Selected Bibliography of ExodusRelated Media
Cassuto Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1976.
**Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical Theological Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974.
*Cole, Alan. Exodus. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Driver, S. R. The Book of Exodus. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1911.
Fokkelman, J. P. “Exodus.” In The Literary Guide to the Bible, pp. 56-65. Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987.
Hannah, John D. “Exodus.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty: Old Testament, pp. 103-162. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985.
Jacobs, B. Exodus: The Second Book of the Law. New York: KTAV, 1985.
Keil C. F., and Delitzsch F. “The Pentateuch.” In Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes. Vol. 1. Reprint (25 vols in 10). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
Youngblood, Ronald F. Exodus. Everyman’s Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
Kitchen, K. A. “The Old Testament in Its Context.” Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin, 59 (1971): 2-10; 60 (1971): 3-11; 61 (1971): 5-14; 62 (1972): 2-10; 63 (1972): 1-5; 64 (1972): 2-10.
Kline, “Law and Covenant.” Westminister Theological Journal, 27 (November 1965): 19-20.
Mendenhall, G. E. S.v. “Covenant.” In Interpreters Dictonary of the Bible, 715.
Related Topics: Library and Resources
1. Pharaoh’s Fears and Israel’s Faith (Exodus 1)
Introduction to This Series
“The trouble with the Bible … is that so much of it is Old Testament. And the trouble with the Old Testament is just that. It is old. Now, of course, for some things, oldness speaks of permanence and lasting, even increasing, value. For other things, oldness spells outmoded, obsolete and irrelevant. Which category does the Old Testament belong to?”1
In the prologue to his excellent book, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today, Christopher J. H. Wright raises a question which troubles many Christians today. And for those whom it does not trouble, it should. It is with a great deal of enthusiasm and expectation that I commence this Old Testament study, beginning with the Book of Exodus.2 I believe we will find, as Wright’s excellent book shows, that the Old Testament is a book rich in relevance to the New Testament saint.
Specifically, this series begins with the “birth” of the nation Israel, as described in the Book of Exodus, a book rich in themes which will recur in the Old and New Testaments.3 While we will not cover this book in a thorough, chapter-by-chapter analysis, we will begin our study in chapter 1, which sets the stage for the drama of the Exodus.
Introduction to This Message
Francis Shaeffer has written a book entitled God is There and He is Not Silent. Without disagreeing with this book or its message, I do believe that there are times when God is there, but He is, at least from our perspective, silent. I believe that you can see this in the Psalms when the psalmist cries out to God, as it were, “Where are you, God?”4 Have you not experienced times in your life, especially times of adversity, when it appeared as though God was not present? The period of time depicted in the first chapter of Exodus is one of those times—a time when from all appearances, God was silent. Nevertheless, God was there. We shall learn to see His hand in those “silent times” as we study this first chapter of Exodus more carefully.
Linking the Past and the Present
Verses 1-7 serve to link the events of the Book of Genesis5 and those recorded in the Book of Exodus. These two books were intended to be understood in relationship to each other.6 Verses 1-6 sum up the history of Israel as a clan, as described more thoroughly in Genesis, chapters 12-50. These six verses remind us that all that is going to take place in this book is directly related to what has gone before as described in Genesis.7 The curse of God in Genesis 3 included hard toil, which is surely the lot of Israel in Egypt. The salvation of mankind, as promised also in Genesis 3, was through the birth of a child. So too it was through the birth of a child (Moses, Exod. 2) that God provided a deliverer for His people. As men strove to provide themselves with security and significance by the building of a city and a tower, using bricks and mortar, so Egypt sought to secure herself by forcing the Israelites to build cities with bricks and mortar (compare Gen. 11 with Exod. 1:14; 5:1ff.).
Most importantly, this portion of the introduction to the Book of Exodus (Exod. 1:1-6) links the existence and rapid growth of Israel as a nation to the covenant which God made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:12ff.), and which He reiterated to the patriarchs (Isaac: Gen. 26:2-5, 24; Jacob: Gen. 28:13-15). The sons of Israel and their families numbered 70 (v. 5) when they arrived in Egypt,8 a mere clan. But when the “sons of Israel” leave Egypt, they do so as a great nation (Exod. 1:7, 12, 20; 12:37).
Verse 7 fills in a nearly 400-year gap covering the period from the death of Joseph9 to the time of the Exodus. If it were not for this verse and the remainder of chapter one, we would know little of this period of time.
A moment’s reflection will cause us to remember that there are other periods in history which are likewise neglected in the biblical record. There is, for example, the 400-year period of silence between the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example), and the books of the New Testament.10 There is also the period of silence from the time of the close of the New Testament canon (the Book of Revelation) to the present day.
What should we conclude from those periods in time which biblical revelation seems to pass over unmentioned? Shall we say that these periods of time, the events and the people involved, are of no concern or interest to God? Certainly not. Shall we say that because God is silent about these times (at least in the Scriptures), He is not only uninterested, but also uninvolved?
Personally, I conclude that there are times when God is there, but when He is silent. By this I mean that God is at work, but that He is not, at that moment in time, telling us what He is doing, nor is He publicly displaying His purposes or His power. At such times (and at other times as well) God is at work providentially. He is at work behind the scenes, and in ways that at the time are not immediately apparent. Verses 8-22 focus on the particular things which God was doing during this period of persecution which are important to the purpose of the Book of Exodus. These verses give us a great deal of insight into those periods of time when God appears to be silent, when He is at work providentially, bringing His purposes to pass, or preparing history for another of His dramatic interventions into the affairs of men.
Lest we conclude that God is altogether silent about certain periods of history, let me remind you that even though God may not record the history of a certain period in detail, He will often foretell of the events in order to prepare those who will live in such times. For example, this 400-year period of time was the subject of a divine revelation to Abraham, long before it would take place:
Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16).
This brief prophetic description of this dark period of time in Israel’s history is proof of the faithfulness of God with regard to the fulfillment of His promises. Abraham’s descendants did dwell in Egypt, under bondage, for 400 years. They were brought forth, and with great riches given freely by the Egyptians. They did return to the promised land, just as God had promised.
So too events occurring in other periods of time concerning which the Scriptures have been silent (the 400-year inter-testamental period and the time from the close of the New Testament canon until now) have been foretold in advance by means of prophecy. Through Daniel (e.g. chapter 2) the kingdoms of the world were foretold. And through various Old and New Testament prophecies, the events of the last days and of the return of Christ are described. Thus, God has prepared men, in advance, for those periods of relative silence.
As we leave verses 1-7 let us keep two words in mind which will enable us to summarize the role of this section. The two words are CONTINUITY and CONTRAST. We are reminded of the continuity of God’s program by the fact that the promises and purposes of God commenced in the Book of Genesis are continued in the Book of Exodus. We see the contrast between these two books: a small handful of men entered Egypt to dwell with Joseph, but a great multitude will leave Egypt with Moses to dwell in the promised land. It is this rapid growth of Israel, in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and in preparation for possessing the land, which was the result of God’s providential dealings with Israel under the cruel hand of the Egyptians.11 Let us look then at the providential hand of God in this period of Israel’s history.
A New King and a New Policy
When Joseph brought his family to be with him in Egypt, they came to the “best of the land” (Gen. 47:6,11). Even at this time there was an underlying prejudice against the Israelites as Hebrews (Gen. 43:32) and as shepherds (Gen. 46:34). There is considerable disagreement among the scholars as to the identity of this “new king, who did not know about Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Much of the problem hinges on the date of the Exodus, a matter which we shall not discuss here in detail.12 Keeping with an early date for the Exodus, it is most likely that the king referred to here was new in a very significant sense. He represented not only a new person, but also very likely a new dynasty.
An Asiatic people of Semitic origin (thus, related to the Hebrews) began to migrate into Egypt, eventually gaining control of the government at a time of weakness and confusion during the Second Intermediate Period. The Hyksos13 ruled for about 150 years during the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, from about 1700 to 1550 B.C. The Hyksos kings were “Egyptianized,” assuming the title of Pharaoh,14 and adopting the gods of Egypt. The Hyksos capital was very close to Goshen where the Israelites had settled in Egypt. It would seem that the “new king” of Exodus 1:8 was a Hyksos king, and he would thus truly be “new” as Moses has indicated, especially if he succeeded an Egyptian king. Note also that he is not called an Egyptian. In the light of these considerations, Davis suggests the following rendering of verse 10: “Come on, let us [Hyksos] deal wisely with them [Israelites], lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when war occurs, they join also unto our enemies [the Egyptians], and fight against us [Hyksos], and so get them up out of the land.”15
If indeed a small minority of Hyksos had gained control over Egypt, it is not a surprise that these “foreigners” would have had no knowledge of Joseph. In fact, there would very likely be a tendency to try to blot out the past and to create a new allegiance to the Hyksos dynasty. It would also explain the fear of the Hyksos king that the Israelites might join with their enemies (the Egyptians) to overthrow their (foreign) rule.
The fears of the Pharaoh (be he a Hyksos or an Egyptian) are of interest: “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (Exod. 1:9-10).
He feared the numerical strength of the Israelites, and sought to diminish them. He feared that they would become allies with the enemy against their rule, and would overcome them and leave Egypt. Interestingly, everything Pharaoh feared came to pass, in spite of his diligent efforts to prevent it. The reason is, of course, that the Pharaoh’s plans were contrary to the purposes and promises of God with regard to His people.
Pharaoh’s plan, which was readily adopted by the people, was to enslave the Israelites, and to tighten their control over them. A substantial part of this plan seems to be that of intimidation and oppression, so demoralizing and frightening the Israelites that they would not dare to resist their masters. In addition, their value as slave labor would be utilized to strengthen the nation both economically and militarily. The storage cities of Pithom and Rameses16 were built by the Israelites with brick and mortar,17 and the fields were worked by them as well. Josephus claims that Israelite manpower was also used to dig canals.18
Just as Israel had greatly multiplied during the time of Joseph (cf. Gen. 47:27) and after his death (Exod. 1:7), so they continued to multiply under the cruel hand of their taskmasters: But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians19 came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly (Exod. 1:12-13).
The Egyptian response to the continued phenomenal numerical growth of the Israelites was to increase the workload and to intensify the harassment and cruelty imposed on them by their taskmasters (1:14). It is apparent that these tactics did not work, which led to an even more evil plot directed against the people of God, as outlined in verses 15-21.
Pharaoh and the Midwives
Considerable time had passed since the first stage of oppression had been initiated, as described in verses 1-11. Frustrated by the utter failure of previous administrations to curtail the rapid growth of the Israelites, concern seemed to have turned to near panic. It was one thing to outnumber the Hyksos, a mere fraction of the population of Egypt. It was quite another to threaten the Egyptians themselves. The birth rate must be dramatically changed. To bring this about, the Pharaoh turned to the Hebrew20 midwives,21 two of whom are mentioned specifically here,22 either as specific examples, or as leaders.
Pharaoh’s demands are incredible. First of all, this is an abominable act of violence against the innocent. Second, I am amazed that Pharaoh passes on all responsibility for the death of these Hebrew infants. He wants the midwives to solve this national dilemma of the Hebrew birth rate. The plan is virtually unworkable. How were the boy children to be “terminated”? Were the deaths to look accidental? How could Pharaoh expect any Hebrew woman to call for a midwife if it were known that all boy babies were somehow dying at their hand? I see here a poorly conceived (pardon the pun) plan, decreed by a desperate man.
The midwives feared God more than Pharaoh, and so they refused to put the infant boys to death (1:17). This infuriated the Pharaoh, who summoned the midwives and demanded an explanation. They respond that the Hebrew women were in such good physical condition that their children were born too quickly, before they could even arrive to help (1:19). Whether or not this was the full explanation,23 it ironically points to the affliction of the Israelites as a boon to child-bearing, rather than as a hindrance. The previous plan had backfired in the Pharaoh’s face. Hard work produced more Hebrew babies.
For their fear of God, these midwives were rewarded in two ways. The first blessing is more immediately evident than the second. The first blessing was that of being fruitful themselves: “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families of their own” (Exod. 1:20-21).
