The Safety of Bondage

Joseph and Moses being awesome.

Be patient with me, this is going to ramble a bit. But hopefully it’ll make sense in the end. And, really, that’s kind of the point, but we’ll get back to that.

We’re going to start with Joseph. Not the stepdaddy of Jesus one, the and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat one.

For those that need a (very) quick refresher. Joseph’s dad loves him more than all his brothers and gives him a technicolor dreamcoat and Joseph goes around wearing it and telling everyone how God sends him dreams about how awesome he is and for someone reason this makes everybody rather dislike him so his brothers decide to kill him but they put him in a hole instead and sell him and he gets taken to Egypt where his life basically kind of sucks for a very very long time but eventually he becomes friends with pharaoh and is all sorts of Egyptian awesome which is convenient because there’s a famine and his brothers who thought he was dead come to Egypt looking for food and the run into him and he’s all like, hey, even though you tried to kill me, your my brothers and I love you and here have some food. Cool? Cool.

And Joseph, at that point, is able to show grace to his brothers, and be all cool about the whole trying-to-get-rid-of-him thing, telling them that what they meant for evil, God meant for good.

And everybody enjoys the food and learns a good lesson from the moral of the story and they all live happily ever after. The end.

Except …

It’s not. While we love to treat the Bible like it’s an anthology of collected stories, it’s really one big narrative. The story keeps going from there. Joseph and his brothers ride out the famine in Egypt and decide to stick around, where eventually his family starts breeding like rabbits and become slaves and are forced to make bricks without straw until a Charlton-Heston-lookalike tells pharaoh to let his people go.

So let’s replay that moral, shall we: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good — to wit, FOUR HUNDRED YEARS of slavery and oppression.” Um, thanks?

To be sure, God knew it was going to happen, too. When He was working all of this for good, He knew that good was going to be centuries of bondage. In fact, He had told Abraham it was going to happen: ““Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.” In fact, God even tells Abraham which generation it’s going to start with, which makes you wonder why they didn’t think to be a little more careful with the whole going-to-Egypt thing, but that’s another story entirely.

So, yes, God had the entire Joseph-and-his-brothers story play out not only for the happy redemption for that family, but also so that he could put his chosen people into slavery for centuries. As much as the former was His plan, so was the latter.

In fact, since we’ve already established that you have to look at the thing as a continuing narrative instead of short-story collection, let’s jump back a bit. Not too terribly long before this, there was no chosen people of God. There were no Jewish people, no ten commandments, no ark of the covenant, nothing. There were just a bunch of pagans ever since the tower of Babel.

And God decides He needs a chosen people, so He goes to this one pagan guy named Abram and tells him he’s going to be the father of a new nation, and changes his name to Abraham. And Abraham has a son named Isaac, who in turn has two sons, Jacob and the other guy. And one day Jacob wrestles with God, and so God gives him his new Indian name, “Wrestles-With-God,” or, in his language, “IsraEl.” This name is so perfect for God’s chosen people and their ongoing wrestling with Him that the nation carries it to this very day. And Israel has a bunch of kids, including the aforementioned Jacob, and this generation of twelve is the first generation of the “people of Israel,” God’s chosen nation.

So sending them into slavery is not only something God chose to do with His people, it was the very first thing God did with the people of Israel. He picks Abraham to father His people, He picks Israel to be the namesake of His nation, and He takes the first generation of Israel and packs them off to Egypt first thing.

Ultimately, this would become a very key part of their history, their narrative. At the end of the bondage came the exodus and the passover, key elements of the Jewish faith and important bellwethers of the messiah. The events surrounding the end of their bondage becoming defining for the nation of Israel and serve as a touchstone for their faith in God. God had to lay that foundation in the beginning, because everything that came after would be built on it. Four hundred years of slavery, followed by one of the most important events of the Torah. What man meant for evil, God meant for good.

Still with me? Good. Because I have one more place to go, and this one involves a little bit more of a leap.

Remember the prophecy God told Abraham, about his descendants going into bondage? God told him a few other things that day. He reiterated His promise that he would father a nation. He told about the four hundred years of bondage, and added that it would end with His people coming out with great possessions. And God also told Abraham that the land where he then was would belong to his descendants.

Abraham was there then, and his descendants would be there again, and when they returned, it would be promised to them. But, in the meantime, there would be four centuries of bondage.

Now, jump ahead four hundred years. While they were in Egypt, the Israelite people had increased greatly in number. This was what led to them being put into slavery in the first place, but apparently continued the entire time, since it was what led toward the end of that period to the culling of the first-born sons, which was how pharaoh’s daughter ended up finding Moses in a basket. So a much-much-larger nation of Israel comes out of Egypt than the one that went in, and it goes back to the land that God had given to their great-great-…-great-granddaddy, and, oh crap, it’s full of giants. Well, that’s no good.

Despite the fact that God had promised His people they could take the land from its occupiers, twelve scouts went to check it out, and what they found was that it was populated by an incredible fearsome number of giants. Ten of the scouts said they couldn’t beat them, the other two said they could, but only because they believed they would have supernatural intervention.

Because of the doubt of the majority, God makes them wait a while before they take the land, but, ultimately, the Jewish population of 3 million moves in, wipes out the existing population (to be fair, after giving them the chance to leave peacefully) and claims the promised land.

So replay that four hundred years, but ignore what’s going on in Egypt and focus on the promised land. In the time of Abraham, the promised land is a great place to be, but, sometime in the intervening centuries, an occupying force moves in and takes it, a force so large and powerful that it frightens the millions-strong nation.

Given that wiping out the incumbent population when you conquer an area was not that unusual at the time, what would have happened if Israel had not been in slavery in Egypt at the time? What if, instead of being taken into bondage, Abraham’s descendants had stayed in his promised land, and had been there when the new occupiers came in?

The story might have been a whole lot shorter.

If you only look at what’s happening in Egypt, the story of the Israelite slavery is one of suffering and woe. But if you look at the larger picture, it may well be the lesser of two evils. Yes, there is hardship, but if the alternative is complete destruction, hardship looks a whole lot better.

In that light, the time of God’s chosen people in Egypt is not a story of suffering, but one of gestation. The Egyptian slavery was a protected womb in which the nation not only survived but flourished, growing safely in number to the point where it could conquer and hold the promised land.

What man meant for evil, God meant for good.