In the beginning, God planted a garden in the east, in Eden. And this garden was a mountain paradise where the rivers flowed cool and clear, where fruit trees of every kind grow easily.
Really, God designed this garden to be a living temple, where God’s children — the man and the woman — would live with their Heavenly Father in perfect peace and safety forever. It was their job to work the ground and protect the garden-temple from being invaded by the wilderness outside. Their ultimate goal was to gradually expand God’s garden-temple downward, out of the mountains, until the plains of the earth were filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
But I think most of us know that things went off track very early on. The man — named Adam — failed to protect the garden from invasion. A serpent from the wilderness outside slipped into paradise, and engaged the woman in conversation. And instead of casting the serpent out or destroying it like he should have, Adam stood by and listened to the conversation without comment.
To summarise what happened that day: basically the serpent deceived the woman into believing that her Heavenly Father would actually be pleased if she disregarded his instructions and took the initiative to work the garden in her own creative way. And her husband — who knew better, who knew the serpent was lying — went along with the experiment.
Essentially, the man and his wife exchanged the order of God’s garden for the disorder of the wilderness outside. Instead of pushing the garden outward into the wilderness, they allowed the wilderness to defile the garden. They rejected their Heavenly King, who would have led them into eternal life. They chose to follow a foreign king from the plains instead — a serpent king who promptly led God’s children away into death.
As a result they became defiled, unholy, unfit for service within their Father’s garden-temple. They had chosen a home in the wilderness, under the rule of a foreign wilderness king, so their Heavenly Father allowed their decision to stand: he let them go down into death. He drove them out of the garden and placed angels at the gate, with flaming swords, to make sure they could not return.
But even in that moment, as God drove Adam and his wife out of the garden, down into the plains where the rivers run wide and thick with mud, he promised them that one day the woman would give birth to a son who will crush the head of their serpent king and lead mankind back up into the mountains, where they would live in perfect peace and safety forever.
And in response to this promise, Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living: through her God-given ability to produce physical life, God would someday bring eternal life back to mankind.
That is how the Book of Genesis begins.
And if you are familiar with Genesis, then you know that the rest of that book is all about how God activates his plan to rescue mankind from slavery to the serpent king.
The first thing he does is make sure Eve does produce children. And by Chapter 10 those children have grown up into 70 nations.
Now, seventy is ten times seven, numbers that symbolize ”completeness” times “fullness“ — basically an ancient way of saying that Eve became the mother of all nations, the mother of all the living.
And it quickly becomes clear that these 70 nations are enthusiastic followers of their foreign serpent king. They do want to tame the wilderness and turn the earth into a garden, but they want to do this according to their own death-dealing ideas. So they fail to recreate God’s true mountain paradise. Instead, wherever they go on earth, they seek out the plains where the rivers run wide and rich, and they build counterfeit gardens there: cities centered around temples designed to look like mountains, ruled by men who claim to be gods. And Genesis describes how civilization gets locked into an endless cycle of wars over the rich country of the plains, filling the earth with confusion and violence.
But in Chapter 12 God chooses one man and his wife and draws them up, out of the smoke and ruin of the plains, into a mountain country where the rivers flow cool and clear, where fruit trees of every kind grow easily. And God promises this man — named Abraham — that one day his wife Sarah will give birth to a new kind of nation, a nation that will inherit this high garden country, sanctify it as the new garden-temple of God, and then gradually expand it downward, out of the mountains, until the plains of the earth are finally filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In this way, God told Abraham, he will fulfill his ancient promise to lead people from all nations back into the garden, where they will live in perfect peace and safety forever.
And at first it looks like God’s plan is going to work perfectly. Sarah has a son — Isaac — who has two sons — Jacob and Esau. And Jacob has twelve sons, the beginnings of a new kind of nation named Israel.
But then, in Chapter 41, a famine strikes their mountain country, and the family of Israel is driven back down into the plains, to exile in the land of Egypt, where the Nile river flows wide and rich. And there, in a counterfeit garden land dominated by counterfeit mountains, counterfeit temples, and counterfeit foreign god-kings, there God promotes one of Jacob’s sons — named Joseph — to become Prime Minister of Egypt, and provides a place where his people can live in peace and safety!