Hyatt suggests one possible reason why child-bearing may have been a special blessing to these midwives: “It is possible that barren women were regularly used as midwives; if so, their reward is that they become fertile and have families.”24 The blessing of bearing children was not denied the Hebrew women, and neither was it denied the Hebrew midwives.
There is another blessing not as apparent but very significant, I believe. If someone asked you the names of the midwives, what would you answer? From this text you could quickly respond, “Shiphrah and Puah.” Now if I asked you the names of any of the pharaohs mentioned in this chapter, could you respond from this text? No! Many have speculated as to the identity of the pharaohs, but this is still speculation. Think of it, the highest official in the land, old “what’s his name.” These men’s names were known and feared by millions, but we don’t even know who they were. And this in spite of such massive projects as the building of pyramids and extensive efforts as mummifying the bodies of kings.
Unfortunately, some have failed to see that the omission of the names of the pharaohs is deliberate, and in contrast to the naming of the midwives.25 What a gracious gift of God to these two God-fearing Hebrew midwives—He records their names for an example to believers throughout the centuries. God doesn’t really care that much about the name of the king, king “what’s his name,” but He is intimately concerned with Shiphrah and Puah, for they trust and obey Him. What better honor than to be known and remembered by God.
As I have considered the naming of the midwives but not the Pharaoh’s, my mind turned to some interesting passages of Scripture. I am reminded of the biblical proverb which says, “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, But the name of the wicked will rot” (Prov. 10:7), and of the psalmist who prayed: “May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. … May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth” (Ps. 109:13,15).
God cares not about your position or your prestige in life, my friend. He cares only if you fear Him and have trusted in His Son, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. If you are His child, by faith, He knows you by name. If not, no matter what your earthly splendor or power, you are a “what’s his name” to God, and you will spend eternity away from His presence.
The futility of the Pharaoh’s military conquests and building projects is typified by this poem of Shelley:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.26
Overshadowing the figure of the Pharaoh, the heroes of our chapter are Shiphrah and Puah. They feared God more than men. They applied that fear of God to the practical outworkings of their day-to-day lives. They lived their faith where God had put them. It was not such a dramatic thing to do (daring, but not dramatic), but it revealed a faith that would not disobey the living God. Would that there were more saints of this variety today—saints who would live out their faith in whatever arena God has placed them, a faith that if necessary will defy the highest power in the land.
A Final Futile Effort
Pharaoh’s attempt to indirectly destroy the Israelite boy children had miserably failed. What he had attempted to do in a clandestine, underhanded fashion, Pharaoh will now demand openly: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live’” (Exod. 1:22). The intent of this decree is obvious. Pharaoh hopes not only to destroy the boy babies, but to enslave all the girl children, thus wiping out Israel as a distinct nation in one generation.27 What Pharaoh failed to discern was that he was simply a pawn of Satan, who was seeking to wipe out the seed from which Messiah was to come:
What Pharaoh did was, without his knowledge, a battle of the “serpent” against the “woman’s seed” (Gen. 3:15). For with the extermination of the Jews the coming of the Redeemer would have been made impossible, because, since Abraham, the promise concerning the Seed of the woman and the Treader-down of the serpent was definitely connected with this people (Gen. 12:1-3; John 4:22; Gal. 3:16).28
The struggle between Satan and “the seed” is one that can be found throughout biblical history. Satan has sought to corrupt the seed through the Canaanites (cf. Gen. 38; Num. 25). Now, at the time of the Exodus, he seeks to annihilate the seed by murder. Later on Satan will employ the jealousy of Herod, who will attempt to overthrow the “King of the Jews” by murdering many innocent children (Matt. 2).
The decree to murder the boy babies by drowning them is a part of Satan’s diabolical plan to destroy the seed which will destroy him. Once again Pharaoh puts the responsibility for killing infants on someone else, this time, the Egyptian people it would seem, or perhaps, the Hebrew parents: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). It is this command which provides the backdrop for the drama of chapter 2, where the deliverer of Israel is born.
The application of these verses to the present American abomination of abortion on demand should be obvious. There is a deadly sequence of events in Exodus 1 which closely parallels the origins and rise of abortion in America. It begins with a disdain for those who threaten our self-interests. The Egyptians disdained the Israelites who seemed to endanger their position of power and prestige, just as Americans disdain children as an economic liability and an unwanted burden. The killing of the Israelites began as a matter of national policy, just as the Supreme Court’s decision opened the door to the mass slaughter of the innocent unborn. The killing is subtle at first, and then much more blatant. Pharaoh seemed to want the midwives to arrange for the death of the boy babies, making murder appear to be a result of the birth process. Finally, the boy babies were commanded to be thrown (after their birth) into the Nile. So too in our day, the abortions which once were allowed early in pregnancy now are performed very late, and children are also terminated after birth as well. Just as the murder of the babies was selective (boys only) in Egypt, so we kill babies for being of the “wrong” sex or for having a possible imperfection which may make our lives inconvenient. Let us not avoid seeing the great similarities between the murder of the infants in that day and in our own. Let us be like those midwives and have no part in such murder.
From a human perspective, things in Egypt have gone “from bad to worse” so far as the Israelites are concerned. A sojourn which began with a royal welcome by decree became slavery and then deteriorated to a plot to kill the Hebrew boy babies and to enslave the girl children. It would seem that things could hardly get worse. One might wonder if God was aware of what was taking place, and, if so, why He was not more involved.
As we consider the events of Exodus 1 we need to recognize that there are several points of view. From the human perspective, there is the selfish and sinful motivation of the Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, willing to sacrifice the Israelites to their own self-interest. There is also the perspective of the Israelites who may well have wondered where the God of their fathers was. The perspective of the Hebrew midwives should be our model. While they did not understand all that was going on, they did fear God, and they refused to obey the orders of Pharaoh when they were contrary to the will of God.
Then too there is the supernatural perspective which recognizes in all of the events of this chapter the hand of Satan, seeking to thwart the purposes of God by using the rulers of this world to his own ends. The battle between the Serpent and the seed is not to be overlooked in this Egyptian episode.
Finally, there is the divine perspective. God was achieving His purposes and promises largely unnoticed by any of the actors in this divine drama. The affliction and bondage of which God had foretold Abraham (Gen. 15:12-16) is fulfilled in this first chapter of Exodus. Through the bondage and adversity of those 430 years (cf. Exod. 12:40) a number of purposes were being providentially fulfilled. Let me briefly enumerate some of the “blessings” which resulted from the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt.
(1) Israel was spared from absorption by the Canaanites through intermarriage by being sent to Egypt, where that nation’s prejudice precluded the kind of intermingling which was common in Canaan (cf. Gen. 38).
(2) Judgment on the Canaanites was delayed until her sins were filled to the brim (cf. Gen. 15:14-16).
(3) The light of God’s salvation was taken to the Egyptians by the Israelites. The multitude of those who left Egypt included some who were Egyptians.
(4) Israel was enabled to grow from a handful of people (70 men) to a great multitude. Can you imagine a clan of 70 men attempting to possess Canaan?
(5) God was preparing Israel physically for the rigors required in the wilderness and militarily for the warfare with the Canaanites. Also, God was preparing for the economic needs of the nation with a forced savings plan that put necessary capital in the hands of the Israelites when they left Egypt (cp. Gen. 15:14; Exod. 12:35-36).
Noting these benefits of the Egyptian sojourn, we can see that God was providentially working for the benefit of His people. We can therefore derive several principles from this passage which will help us in those times when the hand of God is not evident and when the forces of evil seem to be prevailing.
First, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not actively involved in bringing them to pass.
Second, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not aware of it and when every appearance points to the contrary.
Third, when this is the case, God has often previously announced prophetically what He is going to do during such times of apparent silence.
Fourth, when God is “silent” we must live by faith (as at all other times) and by the principles of His word.
Fifth, God’s purposes are as easily achieved in adversity as they are in comfort, and as readily accomplished through unbelievers as through the saints.
Sixth, there are great similarities between these experiences of Israel and the events of the last days before our Lord’s return.29
Finally, I want to say a word about God’s “editorial policy” as it is reflected in this chapter. The fact that God chooses to describe, in sketchy terms, a period of 400 years is an evidence of His sovereignty. But God does things for a purpose. As I thought through the message of this chapter, I realized that God has a purpose for what He does not say as well as for what He does reveal in the Scriptures. God has chosen to say little about the 400 years of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. The emphasis of what He does say is on the good intended which God was bringing out of the evil Pharaoh, Egypt, and the Evil One (cp. Gen. 50:20).
It occurred to me that God’s “editorial policy,” as reflected in Exodus 1, is diametrically opposed to that of the media today. If we were to read a secular account of this period in Israel’s history, we would have much more space devoted to the afflictions of the Israelites. We would have gruesome pictures, in full color, of sweaty Israelites, stumbling along in the slimy mud pits, making their bricks. We would have numerous “human interest” stories, all focusing on the plight of these people and the cruelty of the Egyptians.
This is not the emphasis of Exodus 1. Oh, we are told of the cruelty of the Egyptians and of the sufferings of the Israelites, but the emphasis of the chapter is on the faithfulness of God to His purposes, His promises, and His people. The thrust of the chapter is that in spite of Egypt’s efforts, God’s people miraculously grew in number and in strength. In all of this, God was preparing His people for deliverance and Egypt for judgment. God’s purposes were sure, and those whom God blessed were those who feared Him. God’s “editorial policy” is to deal briefly with human grief and misery, and to focus upon God’s grace and faithfulness. When you look at our chapter in this light, you can see that this is the case.
Let me ask you about your “editorial policy.” Every one of us “edits,” as it were the circumstances of our lives. The worrier edits out all of the good things, all of the positive possibilities, and highlights every element of possible pain and disaster. The grumbler edits out all of the blessings of God and focuses on those things which were painful and unpleasant. Faith edits life’s circumstances differently. It recognizes all of the evils of this life, but it does not emphasize them. Faith chooses to focus upon the purposes, the promises, and the power of God, and looks for His hand at work, preserving His people, and preparing them for the blessings which are to come. I urge you, my friend, to establish an “editorial policy” for the circumstances of your life which is like that of Moses, the human author of Exodus.
3 “It would be hard to find a single major topic of Old, or even New, Testament that is not exemplified in the Book of Exodus. Many of the themes, used later in the Bible, actually take their rise in this book, in the interpreted experience of Israel, through the great events that led to her foundation as a people.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 19. I highly recommend Cole’s commentary as the first commentary you purchase in your study of the Book of Exodus.
5 Genesis may have been written about the time of the Exodus. Since we believe Moses to be the author, it could not have been written sooner than shortly before the Exodus. Genesis would have provided an excellent backdrop for the Exodus, providing Israel with a reminder of her roots and of the basis for God’s blessings which were soon to be experienced.
6 “The initial ‘and’ found in the Hebrew makes clear that Exodus is not a new book, but simply the continuation of the Genesis story, and the fulfillment of the promises made to the partiarchs. But this is an appropriate place for a break: it is the last time in the Pentateuch that ‘sons of Israel’ is used to describe Jacob’s immediate family. From now on, the phrase will be a collective patronymic, describing the whole people of God, formed like any Arabic tribal name.” Cole, p. 53.
7 There are certain literary allusions which are intended to make these connections between Exodus and Genesis. For example the expression, “were fruitful and multiplied” (Exod. 1:7), is an allusion to the early chapters of Genesis: “The Hebrew deliberately repeats three verbs used in Genesis 1:21,22 which may be translated ‘were fruitful … swarmed … became numerous.’ This increase was interpreted as God’s promised blessing on His creation. A considerable time had passed since Joseph’s death: at the very shortest reckoning, Moses was the fourth generation after Levi (Nu. 26:58) and he may have been many hundred years later (Ex. 12:40).” Cole, p. 53.
8 In Genesis 46:26-27 the number of the direct descendants of Jacob, minus the wives of his sons, is 66 (v. 26), with the total number who came to Egypt numbered at 70 (v. 27). In the Septuagint (Greek) translation of this text, the number is 75 which agrees with Acts 7:14. There are various possible solutions to this problem. Davis suggests that the explanation is that the count of 75 would include the five grandsons of Joseph. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 44.
