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Shemot/Exodus 1:7 And the children of Israel were fruitful and they swarmed and they increased and they became strong - very, exceedingly so;
The text describes the situation of the tribes of Israel in Egypt in the next generation after Yosef and his brothers had died. The string of four consecutive verbs, starting with - Qal affix, 3mp from the root , to be fruitful or bear fruit - groups the different functions together to be emphasised by the repeated at the end of the clause. All the four functions worked together to multiply the numbers of Israel so that they became a great nation and to forge a sense of unity and purpose among them so that they were not just numerous but also powerful.Targum Onkelos is unhappy that the verb "became fruitful" is not clear, because it isn't an exclusively numeric term and so might simply mean that they remained small in number but were very productive, so translated that as , "they increased". Similarly, perhaps thinking that "swarmed" is not very dignified, Onkelos translates that as , "and they gave birth".
Ibn Ezra points out that the verb "swarmed" is used and translated that way by HaShem in the story of Noach and his sons; of all the animals in B'resheet 8:17 and of the people themselves in 9:7. The Rashbam comments that the verb - Qal prefix 3mp, vav-conversive from the root , to become many or great - is speaking of low infant mortality rates: all the children that were born grew to adulthood. Lastly, for the fourth verb in the sequence, , - Qal prefix, 3mp from the root , to become strong, mighty or powerful - Hirsch comments that while in nature, the more children are in the womb, the smaller and weaker they are, in this case multiple births not only increased the numbers of the people more rapidly, but the children were strong and strengthened the people.
How or why did this supernatural increase and vitality in the Children of Israel happen? At this stage the persecution and enslavement of the people hasn't yet started - is there some other agency at work?Chizkuni affirms that there is; he claims that this is "in accordance with G-d's promise to Ya'akov: Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation (B'resheet 46:3, JPS)". G-d was fulfilling His word and multiplying the people to develop His nation in accordance with His promise. Moshe is later to remind the people of precisely that, as they are about to enter the Promised Land: "It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the L-RD set His heart on you and chose you -- indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the L-RD favoured you and kept the oath He made to your fathers" (D'varim 7:7-8, JPS). The Israelites were the smallest of people, but the L-rd increased their numbers to make them a nation and then brought them out of Egypt in order to show that His hand was upon them.
G-d's ability to cause growth among His people is legendary. Moshe explained, "Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the L-RD your G-d has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven" (D'varim 10:22, ESV). Isaiah reminded the people of "your father [Abraham] and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him" (Isaiah 51:2, ESV), while the Psalmist wrote, "And the L-RD made His people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes" (Psalm 105:24, ESV). The people were still talking about it during the return from the Babylonian exile: "You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and You brought them into the land that You had told their fathers to enter and possess" (Nehemiah 9:23, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul writes to the early believers in Yeshua to remind them of the same process being worked out among themselves. He explains to the Corinthians congregation that, "I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it, but it was G-d who made it grow. So neither the planter nor the waterer is anything, only G-d who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7, CJB). To the Colossians, he emphasised "holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from G-d" (Colossians 2:19, CJB). We are all called to grow in Messiah, "until we all arrive at the unity implied by trusting and knowing the Son of G-d, at full manhood, at the standard of maturity set by the Messiah's perfection" (Ephesians 4:13, CJB), but we can't do this by ourselves. The rabbis seem to understand this too when they said: "And the Children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly - although Joseph and his brothers were dead, yet their G-d was not dead, but the Children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly" (Shemot Rabbah 1:8). It did not depend on the people, but on G-d. Although He was making a different point at the time, Yeshua alluded to this when He was challenged by the Sadducees about the resurrection: "Haven't you read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Avraham, the God of Yitz'chak and the God of Ya'akov'? He is God not of the dead but of the living!" (Matthew 22:31-32, CJB)
Lots of books have been published on the subject of "Church Growth", often advocating strategies and techniques imported from the business world, to attract and maintain large congregational numbers. Many of these ideas are excellent: keeping in touch with people at a personal level, delegated leadership models, small group meetings, mentoring structures, planned programs of teaching and discipleship, accountability and safeguarding. More ad-hoc churches that do not learn from or use some of these ideas often flounder and can seem disorganised or even dangerous. However, the risk is that the focus switches from the growth that G-d wants, promotes and brings, to growth that man organises and develops at a human level. Seeker-friendly services that are high on entertainment and technology but low on G-d may attract many people but do not challenge their lifestyles nor produce true growth for the kingdom of G-d. Where the gospel is diluted or absent, in favour of slick video clips and presentations that are thought to be less offensive, where mentions of sin and hell are toned down or omitted because "we'll get to that when people are ready to listen", where the grossly sinful lifestyles and habits go unchallenged because of political correctness, there may be numerical growth but the kingdom is not growing; in fact, to the contrary, the evidence shows that in such a situation, the kingdom retreats under such circumstances and the work eventually founders.
The Rule of 150 suggests that sustainable numeric growth - where the group manages to maintain meaningful relationships between all the members, a sense of cohesive purpose and a common identity - is limited to a number slightly under 150 individuals1. Numerical growth beyond that point requires ever more control, restrictions and enforcement, which in turn causes relationship breakdown, the development of cliques and fragmentation and, eventually, splits and shrinkage. Historical records of church and mission behaviour confirm this pattern.
In our own lives too, the same principle applies: it is G-d who causes growth, not us. It is no use preachers or leaders constantly urging their people to read their Bibles more, unless it is accompanied by times of prayer, getting to know G-d personally and putting theory into practice. Otherwise, all that happens is the raising of a generation of Bible theists, who believe and do exactly what the Bible says without knowing the G-d who wrote the Bible or having any relationship with Yeshua and the Ruach. These are works of legalism and not of grace; the same goes for attending prayer groups, cluster groups, home groups or any other group - unless both the purpose and the practice is to know G-d more and to interact with Him at a deeper and therefore intentional and change-full way, then the kingdom does not grow and we do not grow.
To see the explosive growth in the body of Messiah that the people of Israel saw in Egypt, we will have to return to kingdom principles and focus our attention clearly on G-d and what He wants to do. Management techniques may be useful and appropriate, but we must remember that it is G-d who gives the growth, not us.
1 - See Dunbar's Number, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number
Further Study: Psalm 127:1; Psalm 33:16-18; 1 Chronicles 28:10
Application: So where is your growth and how is it happening? Are you trusting G-d or are you following the patterns of men? Why not ask the L-rd how He wants you to grow today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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