Still, in the very last sentences of Genesis, Joseph reminds the family of Israel that the land of Egypt is not their true garden home. He reminds them of God’s promise to their great-grandfather Abraham: that one day God will come and take them up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Joseph makes the Israelites swear an oath to carry his body back home with them when they leave.
So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.
That is the closing sentence of Genesis.
And… These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah;  Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin;  Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.  The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
This is how we are supposed to read the Book of Exodus: as a direct sequel to Genesis, as one story without a break.
In fact, this first sentence of Exodus is a copy of a sentence in Genesis, back when it described how Jacob moved his whole family to Egypt, including the fact that there were seventy family members by that point. And, once again, seventy is ten times seven; so this is, once again, an ancient way of saying that all of Jacob’s family moved to Egypt.
But there is also a deeper symbolism to this number: we are supposed to notice the parallel between the 70 descendants of Jacob and the 70 nations descended from Eve. Just as all the nations of the earth are always fighting to live in the low-lying plains, in symbolic separation from God’s mountain country, so also now all of Israel has gone down to live in symbolic separation from God’s mountain country. The family of Israel is being symbolically connected to the family of nations — and we are going to explore that connection a little bit more right at the end.
But even though Israel is separated from God’s country, this does not mean they are separated from God. It is clear that God is still with them, that he still intends to keep his promises to Abraham. We can tell because, even though  Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, still  the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.
God told Sarah she would give birth to a great nation. And here is that great nation.
All that remains now is for God to come and lead this great nation back up out of the plains, into the mountain country he promised to Abraham!
So let’s read on and see how he does it:
 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.  “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.  Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh…
…that was unexpected! Where is God? What about his promise?
But actually: no, this is not unexpected. Because when we go back to Genesis, to where God first made his covenant promise that Abraham’s nation would inherit the mountain country, God also said, “but first, for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But afterward I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and they will come out with great possessions.”
So this slavery is part of the plan! God is still with his nation there in Egypt. And we know this because:
 The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.
So God continues to bless them. God continues to drive forward his plan to create a great nation.
Unfortunately, God’s blessing actually increases Egypt’s curse upon them. They are victims of their own success: the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites  and worked them ruthlessly.  They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
Now, to summarise what happened here: Joseph lived and died as Prime Minister, and then Egypt experienced a major regime change.
And archaologists have confirmed that this happened. There were two major ethnic groups in Egypt at this time: the mountain people from the north and the river people from the south. When Joseph’s family first arrived in Egypt, the mountain people were in power — which could help explain why Joseph’s family was given a chance, since they were also mountain people. But shortly after Joseph’s time, the river people rose up and took control of Egypt for themselves.
Basically, the nation of Israel got caught in this war between the river people and the mountain people, and the new government — worried that the Israelites might join the side of the other mountain people — decided to remove their ability to fight by forcing them to build these two border cities called Pithom and Rameses.
And archeologists have also confirmed that at least one of these cities stood in the territory that the previous government had given to the people of Israel, the land called Goshen.
Basically, the Israelites were forced to build fortresses in their own territory that Egypt then used to dominate them even further, making sure they stayed under control and could not raise a revolt.
So these few sentences have just covered hundreds of years of history, hundreds of years of slavery and oppression, just as God told Abraham would happen.
Hundreds of years during which this brutal Egyptian government policy has failed to achieve its stated goal: the more they squeeze, the more Israel grows! Slavery is actually making the problem worse.
So finally one of the kings of Egypt decides to turn the screws a little more. He calls in the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah —
and I think we can imagine what this audience must have been like: the Egyptian god-king on this throne in his golden crown with the serpent rising out of the forehead, the two slave women down there on the floor before him —
and the king says,  “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”
Because boys grow up to be potential fighters, while girls grow up to give birth to the next generation of slaves: the king wants to maintain his workforce while draining it of strength and national identity.
And the idea here is that the midwives are supposed to kill the babies secretly right after they are born. That way it will look like the Israelites are just experiencing a whole bunch of still-births, instead of a genocide, and they will have no reason to organize any resistance.
 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.
So quite naturally the king calls them on the carpet, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
We do not know exactly what this means. The prevailing theory is that Egyptian women were urban women, upper-class women who went to hospital to have babies — they mostly left the process to professional midwives. Whereas the Hebrew women, being country girls and slaves, were home-birthers. They were very involved in the process, they did not need a professional midwife unless something went badly wrong.