“The sons are arranged according to their mothers, as in Genesis 35:23-26, with the sons of the two maidservants appearing last. The number of males that accompanied Jacob is given as 70 in verse 5. This is in agreement with a similar number which appears in Genesis 46:27 and Deuteronomy 10:22; however, the Septuagint reading of this text and Acts 7:14, which is apparently a quotation from the Septuagint text, reads seventy-five souls. … Notice that in Genesis 46:26 the figure of the descendants of Jacob is given as only sixty-six. This is due to the fact that Jacob, Joseph and his two sons were not included in the calculation.” Davis, p. 44.
9 In verse 6 the expression “now … but” seems significant to me. The sons of Israel were indeed blessed on account of Joseph, but even after his death, Israel continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Ultimately it was not Joseph who was the cause of Israel’s blessings, but God.
10 Even in the period of the life of our Lord, there is a great deal of disproportion (time-wise) evident in the gospels. A fair amount of space is devoted to the birth of our Lord, a very little space to His early childhood (Luke 2:39-52), and a great deal of space to the three years of His earthly ministry (with the greatest emphasis given to the last week of His life). We see selectivity everywhere in the Bible, in terms of what periods of time God has chosen to depict.
11 “Assuming that the original group to enter Egypt was at least 140 persons (the number 70 of verse 5 includes males only), the original population would have had to have doubled fourteen times to produce the number who took part in the exodus (about 2,000,000). This apparently reflects special divine blessing and intervention as promised in the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Gen. 12:2; 15:5).” Davis, pp. 47-48.
12 The vast majority of liberal scholars, along with a few conservatives, hold that the exodus took place in the thirteenth century B.C. As a rule conservative scholars hold to an earlier date of the exodus, in the fifteenth century (ca. 1440 B.C.). For a more extensive discussion of the issues from a conservative viewpoint see Davis (pp. 16-33), or Cole (pp. 40-43). There is also an excellent article cited by Davis entitled: “The Time of the Oppression and the Exodus,” by John Rea found in Grace Journal, II, No. 1 (Winter, 1961), pp. 7ff.
14 “Pharaoh is not a personal name, but the equivalent of ‘king of Egypt’ (vv. 8, 15, 17). The Egyptian word … means ‘great house.’ In the third millennium B.C. it designated the royal palace, but by 1800 B.C. it had become an epithet for the king. In the XVIIIth and XIXth dynasties it was a royal title, and by the ninth century it was prefixed to the royal name (e.g. Pharaoh Shishak).” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 58.
19 The term “Egyptians” here may indicate that the period of Hyksos rule has ended, and that the oppression begun by them was continued and even increased by the Egyptian rulers (cf. Rea, p. 8). The general population of Egypt, who had to support such oppression, was the same, even when the government changed hands.
20 There is some discussion as to the precise meaning of the term “Hebrew” here, since it is used in both a narrow and in a broader sense: “The name ‘Hebrew’ is derived from the name ‘Eber’ (the opposite, on the other side; Gen. 10:21, 24; 11:4, 15), and rests, apparently upon a family migration, unknown to us, of the forbearers of Abraham from ‘beyond’ the Jordan … the word ‘Hebrew’ is at first the description of pre-Abrahamic-Semitic family groups. … Only later did the name become the national description of the Old Testament covenant people as a political and ethnic unit, in contrast to other though related peoples. …” Erich Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 111-112.
I personally understand these midwives are Israelites. It would have been only natural for the Israelite women to turn to Israelite midwives for help in child-bearing. Also the term “Hebrew” is repeated in 16 with reference to the Israelite women.
21 “The Hebrew word ‘midwife’ … literally means ‘one who helps to bear.’ The midwife aided at childbirth by taking the newborn child, cutting its umbilical cord, washing the baby with water, salting, and wrapping it (cf. Ezek. 16:4).” Davis, p. 50.
23 I am inclined to see here a less than complete answer to the Pharaoh. I doubt that what was said was untrue, however. What was not said was that the midwives refused to obey the king of Egypt, choosing rather to obey God than men. Such a bold statement may have cost these women their lives.
25 Hyatt, for example, writes, “… the writer apparently does not know his name.” Hyatt, p. 58. This is an even sadder observation when we realize that Hyatt does not even seem to know the name of the author—Moses, and that he thinks Moses didn’t know the name of the Pharaoh even though he grew up in the home of the Pharaoh.
2. The Preservation and Preparation of Israel’s Deliverer (Exodus 2)
A number of years ago, liberal students of the Scriptures determined that their calling was not to interpret the Bible as it was but to “demythologize” it so that the text could be restored to what it should be. The evangelical community was outraged, and rightly so. We believe that the Bible AS IT IS is the revealed Word of God: inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. Deeply committed to these fundamental presuppositions, I have no desire to “demythologize” the text which we are about to study. I do, however, intend to “demythologize” some of our assumptions as to what this text actually says, for many of our views of the events in Exodus 2 are more the product of our own imagination than the result of a careful study of the passage itself, along with the New Testament commentary on its message and meaning.
Few stories in the Bible are more familiar to us than that of Moses who is set afloat in the waters of the Nile and rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. The interesting thing about this incident in Exodus 2 is that Christians today think of this chapter largely in terms of that little papyrus “ark,” while the New Testament writers almost completely pass over this aspect of the event to focus on other matters, which we must conclude are more important. In Acts 7:21 Stephen simply says that Moses “was placed outside.” The writer to the Hebrews passes over the basket episode altogether, choosing to call our attention to the three previous months when the parents of Moses hid him in their house, defying the order of Pharaoh.
As we approach our study, we shall seek to better understand the events of the chapter and then explore the meaning of these events as recorded for our edification and instruction (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, we saw the hand of God providentially working to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This He had done by bringing Joseph to Egypt and by their prospering and growth during the time of Pharaoh’s favor. While Egypt was being reduced to servitude (Gen. 47:20-21), the household of Jacob was prospering (Gen. 47:11-12, 27; Exod. 1:7). The phenomenal numerical growth of Israel continued, even after the rise to power of a new king who established a policy of cruelty and oppression toward the Israelites (Exod. 1:8ff). In Exodus 1 we saw the faith of the Hebrew midwives evidenced in their determination to save the boy babies contrasted with the Pharaoh’s fervent efforts to kill them.
In chapter 2, we find God’s hand at work in the history of Israel, preserving the life of one child who will become Israel’s deliverer. There are three incidents in Moses’ life portrayed in this chapter. First is the birth of Moses and his divinely ordained deliverance (vss. 1-10). The second is Moses’ attempt to deliver some of his Hebrew brethren from the oppression of an Egyptian slave master (vss. 11-15). The third event is his help being offered the daughters of Reuel at the well which led to his marriage and sojourn in Midian (vss. 16-25). In each of these incidents, there is a common thread showing Moses as a deliverer of the oppressed. Let us look at each of the three events in the life of Moses, and seek to discover the message which God has for us in this divinely inspired record of them.
Moses—Out of the Water
The previous chapter ended with the decree of Pharaoh to all of his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). This command is the backdrop for the first 10 verses of chapter 2, where Moses, a newborn Hebrew baby boy, is “thrown into the Nile” in a basket, in token obedience to the Pharaoh, and taken out of the river by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter.
It may seem needless to say, but the account is not only portrayed as history,30 but it is history and not myth. Unfortunately, some “scholars” find themselves unable to accept the biblical account as accurate and authoritative.31
We are told that a particular Hebrew man of the tribe of Levi married a woman who was also of the same tribe (v. 1). Later on, we learn that the man’s name is Amram and the mother’s is Jochebed (Exod. 6:20). The fact that both the man and his wife are of the tribe of Levi is a point which Moses wants us to view as significant.32
To this couple, a child was born. The mother is said to have sensed something special about the child which prompted her to hide him for three months. Verse 2 is rendered several ways by translators: “… he was a fine child” (NIV), “… he was beautiful” (NASB), “… he was exceptionally well-formed” (Berkeley), “… he was a goodly child” (King James). In the New Testament we find the child described thus: “… he was no ordinary child” [margin: “was fair in the sight of God”] (NIV), “… no ordinary child” (Heb. 11:23).
The problem which I have with these translations is that they do not accurately convey the meaning of the original terms, and they do not provide us with an acceptable reason for the actions of Moses’ parents which could thus be considered a commendable act of faith. The two principle explanations of the statement in verse 2 are: (1) that the child was exceedingly well-formed and beautiful; and (2) that the parents somehow perceived that God had a special purpose for this child.
The first suggestion seems to be a takeoff on the old song that goes something like this: “You must have been a beautiful baby …” But dare we conclude that the baby Moses was simply too good looking to throw to the crocodiles? Does this mean that all of the other parents were justified in casting their ugly (and what parent has ever viewed their baby as ugly) babies into the Nile? Surely good looks is not the basis of Moses’ deliverance. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the parents of the child acted on faith which must preclude outward appearances such as good looks. That Moses was simply “a beautiful baby” is not a satisfactory explanation for the action which his parents took.
Other renderings (e.g. “no ordinary child”) suggest that the parents of Moses saw beyond the child’s good looks to something even more special in him. His parents, we are told, believed God had a special purpose for the child. As Gispen puts it,
The mother … saw that he was ‘a fine child’ … that is, attractive, well-formed, but here perhaps also: robust, promising. The mother saw something special in the child (a future savior?). … The Jewish historian Josephus mentions a separate revelation of God to Amram concerning Moses’ future greatness, but it is not necessary to accept this.33
Thus, Moses’ parents would not kill their child because he was special, one for whom God had great plans. But is it commendable to save a child simply because God has certain plans for it? Does not God have a special purpose for every child? If Moses’ parents were motivated by this kind of reasoning, it would seem to justify killing every child for whom greatness was not ordained. Many are the abortions performed with such logic. No, there must be a better explanation.
In Exodus 2:2 the text could simply be rendered, “she saw that he was good.” The Hebrew word rendered “good” is frequently used by Moses in the five books of the Law, and in most it has the sense of goodness which is the result of being made (or given) by God, and/or of being declared good by Him. Thus, the frequent expressions in Genesis 1 and 2, “it was good,” employ the same term. The same sense is suggested by Arndt and Gingrich in their Greek lexicon for the Greek word which refers to the child.34 Stephen’s words, “he was good, to God” (Acts 7:20), points us in this same direction.
I would therefore suggest that Moses is not telling us that God moved his parents to hide him because they were convinced that there was something very special (either in appearance or in purpose) about him as a particular child, but rather that they saw something special about him as a child, period. You see, the biblical perspective is that children come from God (cf. Ps. 127). Every child is the product of divine creation (cf. Ps. 139:13-14), and thus is “good” in the eyes of God. Moses’ parents refused to put their child to death because God had created him, and because this meant that this child (like every other child ever born) was good in God’s eyes.
How far short of this kind of faith and obedience modern day parents come when they choose to abort the child which God has brought into existence and which therefore is good in God’s sight. The abortionist would have us believe that many children are really not “good” at all and should thus be terminated. This is simply a refusal to see children as God sees them. It may be a bit more sophisticated to vacuum a child from its mother’s womb, or to cut it out, but it is no different from throwing the child into the Nile, to be devoured by a crocodile.
Moses’ parents35 feared the God who created their son more than the Pharaoh who wished to kill him. Thus they hid the child in their home for the first three months of his life (Exod. 3:2). Keeping the boy-child from being discovered eventually became impossible.36 The time came when something different had to be done. The result was a feigned obedience to the letter of the Law of Pharaoh.37 Moses was “thrown into the Nile” but in a woven “ark,” which was sealed with tar.38 The sister of Moses39 was tasked to stand at a distance to “see what would happen to the child” (Exod. 2:4).
In the providence of God, Pharaoh’s daughter40 arrived at the banks of the Nile to bathe. She saw the basket, sent one of her maids to fetch it, and discovered a Hebrew baby boy inside. At this point we should remember the order which the Pharaoh, this woman’s father, had given to all of those in his kingdom which would include his daughter: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river …” (Exod. 1:22).
