Selective Memory

“Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done.” —Exodus 1:8

Historically and culturally, Ancient Egypt is fascinating to me. It was home to one of the oldest civilizations on Earth and was a major world power for millennia. It was known as a center of trade, wealth, and knowledge. Geographically, it was a unique and beautiful place and was the location of not just one but two of the Wonders of the Ancient World.

However, as it is so often portrayed in Scripture, it was also a place of intense corruption and suffering.

Egypt takes center stage at the beginning of the book of Exodus, during which time the Israelites are thriving and multiplying at such an alarming rate that the pharaoh makes murderous plans to put a cap on this “surplus population problem.” As Acts 7:18 poignantly puts it, “This king exploited our people and oppressed them, forcing parents to abandon their newborn babies so they would die.”

The story of Exodus–God’s deliverance of His people from bondage–is in my top five favorites in the whole Bible. It speaks to me so profoundly that one day I would like to write historical fiction based on the account of what God did there for His people. From what I’ve found, pharaohs were intensely jealous kings who guarded their godlike status in the eyes of the people using whatever means necessary.

One way that a few of them accomplished this was by destroying the records, monuments, and other works of the pharaohs that came before them, especially if the previous pharaoh had been an opponent of or a threat to the current ruler. In other words, pharaohs had selective memories. They removed evidence of the accomplishments of past rulers so that no one could compare their authority and power to anyone else’s, even (or especially) if someone before them had accomplished great and wonderful things.

“. . .pharaohs had selective memories. They removed evidence of the accomplishments of past rulers so that no one could compare their authority and power to anyone else’s.”

This is the kind of scenario which leads to Israel’s trouble in Exodus 1. Joseph, who was by all accounts as good as a pharaoh, is dead and has been forgotten by the rulers of Egypt. This may seem staggering to us, especially if we are jumping into Exodus on the coattails of Genesis, where Joseph is a hero not only to his own family and to the nation of Egypt but to many of the surrounding nations. Such a legacy has been passed down even to us, modern readers who live thousands of years later, thousands of miles away, several languages removed. How is it, then, that just a few generations after Joseph’s death, the pharaohs had already forgotten about this savior of Egypt?

There’s no evidence from the passage to support this new pharaoh’s willful rejection of the memory of Joseph. More likely, Joseph’s story had never been passed down to him. One can just imagine it: when the famine was over and the years of plenty set in, the Egyptians became self-sufficient once again, relying on their land, their resources, and their gods to provide for them. Each generation after Joseph told less and less about what Joseph’s God had done for their nation and began painting a warped picture: that Egypt was naturally more powerful than any nation, that its gods had provided for the people, and that pharaoh alone was in control. By the time Moses came along, Egypt’s desperate situation and God’s work through Joseph were shadowy images that few remembered.

We feel for the Israelites in this part of the story, knowing their suffering is a result of the pharaohs’ willful forgetfulness of the true God. But as the story plays out and we see Israel delivered from their slave masters, we watch the painful irony of Israel making the same decision to forget what God had done for them in Egypt and attempt to be their own absolute authority. After seeing the great plagues brought on their enemies, after seeing Pharaoh’s army swallowed whole by the sea, after seeing God’s very presence before and after them in pillars of fire and cloud—after all this, they still doubt God’s goodness and power, crying out to return to Egypt or to adopt new gods for themselves.

I’ve sat in judgment of the Israelites so many times as I’ve read through this story, but I am one of those Israelites. I try to be good by my own efforts, rejecting the free access God gives me to the Holy Spirit for power. I return to sin that Christ has already freed me from, just as the Israelites yearned for the “three course meals” they had back in Egypt as slaves.

“I’ve sat in judgment of the Israelites so many times as I’ve read through this story, but I am one of those Israelites.”

One of the main messages of Exodus is “Remember the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” Some variation of this verse is used almost 90 times from Exodus to the end of the Old Testament, and its ultimate meaning is fulfilled in Christ, who brought us out of slavery to sin. It is a command that gives us hope, comfort, and power. When we willfully forget what He has done for us (both in the grand sense of our salvation and in the way He provides in our day-to-day lives), we set ourselves up as proverbial pharaohs of Egypt whose kingdoms come to nothing and are quickly erased by the next pharaoh that comes along.

“Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.” —Romans 6:16-18

Sarah LaCourse

Sarah LaCourse has minimal talent in a few areas—writing, art, singing, DIYing— and exceptional talent in one area: thrifting. She loves having been raised in Greenville with her incredible family and wonderful friends and hopes to live here for a long time. She is the Student Ministry Administrator at our Pelham campus.