They Don't Die, They Multiply
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. 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. 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 the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
32 years ago, back in 1984, the movie Gremlins came out. It was a horror movie with a dash of comedy sprinkled in here and there. A man named Randall Peltzer was a struggling inventor, and he was looking for a unique Christmas gift for his son Billy. In an antique shop in Chinatown he stumbles across a cute little furry creature called a Mogwai. He’s gotta have it, but the owner refuses to sell it to him. After he leaves the store, the owner’s grandson sneaks out and secretly sells the Mogwai to Randall because his family needs the money.
This Mogwai might be cute, but it’s not like your normal house pet. There are some rules you have to follow. The boy says to him, “First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it'll kill him. Second, don't give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.” A happy Randall agrees, names the Mogwai, “Gizmo,” and gives it to Billy for Christmas.
Even if you haven't seen the movie, you can imagine what happened. It wasn’t long before the rules were broken. Some water spilled on Gizmo, and he began to multiply. The other Mogwai weren’t as gentle and kind as Gizmo. They used some trickery to get Billy to give them some food after midnight. They cocooned like caterpillars and morphed into Gremlins. The Gremlin ringleader, stripe, found a pool and jumped in it. Now, this little handful of Gremlins multiplied into a swarm that practically filled the whole town, terrorizing it. When it came to the Gremlins the sense the town had was Bebe’s kids, “they don’t die, they multiply!” As much as the folks in the town tried to stop the spread of the Gremlins they couldn’t do it.
That’s exactly how the Egyptians felt here in . Try as they might to stop the spread of the children of Israel, they couldn’t do it. They wouldn’t die. They were like the Gremlins. They kept multiplying. The text tells us in v. 12 that the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. That is, they loathed the people of Israel. But this is not about the people of Israel terrorizing the land of Egypt like the Gremlins terrorized that town. What we are seeing in is the ongoing story of God’s promise being worked out in time and space. The story that began in God blessed Adam and Eve, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The story that continued in after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. God said that the seed of the serpent, the devil’s spiritual children, would bruise the heel of the woman’s children. But he promised that the woman’s children would crush the head of the serpent’s children. The story that pressed forward in when the Lord promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation. And when he told Abraham to look towards heaven and number the stars if he was able to. “So shall your offspring be,” he said to Abraham. This is the continuing story of God’s promise to fulfill his mission of making his name and glory fill the earth. So, because of his promise, his people don’t die, they multiply.
So, we have four “P’s” to talk about as we work through this text, Promise, Problem, Persecution, and Proliferation.
As I’ve mentioned already, this text is about God’s promise being realized in time and space. And it’s being laid out for us right here at the beginning of the book. None of our English Bibles make this clear, but the first word in the book of Exodus is the word, “and.” That’s probably because it’s not proper English grammar to begin a sentence with a conjunction. But v. 1 should be translated, “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man with his household.” The reason I’m pointing this out to you is because there’s an intentional connection at the beginning of Exodus to what has been said before about this family, everything leading up to this point. In fact, at one point, Genesis and Exodus may have been a single book.
Then, after Moses makes this connection for us, he lists for us the names of the sons of Israel in vv. 2-3, “Rueben, Simeon, Levi and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.” This is almost a word for word repetition of . If you looked there what you would find is that the sons are not listed from oldest to youngest, as you might expect. Parents, if you have multiple children, when people ask you about your children, you usually describe them in order from oldest to youngest. That’s not what’s happening here. These sons are listed according to who their mama was. If you know the story, there was a lot of drama in Jacob’s family. He wanted to marry his uncle Laban’s daughter Rachel. But Laban tricked him into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, first. Leah had six sons: Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. He was able to finally marry his true love, Rachel. Rachel had two sons: Joseph and Benjamin. In that household Leah and Rachel had their own competition going on. They would one up each other by sending their female servant to Jacob. Rachel’s servant, Bilhah, had two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Leah’s servant, Zilpah, also had two sons, Gad and Asher.