The Pharaoh could sit upon his throne and pass down edicts which caused untold sorrow, suffering, and death without ever being touched by the consequences of his decisions. Now, the Pharaoh’s daughter came face to face with the implications of her father’s policy of genocide. Looking into that basket, she saw a Hebrew baby—there was no mistaking its identity (v. 6). The child was crying, perhaps already having been adversely affected by his period of exposure. Nevertheless, this was a pathetic sight, one that tugged at the compassion and maternal instincts of this woman.
What her father, the Pharaoh, had commanded was not only unthinkable; it was undoable. No doubt she was pondering what she would do with the child when Moses’ sister arrived with the solution. How gracious of God to give this child back to his parents for a time and even to pay the mother wages for keeping him. This must have given a year or two, or more,41 during which they enjoyed their son with the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter. Depending on the age of Moses and the amount of ongoing contact his parents had with him, they must have had some opportunity to instruct him in the ways of the Lord.42 Let us not forget, however, that God’s plan for the education of Moses included years of instruction at the feet of pagan Egyptians, too (cf. Acts 7:22), which greatly facilitated his future leadership.
When Moses was weaned, he was taken into the household of Pharaoh, where he became her son. She named the boy Moses,43 a name rooted in the event of her finding him as a baby at which time she “drew him out” of the Nile.
The deliverance of Moses is significant in several ways. First, his deliverance is a beautiful illustration of the truth which we find declared most clearly in the New Testament: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory …” (Eph. 3:20-21a).
God gave the parents of Moses more than they ever thought possible. Not only was their son spared and now protected by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter’s love, but they were allowed to keep him for a time, train him in the ways of their God, and then, in addition to all these blessings, they were paid for it. What a rebuke to our unbelief! What a challenge to the limits of our faith! What a gracious God we serve!
The second observation which must be made is that the placing of Moses in the river is not the high point of faith in the lives of his parents. Most often this text has been interpreted romantically rather than realistically. We readily choose to believe that the “putting out” (exposing to die) of Moses by his parents was an act of faith, but a little bit of thought raises some serious questions. Why was the baby put “among the reeds” of the Nile? I believe that the reason was to hide the baby from sight. If the parents had cast their son into the Nile, surely no other Hebrew family would want to run the risk of saving the child. Any Egyptian who encountered the child would have been inclined to throw the child into the river, either out of personal prejudice and animosity, or at least out of a fear of disobeying the Pharaoh’s command.
I personally believe that Moses’ sister gasped when she saw the Pharaoh’s daughter spot the basket in the reeds and commanded her servants to bring the basket to her. Of all the people in Egypt, who would you least want to find that baby than a member of the Pharaoh’s household? My concerns are not a matter of mere conjecture, however, for the New Testament commentary confirms what I have suggested. I urge you to think through the biblical commentary on this event before you reject what I am about to suggest.
The writer to the Hebrews chose to cite the hiding of Moses for the first three months of his life as an evidence of his parents’ faith, but virtually ignored the incident of the tar-covered ark in which Moses was put in the Nile: “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Heb. 11:23). Accepting these verses as divinely inspired and authoritative, I came to the conclusion that the act of Moses’ parents in hiding him for three months was a matter of greater faith than their act of putting him in the basket in the Nile.
But this does not go far enough when we take into account the words of Stephen:
“Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son” (Acts 7:18-21, NIV, emphasis mine).
Stephen, like the writer to the Hebrews, refers to the three month period when Moses was hidden in the house of his parents. Unlike Hebrews, Stephen does obliquely refer to the placing of the ark in the Nile but in such a way as to suggest a very distressing thought: this was more an act of unbelief than it was an act of faith.44 The translation of the NIV blunts Stephen’s point by translating the same Greek term by two different words (“throw out,” v. 19; “placed outside,” v. 21). The NASB brings the force of Stephen’s words home much more literally and precisely by rendering the same term “expose” in both verses. The point, disturbing as it may be, is this: Just as Pharaoh commanded that Hebrew boy babies be “put out to die,” Moses’ was “put out to die” by his parents.
No wonder the writer to the Hebrews chose not to include the placing of Moses in the River Nile as an example of Old Testament faith, which we should strive to imitate. Moses’ parents were at first unwilling to put their child to death, hiding him at home in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. But, when this seemed impossible, they weakened to the point where they were willing to put their child in the Nile, in partial obedience to Pharaoh’s order. They were unwilling to put their child to death and thus put him in that woven basket. In their hearts, I believe that there was some hope that something might happen to save their child’s life, but mostly there was the fear that he would die (to which Stephen refers).45 The writer to the Hebrews thus rightly passes over this occasion, for it is not a model of biblical faith.
Third, described in these verses is not just “the deliverance of the deliverer,” but the deliverance of the Hebrew boy babies for drowning in the Nile. Not only did God deliver Moses, but through his deliverance it appears that the Pharaoh’s policy of genocide was set aside. Pharaoh had decreed that every boy baby born to an Israelite was to be cast into the Nile, but Pharaoh’s own daughter defied this order, thereby making it virtually impossible for the Pharaoh to enforce his own decree.
Think about it for a moment. Pharaoh’s daughter refused to abide by her father’s orders by taking Moses out of the water, and then she takes a Hebrew child home with her as her son. Now, in the palace of the Pharaoh whose orders were, “Throw them in the water!”, there is a Hebrew boy whose name means “Taken from the water.” There is, in my mind, no way that Pharaoh could have enforced his decree when his own daughter disobeyed it when living testimony of this disobedience (namely Moses) lived in the palace of Pharaoh, under his protection. Once again, Pharaoh’s efforts to destroy the people of God are turned inside-out, resulting in the fulfillment of His promises concerning the blessing of His people, Israel.
Once again, God has providentially preserved and prospered His people. Moses has been spared, and so have the other Israelite boy babies; now there is a Hebrew living in the palace, part of the royal family.
Moses—In Hot Water
Verse 11 passes over nearly 40 years (cf. Acts 7:23), taking up the story of Moses as an adult. Preceding the events of verses 11 and following is, I believe, a decision which is made by Moses described in the Book of Hebrews:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward (Heb. 11:24-26).46
This seems to mean that Moses had already made the critical decision to identify with his people, before he went out to observe the affliction of his brethren.47 Hebrews informs us that the reason Moses visited his brethren was due to his decision to identify with them and even to suffer with them. Thus, Moses did not lose his status as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter by the killing; he gave that up before the killing.48 Moses’ visit to his brethren backfired, in one sense, but it was used providentially to prepare him for his future calling.
We dare not seek to defend Moses in the murder of the Egyptian, no matter how cruel he may have been. Moses’ act was in defiance of the authority of Egypt, and it was premeditated murder (“he looked this way and that,” v. 12). While Moses’ method of dealing with this problem was wrong, we can see that his motivation was commendable. Moses sought to defend the oppressed. When he sought to rebuke his Hebrew brother for wrongly mistreating another Hebrew (v. 13), Moses revealed, once again, the disposition of a deliverer. As Stephen’s message highlighted, the rejection of Moses’ leadership by this Israelite typified Israel’s hardness of heart and rebellion against God (cf. Acts 7:23-29).
Moses’ motivation was right, but his methods and his timing were altogether wrong. What seemed to start out with a bang (the deliverance of Moses and his rearing in the palace), appears to have ended with a whimper. Instead of rising to power and delivering his people, Moses ran for his life, away from his people, to the land of Midian.49
Fleeing to the land of Midian, Moses ended up at a well, to which the daughters of Reuel,50 a Midianite,51 had come to water their father’s flocks. At this well, the character of Moses as a deliverer of the oppressed is once again manifested.52
What took place on this particular day was typical, not unusual.53 The seven daughters of Reuel arrived at the well, where they apparently waited in line for the well to be opened (cf. Gen. 29:2-3). It would seem that these women arrived earlier than the other shepherds who came later, knowing they could “bully” their way ahead of the women who would end up watering their flocks last. Moses did not like what he saw at all. One way or the other, Moses enforced the policy of “ladies first.” The oppressed were once again “delivered.” Moses could not look the other way, even when advantage was being taken of strangers.
Noting their early arrival, Reuel asked his daughters what had happened. When they had told him the story of their rescue, Reuel gently chastised his daughters for not extending the hospitality of a meal to this stranger who to them was an “Egyptian.” No doubt his speech and dress led to this conclusion. Regardless of his nationality, he should have been extended hospitality, especially due to his kindness.
With great economy of words, Moses briefly records that this “chance encounter” led to a lengthy stay in Midian, his marriage to Zipporah,54 and the birth of a son, Gershom. What is significant is the naming of his son. Moses named the child Gershom55 because, he said, “I have become an alien in a foreign land” (v. 22).
This statement is very significant in describing Moses’ state of mind at this point in time. In Midian, a land closer to Canaan than Egypt, Moses thought of himself as an alien and a sojourner. He still thought of his homeland as Egypt, not Canaan. I personally see this as an indication of a rather low point in the spiritual state of Moses. He has fled from Egypt to Midian. He has married a non-Israelite (technically, at least, although Zipporah was certainly more closely related than an Egyptian woman would have been). From Moses’ point of view, Egypt, his homeland, is far away. One can hardly think of this time as that of great faith or purpose in Moses’ life. This becomes even more evident when God’s call of Moses is described in chapters 3 and 4. The great faith and commitment to the people of God with which verse 11 began has somehow eroded into something far less.
If one were reading this account for the first time, without any knowledge of what was ahead, one would have a great sense of letdown here. Israel’s future seemed dim, threatened by Pharaoh’s oppressive measures, and now the command to kill every Israelite baby boy. Moses is providentially delivered and becomes the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but this status is renounced, and when Moses sought to deliver his brother, he simply got himself into trouble. Moses fled the country, married into a Midianite family, and seemed to fade out of the picture entirely. We expect Moses’ life to end in obscurity.
In spite of all these appearances, God is very much at work as is stated in the final verses of the chapter:
During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them (Exod. 2:23-25).
To me, this final paragraph reads like the expression, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch …” The point of it is to remind us that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, God is very much at work. Humanly speaking, it looks as though everything is working against Israel, but this paragraph reminds us that God is very much informed, involved, and intent upon fulfilling His purposes and promises with respect to Israel. On the one hand, God is aware of Israel’s affliction,56 and He has heard their cries for help. On the other hand, God is mindful of His covenant with Abraham, which is also with his offspring (Isaac and Jacob, and the twelve resulting tribes). No matter how bad things may appear to be, God’s purposes are being realized. This section ties together the agony of God’s people in Egypt (described in chapter 1, but overshadowed by the personal account of Moses in chapter 2) with the deliverance about to take place in the following chapters.
This portion reminds us that God’s intervention into Israel’s history is due to God’s compassion and His faithfulness to His covenant. It also hints to the fact that God’s salvation is not the result of Israel’s faithfulness but rather is in spite of her spiritual state. The text here does not speak of Israel’s praises, but only of her groanings. While these groanings must have been expressed in prayer (cf. Deut. 26:7), God responded to them as a cry for His intervention. But lest we have an exaggerated view of Israel’s spirituality at this point in time, allow me to remind you of their idolatry and false worship while in Egypt which had to be dealt with later: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14; cf. Ezek. 20:5-10; 23:2ff.).
As we conclude this lesson, there are several truths underscored in our text which I would like to highlight.
(1) The fallibility of men and women of faith. We can easily acknowledge the fallibility of men in general, especially those who do not know or serve God. Thus, for example, we are not at all surprised by the cruelty of the Pharaoh or of the Egyptian taskmasters. But having acknowledged the depravity of man in general, I want to point out to you the fallibility of the faithful. Remember that both Moses and his parents are listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, and yet both Moses and his parents failed, in spite of their faith.
Moses’ parents began well, refusing to obey the command of Pharaoh to kill their baby boy. This was obviously an act of great faith, one that is commended in the Scriptures. But after hiding their son for three months, they were willing to concede to the point of placing their son in a woven basket and risking (at the least) his death. I do not think that this incident, no matter how much we have glorified it, is one that Amran and Jochebed will want to remember as one of the high points of their faith. And so we see the fallibility of this couple who were noted for their faith.