Whatever Shiphrah and Puah mean, their point is clear: the king’s plan for a secret genocide is not working, and it’s really not their fault.
 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.  And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
 Then Pharaoh decides to activate a more open genocidal policy: he gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
And you should know that this command would have been deeply symbolic for Pharaoh and his people.
Remember, these are the river people of Egypt: they worshiped the Nile as a god, because the Nile was the source of all their prosperity. To them, the Nile was the river of life, running wide and thick with rich mud carried down from the mountains of Africa.
So for the people to snatch every Hebrew baby boy they can find and throw them into the Nile, those deaths would have been seen as sacrifices to the god of the Nile, a symbolic defeat of Israel’s God: proof that he lacks the power to rescue his people.
Okay. That was the story, the narrative. But what does it mean? What are God’s people supposed to learn from this?
There are two interesting literary features in this chapter that point us to the writer’s deeper purpose:
First, God’s name is not mentioned in this chapter until right near the end, when we are finally told that the people kept increasing because of God’s kindness. So the people just experienced hundreds of years of slavery, and God did nothing about it, he said nothing.
Second, in this episode, only the two midwives are named. We aren’t even told the names of the Egyptian kings — who were the rulers of the greatest empire on earth at that time! — but we know the names of these insignificant women!
So, what lesson are these unusual features meant to teach?
Well, the Book of Exodus — like the Book of Genesis — is intended to give God’s people insight into who God is, how he works, and what kind of response he wants from his people.
And when we compare the Book of Genesis with the beginning of its sequel here, we do find an abrupt change in the way God works. Genesis began with an explosion of creative activity, which slowly trailed off over the centuries as the narrative focused in on Abraham’s family. Still, God was constantly talking and doing, intimately involved with his people right up to the end of Genesis. But when we turn the page to Exodus, God seems suddenly silent, distant, uninvolved for almost 400 years.
Is this really how God works? Is that really our lesson here?
Yes. This was written down so that future generations of God’s people would not be surprised when times of oppression and slavery come upon them and it seems as if God is doing nothing about it.
Okay. That sounds ominous. How are God’s people supposed to respond to this?
God’s people are supposed to respond like Shiphrah and Puah: they feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do. Even after hundreds of years of silence, these women remembered God’s promises to their ancestors. And so, when they were confronted by a foreign serpent king who commanded them to bring death to God’s children…they refused.
And this is why these women are the very first people named in the Book of Exodus — just as Eve was the first person to be named in the Book of Genesis. Shiphrah and Puah are Eve’s literary counterpoints:
Eve listened to a foreign serpent king and brought death to God’s children. She received her name as a reminder that God would one day deliver mankind from death through childbirth. And the very first thing God did after Eve was driven from the garden was give her a family: she became the mother of all the living.
Well, Shiphrah and Puah refused to listen to their foreign serpent king and brought life to God’s children. As a result, their names have been recorded here as reminders that God must one day deliver his people from death through childbirth. And the very first distinct move God made after 400 years of inactivity was to give them families of their own: they became mothers of the living.
This opening episode is actually our first hint that things are about to change, God is about to move powerfully. Genesis began with a woman and a serpent king and a fall into slavery and death. Exodus is beginning with these women and a serpent king and the beginnings of a rise into life and freedom.
And the overall point the writer is making is this: God is actually always at work, even when it seems like he is not. He is always speaking, even when it seems like he is silent. There are times in history when God’s voice shakes the plains of the earth like thunder from the mountains! — and then it is gone. But we have to remember: this is God’s voice we are talking about here, this is God’s Word, and God’s Word does not die, it does not pass away. The thunder speaks for one, long, overwhelming moment — but then it continues to live down through the centuries, echoing across the wilderness plains of our world, whispering of past redemption and pointing forward to the garden and the mountain that must one day fill the whole earth.
That whisper is what Shiphrah and Puah were responding to. We do not know the exact content or quality of their faith. We do not know how much they knew about God’s covenant with Abraham, we do not know how much heritage had been lost after so many centuries in Egypt. But somehow these women remembered that childbirth is the key to God’s plan of redemption; they acted in faith upon that ancient promise; and their faith was credited to them as righteousness.