There’s your list. Joseph is missing from the list because, as is explained for us at the end of v. 5, he was already in Egypt. He was the reason that Jacob and his sons and their families were able to escape the famine in the land of Canaan and find refuge in Egypt. Then, it says in v. 6, Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation. Everybody died. But do you know what didn’t die? God’s promise didn’t die. Verse 7 tells us that the people of Israel were fruitful. Notice this with me. The words people of Israel in v. 7 are the same words in the Hebrew text translated as “sons of Israel” in v. 1. It’s rightly translated as “people” instead of “sons” here in v. 7 because there’s been a transition from a nomadic band of 70 people to a numerous nation of people. Look at the description of them in v. 7. They were fruitful. They increased greatly. That is, they teemed, they were like a swarm of people. They multiplied. They grew very very strong. The land was filled with them! Can you say Gremlins anyone?
Here’s the deal. They’re starting to be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand of the seashore. But, it’s not because they’re this model picture of perfect people who deserve this blessing. The family was formed through trickery and deception. They’re in Egypt because some of their great great great great grandfathers sold their other great great great great grandfather into slavery. This is a family with a checkered past. But the promise of God trumps everything. Do you hear me? The promise of God isn’t hindered by the foolishness, stupidity, trickery, deceitfulness, and ignorance of people. You’re messed up. But you’re not messed up enough to throw God off course of his kingdom promises and purposes! The mess of this world does not make God sweat! He grieves, but he doesn’t sweat. His promise of redemption and restoration, of justice and righteousness permeates this book. That promise permeates the Bible. And no power of hell or scheme of man is able to throw him off that course.
The power of hell shows up right here in our text. From the confirmation of God’s promise we move on to find out that there’s a problem in vv. 8-10. A new king came to power in Egypt. Time has elapsed and we are centuries removed from Joseph serving as prime minister over Egypt and saving the country from doom. All this new pharaoh knows is that the whole country is filled with these Hebrews. What we are being introduced to in v. 8 is a world ignorant of the Lord. Egypt was the big dog nation. They were the world power, and they had all kinds of gods, but they had no knowledge of the true God. That ignorance had implications.
Look at what Pharoah says in vv. 9-10
And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 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 the land.”
Can I put Pharaoh’s speech in in current American vernacular for you? Pharaoh is saying, “We’ve got a problem with these immigrants.” Pharaoh, in vv. 9-10, is giving the Egyptian State of the Union address. The citizens are assembled together to hear him and he tells them, “We have a major national crisis.” Pharaoh says, “These people are different than we are and we’ve let them practically take over our country. They’re stronger than us!” The political tactic of leaders creating fear among the people in order to get them to go along with the program isn’t new. It’s ancient. Pharaoh played on the Egyptian’s sense of ethnic and national superiority. Do you remember what we were told back in ? Joseph was 2nd in command in Egypt, and he would’ve looked like an Egyptian and spoken the language. His brothers, for the second time, had come down from Canaan to by grain. Joseph prepared a banquet for them, but he sat at his own table. In v. 32 of that chapter we’re told that the servants served Joseph by himself, and then they served the brothers by themselves. The Egyptians who ate with Joseph were also separate from the Hebrews because, it says, the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
That attitude hadn’t changed in centuries. So Pharaoh doesn’t have to create a sense of national superiority. He just has to use it for his advantage. He says in v. 10, “People of Egypt, we’ve got to deal shrewdly with these immigrants. We’ve got to be wise in how we deal with the Hebrew problem. They are a threat to national security. We have a whole nation of non-Egyptians living in our country. They’re not loyal to us, and if war comes, they’ll join with our enemies and fight against us. They’ll take your jobs. They’ll take your wealth. They’ll take your property. They’ll take your power!”