Moses failed as well. He started very well when he determined to divest himself of the privileges and power of being known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He did very well in seeking to identify with the suffering of his brethren. But what began well quickly fell apart (or so it would seem). He failed badly in trying to deliver his brethren from Egyptian oppression, murdering the offender and thus resorting to violence and cruelty himself. Standing up to Pharaoh at first soon deteriorated to fleeing from Pharaoh because of the slaying of the Egyptian. And, finally, we find Moses in a “foreign land” married to a “foreign wife” and seemingly forever derailed as far as his original commitments are concerned.
The people of God are not faring so well either. There have been great “flashes of faith” in Israel’s past, but now all that we see is suffering and oppression, and all that we hear is groaning. Far from trusting in God and serving Him only, they are engaged in idolatry and false worship.
The point of this account, when all of the erroneous romantic sentimentalism is stripped away, is that men are fallible, even men and women of faith. This should surely serve to humble us, for it reminds us that no matter how “high” we may be spiritually at a given point in time, there are likely to be “lows” as well. This we should see from the Hebrew midwives (chap. 1) and from Moses and his parents (chap. 2). Our Christian growth and development, like that of Israel as a nation, has its ups and downs, its highs and lows. If we think otherwise we do not know human nature very well, and we read the Scriptures romantically rather than realistically.
Knowing the fallibility, even of the faithful, should help us to weather the storms of life and the failures of others, as well as ourselves. God has not chosen to save perfect people (after all, such people don’t really need saving—if there were such people), but He has chosen to perfect imperfect people, over time, and ultimately in eternity. We should not excuse the failures of ourselves or others, but we should not be surprised when people of faith fail. We often suffer from very unrealistic expectations, both of ourselves and of others. The Bible consistently describes the saints as fallible people.
(2) The Grace of God. This chapter in Exodus, like all of the Scriptures, is oozing with the grace of God. God saved Moses in spite of the lapse in the faith of his parents, and in spite of the determined opposition of the Pharaoh. God continued to work in the life of Moses, preserving his life and preparing him for his future role as deliverer, even when Moses miserably failed at his own efforts to deliver his people. Israel was graciously heard and delivered, in spite of her disobedience, because of the grace of the God who called her and who promised to bring her into the land of Canaan. God’s hand is evident throughout this chapter, and it is always at work due to His grace, not due to the faithfulness and perfect obedience of men. The fallibility of men, even men and women of faith, is the occasion for grace, and so while men persist in failing, God persists in preserving and in delivering His people. When we are overcome by our own fallibility, let us remember that our standing before God, our salvation, our sanctification, our service is all a matter of His grace, not our goodness.
(3) The Providence of God. The grace of God is often worked out in the lives of men through the providence of God. God’s providence is His work that is often unseen or undetected by men at the time of its outworking. God’s providence is God’s purpose being worked out in ways that we would never have expected and through people whom we would not have chosen to use. Often this may be through disobedient people, such as Jonah, or through unbelievers, such as Pharaoh or his daughter. The providence of God is that unseen work of God which moves men and history toward the goal which God has foreordained, and which He has purposed and promised.
Think through the events of this chapter in Exodus, using the grid of providence. Pharaoh’s decree that every boy baby should be cast into the Nile endangered the life of Moses and all the Hebrew boy babies, but it resulted in the preservation of Moses and all boy babies, and in the preparation of Moses for his role as Israel’s deliverer. Pharaoh’s daughter, who was probably the most unwanted “finder” of the basket, turned out to be the one who could most effectively be used of God to further His purposes for Moses and for Israel. Even the slaying of the Egyptian, Moses’ flight to Midian, his “chance encounter” at the well and his marriage to Zipporah were all of a part of God’s providential workings.
Every detail of your life, every incident, every failure, is employed by God providentially to further His purposes. While this should in no way make us lax in our desire to know God’s will and to be obedient to Him, it should serve to assure us that even when we fail, He does not. Even our failures (which will have painful consequences to us) are a part of God’s providential working in our lives. Thus, Joseph could forgive his brothers and praise God for the time when they sold him into slavery, for he knew that what they intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20).
The real issue is this: are you identified with God and with His purposes, or have you set yourself against Him? Moses, his parents, and all of the other fallible saints were ultimately blessed of God because they looked to Him in faith to fulfill His promises. Pharaoh and all of disobedient Egypt were providentially used of God but were destroyed because they did not trust in Him. May the truths of your fallibility, of God’s grace and of His providential dealing be of comfort to you because you have placed your faith in Him, trusting in Him alone for the forgiveness of your sins and for eternal salvation. If you have not yet placed your faith in Him, and trusted Him alone for the forgiveness of your sin, may today be the day of your salvation.
31 Note some of the comments made by Hyatt: “This narrative is a legend and should be read as such, not as history. Similar stories were widespread in the ancient world with the principals sometimes being gods, sometimes human beings, and sometimes both” (p. 62). “The story here involves belief that a special providence watches over the child from his birth, although the Deity is not mentioned in it” (p. 62). “The legend represents the Egyptian princess as knowing Hebrew!” (p. 65).
Hyatt’s last statement is, perhaps, the most telling. It is one thing for a liberal scholar to view the Bible stories as myth, like that of the pagans; it is another to scoff at what is said, as though it were ridiculous. What is so incredible about believing that Pharaoh’s daughter might know some Hebrew. Remember, she may well have had Hebrew slave girls as some of her servants (cf. Exod. 2:5). With so many Hebrew people in the land of Egypt, it would have been very likely for this woman to have known a few words. I have friends who once lived on the border between Mexico and the United States. Since this woman had Mexican servants, she determined to learn Spanish, at which she became quite fluent.
32 “Levi had no priestly associations in the early days, as can be seen from Genesis 49:5-7 where, with Simeon, he comes under his father’s curse for a bloodthirsty attack on Shechem (Gn. 34). The curse will be fulfilled: but in the case of Levi it will be turned into blessing, for Levi will be ‘scattered’ as the priestly tribe (Nu. 35:7,8).” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 56.
33 W. H. Gispen, Exodus (trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 39. F. B. Meyer also seems to combine the idea of an unusual beauty and a special calling when he writes, “Something in the babe’s lovely countenance appeared to the mother’s eye as the halo of special Divine affection. A voice whispered to her heart that her child was specially dear to God. Was not its smile the result of the Divine embrace? And did not those limpid eyes look into the face of the Angel of the Covenant? She was, therefore, encouraged to brave the royal edicts, and screen the little taper from the gale of destruction that was sweeping through the land.” F. B. Meyer, Devotional Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications [reprint], 1978), p. 25.
34 While Arndt and Gingrich mention that the Greek word may have the meaning “beautiful, well formed,” they seem to favor the rendering, “acceptable, well-pleasing,” which much more accurately conveys the sense of its Hebrew counterpart. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 117.
35 I am choosing here to speak in terms of both parents, rather than just of his mother. That both parents were involved is evident from the statement of the writer to the Hebrews (“By faith, Moses’ parents hid him,” Heb. 11:23). Stephen emphasized this fact as well in Acts 7:20, where he indicates that Moses was nurtured in “his father’s house.”
36 Most commentators make much of the fact that the child’s crying would be heard at the age of three months. Frankly, I have heard a younger child make just as much noise. Furthermore, it was not wrong to have a baby girl, only a baby boy. I cannot help but wonder if she did something like put Moses in pink dresses, with cute little bows in his hair, or whatever, to conceal his sex, not his existence. Sooner or later, however, the diapers would come off and the truth would be known. Another factor may have been involved which relates to the “three month” crisis. The Israelite men and women were oppressed and cruelly forced to labor. Is it possible that mothers were given a three month “leave” from work, until their babies were old enough to be given to others to care for? If so, one can understand the problem which suddenly occurred at three months. These conjectures at least expand the possibilities as to what might have occurred, and caution us about too quickly accepting any one explanation.
38 The word for “ark” here is found elsewhere in the Old Testament only in Genesis 6 and 7, with reference to Noah’s “ark.” The “tar” with which the ark was coated is the same as that mentioned in Genesis 11:3.
39 The “sister” of Moses appears to be Miriam (Exod. 15:20; Num. 12; 20:1), but she is not named. Some have suggested that since the appearance is that this is the first child of the couple, the brother and sister may have been of a previous or other wife (cf. Cole, p. 57, who mentions this option, but does not favor it).
40 “The identity of this daughter of Pharaoh is subject to speculation. If Thutmose I were the Pharaoh of 1:22 then his daughter, the famous queen Hatshepsut who later assumed kingship, may have been this daughter. This view has been suggested by a number of writers. While this view is entirely possible, it is equally possible that Moses was reared in one of the royal harems which were common to the New Kingdom period.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 52.
The best brief description of Hatshepsut is to be found in Gispen, who writes that Hatshepsut was: “…one of the most remarkable women in the history of Egypt, and indeed of the world. She was the daughter of Thutmose I (1539-1514 B. C.) who I believe to the king who issued the order that all boys be drowned. … Hatshepsut was her father’s favorite and after his death became very influential under her weak husband Thutmose II (1514-1501 B.C.), even to the extent that her brother (or stepson?) Thutmose III (1501-1447 B.C.) had no say at all during her lifetime, no matter how famous he later became … She ruled Egypt from 1501-1479 B.C. Monuments of Hatshepsut still exist, although Thutmose III later tried to eradicate her name. She ruled in peace, built temples, and sponsored expeditions; her grave has been found. When Moses was born she was still only ‘Pharaoh’s daughter,’ yet she had sufficient influence to be able to keep Moses alive.” Gispen, p. 40.
I once imagined the scene in the palace to be something like this, when Pharaoh’s daughter appeared with the boy and the basket: The Pharaoh sternly ordered his daughter to take the boy back to the river and throw him in, just as he had decreed to the entire nation. Copious amounts of tears began to well up and flow from the big brown Egyptian eyes of his daughter. “But, Daddy,” she pleaded, “can’t I keep him?” In fatherly fashion, the Pharaoh melts at the sight of his daughter’s tears.
Having read the account of Hatshepsut, a totally different scenario came to mind. Resolutely, the Pharaoh’s daughter marched into the palace, announcing her decision to keep the child, daring her father to try to harm him, defying his order to kill the boy and demanding that this order be retracted—immediately! Ah, the providence of God—how sweet it can be.
41 “After the child grew, which is interpreted by some to mean the weaning period of about two or three years, or perhaps as much as twelve years, he was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter to receive the full training as one who was a member of the royal household.” (Davis, p. 54).
43 There is a fair bit of discussion in the commentaries as to who named Moses (his mother, or Pharaoh’s daughter), and the derivation of the name. I don’t such speculation is that of great value. The significance of Moses’ name is given in the text itself. There is clear irony here, since the Pharaoh gave the order to “throw Hebrew boy babies in Nile” and yet the name Moses means to “draw out”. The Pharaoh’s decree: “throw out”; Pharaoh’s daughter’s declaration of the name of her son: “draw out.” Cf. Davis, pp. 54, 55 for a summary of the various views of the naming of Moses.
44 This is contrary to the views of most commentators, as exemplified in this statement: “And now we see the confidence of his mother’s faith. She waterproofed a basket, made of the sticky papyrus found along the Nile, with tar (a bitumen imported in Egypt from Palestine) and pitch.” Gispen, p. 39.
45 I believe that we make too much out of Moses’ sister’s watching to “see what would happen” to the child, assuming that she was looking expectantly for their plan (to save the child) to work. I suspect that while this was a genuine hope, she was tasked to watch the child and to report, if necessary, its death to the parents. The child would not be allowed to perish alone. I do not rule out the fact that there was some hope, some faith, but I do believe that there was also much fear, and gloomy expectations. The faith of Moses’ parents at this stage has thus been greatly exaggerated. A bold faith at such a time, of course, is what we would prefer to believe.
46 I understand Hebrews 11:27 to be referring to Moses’ exodus from Egypt with the people of God, rather than his “escape” from Egypt, described in Exodus 2:15. I cannot imagine the writer to the Hebrews describing a flight based upon the fear of Pharaoh as a departure motivated by faith, not fear. In Hebrews 11:29, the writer then takes up the faith of the entire nation as they passed through the Red Sea.