So now we have to ask, as we do every week: what is our practical application today, 3500 years later? Does this ancient literature have anything to teach us?
Yes, it does.
Because — look: this pattern of activity followed by stillness, thunder upon the mountains followed by extended silence across the plains, has repeated itself in large ways and small throughout all the years since. Really we should call Exodus a book of prophecy, because it set a very strong pattern for things to come, pointing forward especially to the ministry of the Messiah, the long-awaited serpent-crushing Son of Eve.
For instance, when we zoom out and look at the flow of the Old Testament as a whole, we are actually seeing this pattern extended over thousands of years. The Old Testament begins with an explosion of creative activity, the first books are full of God shaking the earth with a voice like thunder — which slowly trails off over the centuries as the narrative focuses in on the nation of Israel. Still, God is constantly talking and doing, intimately involved with his people right up through the Book of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. But when we turn the page to the New Testament, we suddenly find God’s people living in slavery and oppression, and that God has been silent, distant, uninvolved for almost 400 years.
But then, when God finally breaks his silence, the very first distinct move he makes in the New Testament, after 400 years of inactivity, is to take a faithful young woman — named Mary — and give her a family. He transforms her into the mother of all the living…our first hint that things are about to change, that God is about to move powerfully.
And then, interestingly enough, the New Testament continues the Old Testament pattern: the first books begin with an explosion of creative activity as the Son of Mary — the Son of Eve, named Jesus — shakes the earth with thunderous miracles, signs and wonders not seen since Genesis and Exodus! And then the thunder slowly trails off as the later New Testament books focus in on the new nation of Israel, Jesus’ Church. Still, God is constantly talking and doing, intimately involved with his Church right up through the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament.
But now here we are, living almost 2000 years after that earth-shaking voice last spoke. In a way, we are now living through the centuries of the silence of God. This is the age of slavery and oppression for Jesus’ Church, and this is the age of our great expansion! Just like ancient Israel in Egypt, Jesus’ Church has been exceedingly fruitful over the last 2000 years. We have multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and become so numerous that the earth is filled with Christians. And the more we have been enslaved and oppressed, the more we have multiplied and spread, so that all the foreign serpent kings of our world have come to dread Jesus’ Church.
And yet — just like God’s people in every generation perhaps — we do not appreciate this oppressive blessing as we ought. We are tempted to long for a return to the days of thunder and signs and wonders. We look to the distant mountains and we are tempted to wonder if our sins are to blame for God’s silence. Even worse, we are tempted to believe that — if we could just be holy enough — perhaps our Lord would descend in power to redeem us from slavery and carry us back to the garden. And then, when the foreign serpent kings of our world challenge us to exchange the life-giving order of Jesus’ Church for the death-dealing disorder of the wilderness outside, we are tempted to pretend that — without a direct voice from heaven — we do not know which way we ought to go, which king we ought to submit to.
But really we know better, don’t we? — far better than Shiphrah and Puah did. We can read! Most likely they could not. We have 3500 more years of history to look back on than they did. Most importantly, we live after the birth of Eve’s serpent-trampling Son. We know now, in a way they could not, what exactly God meant when he promised that Eve would become the mother of all the living. We know that God’s Word is eternally living and active, that his earth-shaking voice is still speaking just as powerfully today as it did during the time of Christ. Because we have this testimony from the first chapter of Exodus: that God is actually always at work, even when it seems like he is not. He is always speaking, even when it seems like he is silent.
So, what are we supposed to do with this information?
We are supposed to act on it, as Shiphrah and Puah did: they feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do. How can we do any less?
Brothers and sisters, this is our application, in two parts:
First, we need to flee this constant temptation to always be longing for a new voice from heaven, a new sign, a new wonder, a new age of miracles. That temptation comes from the foreign serpent king who broke into the garden back at the beginning. The serpent was the first one to ask the question, “Did God really say…?” The serpent was the first one to suggest that God’s people should always be looking for a new revelation that will contradict the old one, and let us do what we have secretly always wanted to do: take the initiative and run our own lives in our own way.
So, first application: flee temptation. Flee from false revelation. Do not do what the serpent king of this world tells us to do, because that path leads only to death.
Second application: fear God instead. Fear the king who first spoke light into the darkness, life into lifelessness, the king who is still speaking now the same ancient revelation he has been speaking from before the creation of the world.
