These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. (Exodus 1:1-14 ESV)
Israel is the new name Yahweh gave Jacob when He wrestled with him at Peniel (Genesis 32), and his sons are here listed in order of their birth to their various mothers. As a summary of what is recorded in Genesis, Moses notes how many of them there were when Joseph had them come to live with him in Egypt. And even as Yahweh had commanded Adam and Eve, and later Noah, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, so the people of Israel thrived in Egypt.
But that created a problem in the minds of the new Pharaoh. Joseph had favor in Egypt and was a leader but the new Pharaoh had no loyalty to him and feared the vast number of Israelites. Yahweh had told Abraham that his offspring would be oppressed in Egypt for 400 years and Moses here explains just how that came about. The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians and were worked ruthlessly to build Pharaoh’s store cities.
Why would God allow this? God loved Abraham, Isaac and Israel and had made a covenant with them and their children forever to bless them in the land of Canaan. But now He was allowing them to suffer and even causing their numbers to swell the more they suffered. It would seem that God was doing something miraculous to build the number of Israelites. And Satan, who has been at enmity with God’s people from the beginning (Genesis 3:15), was seeking to destroy them. The Israelites could well be complaining about God’s treatment of them and wondering why He didn’t rescue them.
God saw a bigger picture than they did, one that included suffering and that nevertheless was good for them, a plan to bless them and all nations through them (Genesis 12) and show His mighty power to save. You and I parallel Israel in our own lives as we too were slaves to sin and miserable without God until we surrendered to Him and found life and freedom in Jesus the Messiah. The rest of our story is about becoming a blessing to others and demonstrating the power of God to save. We may well be complaining about the suffering God is allowing in our lives and wondering why He doesn’t save us. But He sees the bigger picture and knows how to use suffering in our lives to bring honor to Him and blessing to the world. And, He knows how to take care of us in the middle of the suffering.