47 “This phrase means more than ‘to see.’ It means ‘to see with emotion,’ either satisfaction (Gn. 9:16) or, as here, with distress (Gn. 21:16). Moses is one who shares God’s heart. God too has seen what the Egyptians are doing to the Israelites, and He will come to deliver (Ex. 3:7,8). It was not Moses’ impulse to save Israel that was wrong, but the action that he took.” Cole, p. 59.
48 There are three reasons why I find it necessary for Moses’ decision, as described in Hebrews, to be made prior to the events of Exodus 2:11ff.: (1) Only at this point is this a great act of faith, worthy of mention in Hebrews 11. One can hardly commend Moses for fleeing for his life later on. (2) To make this decison before verse 11 explains Moses’ visit to see the affliction of his brethren. Having chosen to identify with his brethren, he went to see them. (3) The rejection of Moses’ authority by his Hebrew brother in verse 14 would be explained best by Moses decison at the time I have suggested. If Moses had previously set aside his power and privileges, it is easy to understand why the Hebrew failed to accept his authority. If Moses still had the status of “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” no one would dare to challenge his right to interfere, as this man had.
49 Midian “… is usually located on the east shore of the Gulf of Aqabah, to the south of Palestine. This is where Ptolemy, geographer of the second century A.D., and later Arab geographers located Madiana or Madyan. However, the OT represents the Midianites as nomads who ranged over a wide territory to the south and east of Palestine; therefore we should not seek to locate them precisely to a specific territory. According to Gen. 25:2, Midian was a son of Keturah, wife of Abraham; verse 6 says that Abraham sent her sons away ‘eastward to the east country.’” Hyatt, p. 66.
50 “The … Midianites were descendants of Abraham by Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2) and may have remained to some extent worshippers of the true God. The man with whom he stayed (Reuel) may have been a priest of the true God (cf. 18:12-23). The identity of this “priest of Midian” is referred to a number of ways in Scripture. In verse 18 he is named Reuel (cf. Num. 10:20). Later he is given the name Jethro (3:1; 18:1), and Raguel (Num. 10:29). At one place he is identified as a Midianite (Exod. 18:1). Later, however, he is associated with the Kenites (Judg. 1:16).” Davis, p. 57.
51 “In 3:1 and chapter 18 he is called ‘Jethro the priest of Midian,’ and in 4:18 ‘Jether’ (some Hebrew MSS. have Jethro). In Num. 10:29 he is ‘Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite.’ In Jg. 4:11 he is ‘Hobab,’ one of the Kenites; and in Jg. 1:16 he is called simply ‘the Kenite,’ with some MSS. of the LXX inserting the name ‘Hobab.’” Hyatt, p. 67.
“All this means either that several variant traditions survived as to the identity of Moses’ father-in-law, or that he had at least two names. There is of course no problem in supposing him to have two (or more) names, since double names are known from South Arabic sources. In such cases the biblical editor sometimes specifies both names together, as in ‘Jerubabbaal (that is, Gedeon)’ (Judg. 7:1): but sometimes both are used independently within a few verses (Judg. 8:29f.).” Cole, p. 61.
52 In Genesis before, and now in Exodus, the “well” serves as an occasion to portray the character of the one who has come to it. Cf. Gen. 24:10-21; 26:17ff.; 29:1-20. To pursue this further, I recommend Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 47-62.
53 Reuel asked his daughters, “Why have you returned so early today?” (v. 18, emphasis mine). This suggests that they arrived late every day, and for the same reasons—the bullies made them water their flocks first.
“We might translate as ‘warbler’ or, less kindly, ‘twitterer’; it is the name of a small bird.” Cole, p. 61.
55 “The name contains a pun by assonance, for it is translated as though it were the Hebrew ger sam, ‘a resident alien there.’ Philologically, it is probably an old noun meaning ‘expulsion,’ from the verb garas; the general sense is thus much the same. As often in the Old Testament, the remark is rather a commentary on the meaning of the name rather than an exact translation (cf. Exod. 2:10).” Cole, pp. 61-62.
56 It may be noteworthy that the same term is used here (rendered “looked on,” v. 25, NIV) as was employed in verse 11 (2 times, rendered “watched” and “saw”). The comment in footnote 18 thus applies here, too. Moses’ heart was a reflection of the heart of God, when he looked with compassion and pity on the afflicted.
3. The Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-15)
In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, we learned of the cruel oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians. God’s blessings of the Israelites caused the Egyptians to fear them and to attempt to insure their control over them. This began with enslavement and harsh treatment. When this failed, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew handmaids to kill all the Israelite boy babies at birth. This also failed to accomplish the goal of annihilating the Israelites as a race. The first chapter ends with the order of Pharaoh to the entire Egyptian population that they must throw the Hebrew boy babies into the Nile.
Chapter 2 focuses on one Hebrew boy baby, Moses, who is destined to become the deliverer of the nation. The parents of this child hide him for three months, refusing to obey Pharaoh’s order. Eventually they concede to partially obey, “casting Moses into the Nile” in a woven ark. What could well have been the death of Moses became his deliverance, as he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and eventually taken into the palace to be raised as her son. There came a time, however, when Moses decided to identify himself with his own people, and thus he refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. This identification of Moses with his people led to his visiting the Israelites and the killing of an Egyptian. Hence, we are told of Moses’ flight to Midian to escape Pharaoh’s attempts to kill him once again. A “chance” meeting with a Midianite priest, who was a distant relative, led to Moses’ settling down, marrying, and having children.57 From all that we are told, we would hardly expect to see Moses back in Egypt again, and certainly not as God’s deliverer.
Chapter 3 introduces a significant change in the drama of the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. From God’s providential dealings in the life of the nation Israel, we move to God’s direct intervention through Moses and the miracles performed by Him. We move from the silence of God over the past 400 years to God’s speaking directly to Moses from the bush, and later on, from the same mountain.
Chapter 3 then is a very significant point of transition.58 It begins with the revelation of God to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. It develops with the commissioning of Moses to go back to Egypt and the Pharaoh and to deliver God’s people from their oppression and bondage. It ends with the beginnings of Moses’ reticence and resistance toward the task which God has given him.
In this message we will focus on the revelation of God to Moses, which, I believe, is the basis for all that is to follow. It is the basis for Moses’ obedience, as well as for the entire nation. It is also the basis for all of God’s actions with regard to Egypt and to His people. In many ways, the incident of the burning bush is critical to our understanding of God.
The message will be structured so that we first consider the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush (vss. 1-6), and then the revelation of God to Moses as He spoke to him (vss. 7-15). We shall next turn our attention to those Old and New Testament texts which refer to this incident and guide us in its interpretation. Finally, we shall seek to find the application of this text to our own lives. Let us listen carefully to the voice of God as He speaks to us in these verses.
The Burning Bush
The day started out like any other. The leather-skinned shepherd expected nothing out of the ordinary, though he no doubt wished for something different to break the monotony of tending sheep. After forty years of sheep tending (cf. Acts 7:30) Moses’ life had become all too predictable. He knew all the grazing places and had the exact location of every water hole within many miles etched in his mind. An occasional viper or wild beast offered the only excitement. In the solitude of the wilderness, Moses perhaps talked to himself and even to his sheep. Little did he know that today would be the beginning of a new chapter in his life. The burning bush of Exodus 3 was one of those life-altering events which happens but a few times in a person’s life.
This chapter is more than just the account of a life-changing incident in the life of one man; however, it is a crucial turning point in the history of the nation Israel. The burning bush marks the beginning of God’s direct intervention into the affairs of history. It is the basis for the call of Moses to return to Egypt as Israel’s deliverer. It is the beginning of the end of Egyptian oppression.
The burning bush made not only a profound impact upon Moses and the nation Israel, but it also continued to serve as one of those key events in history—the significance of which was not lost on Israel in the generations which followed. This passage of Scripture is one that must have been well known to the Jews of Jesus’ day. The account of the “burning bush” was so central to the thinking of the gospel writers, Mark and Luke, that they (perhaps like most men in their day) came to call this section of Scripture “the bush” portion (Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37).
Looking for richer pasture, Moses led his father-in-law’s flock to the west or back side of the wilderness, to Mt. Horeb (his father-in-law is now referred to as “Jethro,” which seems to mean “excellence” or “superiority”—could Moses have made him a rich man by now?).59 Little did he know that here he was going to come face to face with God. I think of Moses tending his sheep here as something like Peter going fishing (John 21:2ff.), thinking that the past was over and that life had settled into a routine.
In the distance, something caught the keen eye of Moses and snapped him out of his thoughts. Something was burning in the distance. A more careful look proved it to be a bush. In and of itself, this would hardly be the cause of much excitement or interest, but as time passed the bush seemed unaffected by the flames. It burned, but did not burn up. Since there was no real hurry and the sight of the bush had aroused Moses’ curiosity, he set out to have a closer look.
What Moses did not yet know was that while the bush was apparently a typical common desert bush, the “fire” was far from ordinary. The closer he got to the bush, the more incredible the scene became. Moses surely had to wonder about this phenomenon. He would have probably been amused at the explanations offered for the burning bush over the years. These “explanations” are even more incredible than that of the Bible. Not wanting to acknowledge a full-fledged miracle here, a number of “natural” explanations have been given. Here are some of the ones I have come across in my study:
(1) “St. Elmo’s fire.” This is a discharge of electricity which causes a kind of glow.60
(2) “… firebrands or reflexes of light, which must often have occurred in dry lands with an abundance of storms.”61
(3) A volcanic phenomenon.62
(4) A myth, based on ancient accounts of burning objects which were not consumed.63
(5) “… a flake of gypsum blown against a twig may have set a bush alight.”64
(6) A beam of sunlight, piercing through a crack in the mountain.65
(7) A purely psychological experience.66
(8) A gas plant, which burst into flames.67
(9) The brilliant blossoms of mistletoe twigs.68
The God of the Burning Bush
Such explanations as we have seen above are not only unacceptable, they are also unnecessary. We are told by none other than the author himself (remember, Moses is the author of this book) that the “angel of the Lord” (cf. Gen. 16:7; 22:11; Judg. 6:11; 13:3), the preincarnate manifestation of the second Person of the Godhead,69 was manifested in the burning bush. Verses 4-15 contain a description of the God of the burning bush. Verses 16-22 contain specific instructions concerning the task which God has for Moses, along with God’s brief summary of what is going to take place in the rescue of the nation Israel from their bondage in Egypt. In this lesson we must limit our study to the first half of chapter 3. In our next message we shall deal with the remainder of chapter 3 and with all of chapter 4.
The first half of chapter 3 describes the character of the God who is calling and commissioning Moses. This is the basis for Moses’ faith and obedience. There are several dimensions to the description of the God of the burning bush which we will briefly consider. These will give us some mental hooks with which to remember the message of this passage.
The God of the burning bush is a holy God. At first, the burning bush was but a curiosity, something novel to which Moses was drawn. Now, the bush (or rather, God, who was manifested in the flames encompassing the bush) was an object of fear and reverence. This occurred when God twice called Moses by name, to which he answered, “Here I am.”70 Then God warned Moses not to come any closer and instructed him to take off his sandals because the ground on which he stood was “holy” (v. 5).71 Moses hid his face, knowing that looking at God could cost him his life (cf. Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:20; Judg. 6:22-23; 13:21-22). I doubt that Moses stooped to loosen his sandals. Like others who have beheld the glory of the living God, he may have fallen to the ground, prostrate. The flames which encompassed (but did not consume) the bush, along with the warning issued by the Lord from within the flames, emphatically impressed Moses with the holiness of the One who was manifesting Himself. Moses was deeply impressed with the holiness of his God.
The relationship between God’s holiness and the exodus may not be immediately evident. At the time the Law is given on Mt. Sinai, God’s holiness is the basis for Israel’s conduct, which the Law prescribed. But the holiness of God is a significant factor in the exodus. The sins of the Egyptians must be dealt with. In addition, the possession of the land of Canaan by the Israelites (Exod. 3:8,17) is a judgment on these peoples for their abominations in the sight of God (cf. Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-28).
The God of the burning bush is the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In verse 6, God identified Himself to Moses in this way: “I am the God of your father,72 the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6).
