One of the unanswerable questions of humanity asks how one human society or culture can excuse the subjugation and oppression of another human society or culture. When does oppression and subjugation make sense? Just for the record, never. It happens, even the people of Yahweh did it, but it never makes sense.
Have you ever wondered why the people of Israel in Egypt didn’t just leave after Joseph died? Why didn’t they simply take his body to Canaan to bury it, and not return? But even so, why didn’t they leave before being enslaved? No one saw that coming? No one figured their time had come to an end in Goshen?
But, why, then, did Egypt consider it necessary to oppress the people of Israel in the first place? We’re given the explanation by Pharaoh in Exodus 1:9-11, where he claims that the sons of Israel have become so numerous that they are dangerous to the native Egyptians. But there are three reasons given, one of which surprised me.
He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses.Exodus 1:9-11 NASB
The reasons given in verse 11 for why oppression of the Hebrews made sense (dealing wisely) are: they will 1) continue to multiply, 2) join the enemies of Egypt in time of war, and 3) depart the land. I can understand the first two. Verse 7 sets up the consistent increasing of the people of Israel as a thematic element of the chapter.
The second reason, that Israel would join Egypt’s enemies, only makes sense when we remember that there was an enormous divide between the two cultures. The Hebrews were nomadic herdsmen, and Egyptian society was based on domestic farming, and less on animal husbandry. The Egyptians couldn’t even eat with or associate with nomadic peoples (see Genesis 43:32).
The third reason is where I become confused. If the people of Israel are dangerous, why not expel them? There has to be some contribution to the culture and life of Egypt by the people of Israel that is important to the Egyptians. The people they cannot live with, they cannot live without. In many translations, the last phrase in verse 10 is translated “escape” rather than “depart” the land. And yet, the Hebrews aren’t slaves just yet.
There are all sorts of lessons which can be derived from this simple, strange reason for enslaving the Hebrews. Perhaps the Hebrews remained too long, content to pasture among those who were never their people. Maybe they were oblivious to the growing resentment toward them by the native Egyptians. Did the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob call them out sooner, and they missed the call?
The truth of Scripture is that we’re never told what error the sons of Israel may have made which brought on their enslavement. It seems no failure on their part is relevant to the point God inspires here. We can hypothesize, theorize, and opine until we’re old, grey, and drooling in paper cups in a memory-care facility. But there’s no purpose. If God didn’t think it necessary to provide a criticism, then that’s not where His lesson for us will be found.
Okay, so where is the lesson God inspired here? Well, what do we know from these verses? We know that this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph, so the Hebrew vizier is no longer a national hero. We know that the people of Israel have literally “swarmed” over the land (see verse 7). And we know that the Egyptians considered the Hebrews more numerous than they.
So, then, knowing that, what can we learn? Where’s the lesson for us today? Isn’t it two-fold? Sometimes we are oppressed, and sometimes we are oppressors; or at least we’re tempted to be oppressors. What drove the Egyptians was fear. They feared this people who they perceived to be bigger and stronger than they. But they also recognized that they couldn’t let these scary people leave either.
And the sons of Israel were simply living their lives, contributing to the society of Egypt in some ways. And, as a result, they proliferated in the fertile land of Goshen. For this, they were oppressed, and forced to work building the cities of Pithom and Ramses. It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t make a lot of sense. These nomadic herdsmen were singled out for the hard labor simply because they were different and numerous.
We go back and forth between these two. There are times we are faced with scary people, and we are tempted to mistreat them. There are other times when we’re the scary ones, and we are mistreated. So, here it comes: we’re all necessary, we all contribute, and fear is unnecessary.
Those homeless people who are camping all over your town, yeah, they’re not to be feared. They’re actually able to contribute to the community. Those rich people who seem to have more money than they need, yeah, they’re not scary either. They also have something to contribute to the community. Do you fear the “Trailer Trash”, blue-collar workers, and those just scraping by? Are you offended by those “while-collar” workers living within picket-fences?
The powerful and the lowly, both, we all have something to contribute, and we’ll find we are all necessary. Liberals and conservatives, men and women, old and young, white, black, Asian, and Hispanic; we all have our part to play, our contribution to make. And it doesn’t require oppression to retain those contributions and protect our society.