During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God. – Exodus 2:23 (NET)
This king of Egypt was the king mentioned in the first chapter of Exodus. It is said that he “did not know about Joseph” (1:8a), and “put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor” (1:11a). This king “made the Israelites serve rigorously…by hard service with mortar and bricks and by all kinds of service in the fields” (1:13, 14b). It was in the midst of this subjection that the Israelites were said to have groaned and cried out, with that cry going up to God. “God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (2:24). This is part of the story that is told in association with Passover. Passover is the yearly remembrance of the deliverance of God’s people from the oppression of Egypt. Though the story culminates in redemption and rescue and the destruction of their enemies, the story begins with the groaning of the people and progresses through God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people.
This use of “groan” and “groaning” is quite interesting. It is quite the evocative word, as it conjures up a depth of emotion that is reserved for describing truly great suffering. We find “groan” used in the New Testament, in the eighth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, with Paul employing these words in a clear connection to the story of the Exodus. If we are paying attention, we can find the Apostle Paul using the language of exodus throughout his writings. In this, he is merely following in the line of the great prophets that came before him, as reference to the exodus from Egypt, along with imagery designed to evoke thoughts of exodus, is regularly used throughout the Old Testament.
So how do we find these words used in Romans? Paul uses them in relation to the creation---the natural world. He begins by writing, “For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19). Here, we can begin tying this to the Exodus account, in that there had been a prophecy that Israel would sojourn in Egypt for a set number of years. Much like the people of Israel in the first century knew that the time was drawing near for God to act on behalf of His people through His Messiah (owing to the 490 year prophecy of Daniel), God’s people in Egypt knew that the time was drawing near for their long sojourn in Egypt to come to an end. They merely awaited a deliverer to lead them out. He goes on to write, “For the creation was subjected to futility---not willingly but because of God Who subjected it” (8:20). Again, we have here an echo of Israel’s subjection by the Egyptians. Just as the people of Israel were subjected against their will, owing to king that did not know Joseph (having forgotten what Joseph did for Egypt), so too was the creation subjected to futility against its will, owing to Adam’s forgetting of God. However, in both cases, there is a reminder that God is in control.
This subjection came with a hope “that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21). Here, the analogy to Israel in Egypt is quite clear. Just as Israel was going to be set free from their bondage, and returned to their land of promise, so also will the creation be set free from its bondage to death and decay, from its thorns and thistles, and returned to that state for which God intended it, and which He had originally declared to be good. Like Israel in Egypt, Paul writes “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now” (8:23). Just as God heard His people and remembered His covenant with Israel’s forefathers, He hears the groans of His creation, in its futile subjection and oppression and rigorous servitude. Not only does Paul set forth creation’s groaning like Israel, he also connects the groaning to the people of God in Christ, renewed Israel, writing “Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).
As the Passover narrative of Exodus culminates in the redemption and rescue of Israel, along with the destruction of its enemies, so too does the use of exodus language as applied to both the creation and renewed Israel in Christ. Through the Resurrection, death was defeated; and though all living things still die, death has no ultimate power. Because of Christ’s Resurrection, we have the sure and steadfast hope and promise of a resurrection to come, when the kingdom of heaven, already inaugurated through the ruling Lordship of Christ, is fully consummated upon His return.
Because of Christ’s Resurrection, death can no longer oppress. Through that same power for resurrection, the creation also escapes oppression. Just as redeemed humanity regains the image of Himself that had been God’s intention, so too will the creation experience the benefits of God’s covenant faithfulness. As God reverses the curses pronounced against man upon his fall, so too does God reverse the curse pronounced upon His good creation. As God’s work for His people in Egypt began with groaning and progressed through God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people, so too can we see God’s work for His people---for though we groan, and though the creation groans, we experience His eternal life in the midst of hope, because of the miraculous intervention that God performed through His Christ.