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Go Down, Moses

Exodus 1-5

By Brandt Montgomery

Exodus 1:1-14 — A “Crossover” from Genesis

I have been a fan of the Law & Order television franchise for as long as I can remember. There was recently a two-hour “crossover” event shared by the long running Special Victims Unit series and its relatively new spinoff, Organized Crime. Though characters from both shows appeared throughout the event, it was clear that these were two separate shows with different plots. What amazed me about the event was the crossover itself. At the end of the first hour, the final scene of Season 23, Episode 9 of Special Victims Unit became the first of Season 2, Episode 9 of Organized Crime. There was no break; one plot ended and the second one began from the same scene without disruption — an incredibly smooth transition.

Exodus, the second book of the Bible, similarly begins as a “crossover” from the Book of Genesis. It starts with mentioning “the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt… each with his household” (1:1). This is like Genesis 46:8, “Now these are the names of the descendants of Israel, who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons.”

In Genesis 37, Jacob’s favorite son Joseph was sold by his eleven brothers to a group of Midianite traders, who, in turn, sold him into slavery in Egypt. Genesis recalls how God was with Joseph throughout his struggles, how “whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed” (Gen. 39:21, 23b). One way we see this proven is through Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. In Genesis 41, he describes how two of Pharaoh’s dreams were a crossover event: there were to be seven years of “great plenty” throughout Egypt followed by seven years of famine. Grateful for his having helped save Egypt from catastrophe, Pharaoh makes Joseph Egypt’s prime minister, with only the Pharaoh outranking him. Joseph’s eleven brothers and his father Jacob come back into the narrative in Genesis 42; they are reconciled and reunited with each other by Genesis 46 and given a portion of Egypt’s best land in Genesis 47. Genesis ends and Exodus begins with the people of Israel fruitful and growing in the land of Egypt. “They multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7).

Exodus starts with the Egyptians and the Israelites peacefully co-existing. “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation” (1:6). Two verses later, it says, “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8). Here can be seen the importance of history. To value history is to recognize how the past can show us that what we do or do not do in the present can potentially affect the future. In this instance, we see how not knowing history leads to negative actions. With Joseph and the Israelites of his generation dead, the history of his positive impact on Egypt becomes lost. This causes Pharaoh and the Egyptians to fear the Israelites, their fear driving them to “set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens” (1:11). As it has been said, “What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. And what we cannot control, we attack.”

Whereas we humans are prone to forgetting history, God is not. God is the absolute ruler of history. We see this truth in two ways via Pharaoh’s enslavement of Israel. First, the setting of taskmasters over Israel in 1:11 echoes God’s words spoken to Abraham in Genesis 15: “Your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (v. 13). Yet Exodus 1:12’s notation of Israel’s continual population growth despite their oppression reaffirms what God promised Abraham in Genesis 22: “I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (v. 17).

Thus, in this crossover section at the beginning of Exodus from the end of Genesis, we see the shared scene of the Egyptians’ and the Israelites’ co-existence, followed by the scene of the Egyptians afflicting the Israelites out of fear. The one constant we see throughout is God. We see him as the God who keeps his promises. He is keeping his covenant with Abraham via Israel’s increase. With this verification, the reader can reasonably intuit the eventual outcome for the Israelites: “I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions(Gen. 15:14).

Exodus 1:15-2:10 — The Hebrew Boy Saved from the Slaughter 

For the reader familiar with the narrative, the eventual outcome is a given, considering how God is showing himself to be a keeper of his word. Yet, the reader should also have some understanding for the oppressed Israelites. After being slaves for almost 400 years, there more than likely were many who lost hope and did not believe God was hearing their cries. Hardship and grief can be cataracts occluding the future God has promised for his people.

That is why the faithfulness of the Hebrew midwives is an important mention in the early narrative of Exodus. Not only have the Israelites been enslaved for many years, but the Pharaoh’s anxious fear of rebellion has driven him to order all newborn Israelite males killed. The midwives’ disregard of this decree conveys how there were still Israelites who feared God and viewed his will to be superior above any earthly ruler and nation. God will soon use their faithfulness to bring his people out of bondage.

