Sovereign and Faithful
So now that we’re in the month of September it means it stays darker longer in the mornings. It’s not until around 6am now that the sky just starts to turn blue. And that’s the time of day I imagine this scene in Exodus 1.
It’s still mostly dark outside, just a little blue in the sky, and there’s a woman wincing with pain because she’s in labor. She’s in her bedroom, doubled over because the contractions are so intense, and her midwife is holding her hand, coaching her in how to breathe. And over in the corner of the room there’s another midwife, and she’s folding some linens, getting ready to receive this baby, and while the woman in labor is distracted by her pain, the one midwife locks eyes with other midwife, and she shakes her head no. She’s not going to do it. And they both agree in that moment. They are on the exact same page.
These two midwives know what the Pharaoh has said — every Hebrew son is to be killed — but they will not go through with it because they know that there is an authority higher than Pharaoh. And they understand the dynamics here: The supreme ruler of the world’s strongest nation has given them a direct command — but they choose to disobey that command because they believe that God is greater than Pharaoh. Basically, these midwives already know in Chapter 1 what the Book of Exodus is meant to show us.
And by this point the sun has come up, and we as the readers of this story are neck deep in conflict. Every good story has conflict; the best of stories have layers of conflict; and because God writes the best of stories we should not be surprised at all that Exodus starts the way it does. The setting of this book is layered with conflict, and the plot just keeps getting thicker and thicker. And since today is our first sermon in Exodus, I want us to simply walk through each layer of conflict in Chapter 1 and sort of let this book introduce itself to us.
So that’s the plan. We’re going to look at seven layers of conflict in Chapter 1 — and these are layers, not points. (Points take more time, but layers are a little bit easier.) So seven layers, and then there are some lessons for us along the way.
So let’s pray and get started.
Father, this morning we ask that you would open wide our hearts to receive your word. More than anything we want to hear from you. Speak to us and work in us, by your Spirit, in Jesus’s name. Amen.
Layer #1: The Sons of Israel were Fruitful and Multiplied in Egypt.
We see this in verse seven:
But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)
And the language here probably sounds familiar to us because this is the language of Genesis. Remember that to “be fruitful and multiply” was the original mandate that God gave Adam and Eve way back in Genesis 1:28. And then later that became part of the promise that God gave to Abraham.
In Genesis 15 God tells Abraham that his offspring will multiply so much that they will “outnumber the stars of the heavens” (Gen. 15:5) — and well, here in Exodus 1, that’s beginning to happen.
We’re supposed to see right away that the Book of Exodus is linked to the Book of Genesis. What God has promised is coming to pass … even in Egypt.
The Egypt part is the only wrinkle in these first verses and that’s because Egypt was not the land that God promised Abraham.
Remember that the only reason the sons of Israel were in Egypt is its own crazy story. There was a famine in the whole region and Egypt was the only place that had food, but the only reason that Egypt had food was because a son of Israel named Joseph was second in command over Egypt and he gave wise counsel to Pharaoh. But the only reason Joseph ever ended up in Egypt was because his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery, and the only reason they did that was because Joseph was a dreamer and they hated him. The whole thing is an incredible story that starts way back in Genesis 37 and the story of Joseph in Genesis is meant to set up Exodus.
In fact, look back at Genesis 50, verse 22. Just glance over a page. Genesis 50, verse 22 says: “So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house.” That means everybody. All the sons of Jacob are in Egypt, just like we read again in Exodus 1, verses 1–5. But look what Joseph says:
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Gen. 50:24)
This verse is meant to remind us before we get to Exodus that Egypt is not the Promised Land, and therefore Egypt is not the end. God is going to bring Israel up out of Egypt. And we’re supposed to have this fresh in our minds as we read Exodus 1. God is making good on his promises; the sons of Israel are increasing, but we’re still not there yet because, for now, we’re still in Egypt.
And here’s a little lesson for us: some of you this morning are still in Egypt.
What I mean is that some of you are in a place right now that you will not always be. You might be going through something that seems not to fit with the promises of God and I want you to know that it will not last. It’s not the end.
Now there are all kinds of application we can make here to life in this world, but I want you to think about your particular situation. Some of you might feel like you’re in an ‘Egypt’ this morning, and I want you to know that God is able to bring you out. You might be in Egypt for now, but you’re not staying in Egypt.
In Exodus 1 the sons of Israel are not where God promised. They are increasing like God said, but for now they are in Egypt, and to make matters worse, this is not your mother’s Egypt.
