11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. 13 And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: 14 And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.
In yesterday’s verses we read about the Pharaoh’s anxiety for the Israelites growing even more numerous and mighty than the Egyptians themselves. What a strange thing, then, that the weaker nation would be able to subjugate the greater.
Perhaps Pharaoh was simply exaggerating when he said the Israelites were more mighty than the Egyptians. Or perhaps he was saying that the Israelite’s trajectory was greater than their own, so they would become more numerous and powerful if things went unchecked. Whether he was using hyperbole, or anticipating the future, or speaking for what was literally the case, the fact still remains that the Israelites were a large and powerful entity. How, then, did the Egyptians overpower them? Why would the Israelites accept subjugation when they could have fought back or moved away?
Some scholars have suggested that verse 11 is describing a gradual process. Perhaps Pharaoh did not totally enslave the Israelites to the degree they were at when Moses came on the scene. As the Israelites were a separate nation, Pharaoh might very well have imposed a special tax or tribute upon them. Then the burden could be made more and more heavy, one step at a time. Certain social restrictions and curfews might have gradually been imposed, always uncomfortable, but never so much at once as to to trigger a full-blown rebellion, at least not until it was too late, and the Israelites had already surrendered too much freedom to resist.
Sadly, this sort of incremental-subjugation approach has been employed countless times, including by Nazi Germany against the more modern-day Israelites. In short, we do not know if the Egyptians employed such a gradual, infesting form of oppression, but it certainly is possible.
Either way, the downfall of the Israelites is an analogy for one of the two great troubles we face in life. If the subjugation was slow and progressive, then it is a type for how we become seduced by gradual temptation to sin. If they were taken suddenly, in a moment, then it is a type for the sharp tragedies of sickness and death that suddenly befall us. Whichever way it happened, the Israelites now found themselves “made to serve with rigour,” and “their lives were bitter with hard bondage,” and only an act of God would deliver them!