulsive. Some of it doesn’t appear fitting for Scripture. This business with Judah and Tamar is one of those we might prefer were never written down. Not only is this subject matter disturbing, but what is the value of recording this? What is the meaning or the purpose behind this story? What is really happening here is a matter of cultural responsibility and ethic. Lineage was very important. Carrying on the family line was a top priority. It was important that men had children to carry on their name and their land. Ensuring the provision and posterity of widows, as well, was important and of societal concern. When a man died without children, he left no one to protect his property and no assurance for the care of his widow. It fell to the next closest kin to carry out this responsibility (the “goel”) in the name of the deceased. (This is also the backdrop of the story of Ruth.) In Tamar’s case, Er was apparently an evil person whom God struck dead. His next brother had the responsibility of providing Er an heir, but he selfishly and deceitfully refused this. God took him as well. Judah promised his youngest to Tamar to provide an heir for Er, but never intended to follow through on this. So, she took matters into her own hands and brought a son for Er. This is why Judah says she was more righteous than he.
Joseph proves the very opposite of his elder brother. He is noble, honest, and righteous even in the worse of circumstances. And he is chosen and favored by God to be the one through whom he continues his promise to Abraham and his plan for the world. In captivity in Egypt, God blesses Joseph, bringing him to a powerful house, giving him a powerful position, making him successful in all he does. Joseph remains faithful to God and maintains great integrity – even when he is accused of assaulting Potiphar’s wife, even while he sits in prison. Unlike Job, Joseph never complains about his unfair circumstances. He never cries foul against God. He never pretends to be blameless and unworthy of any trial. Joseph accepts the hand he is dealt with grace and humility and faithfully carries out his position with integrity. He honors God in every way he can.
Moving through the ancestral generations of the nation of Israel, we begin to pass now from Jacob to Joseph. The second youngest of 12 half-brothers, and a favorite of his father, Joseph becomes a victim of sibling rivalry and uncontrolled jealousy like few in history have experienced. Of course, his dreams really didn’t do much to help his position with the older brothers. But was he supposed to ignore them, pretend he hadn’t had the dreams? Maybe keeping them to himself would have been better, but I see a teenage boy who was excited to share odd dreams and looked for help understanding them. Jacob’s favoritism didn’t help Joseph much either. But what is this special coat he made and gave to his favorite son?
Traditionally, we understand this to be a colorful coat made of fine and expensive threads. This is one possible description. The Hebrew wording is very unusual and difficult to really interpret. The word describing the tunic is only found in one other place in all of the Hebrew scriptures and its meaning is not really known. In that other instance (2 Samuel 13) it is understood to mean long. So what does this say about Joseph’s coat? Was it colorful? Was it made of fine and expensive fabrics? Was it unusually long? And why would any of these be reason to make others jealous? Remember the story of Noah and Ham? One understanding of the situation with Joseph’s coat is that it was unusually long, indicating Jacob’s intent to give a very large share of his inheritance to the younger of his sons. I can’t say this is the definitive answer, but it would make a lot of sense.