Scripture Readings: Exodus 1-7, 10-17
Significant Moments in The Story
The enslavement of Israel – Exodus 1
God calls Moses – Exodus 3-4
The first nine plagues – Exodus 7-10
The institution of Passover & the tenth plague – Exodus 12
The parting of the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) – Exodus 14
Manna in the morning – Exodus 16
“Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exodus 3:7-8). In these sentences, we find the next major movement of God in his relationship with Israel as we have followed through the narrative of Scripture. In these words, we also find a strong declaration of God’s character: God will not allow His people to continue to suffer under the torment of the powers that keep them enslaved. Thus, God acts in history to bring salvation to His people. This theme of salvation and liberation will echo throughout the story of Scripture, from the exile in Babylon to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ.
God’s rule over all creation
Throughout this narrative, we see God declaring that He is only true authority and power in the world. In the ten plagues (Exodus 7-12), God reveals the Pharaoh, representing the most powerful human force of oppression, as powerless to stop God and as ultimately answerable to God’s will. The plagues also represent a direct assault, in several cases, on the gods that the Egyptians worshiped. Many have seen in the Exodus narrative an attempt to support the radical monotheism of Judaism that was rather unusual in the ancient world. We also, in this section, are introduced to what will be a recurring theme throughout the story of Moses as well as all of Scripture and our own faith stories today: humanity’s tendency to question whether or not God knows what God is doing (Exodus 16-17).
The story of the call of Moses (Exodus 3-4) is important for several reasons. First, we are reminded that God’s desire for us to be partners with Him in His work has not changed since Creation, even when we have so often wanted to try to go it alone. The text is very clear throughout that God is the one doing the saving. However, God wants Moses to be a part of what He is doing. At the same time, this story of God’s conversation with Moses is enlightening to how we often respond to God’s call in our own lives: we list all the reasons why we can’t do it and God should find somebody else. However, God has an answer for every one of Moses’ excuses, just as He has an answer for every one of our excuses. Over and over again in Scripture, we have seen God call the very people we would least expect Him to. Moses probably fits into that same category (why call a man who has been separated from his people for some time to now come and lead them?) However, to borrow a familiar phrase, God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.
A king who did not know Joseph – Exodus 1:8
Trying to accurately date the events of the Exodus are very difficult. For one thing, we are never told the names of the two “kings of Egypt” mentioned in the narrative. Some have speculated based on the names given to the cities in Exodus 1:11 that Rameses II was one of the kings, who we know oversaw massive building projects and a decline in Egyptian power. However, there are other speculations that involve Seti I or Thutmose III as well as other Pharaohs. A second complicating factor is that nowhere in the Egyptian records is there any mention of the Exodus event. However, as John Bright in his A History of Israel points out, this would not be unusual since Pharaohs would rarely record stories of their defeats, especially stories that involved runaway slaves. Thus, it is very difficult to date accurately when the Exodus took place. There are some who even speculate that the Exodus was not one single event, but a series of migrations out of Egypt over a lengthy span of time. For Israel, the Exodus story would be remembered as their birth as a nation and the defining moment of their relationship with God.
God’s name – Exodus 3:13-14
The story of the burning bush is significant for many reasons, but perhaps most important to the faith of Israel is that this is the moment when God reveals his name. Even though God has had an ongoing relationship with Abraham and his descendants, God has never shared with anyone His name (see Exodus 6:3-4). When Moses asks for God’s name, the reply that God gives is the Hebrew word Yahweh. The English translation of this Hebrew word is complicated in part because we are unsure of the tense. The name is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be”. Some English translations read I AM WHO I AM, others read I AM WHAT I AM, others read I WILL BE WHATBI WILL BE. “He causes to be” is another possible translation. Whatever its meaning, God’s name is treated as sacred. The Israelites would not pronounce God’s name, even when reading Scripture, substituting the word Adonai , or “Lord”, for the name. That is why, in our English translations, every time the name of God is used in the Old Testament, you will see the word LORD in all caps.
A hardened heart – Exodus 4:21
There are numerous references to Pharaoh’s “hardened heart”. To understand this phrase, we must remember that we are dealing with a culture that believed that the heart rather than the mind was what guided human actions. So to say that someone’s heart was hardened meant that the individual or people were stubborn, indifferent, or unable to understand something. One of the interesting issues in this story is the recurring references to Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Was his stubbornness a willfull act of the Pharaoh or an act of God? There are references to both. One interpretation notes that, through the first 5 plagues, the Scripture references seem to indicate that Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of his own will (Exodus 7:22-23; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7). However, starting with the sixth plague, the Scripture references indicate that the Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of God’s action (Exodus 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27). Thus, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was an allowing of the Pharaoh to continue on the path that he had already determined to go down. Another possibility is that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is indicative of the fact that God’s purpose was greater than the liberation of Israel. God was determined to reveal his sovereignty to Israel and to all the nations, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart set in motion an entire series of events that served as such a statement.
The first 9 plagues – Exodus 7-10
The plagues are rich with meaning. We often think of them simply as God punishing Pharaoh for not letting Israel go. However, the plagues were both a revelation of God’s power and a direct assault on the cultural and religious systems of Egypt that enslaved Israel.
1) Turning the water of the Nile to blood – the Nile river was literally the lifeblood of Egypt. It was the commercial highway and it waters would overrun the banks and provide fertile soil for agriculture. Maintaining the security of the waterway was one of the chief responsibilities of the Pharaoh and his government. There were two gods, Hapi and Isis, associated with the Nile river. Thus, to turn the water to blood was to turn a source of life into a source for death.