This is the contextual background from which we get introduced to Moses, whom God will use to deliver Israel from oppression in Egypt. When his mother “could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket…. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank” (2:2-3). With his sister standing “at a distance to know what would be done to him” (2:4), the baby Moses is found in the reeds of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. This is both ironic and commendable. Ironic in that it is Pharoah’s daughter who finds this Hebrew baby and accepts him as her own. Commendable in that she knows what he is and still accepts him despite her father’s edict. Not only do we see God acting through the continuing faithfulness of Israel, but also from within Pharaoh’s own household to prepare for his people’s deliverance.

Exodus 2:11-25—Moses Flees to Midian 

“When Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens…” (2:11). By this, Moses has come to the knowledge of his Hebrew heritage. How and exactly when he does the text does not say; it is a fact we will never know. But the fact that the narrative speaks of Moses identifying with the Hebrews, and one being beaten by an Egyptian, as “his people” in verse 11 gives the reader a glimpse of his future commission.

We also see the tension Moses surely at times felt between his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household and his Hebrew heritage. This is something that surely resonates with some readers. There are some who may feel tension between their ethnic identity and the country in which they live. Like myself, there are some who grow up as part of a particular racial group, but their respective opinions and interests are viewed as going against that group’s “mainstream” and, as a result, are viewed as “not really one of us.” Such tensions often make one feel alienated from others and at war with themselves. More on that thought in a moment.

When Moses witnesses an Egyptian fiercely beating a Hebrew, “he looked this way and that, and, seeing no one… struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (2:12). When Moses goes out amongst his people the next day, he sees two Israelites fighting each other and asks “the man in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your companion?’” (2:13). The offending Hebrew’s response makes Moses come to a frightening realization: “Surely the thing is known” (2:14). Fearful for his life, Moses flees to Midian. He moves in with Ruel (also known as Jethro), the local priest, marries Zipporah, his daughter, and has a son with her named Gershom.

I have two thoughts regarding Moses’s time in Midian that I would like to commend for your consideration. The first relates back to my comment about how various ethnic and racial tensions can make one feel alienated from others and at war with themselves. Moses will soon be called by God to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let his people go from their bondage. To effectively do this, Moses cannot be held back by other’s thoughts about him. Perhaps one of the reasons God has Moses dwell in Midian for a time is to allow him time to lament what was and to live into and come to appreciate the family God has blessed him now to have. Over time Moses’ sense of alienation will dwindle and the surety of who he is will increase. This “wilderness” period will form Moses into one who will be able to stand strong in the Lord in front of Pharaoh.

My second thought relates back to Moses’ killing of the Egyptian beating the Hebrew. Regardless of how noble Moses’ intentions were, he still committed a grievous wrong. He acted impulsively, which he must not do in his future call. Another reason I put up for God having Moses dwell in Midian is for him to use the time to become emotionally controlled and better fit for carrying out God’s work. Whether Moses confessed his sin to his father-in-law, a priest, only God knows that. In the meantime, the Pharaoh who knew of Moses’ misdeed and wanted him killed for it himself dies. God will send Moses back to Egypt at the right time to stand up to the new Pharaoh on behalf of his people.

Exodus 3 and 4—A Huge Moment with Many Signs 

Stephen says in Acts 7:30 that the amount of time between Moses’ flight to Midian and God’s appearance to him in Exodus 3 was forty years. In Moses’ mind, a shepherd’s life is what he is now called to live. He is likely content and has become well-adjusted to doing a shepherd’s work. But now is the time for God’s real work for Moses to begin.

Particularly for readers new to the narrative, the point at which we have arrived is the most significant moment in all the Bible thus far. Seekers of the truth can identify with Moses in that, like them, he shows himself to be a seeker. The sight of God as an unconsumed burning bush intrigues him. “I will turn aside to see this great sight” (3:3). He is receptive to the mystery and draws near to it. New readers can be encouraged by Moses’s receptivity of the mystery.

