This week our Torah portion brings us to the beginning of the book of Exodus. Joseph and his brothers have now died, and several generations have passed. We learn that the children of Israel have become enslaved and that hundreds of years have gone by. The story begins with the birth of Moses and his calling to be the redeemer of Israel. We are familiar with the story, but we might wonder why the enslavement had to happen in the first place.
We already know that God told Abraham that this was going to happen. We read about it in Genesis 15:13, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years”. The Egyptian enslavement was part of the plan of God from the beginning. Remember that the calling of Israel from the very beginning was to demonstrate the reality of God to the world. Simply stated, Israel was called to be a "light" to the world. In the original promise to Abraham, his descendants are called to be a blessing to the nations. The Egyptian enslavement revealed to the world (and to Israel!) that the God of Israel is the one true all-powerful God. It also revealed that he is a caring and loving God who redeems his people and provides for their well-being. God as protector and deliverer becomes the primary characteristic of the God of Israel. In fact, beginning with Moses, the primary name of God YHVH, becomes identified as "deliverer." See Ex. 3:6 and 6:2-6. In the Bible and throughout Jewish history, the story of the Exodus defines the relationship between Israel and YHVH. But to an even greater degree, the story of the Exodus is the defining story of God and his relationship to humanity. The Exodus story is the backdrop of the entire New Covenant Scriptures. The Messiah is another Moses who redeems us not from a physical slavery but from spiritual slavery.
But may I suggest that there is something else about the Exodus story that has profound meaning for us, especially as a messianic Jewish community of Messiah followers. Something that we know but that is often overlooked is that for God to be known as the deliverer and the all-powerful one and only God, Israel had to suffer for several hundred years. The suffering is not emphasized, because the story is about the deliverance. Even in the story itself, the hundreds of years of suffering take up a few verses in chapter one. But for the name of the God of Israel to be made known to the nations; for Israel to trust in God and fulfill her calling; for the great deliverance to take place, Israel had to suffer. All of this should remind us of the previous story of Joseph. Joseph suffered for the purposes of God. In Egypt, all of Israel suffered for the purposes of God. In neither case, was the suffering retribution from God because of sin. The suffering of Joseph and the suffering of the nation was a calling from God and served greater purposes and led to the blessing of others. Later in Jewish history, we know that some suffering was the result of sin such as the exile. But even the suffering that came because of transgressions has served the purposes of God. In the New Covenant Scriptures, we read in Romans 11:11-12 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! In this case, the suffering of Israel that has come, at least in part, because of this transgression has been a blessing to the nations. The sufferings have always reminded Israel of their identity and have strengthened the resolve of Jewish people to continue to hope to this day. As Messiah Followers, we will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). We have a calling to be a light to the nations, and suffering is part of that calling. Suffering will help us to persevere and grow in both character and hope (Romans 5:3-5). It gives meaning and purpose to suffering. We are thankful for the deliverance that we have experienced in Messiah Yeshua, and we look forward to the day when the redemption will be complete…when all Israel will be saved, and all suffering will end. In the meantime, may we endure with trust and hope.