Layer #2. The New Pharaoh Considered the Nation of Israel a Threat.
Look at verse eight:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. (Ex. 1:8)
So new king, new day. This new Pharaoh “did not know Joseph,” which means, he didn’t realize how the wisdom of Joseph basically kept everyone from starving and it actually led to the blessing of Pharaoh’s house. That is old news by the time of this new Pharaoh, and therefore he thinks differently about the sons of Israel. They are not a family blessed by God through which others are blessed, but instead he sees them as a nation that poses a threat.
There’s something interesting in the text here. I think there’s a little clue about what’s going on in verse 9 when it’s compared to verse 7. In verse 7, the phrase that refers to Israel is the word “sons.” The ESV still says “people of Israel” in verse 7, but the original is “sons of Israel.” And this is important because in verse 9 there’s a different word. Pharaoh doesn’t call them the sons of Israel, but the calls them them literally “the people.” Verse 7 is sons. Verse 9 is people.
So as their numbers have increased, the sons of Israel have gone from being ‘sons with families’ to now being a real ‘people group.’ They’re not sons anymore, now they are Israelites. Which means, now they’re a nation. Which means Pharaoh gets it: we have a nation within a nation.
So look what he says, verse ten:
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from our land. (Ex. 1:10)
Now there’s all kinds of irony going on here. The worst-case scenario for Pharaoh is if the people of Israel escape from the land, which Pharaoh thinks is possible because of Israel’s increasing numbers.
Well, their numbers are increasing, we know, because of the blessing of God. Which means, in summary, at the end of the day, Pharaoh thinks God’s blessing on Israel is a threat to himself. And so rather than align himself with God’s blessing, he opposes it. He puts himself on the other side. And this is not good. Remember what God told Abraham:
“I will bless those who bless you,
and him who dishonors you I will curse.” (Gen. 12:3)
Well, Pharaoh decides to show dishonor. He decides to suppress the increasing numbers of Israel by enslaving the people. Pharaoh oppresses Israel, and this is a bad move Pharaoh. [The kids can write that down. I know some of the kids are taking notes in their new notebooks. This is a key spot. Write verse 10: Bad move Pharaoh. Not going to work.]
Layer #3. The People of Israel Increased Despite the Oppression
Look at the first part of verse twelve:
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. (Ex. 1:12)
Pharaoh’s plan didn’t work. The blessing of God overrides the opposition. Pharaoh thought that his oppression would make the numbers shrink. He thought he could make Israel stop growing, but look what verse 12 says about Israel: “Can’t nobody take my pride, can’t nobody hold me down, oh no, I got to keep on movin’.”
It’s right there in verse 12. The more Pharaoh oppressed Israel, the more they multiplied. And so the plot thickens.
Layer #4. All of Egypt Dreaded all of Israel
Look at the last part of verse twelve:
“And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” (Ex. 1:12)
So now things have escalated. This is no longer about a paranoid Pharaoh, but the end of verse 12 tells us that now there is a collective worry. All the Egyptians were in dread of the Israelites. And that word “dread” means something between horror and panic. At this point we have a national emergency. What started as the suspicions and fears of a leader have now become the suspicions and fears of an entire people.
And of course it works this way. Fear is always the easiest thing to spread, and history shows us that rulers can generate a lot of power by the use of fear. It’s fear and insecurity that then turn into blaming and scapegoating, and then blaming and scapegoating turn into genocide. I think every genocide in human history follows the pattern we see here.
What do you think is going to happen next in Exodus 1?
The whole nation of Egypt now dreads the people of Israel, and so the whole nation of Egypt gets in on the oppression, and the oppression intensifies. So in verse 16 we see it.
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (Ex. 1:15-16)
Layer #5. Pharaoh Orders the Midwives to Kill the Hebrew Sons
So the oppression by ruthless, forced labor was not enough and so now Pharaoh turns to death. He intends to subdue the Israelites, or the Hebrews, by killing their sons. The opposition has now worsened into the darkest possibility: this is genocide. This is the mass killing of an entire ethnic group. But it’s genocide through the killing of sons.
Some commentators speculate why Pharaoh targets the sons, and one answer is that the sons are the ones who become the soldiers and since Pharaoh is afraid of war, he wants to eradicate an army before it can form. And maybe that’s the case, but either way, there is something more going on here within the Bible’s storyline.
Notice that Pharaoh calls them sons, not boys. He could have said to kill the “boys,” or to kill the “males,” but instead he says “sons.” Verse 16: “If it is a son, you shall kill him.” So as the readers of this story we should ask: Do sons have anything important to do with the story of Israel?
