A recurring theme in Genesis was the threat of famine that sent the Hebrews to Egypt for food (Gen. 12:10; 26:1–2; 42:1; 46:1–4). The last time it occurred in Genesis, the entire family of Israel wound up there due to the seven-year famine Pharaoh dreamt about. That sojourn ultimately led them to settle in the land of Goshen. What began as an effort to sustain themselves would turn into a reversal of fortune. Somewhere along the continuum of time, things changed, but this is expected since Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Gen. 15:13–14). Yet, He would bring them back to the land of Canaan after the fourth generation. Before they’d return, things would get worse before they got better.
What Moses is Showing Us
In the early chapters of Exodus, we notice a retelling of the creation story in a sense, but through the history of Israel. Israel is depicted to the ancient reader as fulfilling the vocation of humanity from the beginning. The first evidence being the divine order to fill the earth and subdue it (Exod. 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:20, 28; 9:1; 17:6). Whereas it was commanded of Adam/Eve and Noah, God told Abraham that He would make it happen for him. In each instance, God is narrowing down His purpose for creation through specific ones. He began with Adam (human) and Eve (life). After their expulsion from Eden because of sin, the line was narrowed through Seth, and the mandate was once again given to Noah. As sin persisted, the vocation was given to Abraham to be realized in Israel. They had multiplied and filled the land.
Israel is God’s vessel for demonstrating His creative purposes. It’s meant to be through them that humanity comes to know the God of creation and form a relationship with Him. When we read at the beginning that they “increased abundantly” (Exod. 1:7), it might be better that we substitute that translation with “abounded.” This is the same word used to describe the sea creatures in Gen. 1:21, and it’s also used post-flood in 8:17; 9:7. These usages point initially to the creation and, then, to recreation. The author hints that a new creation is being carried out through Israel, and it is accomplished in part by their multiplication.
Fulfilling God’s divine vocation resulted in the Egyptians taking notice. To Pharaoh, the growing number of Israelites was a threat. However, the more he tried to stop it, the little it did to accomplish his goal. If anything, Pharaoh’s oppression intensified Israel’s growth (Exod. 1:12). With Pharaoh wanting Israel to diminish and God wishing them to fill the earth, a show-off and clash are sure to result. The last time such an occasion reared its ugly head was at the Tower of Babel. Those present had pitted themselves against God, and He scattered them. Pharaoh is about to do the same, and those of us who know the story know it won’t end well for the King of Egypt.
Rather than Israel subduing the land, they were stopped (enslaved). Humanity was suppressed by sin resulting in the fall. Being further subdued resulted in the flood, so the enslavement warrants a liberation just as God had previously given. As Israel continued growing and evil pervaded in their enslavement and oppression, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male newborns. Of course, the scheme didn’t work because the Hebrew midwives kept it from happening (Exod. 1:17, 21). One specific Levite couple had a “beautiful” son. Literally, this is the same word translated as “good” seven times in Genesis 1—tov. This reminder points to the fact that this son will be used in God’s scheme of recreation.
Pharaoh began ordered newborn males to drown in the Nile. This boy’s parents put him in “an ark of bulrushes” (Exod. 2:3). In Genesis, the flood destroyed the whole human race. Still, in Exodus, Pharaoh wanted male children drowned in the Nile, threatening to destroy Israel. As the ark saved Noah, so an ark saved Moses. Noah saved humanity; Moses would save Israel. Sadly, this wasn’t the story for everyone and likely explains why God later takes the firstborn among Egypt and drowned the Egyptians in the Sea. Moreover, as God parted the chaotic waters above a vault and below as the sea, so He’d part the waters of the Red Sea for Israel’s escape. As the flood destroyed the earth’s inhabitants, God’s releasing of the parted sea would drown the Egyptians.
Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Afterward, he tries to play peacemaker between two other Hebrews who make it known that they are aware of what he had done to the Egyptian. Pharaoh also learns and seeks Moses’ life, so Moses flees. He finds women being harassed at a well and rescues them, one of whom would become his wife after the manner of Isaac and Jacob. He meets a Midianite priest who becomes his father-in-law, and chapter two ends with a simple verse that our English complicates. “God saw the Israelites. God knew.”