But let’s get practical now: what does it look like to flee temptation and fear God in this day and age?
Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian; if you have spent your life oppressed by the serpentine religious systems of our world; if you have ever cried out for some supernatural sign that you were made for something more than slavery in this wilderness; if you have lived your life crushed under the silence of heaven, then…listen, friend: you are not alone. Even we Christians, who are called the children of God, have experienced these things — and continue to experience them in some ways.
If this is you, then this is how you should flee temptation and fear God in this moment: listen. The voice of the Heavenly Father who first gave you life is speaking to you right now from this ancient text, as he has spoken to every generation of people since it was first written, 3500 years ago. He is telling you that the gates of the garden you have been longing for all your life are already standing open. He is calling you to walk away from your slavery to the false prosperity of the plains. Yes, the rivers of the low-country run wide and rich, but — as we know very well here in Malaysia — one day the rivers give you wealth; the next day they flood you out and take it all back.
So leave the low-country behind. Climb up into the highlands, to where the river of life runs clear and cool and refreshing between the fruit trees. Follow that river as it winds upward through the foothills, back to its source. There you will see that it passes through a gateway on a mountain guarded by angels with flaming swords. Approach those gates with fear and trembling. Tell the angels that Jesus Christ has summoned you within. And then…step forward in faith. With Jesus’ name on your lips, you will find that the angels do not strike you down. You will find that you have passed through the flames unharmed, but purified. And then you will have the eyes to see the source of the waters of life: a throne, and a great tree growing up to fill the earth. And the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations.
God is speaking to you right now. Answer him, and live.
But now, if you are here today and you are already a Christian, if you have already passed through the gateway into the garden: what does it look like for us to continue to flee temptation and fear God?
We know that, through the obedience of Jesus Christ, our souls are already safe in our Heavenly Father’s presence. But we also know that our bodies still live on these plains that look so much like they are well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, but are actually a wilderness of death painted over with a layer of false prosperity.
Just like Shiphrah and Puah, we still live in lands dominated by counterfeit mountains, counterfeit temples, and counterfeit foreign god-kings. And they are always asking us to participate in their cult of death. They are always telling us that they have discovered a new way to gain direct access to God, a new way to carry fire down from the mountains. They are always offering us peace and safety in counterfeit gardens — and all we have to do in exchange is let them make our lives bitter with harsh labor; all we have to do is sacrifice our children to their gods. That is our temptation, as it was for Shiphrah and Puah.
We flee temptation by refusing to listen to them. As we live through this age of slavery and oppression — and expansion! — and as we are confronted daily with choices, at every point of decision let us always ask this question: which of these paths leads downward into death, and which one leads upward into life? Which of these choices seeks to drown God’s children in a river of false prosperity and false worship, and which one actually fosters new birth and new life?
Just like Shiphrah and Puah, we have already feared God, and in his kindness God has given us a global family of our own. Just as Jesus became the new Adam, so we as the Church have already been transformed into the new Eve. So let us now live as the mother of all the living, let us now do all we can to preserve life in this great family we have been given.
We’re going to close by returning to the strange symbolism we discovered at the beginning of this passage: how the 70 sons of Jacob descended to the plains to join the 70 nations descended from Eve. In this way, the nation of Israel came down from God’s mountain to symbolically participate in the low-land misery of the world, even though they were the children of God, even though they did not deserve it. In this way, the fate of Israel became bound to the sinking fate of the nations.
That’s bad! That is unfair.
But there is actually a subtle promise contained within this fateful binding. Because, look: if the fate of Israel is bound to the fate of the nations, then the fate of the nations must also be bound to the fate of Israel.
And what is the fate of Israel?
It is the fate of Israel to someday be lifted up from slavery into freedom, from death into life. Which means that, just as the sins of the nations dragged the people of God down into slavery, so also — when God lifts the 70 sons of Jacob back up out of slavery — some from among the 70 nations will also be lifted up with them into freedom and life. And in this way, all the nations of the world will come to symbolically participate in the Mountain of the Lord, even though they were the enemies of God, even though they did not deserve it.
This concept is what the Book of Exodus is all about. This is the story of how, just as one sin resulted in condemnation for all nations, so also one righteous act will result in justification and life for all nations.
So keep on coming back for that!