We should be seeing some parallels. Some bells should be going off in our minds. We can look at our text and see the evil that is at work in Pharaoh’s heart. We can clearly see the power of hell behind the problem that is presented in our text. But we should be able to make the connection to our current day. The beauty of this congregation is that it’s filled with people from diverse ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds. Some of you might feel very deeply about how we talk about immigration in this country. In almost every presidential election, every presidential candidate has to talk about what they’re going to do about the “immigration problem.” That was taken to a new level in 2016! It’s as if we’re not talking about real people made in the image of God and deserving of dignity. What are we going to do about “those people?” The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2044 the U.S. will become a “majority minority” population… In this country’s current debate over immigration where we see a “those people” attitude, a “they’re different than us and are going to destroy our country attitude,” what we’re seeing is a heart that is closer to Pharaoh than it is to Jesus Christ.
What we see Pharaoh saying here to his people here in reminds us of the fact that the image of God is imprinted on every soul has implications for how we think about people and how we treat them. In Egypt, Pharaoh himself was the image of God. So, if you weren’t “his people” you could be dismissed as unworthy of dignity. Here's what I'm getting at. We have a natural tendency to categorize people into a group of “others.” Whoever those “others” are, they become thought of as “those people.” This makes it easy to dehumanize people and think of them only as a commodity. We want to know, “do those people add to or detract from our society?” God would not have us look at image bearers in that way. That mindset or heart is incompatible with God’s mission.
Indeed, here we are in Advent, celebrating the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. One of the ways that Exodus prepares us for his coming is that when God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt, he also has Jesus in mind. Mary and Joseph have to flee and take Jesus to Egypt. Our Savior lived as an immigrant, a refugee in a foreign land escaping persecution...
And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The problem of dehumanization and commodification of people in our text leads to a horrific persecution. We are told in v. 11 that because of Pharaoh’s powerful state of the union address, the people are on board with the slavery and oppression program. They set task masters over the children of Israel to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. It says in v. 14 that they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. Two times, in v. 13 and in v. 14 it says they treated the Hebrews ruthlessly. That word for “ruthless” always includes violence. We’re getting a picture of how bad it was for them.
Here’s what I want to point out in this persecution. There is a connection here with what happened in Genesis ch. 11. At the end of God calls Abraham to himself. Then he makes the promise to him that he’s going to bless Abraham and make him a great nation. That account in Genesis comes on the heels of the tower of Babel incident. Here’s the connection. The people who stood against God’s command and built Babel used the same language as Pharaoh. “Come, let us make bricks…Come, let us build ourselves a city…” Here is Pharaoh in , “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them.” Just as the people of Babel were building a city and a tower against God with brick and mortar, the Egyptians are forcing the people of God to build cities out of brick and mortar that stand against God. Those who stand against God are committed to building monuments to their own glory.
The concern of Babel was that they didn’t want to be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. The concern of Pharaoh is that the children of Israel are dispersed over the face of the whole land. The persecution comes because what we are seeing is the ancient battle between the city of God and the city of man. In God’s kingdom, in his city, he is acknowledged to be the one with all the power, all the authority and all the glory. When the Lord is not acknowledged as the one with all power and glory, what people do is heap up power and glory for ourselves. The contrast at play here is between the pursuit of being God and of loving God.
Don’t think that this is something that’s only relegated to the past. Back in July 2014 CRU Inner City, that’s Campus Crusade for Christ Inner City, put on a conference called Creating Options Together. The purpose of that conference was to lift up and empower the church. To demonstrate the power of the gospel to create options for those in poverty, fresh options that address real needs. One of the speakers was Karen Ellis, a woman who some of you are familiar with. If not her, you might be familiar with her husband, Carl Ellis. The title of Karen’s speech was, My People My People - A Letter to the Church in America. She made the point that if God is on the throne there is no power struggle. If we’re on the throne through self-exaltation, you have oppression somewhere somehow. Power is always going to be abused in that situation. And someone is going to be denied the right to the fullness of their God given humanity. Satan, she said, is incredibly uncreative and unimaginative in his tactics, but he’s so effective because he’s good at marketing. Here’s a direct quote,
“While the social fabric of oppression change from age to age, the general contours of abuse and degradation remain the same. It’s just different packaging. Look at the similarity from one oppressive regime to another: destruction of name and identity, destruction of culture, violation of women, emasculation of men, false accusations, unjust courts, the limiting of travel, zoned housing to substandard conditions, denial of societal advancement.”
