The book of Exodus begins this way:
Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; they came, each one with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the people who descended from Jacob were seventy people, but Joseph was already in Egypt. Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.
Exodus 1:1-5 NASB
In Hebrew, the book of Exodus is Shmot, or Names.
It seems like kind of a dull title, but names are important.
We all know the difference between feeling like a number, or being known by name.
When you’re waiting in line at the secretary of State–you’re a number.
When you get a generic card from some company–you’re a number.
When the waitress sees you and knows you–you’re a name
When you get a handwritten note—you’re a name.
God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5 was that his descendants would be as the stars. You might look up into the sky and be able to call out a few stars and their names because of certain constellations you’ve learned or read about. Some people buy certificates to name stars after someone they love. There are so many stars that we wouldn’t know where to begin in naming them all. But the God who created the stars says this:
Raise your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who brings out their multitude by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
By the time we get to the beginning of Exodus, the land is full of people.
So full, that you would think that people will just become numbers.
But, just as God knows the stars by name, he knows Abraham’s descendants;
Not in some kind of distant and unidentifiable way,
but in an even deeper and more intimate way than he knows the stars.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 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. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them. Exodus 1:8-14
The Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied, which is great creation lingo, going back to Genesis 1. But the word for ‘increased greatly’ is really ‘swarm’, which is something that usually applies to creeping things, like reptiles, lizards and insects. Pharaoh starts referring to the people in a way that is a bit of a pejorative, dehumanizing them and focusing on them as a foreign nation.
We fear things that swarm, don’t we? Cockroaches, flies, mice—the creepy, crawlies.
When we label our enemies, especially when the name is derogatory, it’s easier to justify the wrong that we do them in order to carry out our agendas.
This kind of propaganda is common throughout history. If a group is labeled as a threat to overthrow the establishment, then they can rightly be persecuted and marginalized and eliminated.
African people were dehumanized and then enslaved. We’ve seen this in large scale in the Holocaust, where Jews were eliminated because their threat to the regime.
For certain, this often shows up in political arenas, as we’ve noted so often of late.
God is good, even when we don’t understand. The Israelites greatest blessing became the reason for their oppression. But God was at work, even in it all. He is a God of justice, and he is on the move, even here, to work out salvation and deliverance for his people. In an unconventional beginning to that salvation, the next stories involve women who are rescuers.
Their stories are significant, and remind us again that this book is called ‘Names’ for good reason.
God didn’t forget his people, and he has not forgotten you, either.
God knows You by Name
And that’s something to take comfort in.
You can watch my sermon on this passage here: https://vimeo.com/501951281