The Book of Exodus begins with a listing of the members of Jacob’s family who came to Egypt when Joseph was vizier over the land and connects Exodus seamlessly to the final chapters of Genesis. The transition is so seamless, in fact, that one does not notice the fact that more than four hundred years have passed. The Bible records no history in this period, and that begs the question as to why.
Jacob and his family probably settled in Egypt around 1876 BC, during the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history. The land in the Nile River delta was fertile and as pastoralists, the Israelites probably were reasonably well off. We know from archaeology that by about 1700 BC the unity of the Egyptian empire began breaking down, with a rump Egyptian state remaining along the central part of the Nile with its capital based in Thebes, the southern stretch of the Nile becoming dominated by the kingdom of Nubia (modern day Sudan), and the northern area around the Nile River delta controlled by a Western Semitic people called the Hyksos, with their capital in Avaris, not far from biblical Goshen. Because the Israelites were also a Semitic people, the almost certainly flourished under Hyksos rule. This period is known as the Second Intermediate Period, and from the Egyptian perspective, it was seen as a period of disunity and disorder. By about the early 1500s BC, the Egyptian kingdom in Thebes began reunifying the country, defeating the Nubians and then expelling the Hyksos, a process completed by about 1570 under Ahmose, who founded the 18th Dynasty and established Egypt’s New Kingdom. Because the Israelites were ethnically kin to the Hyksos, they were viewed with suspicion by the Egyptians. This is the background behind the Bible’s comment, “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8 KJV). It also explains the concern the Egyptians had which motivated them to begin persecuting the Israelites (Exod. 1:9-10); the Hyksos had been expelled, but these Western Semitic peoples were still on Egypt’s borderlands in Canaan, and therefore still a threat.
Moses, in writing the Pentateuch and giving the Israelites their history, is showing them that their identity as a people is not based on who their ancestors were or the culture they produced or the events they experienced to that point, but solely upon their covenantal relationship with God. In the covenant God made with Abraham centuries earlier, He told Abraham, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Gen. 15:13-14). In Exodus 1:8-14, we not only have a detailed description of the oppression that Israel came to experience, we also can see that God was setting up the situation to bring great glory to Himself by His subsequent deliverance of them. Israel may have been comfortable in Goshen, but for their time there they were always strangers in a strange land. Their real home was always in another land, a land where God would dwell with them and where they would worship Him without constraint. As heirs to the same covenant, the same is true of us as well.
The covenantal promise God made to Abraham was not simply about the land; that was simply a tangible token for the more significant promise that God was creating a people for Himself. In God’s initial promise to Abraham He tells Abraham, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). In Exodus chapter 1, while the persecution draws our attention because it is more dramatic, three times in this chapter we are told that the people of Israel were multiplying greatly (Exod. 1:7, 12, and 20). Indeed, the promise to multiply the people was one that had been handed down to God’s people through the generations: to Adam (Gen. 1:28), Noah (Gen. 8:17; 9:1, 7), Abraham (Gen. 17:2, 6; 22:17), Isaac (Gen. 26:4), and Jacob (Gen. 28:14; 35:11; 48:4). Even in the midst of their suffering, God was at work fulfilling His promise to grow and create a people for Himself.
Even the account of the Hebrew midwives shows the fulfillment of God’s promises. This account has long troubled interpreters, since we know that God is a God of truth, who hates lies and falsehoods, and yet He rewards the Hebrew midwives despite the fact that their claim to Pharaoh—that Hebrew women give birth before the midwives arrive—is highly implausible. It could be true in a technical sense if the midwives deliberately delayed their arrival so as to avoid being present when the babies are born and therefore avoided having to carry out Pharaoh’s edict to kill the male children. Still, the more significant point is that God rewards those who fear Him and are loyal to Him, and He values justice above all other things for His people. He promised to bless those who bless His people and curse those who curse them (Gen. 12:3). God is ever-faithful to His promises and we need to remember that.