The rescue of Abraham’s children from Egyptian slavery
By Moses, the shepherd of God’s people
The Book of Exodus continues the story of God’s unique relationship with a people known as Israel. But the situation for Israel in Egypt has changed drastically. As Exodus begins, hundreds of years have gone by from the time when Joseph and his family settled in the land of Egypt.
With Joseph as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, Jacob (Israel) and his children enjoyed favored status. But Exodus announces that a new Pharaoh is in charge, and he wants to write his own history. Meanwhile, as God had promised, Israel has become a nation; but it is a nation living as aliens and outsiders within a land not their own. So, for many reasons Pharaoh and the Egyptians turn against these outsiders and cruelly oppress them.
A Going Out
Exodus then is a story of divine rescue. God remembers the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and He prepares a new prophet, Moses, to be His mouthpiece to Israel and to Egypt’s powerful king. With miracle after miracle, God defeats the so-called gods of Egypt demonstrating that He is the True God and these slaves belong to Him.
The title of the book, Exodus, is taken from the Greek translation and means literally “a going out.” It is named for the central, miraculous event in the book, the “going out” of the Hebrew slaves from a land of oppression toward a new land that would become their home.
Set Apart From Other Nations
The book ends with the people of Israel on their way to this new land. But for a time they must discontinue their journey and camp at Mount Sinai, a special place where God chooses to reveal Himself initially to Moses and then to the rest of the people. At Mount Sinai, God establishes a new covenant with Israel, a covenant that builds upon and expands the earlier relationship He formed with Abraham and his descendants.
At the heart of this covenant are God’s directives to His people. They put into law His will and form a blueprint for a new kind of society that God intends to be an example to the rest of the world. These directives order their private and public lives; they form the basis for civil and religious society. They demonstrate God’s perspective on right and wrong and set Israel apart from other nations.
GOD’s Prophet, The People’s Priest
Moses’ greatness as God’s prophet and the people’s priest is demonstrated on nearly every page of this book. Although Moses stammers badly, God uses him and his brother Aaron to speak more clearly and effectively than any prophet in history. Moses is surely a giant in Israel’s history, which may be why tradition ascribes this book—as well as the rest of the Pentateuch—to Moses as author.
God has done what He promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: He has made Israel’s children fertile, productive, and strong. Over time Jacob’s 70 children have become a nation within a nation, and the Egyptians are taking notice. History teaches the Pharaohs and the ruling classes to be wary of outsiders.
So now that the Israelites are swarming all over the land like flies, and they are not fully assimilating into Egyptian life and culture, the Pharaoh thinks they pose a clear and present danger. So the Egyptian king decides that strong measures are necessary. The welcome that Joseph and his family once enjoyed turns into outright hostility.
Pharaoh wants the boys dead because he knows they may grow up to fight against him, but he wants the girls to live. He is sure he can find a use for them.
What begins as a dinner invitation turns into an adoptive home for this wandering fugitive. Through all the twists and turns in Moses’ life, God is preparing him for a special task. Since he is raised by his Hebrew mother, he hears the stories of his people and learns to love them and identify with their suffering.
Since he becomes part of Pharaoh’s extended family, he knows how to gain access to power. Since he spends these years in the land of Midian taking care of Jethro’s flocks, he has an intimate connection with a land through which one day he will lead a vast company of people. In the meantime, Moses must figure out who he is and whose he is, for soon there will be a job to do.
Burning bushes in the desert are not uncommon. Dry plants make good tinder, and lightning strikes quickly set them ablaze. What is unusual is the fact that this bush continues to burn: a curiosity for this seasoned shepherd. As Moses draws close, he sees more than he expects; he encounters the one True God and His Special Messenger.
But the form of the encounter is not completely clear. Moses hears directly from God, but he sees only fire and God’s Special Messenger. The point here is not simply to amaze Moses with miracles but to call him to an important task. God’s people are suffering, and they need someone willing to go and rescue them. God has already decided the right person for the job, but he needs to be persuaded.
God has been called by many names and titles, and those reflect to some extent aspects of God’s nature and character. In this encounter, God reveals to Moses His name.
