The Egyptians treated Israel like dirt. They beat them (Ex 2:11) and forced them to do harsh and ruthless slave labor (Ex 1:11-14). They forced abortion upon male Israelite children (likely while still in the womb) (Ex 1:16) and male children who made it all the way to birth were drowned in the river (Ex 1:22). And who knows what they might have done with the girls they let live. By all means, Egypt broke Israel’s spirit (Ex 6:9) with the horrible sins they committed against them.
You can imagine how hard it would be to show God’s love to another race when this is how another race has treated you—how hard it would be to treat them as the image of God when they have not imaged God to you in the slightest. These are the kinds of atrocities that live on in the collected memory of your descendants. Even if you can get to the point of forgiving, you can never arrive at the place of forgetting.
Eventually God stepped into this picture and liberated His people from their slavery, but they still weren’t liberated from slavery in their minds; for somehow, they often managed to look back at slavery in Egypt as preferable over their new-found freedom. When new challenges would arise, they would reminisce of how much better they thought they had it in Egypt. For example, when they discovered that they had to go to war with the giants in the holy land,
The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”Numbers 14:2-4
Somehow, despite all of God’s miraculous provision, they still had a slave mentality. We see this same kind of thinking in today’s human trafficking victims. While being trafficked truly is horrible, some victims have been broken enough to see their pain as normal. Adjusting to a good life without that pain can take them some time to accept—especially if Stockholm syndrome is at play or they can’t see how they’ve been victimized. Sometimes they just want to go back to slavery. And sometimes they do.
Eventually Israel saw how much better life with God was as they moved into the holy land, experienced fruition, and found that their God could not be defeated. It certainly wasn’t always great because Israel succumbed to idolatry and sin over and over again which brought a lot of pain into their lives, but in their best moments they saw that life with God was as good as life could be.
But it seems that their underdog story perhaps fed them a new kind of narrative. They had gone from slaves to the top of the world. They were God’s chosen people and nothing could stop them—they had seen it for themselves. God had been gracious with them time and time again and it seemed like even their sin couldn’t hold them back from God’s favor. So they mistook His patience for acceptance and approval of their sin and continued to live in it, until eventually it got bad enough that they had to face the judgment of exile for it. They had gone from slaves under Egypt to kings and queens, until they, too, had become their own form of Egypt; for they eventually became a more sinful nation than any of the nations God had called them to war against (2 Ki 21:9).
They had gone from being an oppressed race to being an oppressive race. And because of that, they were now now back at the bottom all over again—they were slaves in exile under Babylon. Their kingdom had been destroyed and now they were servants to another. But God had promised them through the prophets that one day He would come back to them and restore them, so they knew their journey wasn’t over. Yes, they would have to pay for their sins, but no, their sins would not get the last word. Jesus would change the world.