The mystery soon becomes clearer. The voice that calls out to Moses from the bush, the very Being present before him, is God. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). With God’s Being confirmed, Moses hides his face not in shame but in reverent fear; he is captured by the captivating. God then tells Moses that he has heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and has remembered his covenant first made with Abraham and reconfirmed with Isaac and Jacob. Now is the time that God will come down to deliver them out of Egypt and bring them “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:8). God will be Israel’s deliverer; Moses will be his conduit. This is why God is before Moses — he is sending Moses back to Egypt, to the palace wherein he grew up, to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go.

Moses asks a sensible question: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11) Whereas he was confident and impulsive in 2:11-15, Moses is now humble and lacks faith in himself. God has got to raise his confidence and faith yet keep him humble and even-keeled. Hence, God tells Moses, “I will be with you” (3:12).

Moses then asks another sensible question: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” (3:14). God’s answer is significant for two reasons. The first and most significant reason is that God reveals his name as “the LORD” (which is how English translations render the Hebrew consonants YHWH), with translations including “I AM WHO I AM,” “I AM THAT I AM,” and “I AM, BECAUSE I AM.” This is the first time that God himself reveals his Name to humanity. His revelation of his Name signifies who he is — he is the God that was, is now, and ever shall be — and that a new phase of his relationship with humanity has begun. The second reason is that when Moses encounters the people of Israel, by God having revealed his Name, Moses will be able to assure the Israelites that the one true God has indeed sent him and that their deliverance is very close at hand.

The first 16 verses of Exodus 4 consist of Moses thinking of every excuse he can for why he cannot go back to Egypt. He first says the people will not believe that the Lord sent him. When that does not work, Moses then says he is not a good speaker. God does not give in. Each time Moses offers an excuse, God responds with different signs that show he can do the work. Finally, Moses just asks God to send someone else. God tells Moses, “No! You are going and that is that!”

There is a lesson here for all of us. Whatever our vocation in life ends up being, when God calls you there is no getting out of it. As one priest told me some years ago, “If God calls you, you are worthy.” How often, I am sure, many of us have found that the most stunning things come from the most unlikely places, and the most impact is achieved by the not-so-well-known. By the unlikely and not-so-well-known God acts and brings about the most marvelous things. So it was with Moses, so it can be with us.

With God having spoken, Moses leaves his father-in-law’s farm in Midian and returns to Egypt with his wife and two sons and his brother Aaron. They arrive in Egypt and meet the elders of Israel. “Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed” (4:30-31).

Exodus 5 — The Showdown Begins 

Exodus 5 starts with Moses and Aaron having their first audience with Pharaoh. “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness’” (5:1). Notice how Moses and Aaron’s initial request is for Israel to be granted the right to offer sacrifice to God in an outside place. Yet, Pharaoh’s response in 5:2, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” is insolent and dismissive of God. His question becomes the main theme we will see dealt with throughout the next several weeks via the plagues. All will happen “that you will know that there is no one like the LORD our God” (8:10).    

Thinking them to be slaves who have left their work, Pharaoh orders Moses and Aaron to “get back to your burdens” (5:4). Pharaoh further retaliates by ordering that the straw provided by Egypt for the making of bricks cease. The Israelites must now find their own straw and still produce the same daily number of bricks as when the Egyptians were giving them straw. With the Israelite foremen being beaten for not making the required number of bricks, they go to Pharaoh and appeal for leniency. He offers none. What is worse is that they have seen for themselves just how drunk with power Pharaoh is. They realize they have absolutely no rights whatsoever. Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters repeat the order and dismiss them. It is a heartbreaking scene.

The Israelite foremen complain to Moses and Aaron that “you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (5:21). On the one hand, you can understand their anger with Moses and Aaron. But on the other hand, they do not see how this meeting plays into God’s larger plan for their deliverance. Years later, one of the prophets will write, “This is the covenant I will make with… Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). This is the purpose driving God’s actions.

What this final chapter of our introductory reading of Exodus teaches us is that our deliverance from evil depends on our willingness to depend on God to be our deliverer. Things are not the way they should be, and God is going to do something about it. God promises that a better future is coming.

From these first five chapters of Exodus, we see how God’s promises from Genesis are on their way to fulfillment through his present involvement in the world. Things are now set up for God to act. Things may seem bad now, but they will soon get better.



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