This is a special name by which God invites His covenant partners to know and call on Him for all time. It sometimes appears in books or translations as YHWH or Yahweh, but this is only a transliteration of the four letters in Hebrew; it’s not a translation of its meaning. The name is built on the Hebrew verb “to be” and refers to the fact that God is the Self-existent One — “I AM WHO I AM.”
Many translations render the divine name “ LORD ” (in capital and small capital letters), but this translation uses “the Eternal One,” for at the heart of the name is the notion that God has always been and always will be. God transcends time and existence; He is the ground of existence.
Out of respect, the ancients would seldom speak or write the covenant name; they would use it only on the most solemn occasions. Still God is establishing a unique relationship with Abraham’s descendants, and it is time to reveal to them His name.
This strange episode is difficult to understand. There is much here that is unexplainable. What is clear is that Moses has been called by God to challenge Pharaoh — one of the most powerful men in history — and to rescue hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves from lives of hard labor.
On a human level, at least, this seems like risky business. But Moses’ mission is something else entirely; it is God’s business, involving promises made by a holy God to Abraham hundreds of years earlier, promises to provide for and protect His people.
One key aspect of that covenant is the obligation of all males to be circumcised. Apparently Moses has neglected to circumcise his son, a fact that could jeopardize the entire mission. So when Zipporah realizes the gravity of the situation, she takes action and circumcises him. With their covenant responsibilities now met, Moses is free to continue the mission.
Up until this point in the story, Moses has taken the lead in rescuing the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. But this genealogy signals that Aaron will play an increasingly important role in the days ahead. Both Moses and Aaron are descended from Levi — whose children are set aside to serve Israel as priests — but the genealogy traces Aaron’s lineage, not Moses’. Later generations will look back at Aaron as the ideal priest.
Perhaps the best way to look at the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is as a contest to see who truly is God. In Egypt Pharaoh is considered a god. He has certain powers and abilities, and the might of Egypt resides with him.
When Moses and Aaron appear before him to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, each refusal becomes an occasion for the True God to demonstrate His superiority over Pharaoh and all the other gods of Egypt.
Each successive miracle attacks deeper into the heart of Pharaoh’s power and politics. Slowly but surely, Pharaoh’s power is subverted until God breaks Pharaoh’s grip on the people of Israel completely. With the final miracle everything begins to unravel: the death of the firstborn is personal for Pharaoh.
This night is still remembered by Jewish people each year during the festival called Passover. The exodus — God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt — is one of the most important events in all Scripture.
For over 400 years, God’s covenant people lived as outsiders in Egypt. For as long as that last generation could remember, they had been slaves living embittered lives under a cruel regime. But God heard their cries and acted finally and decisively to rescue them.
Now it is time to go home, to a land they have never seen, a land of promise and prosperity. They return not as slaves but as free people, a powerful force for God in the world. The exodus leaves a permanent mark on the people of Israel. It is celebrated in song, recorded in Scripture, and commemorated in a festival; the prophets even see a day when a new exodus is coming.
Throughout this redemption story, it is clear that the Lord has protected Israel while He has judged and frustrated Egypt. After the many wonders before the Passover and the miraculous guidance by the cloud and the pillar of fire, God destroyed the Egyptian army in the midst of the sea.
For centuries people have sought to explain this great miracle and make sense of it.
- Was it a volcanic eruption and a tsunami that parted the waters?
- Was it a shallow lake that drowned Pharaoh’s army?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Only God knows. But reason cannot grasp all that took place that day. When God’s covenant people were on the verge of extinction, God stepped in to fight for them. No one survived that day except by the miraculous grace of God.
“The Eternal Provides.” That could well be the theme for the entire exodus adventure.
- When there is no water, He provides.
- When there is no bread, He provides.
- When there is no meat, He provides.
These provisions are clearly God’s gift to His people. They do not depend upon the cleverness, skill, or hard work of the Israelites. It must be difficult for these former slaves — whose lives have been all about work — to stop, to rest, and to truly believe their lives and futures depend upon God and not upon themselves.
This is an interesting statement. Aaron is directed to place the jar with the special bread like substance that God provides “before the covenant,” which is either a reference to the directives God will provide (chapter 20) or to the special container — the covenant chest — God directs Aaron to build (chapter 25) to preserve some of Israel’s most precious treasures from the exodus and their time in the wilderness. Neither of these items exists at this point in time.
