“So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage—in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.” (Exodus 1:13,14)
It was Pharaoh himself who invited Joseph’s family to live in Egypt (Genesis 45:17,18). They began as a small group of 70 (Genesis 46:26,27), but they multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous to the point that the Egyptians felt threatened. In order to stop the Hebrews, they used slavery and tyranny against them.
Slavery was a common practice in many ancient civilisations, but in some cases, the level of cruelty was higher, as in the case of the Jews after the emergence of a new Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph.
The king of Egypt put slave masters over the children of Israel to oppress them with forced labour. They were forced to build pyramids, cities, and water channels. In addition to that, they had to work in the fields and gather straw to make bricks. No matter what skills they may have had, it didn’t matter to the Egyptians—they were not allowed to work at any other activity but what they were told to do. They were nothing more than Pharaoh’s property.
During this period, Israel knew very well what a life of servitude entailed. As slaves, they had no rights or authority to make personal decisions, to have dreams, or make plans for the future. In fact, absolute submission was demanded of the Israelites to the ultimate authority of Egypt.
But one day, God Himself delivered them from Pharaoh’s yoke (Exodus 14:30). The Egyptians were defeated, swallowed up by the sea (Êxodo14:27,28; 15:19), and Israel was now free to serve the Almighty alone.
Free from slavery and from threats and humiliation, the people could now stand before a God who treated them with fairness and respect, ready to offer provision and security forever. The land of Canaan would belong to Israel, and Israel would belong to Canaan forever, and along with that, their new Lord would make the Israelites so strong that no enemy would be able to resist them:
“Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you.” (Leviticus 26:8,9)
Whilst Pharaoh weakened and humiliated them, the Almighty strengthened, prospered and honoured them before all the other nations.
Who wouldn’t be eternally grateful for their freedom and the freedom of their family, as well as the hope of a transformed future had they been given all of this? Not Israel.
Though their new Lord had rights over His people and could demand whatever He wanted, His only request was that they would obey His commandments. Their obedience would raise the Israelites up to become servants of the Most High—free servants—, and this would make them invincible.
Yet instead of remaining obedient to God’s laws and grateful for what He had done, they rebelled and stiffened their necks in many situations. In the desert, for instance, they provoked the Lord with grumbling and idolatry, whilst they had obeyed their Egyptian king for 430 years. The question is: would the Israelites ever have treated Pharaoh the way they treated God?
Israel failed to remain a servant forever, and in their rebellion, they experienced the sting of pain. The more they resisted, the greater the pain. They lost their honour, their land and the privilege of worshiping in the Temple, and became the scum of the earth. This is a lesson for all of us. For no one can disobey and continue to enjoy God’s privileges (2 Samuel 7:14). If God did not spare rebellious angels, and would not have spared His Own Son had He disobeyed, then why would He spare rebellious Israel?
In this world, being a servant of God is synonymous with being insignificant, despised, and regarded as last. But in the spiritual world, there is no greater honour than being a servant of the Most High, as the Scriptures say, “If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor” (John 12:26), and “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). In other words, in the Kingdom of God, the true servants have a place of honour.
Spiritually speaking, we were also slaves of “Pharaoh”—in this case, the devil—and we were subject to all kinds of suffering. Yet we were also rescued by our God, and nothing we do can repay the enormous debt He paid for us (Matthew 18:24-27).
All that is left for us now is to become servants who love our Lord so much that we voluntarily vow to serve Him with great loyalty, as His servants did in the past.
At that time, the poor and the debtors were forced to serve their master for six years, but in the seventh year, they would go free. But if they had chosen to cling to their master in loyalty during those six years, they could choose to stay with him for the rest of their lives. They were then brought before the judges and their ear would be pierced with a sharp tool, showing everyone their decision forever: “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free” (Exodus 21.5,6). In other words, “I belong to my master, I will serve him of my own free will until I die, and he will protect me.”
A servant with a pierced ear did not need to say anything—the mark on his body already revealed who he was. Likewise, today God’s servants carry a distinctive mark on their lives that they belong to Him: the desire to serve Him.
The Lord God does not force us to serve Him, yet He longs to find those with the same desire: to be free, yet totally committed to Him.