The God in the burning bush is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of the patriarchs, Israel’s God. He is the God who made a covenant with Abraham and reiterated it to Isaac and Jacob. It is not a new and different God who is here made known to Moses,73 but the God of his forefathers, the God of Israel. There is no new plan, but simply the outworking of the old plan, revealed to Abraham in Genesis 15:
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” … On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kennizites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites,74 Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:12b-16, 18-21).
The God of the burning bush is a compassionate God. God’s intention to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage is not only motivated by His holiness, or by His covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs—God’s deliverance of His people is also based upon His compassion for them in the midst of their affliction:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7-8a).
The God of the burning bush is an imminent God. For 400 years, God appeared to be distant and removed as far as the Israelites must have thought. They would probably have thought of God as more transcendent (distant, removed, uninvolved in the world), rather than imminent (directly concerned with and involved in the affairs of men). This was not the case, for we have seen God’s hidden hand working providentially to preserve His people and to prepare for their release (Exod. 1 and 2). Lest Moses not appreciate the involvement of God in the lives of His people, God emphasizes that He is taking a personal interest in the release of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. … So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing75 with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7a, 8a).
The God of the burning bush is a God who commissions people to participate in His purposes. While God is going to be directly involved in the deliverance of His people, He will do so through human instruments. Specifically, God has manifested Himself to Moses because He intends to manifest Himself through Moses. God’s first words to Moses were, “Moses, Moses” (v. 4). Although God indicated His personal involvement in the exodus (“I have come down to rescue them,” (v. 8), it is Moses through whom these things will be accomplished. Thus, we find Moses commissioned by God to return to Egypt, to confront Pharaoh, and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.76
Some of the richest revelation concerning the character of God is found in verses 11-15, where God responds to two questions raised by Moses.77 In essence, these questions can be summarized: (1) “Who am I?” (v. 11), and (2) “Who are You?” (v. 13). God’s response to these questions serves to clarify His character even further. Verses 14 and 15 are two of the most crucial verses in the Old Testament, for they contain one of the central truths concerning the nature and character of God.
The first question, “Who am I?,” is one that is easy to understand. Forty years before, Moses had made a very critical decision concerning his identity. He had determined that he was an Israelite, and thus could not be known any longer as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (cf. Heb. 11:24-26). Having done this, Moses determined that he would attempt to deliver his people, which resulted in the slaying of the Egyptian. When Moses then tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews, the guilty party hurled these stinging words at him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exod. 2:14). While wrongly motivated, this was a question worth pondering. Moses had assumed authority which had not yet been given him. (Moses’ commission comes in chapter 3 at age 80, not in chapter 2 at age 40.) Moses had 40 years to ponder his presumption, and its consequences. Now, when God commissions him to deliver the Israelites, Moses wants to be very careful not to go off half-cocked again. His question is one which reflects a caution and a desire to receive a clear commission from God.
God’s answer seeks to refocus Moses’ attention from looking at the sendee (Moses) to the Sendor (God). What is important is not the instrument in God’s hand, but the One in whose hand the instrument is being held. God therefore promises Moses that His presence will go with him as he obeys his calling: “I will be with you.78 And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). From this statement we learn that Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the presence of God which is assured when he is obedient to God’s command. It has been observed that the “great commission” of the New Testament is strikingly similar to the commission of Moses in our text. The “great commission” begins with the statement by our Lord, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18), and ends with, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Divine authority is thus inseparably linked with divine presence. Moses’ question about his authority was answered by God’s promise of His presence with Moses.
It is interesting that the sign which God promises Moses in verse 12 is one that will occur after Moses has acted in faith, rather than before:79 “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12, emphasis mine). The first “you” in this statement is singular; the second is plural. God is not promising Moses a permanent and private worship retreat on Mt. Sinai. He is saying that the “sign” to Moses will be when the nation which he leads out of Egypt worships God at Mt. Sinai, which they did (cf. Exod. 19ff.).80
We would tend to think that God would have first performed a sign, then and there, and then have expected Moses to obey. This God did. The signs were (1) the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-3); (2) the rod which became a serpent (4:2-4); and (3) the leprous hand (Exod. 4:6-7) But the sign which is promised in verse 12 will only be given after Moses acts on what God has already revealed. While signs may be given to stimulate our faith, they are also given in response to faith, as is the case here.
The practical application of what has taken place in this case is evident. Many of us are waiting for God to give us a sign before we are willing to step out in faith. When God has made it sufficiently clear who He is and what it is that we are to do, God may well require that we act in faith before we are given a sign of His presence and His power. Such is the case here.
The second question which Moses asked grows out of the answer to the first. Moses had first asked, “Who am I?”, only to be told that the important thing is not who he is, but whose he is and who is ever present with him. In other words, Moses should redirect his attention from himself to his God. If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in his God, then we can understand why Moses asks secondly, “Who are you?” “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exod. 3:13).
How could Moses possibly ask God’s name when God has already revealed His identity so clearly in His previous statements to Moses? Notice that Moses (at least in appearance) is not asking this question on his own behalf but on behalf of any who might ask? How many times those who counsel others are asked for advice under the guise, “I have this friend who …”
Why would the Israelites need to ask the name of the God who has sent Moses to deliver them? I can think of only two reasons. First, due to their worship of other (Egyptian) gods (cf. Josh. 24:14), they may wonder which of their gods is answering their prayers.
The second reason is that one’s name is a description of one’s character.81 If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him to lead Israel out of Egypt, then he may need to be able to describe the character of this God to assure them of God’s willingness and ability to lead them into the land of blessings. The name by which God chooses to identify Himself would capture the essence of His character and being.82 God’s answer to this question (be it a concession to Moses’ doubts and fears or not) is, indeed, the basis for great assurance and hope:
“I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exod. 3:14-15).83
Recognizing the importance of these two verses, the scholars have spent a great deal of effort to determine the exact meaning of the expression “I am who I am.” Predictably, they do not all agree.84 Personally, I have concluded that the best rendering is “I am who I am,” as rendered by the NIV and the NASB. I believe that there are certain truths about the nature of God as the “I AM” concerning which most conservative scholars are in agreement.85 I will summarize these dimensions of the character of the God who is the “I AM.”
The “I AM” is the God who is, that is, the God who exists. There were many “no gods” in both Egypt and Canaan, which were worshipped, but in contrast to all of these “gods” was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God who is, the only true God.86
The “I AM” is the God who exists independently. Theologians speak of God as self-existent. God is the Creator, but has no creator. He exists apart from any dependence on anything or anyone. He is a God who does not need help, either to exist or to accomplish His will. Thus, there is nothing which can prevent God’s will from being accomplished.
The “I AM” is the God who exists independently and unchangeably. As the “I AM,” God is not the God who was anything, in the sense that He changes. Whatever He was, He continues to be, and He will be forever. The God who is exists not only really, and independently, but also unchangeably. Therefore, whatever God has begun to do He will bring to completion, because there are no changes which necessitate any alterations in His original plans and purposes.
On the human level, we know only the opposite. We plan to build a house, but unforeseen contingencies usually involve considerably more time and money. Public projects are no different. Have you ever heard of a freeway, a bridge, or a new bomber being completed on schedule, and at the originally estimated cost? As the “I AM” we never need to agonize about the completion of what God has promised.
As the “I AM,” God exists, independently, unchangeably, eternally. God is eternal and unchanging. How often we have put our trust in a political candidate, only to find that he changes once he has been elected. Campaign promises often are mere rhetoric. Those few politicians who do attempt to keep their promises eventually get voted out of office or die. Consequently our hopes which are founded on men are very short-lived. God is eternal; thus each and every promise is as solid as a rock. If God is both eternal and unchanging, then nothing which He has purposed and promised to do can ever fail.87
How can Moses and the people of Israel be assured that God will deliver them from Egyptian bondage and will lead them into the promised land? Their confidence is well placed in the God whose nature and character is that of the “I AM” in Exodus 3. That this is the point of this passage is evident from our consideration of two later Old Testament texts.
But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead” (Isa. 43:1-3).
In this text, intended to comfort Israel and to assure the nation of God’s promises, God refers to the past experiences through which Israel has gone to assure her of future blessings as well. The “passing through the waters” is an allusion to the exodus and the passing through the Red Sea. Just as Israel was not swallowed up by the sea, neither will she be swallowed up by her present and future affliction. And neither will she be burned when she passes through the fire. Just as the burning bush was not consumed by the “fire” of the “angel of the Lord,” so Israel will not be consumed by the fires of affliction and adversity, now or forever.
“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. …So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Mal. 3:2-3, 5-6).
The nation Israel, God said through the prophet Malachi, was to go through “the fire” as it were, in order to be refined. The “fire” is, on the one hand, the affliction imposed by the cruelty of foreign nations. In the final analysis, however, it is the fire which God Himself has brought to purify His people. Malachi’s consolation for Israel is that while God’s purifying “fire” may appear to be consuming them, this will not be the case. Indeed, it will purify them and save them in the final analysis. The basis for Israel’s preservation is, as in Exodus 3, the character of God as the “I AM,” the God who does not change (Mal. 3:6).
Malachi’s words, undoubtedly rooted in the experience of Israel and in the revelation of God in the burning bush, serve to confirm our interpretation of the incident of the burning bush in Exodus 3. The affliction of the Israelites in Egypt was a man-imposed, but God-ordained, experience of “passing through the fire” to purify and prepare the Israelites for their deliverance and future blessings: “But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are” (Deut. 4:20).
The burning bush was no meaningless miracle, merely intended to get Moses’ attention—in and of itself, it was a parable full of meaning, which meditation on the event and on God’s words would make clear, and on which later prophets would expand and expound. The fires of affliction are an outworking of God’s wrath on sin; they purify the people of God and prepare them for God’s blessings. God’s people are not consumed by these “fires,” not due to their own faithfulness, but due to the character of God as the great “I AM.” Moses is thus encouraged to return to Egypt, from the “frying pan to the fire” as it were, knowing that he and the nation would be preserved and prospered by the God who is.
The implications and applications of the nature of God as the “I AM” are endless. It is not surprising therefore to find similar revelations of God to the prophets and people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments. Perhaps the most dramatic New Testament parallel is found in the Book of Revelation. Before God reveals the “things to come” in the last days, He begins with this description of the God who is about to speak through His prophet, John: “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come …” (Rev. 1:4). Is this not the same truth as we have just found in Exodus 3? In Exodus 3 God is the “I AM,” the eternal One. Here, He is the “One who was, and is, and will come.” In both cases, the same truth is being conveyed. Just as the nation Israel will for one final time “pass through the fire of tribulation,” they can be consoled and comforted in the assurance that, this time as well, they will not be consumed by the fire, for their God does not change.
Here then is the message of God to Moses and to the people of his day. God manifests Himself through the fire of affliction and adversity, but His purposes are certain and His people are secure in the assurance that they will not be destroyed nor consumed, due to the fact that He is constant, never changing, and eternal. Here is the basis for faith and obedience. On this assurance Moses can stake his life and base his ministry and service.
One of the applications of this text can be seen in the New Testament, disclosed by our Lord Himself. Let us consider the comfort and hope which we can find through the “I AM,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
When our Lord applied the “I AM” teaching of Exodus 3, I believe He did so in light of the reference to the “burning bush” in Deuteronomy:
This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. … “About Joseph he said: ‘May the Lord bless his land … with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph …’” (Deut. 33:1, 13, 16).
Take note that the context of these blessings which Moses pronounced is the approaching death of Moses himself. In addition, the blessings here are pronounced on Joseph, who has long since died. Now, of course there is the sense in which Joseph will be blessed through his offspring, but this is not the only blessing which Joseph will receive. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of those who died and who are yet to receive the blessings which God promised them (cf. Heb. 11:13-16, 39-40). The promises of God are therefore certain, because God will never die. But just as true, because God is the eternal “I AM,” those who die are still assured of the fulfillment of God’s promises to them. The fact that God is the “I AM” assures us that we “shall live with Him forever,” if we are His children by faith.