Jethro is more than Moses’ father-in-law; he is also an insightful leader and a skilled counselor. He sees that what Moses is trying to do is counterproductive. Moses is wearing himself down in continual service to the people, and the people are frustrated with the many hours they must wait to have their cases heard by a single arbitrator.
Jethro’s counsel advances the best possible solution for all concerned. Moses remains the sole spiritual leader of the emerging nation, the people’s representative to God, and the conduit of God’s wisdom to the people. But now he is to delegate his governing authority to a set of judges.
The legal and administrative system Jethro proposes is much like a military command with the masses of people divided and then subdivided. Those who are honest and capable hear the normal disputes that arise on a daily basis, much as they have observed Moses handling them in the past.
The more difficult and unique issues are still dealt with by Moses. In this system, there is no difference between civil disputes and religious inquiries. This is an administration designed to handle all problems, secular or spiritual. Life, after all, doesn’t fall into nice, neat categories.
Until now God has dealt only with Moses on behalf of His people; at Mount Sinai, He turns to address them directly in order to express the core of His covenant obligations. He begins by reminding them of all He has done for them.
His miraculous deeds in liberating the Hebrew slaves and providing for them in the desert become the basis of this new relationship. He then proceeds to lay out the Ten Directives that will define and shape their lives together.
The first four Directives concern their duties to know and worship the one True God. The last six pertain to how Israel is to live with one another in a covenant-based society. Properly understood, all the other teachings, prescriptions, and directives that come in later chapters derive from these Ten Directives.
After God gives Israel the Ten Directives, He gives them other instructions that derive from the first ten. They do not cover every situation but provide guidance for how God’s people should live.
The difference between these two situations is the difference between daylight and dark. If a homeowner is protecting his property at night and injures a thief, it is to be treated as a case of self-defense.
But if the crime takes place during the light of day, it is not necessary to incapacitate or capture the thief; it is necessary only to recognize the thief and bear truthful witness against him in court. The right to personal property does not eclipse the right to life.
The Hebrews follow a lunar calendar that has 11 fewer days than the solar calendar. Since it has only 354 days in the year, an extra month (a “leap” month) is added periodically to bring the dates into alignment with the seasons.
Within this annual cycle, God sets aside several great feasts for the people to celebrate. The people are to honor their God by having days of pure rejoicing as they recall their rescue from Egypt and God’s ongoing provision.
In keeping with the needs of an agricultural people, these feasts are situated around the harvests: first, the collection of the winter grains; second, the harvest of the other grains 50 days later; third, the gathering of the main crops of the field.
From above God’s glory appears as a cloud. From below it appears as a fire. As with the burning bush earlier on Mount Sinai, the mountain seems to burn but is not consumed.
This table is to be placed in a special room of the congregation tent with the elements symbolic of God’s place among His people. One of the major elements is the bread of the Presence; it is arranged in two rows of six flat loaves representing the twelve sons of Israel.
There is also a pan for holding incense and pitchers for fine wine; all these elements remind God’s people of His loving grace. The golden lampstand stands nearby, bathing the room and its contents in warm light. This special room and all it contains stimulate the senses — sight, smell, touch, and taste — and serve to remind those who enter of God’s tangible blessings.
At the very center of Israel’s camp is the congregation tent. It is the heart of the nation, a place of unique revelation, and a constant reminder of God’s presence and actions which create and form His people.
Everything must be portable because this is not a settled population but a people on the move. God describes exactly how this large tent and its furnishings are to be constructed. Each layer covering the tent and the detailed work on the covenant chest, the seat of mercy, the table of presence, the lampstand, and all the utensils are physical reminders of deep, spiritual realities.
The building, assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of the tent are labor-intensive; yet it is a work of obedience and devotion calling Israel to remember their special relationship with God. These are signs — located right in the center of the camp — that point to the fact that His graciousness is ever before them.
Whenever Aaron and his sons enter into God’s presence, they wear these heavy ceremonial garments covered with the names of the tribes of Israel to remind them of their holy calling; they come before God to represent His people, not their own interests.
But these stones, carved with the names of the twelve tribes, are there to remind God as well. It is not that God forgets, but as our story shows there are times — sometimes long seasons — when the heavens seem silent while God’s people are suffering.