2) The frogs – Haget was an Egyptian goddess who was believed to assist women in childbirth. She was commonly depicted as having the head of a frog. Now, Egypt is overrun with this symbol of fertility. Pharaoh had been concerned about the Israelites “filling his land” and had ordered the midwives to kill the Hebrew boys, turning their purpose upside down. So God turns the purpose of Haget upside down – the land is now overrun with her symbol, frogs, bringing disease and stench.
3 & 4) The gnats and the flies – gnats, or possibly sand flies, were a huge problem in arid lands like Egypt, bringing disease to cattle and humans alike. Flies, likewise, were so common in Egypt that they are associated with Egypt elsewhere in Scripture (Isaiah 7:18, 18:1).
5 & 6) Pestilence on cattle – Hathor and Apis were both Egyptian gods who were associated with cattle. In the plague of boils, the pestilence that began with the cattle now spreads to humans. No one, not even the magicians of Pharaoh, can protect themselves from it.
7) Hail – In this plague, God makes it clear that He is not only interested in setting His people free. He is wanting to display to Pharaoh and to the world His ultimate sovereignty (Exodus 9:14-16). Pharaoh believes he determines the fate of Egypt and Israel. God is proving him wrong.
8) Locust – Osiris was the Egyptian god of the crops. God sends locust that destroy the work of Osiris.
9) Darkness – the Sun-God was the supreme deity of Egypt’s religion. Now, with three days of darkness, God has vanquished the best Egypt had to offer.
The tenth plague and the Passover – Exodus 11-12
The Passover celebration was a festival celebrated by the Jewish people to remember the night that the spirit of God passed over the homes of the Hebrews and struck down all the firstborn children of Egypt. The celebration would become closely associated with another festival, the feast of unleavened bread, which also traced it’s origins to this story. The children of Israel had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that they had to carry their unrisen bread with them. The celebration of the Passover in the centuries that followed would allow each new generation to be formed and shaped by the Exodus story, to become a part of this Exodus community. Later, in the New Testament, the celebration of the Passover meal is the setting of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.
The Red Sea – Exodus 14
Perhaps the most well-known part of the Exodus story is the parting of the sea which allowed the children of Israel to escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army. In Exodus 14, where the story of the parting of the sea is told, the sea is never given a name. We do not get a name until Exodus 15:4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.” In most of our Bibles, there is probably a little letter next to “the Red Sea”, which points to the bottom of the page where we are told that the phrase used here also means “Sea of Reeds”. This is the translation of the Hebrew name given in this verse. The translation of the “Red Sea” actually comes from later Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew. It is likely that it was not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed, but instead a shallow body of water farther to the north of the Red Sea.
Miriam’s song – Exodus 15:21-22
Miriam’s song is believed to be the oldest poetry in all of the Old Testament.
Some Questions that Might Come Up
Who was Moses’ father-in-law?
In Exodus 2:15-22, we are told that Moses saves the daughters of Reuel from harassment by local shepherds. We are also told that these are the daughters of the priest of Midian. In gratitude for Moses’s actions, Reuel gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife. In Exodus 3:1, we are told that Moses “…was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian …”. In Exodus 18:1, we are told, “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses …” and so he comes to visit Moses. Numbers 10:29 reads, “Moses said to Hobab son Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law…”. The most common explanation seems to be the simplest: that Reuel and Jethro are two different names for the same person, though there are some that think that the Numbers 10:29 passage actually reads that Hobab was Moses’ father and Reuel was Hobab’s, or Jethro’s, father.
Why does God try to kill Moses?
Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most confounding pieces of Scripture in the entire Bible. Why does God, right after calling Moses to lead his people to freedom, try to kill Moses? And why is it that Zipporah’s act of circumcising her son abates the attack? And what about what Zipporah says, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”? These are questions with no easy answers. One explanation is that this was originally a story about a demon attacking Moses in the night. Over time, the spiritual demon was erroneously replaced by God, perhaps as an attempt to maintain a strict monotheism that there are no other gods but God. Some speculate that this is a remnant of an ancient ritual that, over time, lost its meaning and fell out of practice, thus rendering it incomprehensible to us today. However, it had early on gotten connected with the Moses story and thus remained there, even though it had no significance any longer. Others have wondered if this story is an attempt to explain the importance of circumcision as part of the covenant. Since Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, there is a chance that he was never circumcised. God, therefore, could not recognize him as part of the covenant and, thus, considered him an enemy. However, Zipporah’s circumcises her son and touches the circumcised foreskin to Moses’ own genitals (“feet” is a common Hebrew euphemism for male genitals) as a substitution for Moses’ lack of circumcision. However, problems and challenges arise with each of these explanations, and there are many more that I could mention here. The truth is, this passage remains a Biblical enigma. Perhaps the best last word to be said was written by Walter Brueggemann in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. I, p. 718).
The larger narrative is not solely about liberation. It concerns, rather, the claim that all parties, Israelite as well as Egyptian, must live in the presence of unleashed, unlimited holiness. There are provisional strategies for safety in the face of holiness, but none that will finally tame this dangerous God. One is struck at the end of this brief encounter with the peculiar juxtaposition of threat and safety, a resolve to kill and safety found only in a primitive act of blood and genitalia. But then, holiness is perplexing beyond all explanation.