Aren't these the same things we see here in the oppression of God’s people here in ? Turn to the book of Acts. Those are some of the same things you’ll see in the persecution of the church. Turn to the book of Revelation and you’ll see those same things in the persecution that Christians were enduring in the seven letters of . Aren’t those the same facets of human degradation that Black American Christians had to endure during slavery and the Jim Crow era? Aren’t these the same tactics that are being employed today by people who are hostile to Jesus Christ and his Kingdom; whether it’s Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the government of North Korea, and other places? Different faces but the same tactics.
That fact might leave us depressed were it not for the other reality that comes back around in our text. We started out this message in the first few verses seeing how the promise of God trumps everything. It trumps the fact that the people of God are messed up and don’t have their act together. But it also trumps the power of Satan in his attempts to destroy the work of God. Look at v. 12, “But the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” The result of the persecution was proliferation. Pharaoh’s evil and oppressive tactics had the absolute opposite effect of what he desired.
Why is that? That’s because no power of hell nor scheme of man is strong enough to stop God or throw him off track! They expanded exponentially. This is what Jesus was talking about in when he says, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus promises that not even the gates of hell itself will be able to stand against his kingdom of God expansion program. There’s a song we love to sing at CoH, Jesus My Great High Priest. In the last stanza of that song we sing:
“Should all the hosts of death and powers of hell unknown, Put their most dreadful forms of rage and mischief on, I shall be safe for Christ displays, His conquering power and guardian grace, His conquering power and guardian grace.”
Safe in the arms of Jesus is the song of the people who belong to Jesus especially in the most intense, harsh and difficult conditions. Persecution in Egypt causes the OT Church to expand. Persecution in the book of Acts causes the Church to expand. Persecution in China causes the church to expand. They don’t die, they multiply. Let me quote from Karen Ellis again as I wrap this up.
“The church expands exponentially under persecution because Satan unwittingly creates the very environment where the need for hope and faith in Christ are most necessary!”
If you keep reading through Exodus, you’ll find at the end of ch. 2 that Israel is going to be groaning and crying out to God for help because of their harsh slavery. And God is going to hear and respond as he always does. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise of proliferation to Abraham is not found in Exodus. It’s found in Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ can declare himself to be the divine promise maker and promise keeper who doesn’t promise that his people won’t have to endure persecution. No. He promises that persecution won’t hinder his kingdom of God expansion program. How is this possible? It’s possible because in Jesus Christ we have a God who is both Savior and sufferer. He is one who both delivers from oppression and was oppressed and afflicted himself! He took on every vulnerability, including subjecting himself to an oppressive regime. The Bible says that it was fitting for God to make the founder of our salvation perfect through suffering.
If you are in Jesus Christ, what you have, what we have together, is not an invented past of stories about people far away that don’t touch on the reality of the difficulties of life today. What we have the reality of a saving God from Genesis to Revelation who continues to push back against the darkness of human degradation, oppression, violence, and injustice with his power that sustains and enables his people to flourish in the midst of it. In Jesus Christ we have a God who continues to press his mission forward!
As I wrap this up, at least two implications are here for us. We can find ourselves in both positions described in our text. The first is personal. Do you have a power struggle? When you sit in your seat of authority over others, whether you’re an executive, a teacher, a medical professional, a mom, a dad, whatever it is, who is on throne? The lordship of Jesus Christ over you influences and directs the way you exercise authority. If it is not the Lord Jesus Christ, you will somewhere and somehow abuse your power and influence for your own glory. What I’m asking you to do is the hard work of heart examination.
The second implication is more corporate. Texts like these remind us to be in constant prayer for the persecuted church. The church won’t die. Jesus has promised it. But he delights to hear our prayers and use them as means to bring comfort, peace, and even joy to those who are enduring persecution for the sake of his name.
So, whether we’re in power or persecuted, we look to and rest upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Because, as our resurrected King, he sits on the throne with all power in his hand. And he got to that exalted place by embracing the vulnerability and pain of the oppressed. He’s got both covered. So, his church will never die, she’ll multiply.