Everyone knows that Genesis is a story of creation. Genesis 1 details God’s creation of the world; Genesis 2 and 3 discuss the creation of Adam, Eve, and Eden; chapters 6-9 record the destruction and recreation after the flood; and the rest of the book chronicles the beginnings of a chosen people that God establishes through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By the end of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers create a new generation of Hebrews in Egypt. But the biblical account of origins doesn’t end with Genesis. The creation story continues in Exodus, which begins by repeating the language that Genesis used to describe God’s primordial creative acts; according to Exodus, the escape from slavery in Egypt is a new creation story—not about the creation of the cosmos, but rather the creation of a new nation, Israel.
At the end of Genesis 1, God tells humanity, “Be fruitful (פרו; peru) and multiply (רבו; revu) and fill the land (מלאו את-הארץ; milu et-ha’aretz)” (Gen 1:28). Exodus shows that the Hebrews in Egypt fulfill God’s first command to human beings. After Joseph and his generation died, “The people of Israel were fruitful (פרו; paru) and multiplied (ירבו; yirbu)… and the land was filled (תמלא הארץ; timale ha’aretz) with them” (Exod 1:7). The beginning of Exodus repurposes the exact language of God’s command in Genesis to contextualize the account within the framework of Creation. At the outset of Exodus, the text goes out of its way to show the reader that whatever is about to unfold is to be seen through the lens of new creation.
Yet, immediately after readers discover that Exodus will narrate a new creation, it becomes clear that something is wrong; the people of Israel have fulfilled part of the Genesis command in Egypt, but not all of it. Immediately after telling the first humans to be fruitful and multiply, God charges them to “subdue” (כבשׁ; kavash) the land and rule over it (Gen 1:28). However, the Israelites are unable to subdue the land of Egypt because as soon as they become fruitful and multiply, the Egyptians subdue the Hebrews as slaves (Exod 1:9-14). In this new creation story, if God’s people are going to be able to fulfill Genesis 1:28, God will need to liberate them from slavery and bring them to a new land in which they can flourish. This new land will be the land of Canaan, but in order to get the Israelites there, God must use the plagues to reverse the creation of Genesis so that Pharaoh will let the people go….