The Scriptures tell us that when God’s covenant people call on Him, He remembers His promises and comes to save them. These stones sit prominently on the shoulders of Aaron and later high priests as a memorial, as unspoken prayers calling out and calling upon God to act on behalf of His people.
The richly detailed description of the high priest’s attire reflects key aspects of God’s relationship with His people. The engraved onyx stones on the vest remind the priest that he stands before God representing the people of Israel.
The Urim and Thummim offer assurance that God will direct and guide His people through difficult times and decisions in the future. The beautifully embroidered robe worn under the breast piece represents the riches and beauty of God’s provision. The medallion on the front of the turban announces that Israel must be holy in order to serve the Lord.
One difficult aspect of Old Testament life to appreciate (at least in the Western world) is the use of animal sacrifices. The Israelites are first a nomadic people; later when they are settled, they become a shepherding people. For them to offer their best and dearest to God means most naturally an animal, one without blemish and young.
These animals are the basis of their economy and provide them with food, clothing, shelter, and security. To offer God an animal sacrifice is to offer a piece of their lives.
So offerings are very personal and differ based on what families can afford. In some cases, the sacrifices are completely consumed, but in others the priests and the people take some of the meat home to their own tables. This way the whole community shares in the bounty of the sacrifice.
This is truly a dark moment for Israel. Moses left Aaron and Hur in charge 40 days ago, and both men are beginning to feel the strain.
The people are stuck in the desert, and they are growing increasingly impatient without Moses and direction from God. So the people begin to question, and eventually they demand a physical representation of God like the ones their neighbors have. Aaron complies.
With Moses and God occupied, the people begin breaking the Ten Directives, one after another: worshiping other gods, making idols, invoking God’s name for their own selfish purposes, and committing other indecent acts. The people of God fall quickly, and they fall hard. For a brief period, their very survival is in doubt.
The golden-calf incident creates a deep rift between God and His people. For their safety, God refuses to travel with them to the land of promise; instead, He sends His messenger to guide them.
The people’s response to God’s threatened absence is to mourn and refuse to wear their jewelry and fine clothes. The meeting tent and the congregation tent reflect this rift too. The congregation tent is to be God’s unique dwelling with His people, so it is located right in the middle of the camp.
But now there is another tent, the meeting tent set up a long way from camp, far from the contagion of evil spreading there. From time to time, God and Moses meet there to talk; and Joshua stands watch over this intimate encounter, for only Joshua and Moses are not imperiled when the rest of Israel violates God’s directive and worships the golden calf. Moses speaks with God and does his best to get God back on good terms with His covenant people.
Two skilled craftsmen are given special mention in this work of the people. They are called to transform the abundant gifts the people freely provide into the congregation tent and its furnishings. It is God who gifts the hearts and hands of these two individuals and further inspires them to teach others.
Of all the women and men who lend their expertise to this project, only Bezalel and Oholiab are recorded. Until Solomon’s temple is built in Jerusalem, their handiwork will be admired by all of Israel as the house of the Eternal One.
This project is nothing like the forced labor the people endured back in Egypt. All the creativity and work put into the building and furnishing of the congregation tent comes from the heart. People with various skills — skills honed in slavery — step forward as free men and women to create a home on earth for God. Ultimately all talent and skill comes from God. Used properly they all point back to God.
In Moses’ day mirrors are a luxury. They are made from good-quality bronze that is polished to a shine. These mirrors were likely gifts from the Egyptians.
The last half of the Book of Exodus offers a picture of the relationship between God and humanity through powerful symbols.
The amazing truth of all Scripture is reflected here: God resides in the midst of His people. In every detail of God’s directives — the ethical rules, the people’s offerings, the design of the congregation tent and its furnishings, God’s redemptive acts — God is announcing the central truth: He is present with His covenant people.
So the physical elements of this covenant bear witness to deep, spiritual realities. God is in the process of repairing the world from the damage caused by sin and death; but to do so, He needs a people. This is why He chooses Israel and makes them different from everyone else.
He needs agents on the ground devoted to liberating a world held hostage to lesser powers and feebler gods. But where will those people be formed and trained to be God’s effective agents? They will be shaped in the crucible of worship and obedience.
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