Of course they do. You could say the entire hope of Israel is bound up in a son. It starts with the promised son of Genesis 3:15 — there is a son who is to come who will crush the head of the serpent. That’s the son we’re looking for right from the start, and it might be Abel — but what happened to Abel? Cain killed Abel (cf. Gen. 4:25). And then we think Well, it might be Noah. Finally we have a son who will bring us relief (cf. Gen. 5:29), but then Noah sins and falls and we know it’s not him (cf. Gen. 9:20).
And then there’s Abraham, and a lot is promised to Abraham concerning his son, but then he and Sarah can’t have children, and that lasts for years, and so we conclude, like Abraham did, that none of God’s promises can happen apart from a son. But then by a miracle a son is finally born and his name is Isaac, and then Isaac has sons of his own, Jacob and Esau — but how did that go? There was all kinds of strife between these sons, but Jacob emerges and he is blessed and he has his own sons — and how did that go? Well, there was more strife between the sons. And that’s what brings us to Exodus only to find out now that Pharaoh wants to kill all the Hebrew sons.
It’s been said before that the whole Old Testament in a nutshell could be called the “drama of the son.” And I think it works.
Israel’s hope — the hope of the world — is bound up in a son, and the enemies of God want nothing more than to destroy that son.
In fact, in the Book of Revelation (the very last book of the Bible), in Revelation Chapter 12, we read about this vision John had. John says that there was a great sign that appeared in heaven, and it was of a woman in labor. She was about to give birth to a male child. And then another sign appeared: it was a great red dragon, and the dragon stood in front of the woman at her feet, waiting for this son to be born so that he could devour it, but God rescues the son. That’s Revelation 12, and it’s an apocalyptic vision for sure, but it’s also just showing us what’s been going on in the Old Testament, and really for most of human history.
We need to recognize the bigger picture here. Pharaoh is not simply being strategic, this is Pharaoh being used as a pawn by Satan. What we see here in Exodus 1 is Satan’s darker scheme to defeat God’s salvation by waging war against the son. Satan is the one at work in Pharaoh, and this is a bad move. [kids can write that down. Verse 15, Bad move Pharaoh. Not going to work].
Layer #6. The Scheme of Satan Fails because Two Midwives Fear God
Shiphrah and Puah are their names — and these are not great names. We don’t recycle these names in the 21st century. Nobody is naming their kids Shiphrah and Puah, and whatever you do, you can’t shorten these names. But the point is that these are real names. These are the real names of two women who served as midwives to the Hebrews.
And Pharaoh instructed them that as soon as the Hebrew children were born, these two midwives were to “see them on the birthstool” — and that’s an odd phrase, but it’s a kind of like a euphemism, I think. The idea is that they are to immediately check the sex of the child — they’re supposed to check and see if it’s a son — and if it’s a son, verse 16, they shall kill him.
Pharaoh knew that the most efficient way to eradicate a whole people was to get to them at birth. And the only reason he had to wait until the actual birth was because they didn’t have ultrasounds in Egypt at the time, but if they did … Pharaoh is an abortionist.
Already, we’re looking at genocide by infanticide, but with more technology, this would be genocide by abortion. And it would have been successful, but there’s Shiphrah and Puah.
Remember they’re in the room, just before the sun comes up, there’s a little blue in the sky. The Hebrew woman is in labor, and Shiphrah looks at Puah and they’re not going to do it.
Look at verse 17:
“But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them…”
And it was obvious to Pharaoh that the midwives were not killing the sons because he speaks to them a second time and he asked them what’s going on. Why have you let the male children live?
And they said it’s because the Hebrew women are quick in labor. They have the babies before the midwives can get to them. And apparently Pharaoh buys this answer because we don’t read anymore dialogue between Pharaoh and these midwives, but I think that’s because that’s not main point here. There’s something more important we’re supposed to see.
Look at second half of verse 20:
“And the people multiplied and grew very strong.” (Ex. 1:20)
The main point here is that Pharaoh’s plan — the scheme of Satan — has failed, and it has failed because of two women who in the social ladder of ancient Egypt were nobodies.
There is a wonderful twist that is happening here: it’s that the highest authority of the world’s superpower has a wicked plan that gets subverted by two peasant women who trust God.
