“Now there arose a new king over Egypt . . .” (Exodus 1:8). The story of Exodus begins with a dramatic change of circumstances for God’s people. When they first came to Egypt centuries earlier, the family of Jacob was welcomed—they shared in the kingdom’s power and resources. The new king, however, did not view Jacob’s descendants as valuable participants in the empire. He saw these immigrants as a threat to Egypt so he persecuted and enslaved them. In their agony, they cried out to God for help.
The slavery of God’s people in Egypt and his deliverance is, arguably, the most formative story in the entire Bible. It establishes the basic character of Israel’s God as just. He is a God who sides with the oppressed in stark contrast to the gods of other nations who side with the oppressors. Israel’s God empathizes with the weak and vulnerable, while pagan gods align with the powerful and cruel. Beyond revealing God’s character, the Exodus story also gives definition and meaning to later acts of divine redemption, including Jesus’ death and resurrection. Therefore, if we are to understand the biblical vision of justice and have our imaginations shaped by scripture and not just our culture, then the story of Exodus is essential.
Throughout the early books of the Bible, the circumstances of God’s people change repeatedly. Sometimes they change because the Lord calls them to leave one kingdom for another; he led Abraham out of Ur to Canaan and then Joseph out of Canaan to Egypt. At other times, their circumstances change without any evidence of God’s leading, as we see in Exodus when a new king arises in Egypt to persecute his people.
The clear message of these foundational biblical stories, however, remains the same: Kingdoms will rise and fall, our circumstances will improve or decline, but God’s purposes will always prevail. The unjust systems of the world will ultimately be judged and undone by the justice of our God.
In many parts of the West, Christians find themselves being pushed to the periphery of power and influence after centuries of privilege. This can provoke some Christians to be afraid or to retaliate in anger toward the metaphorical “new kings” that have taken control. Other Christians long for a return to the past when a king friendlier to Christians occupied the throne. Fear, anger, nostalgia, and retaliation are not how Christ’s people are to respond when their circumstances change or their cultural authority is taken away. We must lift our sights to the truth that Exodus teaches us: God has purposes we can rarely discern in the moment, but he remains sovereign over every kingdom and over every unjust king.
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