Egyptian Retention Method

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.


The Silent Majority

And Jesus answered and spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they kept silent. And He took hold of him and healed him, and sent him away.  And He said to them, “Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?”  And they could make no reply to this.  (Luke 14:3-6 NASB)

I have been reminded by my wife many times that when I prepare, my sermons are shorter.  I don’t preach any more, but the reminder has always stuck with me.  Now, when I do get the very rare opportunity to preach, my preparation is very different, and my sermon is often long.  So, I received the advice or reminder, but I didn’t necessarily heed it.  The thing is, preachers love to preach.  Getting us to keep our mouths shut isn’t easy.  So why were these dinner guests so quiet?

After the setting of this meal, we have the one-sided discourse.  The weird thing is, all the other guests are Pharisees and lawyers.  These guys make their mark in their society by arguing…and here they’re silent.  And we just glibly zip on by and don’t notice a bunch of silent professional debaters.  I think we should.  Because why they were silent may help us understand how Jesus behaves with them at this meal.  And, therefore, how He would respond to us when we practice such silliness.

First off, the obvious reason is probably the first and best reason for why they were silent: They were watching to see what Jesus would do without offering the “assistance” of their perspective.  I’m sure they thought they knew the answer without doubt, without question, without any option for another opinion.  But they were also pretty sure Jesus didn’t.  It was a trap, a snare, an opportunity for the offense of Jesus to become His downfall.  It was silly.

But I think there was something else going on here.  I believe, to some extent, they were aware they didn’t actually know and wanted to know what Jesus thought.  Think about it, these guys are smart.  Jesus goes about healing, which is a testimony that God is with Him, and even heals on the Sabbath, something they thought was a deal-breaker with God.  Jesus represents a conundrum.  How can it be that He can heal on the Sabbath and be acceptable to God?  And so  the wonder, is it real, does He actually heal on the Sabbath, could it be true that God actually accepts such behavior?  And more than that, if so why?  They have assumed that Sabbath-keeping is one of those things that separates them from Gentiles, rigorous keeping of the Sabbath would be vital to that distinction. So, how can Jesus flagrantly do what would be considered work on the Sabbath and God be okay with it?

They  want to see this for themselves.  They want to hear the explanation for themselves.  They have no idea what they’re in for, but they wander in ignorantly to the arena with Deity.  So, they set the trap and wait.  Their opponent shows up, sniffs about, and then sits down to eat the bait, licks their lips and looks around for more.  No trap.  It’s pretty underwhelming.  Jesus comes in, sees the man, asks a question of them, they don’t answer (it’s a test, no cheating), He heals the man, and sending him away asks about a basic loophole in their own Sabbath rules.  How did they not see that one coming?  I suspect they did.  I doubt Jesus was the first one to ask or challenge the group about what validly fits through the loophole.  Jesus is simply the first “Healer” to do it.

The thing I see here is that these guys were first silent to test, then silent because they were tested themselves.  They weren’t “bad guys” because they tested Jesus, they had, over the course of years and generations, argued themselves into a position that neglected the value of people, even their fellow Hebrews.  The irony is that those people were who they were trying to distinguish from the Gentiles through their interpretation of the Sabbath law. So while they succeeded in distinguishing, they failed to protect and value them.  Oh Dang!  I’m sure “Sabbath Law Discussions” kicked around the loophole of saving someone in well, or pulling an ox from a ditch, or watering the donkey, or whatever.  And clearly Jesus isn’t healing for money, the dropsy-man didn’t pay Jesus before he wandered off.  It wasn’t Jesus “occupation” as much as it was what occupied a lot of His time.  So you can understand their confusion perhaps.

I think they had nothing to say because a light bulb just lit in their head.  It was an “oh-yeah” moment.  It wasn’t revolutionary in the sense they’d never been down that particular road, it was transformational because they hadn’t noticed they had forgotten an important element, caring for and valuing the people.  And I doubt very seriously it was because they didn’t know that was important.  I suspect they got further and further away from it because a line crossed many years ago became blurred and forgotten.  They probably assumed that by distinguishing themselves as a people from Gentiles, they were taking care of and valuing their people.  I can see how it could happen.  I’ve seen people there who, if you were to point it out, would be as silent, and probably, like these people here, eventually react against being called out on it.  But I’ve also seen people change once called out on it.  I’m one.  I didn’t figure this out on my own, I’ve had to be shown where I was ignoring the people’s needs and valuing them.

Have you gotten to that point?  It’s been a while for me, and I’m now struggling against the tide in my church to point out need or encourage service.  But where are you in this struggle?  What do you learn from the silent dinner guests?  Or what do you learn from Jesus’ explanation of Sabbath law?