And this starts a little theme … because right after these women it’s a Levite woman who disobeys Pharaoh’s command and keeps her son alive by putting him in a basket; and after that woman it’s a little girl, the baby boy’s sister, who keeps the son alive by following the basket down the river, and then after that little girl it’s Pharaoh’s own daughter who keeps the son alive by drawing him out of the water and adopting him.
The Book of Exodus opens and we see there are women of all ages who are overthrowing the powers of evil, not by strength, but by faith — and ultimately, the subversion of Pharaoh’s plan reaches all the way into Pharaoh’s very own house. There’s so much irony happening here.
But it all starts with these midwives.
And it’s hard to overstate how incredible this is. The whole rest of the Book of Exodus is basically meant to show us, and to show Pharaoh, what these midwives already know. They know who God is. They know that God is sovereign over Pharaoh; and they know that God is faithful to his promises.
That is the message of this book. Shiphrah and Puah understand it in Chapter 1.
And we should be like them. In fact, I wonder what they’d say to us if we had the chance to talk to them. Like if they were here, and we were say to them: Ms. Shiphrah and Ms. Puah, you are midwives who stood against the darkest powers of evil. What lesson can you give us?
Imagine for a minute that they’re on a college campus being asked that question [any college students here?] Imagine Shiphrah and Puah are on your campus, surrounded by students, and one student says, We want to have an impact like you. What is one piece of advice you would give us?
Well, I think Shiphrah would say to these students: “You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world, but you do have to know one great thing, and be willing to live for it and die for it.” I think that’s what they’d say.
See, the midwives knew: God is sovereign, and he keeps his promises. So, church, students: Know that.
Layer #7. Pharaoh Doubles Down in his War Against the Son
This is verse 22. Look at verse 22:
Then Pharaoh commands all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” (Ex. 1:22)
So the midwives do what they can, but Pharaoh isn’t done. Pharaoh now goes beyond the midwives and issues an edict for the whole nation of Egypt. It’s now the responsibility of all the Egyptians that if they see Hebrews sons they’re supposed to throw them into the Nile River. That is Pharaoh’s new plan, and this is, for the third time, a bad move [Verse 22 — bad move Pharaoh. Not going to work.]
There’s a comparison we’re supposed to see here between the midwives and Pharaoh. God dealt well with the midwives in verse 20. Verse 21 says that God gave them families. And this is Genesis 12:3 again — “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.”
The midwives gave Israel families, and so God gives them families. Pharaoh throws Israel’s sons into the Nile and so God will kill Pharaoh’s sons and turn the Nile into blood.
Because God is sovereign and he keeps his promises — even as the war wages on. Because the war against the son isn’t over, see.
Even Many years after Pharaoh there was another nervous king who feared losing his throne — he was another pawn of Satan; his name was Herod — and in his fear and insecurity what did he do? Herod ordered that all the infant sons in Bethlehem and the whole region be killed (see Mt. 2:16). But it was a bad move, Herod. Not going to work.
Jesus Christ, the son of God was born, and he increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. And he lived a full life of perfect obedience and faithfulness. He was the Last Adam, the offspring of Abraham, the Greater Moses. Jesus was the Messiah who had finally come to save us, but the war continued. Jesus was hated and slandered and eventually he was arrested. And we find yet another ruler who is fearful and insecure — his name was Pilate — and he caved to the crowd when they demanded that Jesus be crucified.
That’s what they did. They crucified the son. Satan and the forces of evil had finally caught him. Jesus, the Son, was beaten beyond recognition. He was nailed to a cross and hoisted up in mockery. Jesus suffered thirsty, gasping for breath, bearing the weight of sin, and then he died. Jesus, the Son, died and he was buried. And Satan thought the war was over. Satan thought he defeated the son.
But bad move Satan. Not going to work.
Because on the third day, in the early morning when there’s just a little blue in the sky, what seemed to be the greatest defeat became the greatest victory. Because Jesus the Son of God was raised from the dead. Jesus the Son of God was raised in power and vindicated by his Father. The beloved Son of God is the Son who conquers. The beloved Son of God is the Son who saves.
Ans though the fighting might continue, the war has been won. And the victory of Jesus is our victory. When you put your faith in Jesus you receive the victory of Jesus.
So receive it.
That’s what we do at this Table.
Each week as we come to this Table we remember the death of Jesus for us, and we give him thanks. We eat the bread that represents his body and drink the cup that represents his blood, and we remember that by faith we are united to Jesus, and that his victory is our victory.
And if that is true of you this morning, if his victory is yours, we invite you to freshly receive his victory through this bread and cup. And let us give him thanks.