Israel (Exodus 1:1-3)

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;

The book of Exodus opens and closes with Israel at work. At the onset, the Israelites are at work for the Egyptians. By the book’s end, they have finished the work of building the tabernacle according to the Lord's instructions. God did not deliver Israel from work. He set Israel free for work. God released them from oppressive work under the ungodly king of Egypt and led them to a new kind of work under his gracious and holy kingship. Although the book’s title in Christian Bibles, Exodus, means the way out, the forward leaning orientation of Exodus could legitimately lead us to conclude that the book is really about the way in, for it recounts Israel’s entrance to the Mosaic covenant that will frame their existence, not only in the wilderness wanderings around the Sinai Peninsula but also in their settled life in the Promised Land. The book conveys how Israel ought to understand their God, and how this nation should work and worship in their new land. On all counts, Israel must be mindful of how their life under God would be distinct from and better than life for those who followed the gods of Canaan. Even today, what we do in work flows from why we do it and for whom we are ultimately working. We usually don’t have to look very far in society to find examples of harsh and oppressive work. Certainly, God wants us to find better ways to conduct our business and to treat others. But the way into that new way of acting depends on seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s salvation, knowing what God’s work is, and training ourselves to follow his words. The book of Exodus begins about four hundred years after the point where Genesis ends. In Genesis, Egypt had been a hospitable place where God providentially elevated Joseph so that he could save the lives of Abraham’s descendants. This accords well with God’s promises to make Abraham into a great nation, to bless him and make him a blessing to others, to make his name great, and to bless all families of the earth through him. In the book of Exodus, however, Egypt was an oppressive place where Israel’s growth raised the specter of death. The Egyptians hardly saw Israel as a divine blessing, though they did not want to let go of their slave labor.