Israel came into possession of the Promised Land after being rescued from Egypt, and so it is no surprise that Egypt plays a large (even symbolic) role in the history of redemption. At first, Egypt was mostly a benefactor to the physical descendants of Abraham, providing food and shelter for Jacob and his sons during a famine in the ancient world (Gen. 46:1–47:12). Yet Egypt’s kindness would not endure forever, as the ancient Egyptian empire would become one of Israel’s greatest foes.
The emergence of Egypt as an enemy of Israel probably occurred somewhere around 230 years after the death of Joseph under the reign of Pharaoh Amosis, whom many scholars identify as the “new king” in Exodus 1:8. This pharaoh expelled the Semitic peoples known as the Hyskos from Egypt, which indicates he would have had no sympathy for other Semites like the Israelites. In any case, the pharaoh mentioned in today’s passage expressed fear the Israelites would become too numerous and join with Egypt’s enemies at a moment’s notice in order to escape Egypt (vv. 9–10).
Pharaoh’s concerns, incidentally, help confirm the historical accuracy of Exodus. Goshen, the area in which the Israelites settled (Gen. 47:27), was traditionally an excellent place for invaders from the Sinai Peninsula to gain a foothold in Egypt. Therefore, Pharaoh’s appeals to the people to fear Israel obviously tapped into this reality, and at any rate the Egyptians may have remembered Jacob’s funeral and how it showed Israel’s longing to be elsewhere (50:1–14). Nevertheless, it should be noted how much of the pharaoh’s blustering was propaganda, as the Israelites had shown no desire to act violently against the empire.
One commentator notes that God’s covenant blessings on believers often provoke non-believers to jealousy, and this is apparently what happened with the pharaoh as there was no apparent reason why he should have hated the Israelites. Consequently, he oppressed Israel with slavery in an attempt to slow the nation’s growth (Ex. 1:11). Yet as has often happened in world history, the persecution of the Lord’s people had the exact opposite effect, for the more the Israelites were oppressed, “the more they multiplied” (vv. 12–14). And this should have been the first sign to the Egyptian rulers that their animosity against Israel would never achieve its desired ends.
Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel did not take God by surprise (Gen. 15:12–16), and so we should understand that the trials we encounter do not take Him by surprise either. The blessings of the Lord upon us may provoke others to jealousy and even a kind of persecution, but as He did with Egypt (Ex. 14:4), God will use such trouble to bring Himself glory. Even the most minor trials we face are opportunities for our Creator to be glorified.