Jesus applies the truth of the “I AM” passage on two different occasions88 in the Gospels. In the first instance, the context is the hypothetical question raised by the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, cf. Mark 12:18) of whose wife a woman would be in heaven who had had seven brothers as her husband. Pointing out their hypocrisy and error regarding their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus said, “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:26-27). In the statement of God, “I AM,” we find assurance that God is not only eternal, but that because of this His relationship with men is also eternal. “I am the God of Abraham,” not only means that God is everlasting, but also that Abraham is as well. God’s eternality is not only the basis for our faith in God’s promises being fulfilled (in the lives of those who are alive at the time), but also is our assurance that we will personally experience those blessings. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, God intended that those who died in faith would wait to be made perfect with us (Heb. 11:40). God’s eternality and our immortality are therefore intertwined truths.
In the Gospel of John, one of the keys to its structure is the “I AM …” statements of our Lord (cf. John 6:48, 51; 8:58; 10:9, 11; 11:25, etc.). The watershed of this Gospel seems to be the “I AM” statement of our Lord in chapter 8. We are again in the context of one’s hope for life after death, a truth about which some Jews were skeptical. Jesus said to the Jews, “I tell you the truth, if a man keeps my word, he will never see death.” At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if a man keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” (John 8:51-53).
The issue, of course, is “who is Jesus?” Jesus is greater than Abraham, as is evident by the fact that He is the “I AM”: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). To the Jews who were debating with our Lord, those who had died were dead and gone. It was all over for them (cf. John 8:52-53). Jesus countered that this was not true at all, for “if a man keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51). Death has no dominion over those who trust in the Lord and keep His Word. Abraham saw the “Lord’s day” and rejoiced (8:56), and as a believer, he would see the promises God had made to him fulfilled—personally.
Related to the question of Jesus’ authority was His relationship to Moses. The Jews claimed to have Moses’ authority (cf. Matt. 23:2), thus (in their distorted thinking) giving them higher authority than the Lord Jesus. But think of it—when Moses was asked about his authority, the best he could say was, “I AM sent me.”
When our Lord was asked concerning His authority in John 8, He answered, “I AM, I AM!”
While Moses was sent by “I AM,” Jesus was “I AM.” Thus, those who believe in the I AM need have no fear of death, for the blessings of God are as certain beyond the grave as they are before it—indeed, more so.
Belief in the God who is the “I AM” is therefore the foundation for our hope of eternal life and of experiencing the blessings God has promised us, even though we die. Our eternal hope is wrapped up in the eternality of God. Exodus 3 etches the truth of God’s eternality in bold letters. Let us believe it. Let us stake our earthly and our eternal destiny on it!
There are many Christians today who think that the study of the attributes of God is an intellectual exercise with very little practical application. Nothing could be further from the truth! Recently, I heard R. C. Sproul talk about the greatest need of America. When asked, “What is the greatest need of non-Christian Americans?,” he answered, “To know what God is like.” When asked, “What is the greatest need of American Christians?,” his answer was the same, “To know what God is like.” The attributes of God are simply a description of what God is like. The basis for the call of Moses and for his obedience to that call was an assurance as to the character of God. Personally, I am convinced that the measure of our faith is proportionate to our grasp of the greatness and the goodness of our God. I do not think that any person’s faith will be any greater than their grasp of the greatness of God as the Object of their faith. I do not think that great things have been done for God without a grasp of how great the God is whom we serve. It is the attributes of God which describe Him as He is and which become the basis for our faith and obedience. Let us become students of the attributes of God.
Specifically, from this text we have focused upon the eternal, unchanging nature of God. This truth is frequently underscored in the Scriptures:
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Num. 23:19; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29).
Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end. The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee (Ps. 102:25-28).
Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).
For the Christian, there is no thought more comforting than the eternality of God and His changelessness. It assures us that His purposes for us will be fulfilled.
The God who came down to deliver His people from Egypt in the person of Moses (Exod. 3) has now come down in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from eternal damnation due to our sins (cf. John 1:1-17, 29-34; Phil. 2:5-8). Just as the fire of God burned the bush but did not consume it, so the wrath of God was poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ, but did not consume Him. He died for our sins, but He was raised from the dead. Through Him, men can be delivered from the wrath of God on sinners. What a blessed hope there is for those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the “I AM” God, who came that we might live through Him.
For the unbeliever, there is no thought more horrifying, for the God who in the Old Testament poured out His wrath on sinners still hates sin and will punish the wicked eternally.
Unfortunately, those who reject the provision which God has made in the person of Christ, and who trust in their own righteousness, will suffer the eternal fires of Hell. And this fire will not consume them either, so that it will be endured forever: “Then he will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41, emphasis mine).
The text which we have been studying underscores, in my mind, the importance of character. Ultimately, it is the character of God which is the basis for our faith and for our obedience. It is the character of men which is to be much of the basis for identifying church leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). So too it is the character of the Christian which God is developing (cf. Prov.; 2 Pet. 1, etc.). Christian character is very often forged in the fires of affliction (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:3). The endurance of the saints in the purifying fires which God brings into our lives is also evidence of the supernatural work of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3-4). While we need not seek affliction, let us acknowledge that it is often affliction which God uses to purify our lives (1 Pet. 1:6-7) and to prepare us for the glories which lie ahead.
One final thought. Israel, like the bush which Moses saw, is still, as it were, aflame. The great tribulation in the Book of Revelation describes the intense purifying fires of God which will be required to turn the nation Israel back to Himself. But in the midst of her fires of affliction, past, present, and future, Israel has endured, not consumed by the flames, and thus is a testimony to the unchanging nature of God whose promises are sure.
Great is Thy faithfulness,
O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.
57 From Exodus 2 we might conclude that Moses had only one son (cf. 2:22), but Stephen informs us that he had two sons while in Midian (Acts 7:29). In Exodus 2 the point of verse 22 is to inform us of the mind of Moses at this time, as reflected in the naming of his firstborn, not to inform us as to how many children Moses had.
58 The importance of chapter 3 is stressed by Hyatt, who writes: “Chapter 3 is one of the most significant chapters in all of Exodus, for here Moses receives his commission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and God reveals his name ‘Yahweh’ for the first time. This account of the call of Moses has many similarities to accounts of the call of several later OT prophets, and may have provided the model for them.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 70.
It should be pointed out that Hyatt is not correct in saying that the name “Yahweh” is revealed here for the first time. This is a conclusion based upon some of Hyatt’s liberal presuppositions concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch—namely that Moses was not the author. He adheres to the source document hypothesis (JEDP). For a summary and critique of this view, consult R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 13-15, 62, or John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 37-38. Edward J. Young’s articles are also very helpful as a scholarly refutation of the liberal view. Cf. Edward J. Young, “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, XXIX, No. 2 (1967), pp. 117-135 and XXX, No. 1 (1967), pp. 1-23.
59 Several things may need to be said concerning Mt. Horeb. First, Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt. Sinai: “Why, however, is the mountain here named Horeb and not Sinai? The most likely answer is that Horeb and Sinai are simply two different names of the same mountain, just as Jermon and Sirion both designate Mt. Hermon (cf. Deuteronomy 3:9; Psalm 29:6).” Young, “The Call of Moses,” p. 2.
Second, we do not know precisely where Mt. Horeb is located: “… in fact, we do not know where ‘God’s mountain’ … was. Was it within the Sinai Peninsula? If so, was it in the south (the traditional area) or in the north east among the mountains of Seir, overlooking the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, where Israel made her tribal centre for so long? Or was it in the mountains of Arabia, to the north east of the Gulf of Aqaba? The general geographic details in the Bible seem to point to the southern area: and the traditional site of Gebel Musa, ‘Moses’ mountain’ (7,467 feet), has much to commend it, though others will prefer the higher peaks nearby. It is noteworthy that, as in the exile in Babylon, this most striking event of Israel’s faith took place on foreign soil (cf. Abram’s call) and that later Israel seems neither to have known, nor cared, exactly where it was. Neither is there any suggestion of later pilgrimage to it, with the possible exception of the journey of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Israel, however, knew that ‘God’s mountain’ lay somewhere to the south of Canaan.” Cole, p. 63.
In the providence of God, the location of this “holy place” has been kept from us, otherwise there would be another “tourist trap,” and various kinds of merchandising (packets of “holy soil”?) as a result. Cf. also the words of our Lord in John 4:21-24.
Third, Moses led his flock to the west side of the wilderness to get there:
“… Hebrew ‘ahar,’ ‘back, behind.’ This must be ‘west’ from the Midianite point of view, and therefore it may be a Midianite term. As usual in Semitic thought, one faces east when giving compass directions; ‘behind’ is therefore ‘west.’” Cole, p. 62.
60 “Martin Noth claims that it is a favorite explanation of exegetes that the burning bush is a manifestation similar to St. Elmo’s fire. …” “During stormy weather discharges of atmospheric electricity give off a glow from the extremities of pointed objects such as ships’ masts. The term St. Elmo is a corruption of St. Erasmus (or Ermo), the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. Has anyone, however, ever mistaken St. Elmo’s fire for a burning bush that burned yet was not consumed? Certainly the learned and wise Moses would not have done so.” Quoted by Edward J. Young in “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, p. 130, and fn. 29, p. 30.
62 “If Sinai were a volcano, one could he [Gressmann] thinks, if he were proceeding upon rationalistic grounds, seek to explain the burning bush upon the basis of volcanic phenomena, or of subterranean fire, assuming that the bush stood near escaping gases from under the ground.” Ibid.
66 “Such a revelation, however, may well have been mediated through a visionary experience. The visionary experience would likely have assumed its descriptive character from the cultural ideas common to the era in which Moses lived. For Moses, the bush burned with the flaming presence of the angel of the Lord. But it may well have been an inner experience, and one standing next to Moses may have seen nothing extraordinary.” Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “Exodus,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Clifton J. Allen, ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p. 328, as cited by Davis, p. 61.
“Moses recognizes that what he sees is a ‘great sight,’ and hence something out of the ordinary. Had it been merely the glistening of the berries of a bush in the sun or the campfire of the shepherds, or anything of similar nature, Moses could hardly have considered it a ‘a great sight.’ It is noteworthy also that the only reason for Moses’ turning aside is that he is moved by curiosity. … It is this fact of Moses’ curiosity which rules out once and for all the idea that Moses, because of long meditation upon the suffering of his people in Egypt, is in a frame of mind or attitude in which he could readily believe that a voice was speaking to him.” Young, pp. 6-7.
67 “This is a plant with a strong growth about three feet in height with clusters of purple blossoms. The whole bush is covered with tiny oil glands. This oil is so volatile that it is constantly escaping and if approached with a naked light bursts suddenly into flames. …” Werner Keller, quoting Harold N. Moldenke, The Bible as History (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1956), p. 131, as cited by Davis, p. 61.
69 The angel did not appear in the fire as much as it did as the fire: “We can read ‘in flames of fire,’ as do most English versions, but ‘as flames of fire’ is better. The fire, which the angel of the Lord chose as the form in which to appear, did not consume the bush.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Mass (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 51.
This fire may have been intended for us to associate with other instances of fire in the Old Testament: “There may be a deliberate reminiscence of the Genesis story, where the angel beings that guard the tree of life have flaming swords (Gen. 3:24). Fire is a symbol of God’s presence when He descends on Sinai too (Ex. 19:18), as often in the Bible. Exodus 13:21 speaks of God’s guiding and protecting presence as a ‘pillar of fire.’ Perhaps the basis of this symbolism lies in the purificatory, as well as the destructive, properties of fire (Duet. 4:24); the metal refiner was a familiar sight in the ancient world (Mal. 3:2). Normally, however, fire seems to speak of God’s holiness and, in particular, His anger in relation to sin (Exod. 19:18; 32:10).” Cole, p. 64.
The “angel of the Lord” is the second Person of the Trinity: “If we would do justice to the Scriptural data, we must insist therefore both upon the distinguishableness of the Angel from the Father and also upon the identity of essence with the Father. Christian theologians have rightly seen in this strange Figure a preincarnate appearance of the One who in the days of His flesh could say, ‘And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness of me’ (John 5:37).” Young, pp. 4-5.
70 Both the two-fold call by name and the response are reminiscent of God’s call to Abraham (Gen. 22:11) and Jacob (Gen. 46:2). “In this narrative emphasis falls upon the initiative of God. Moses is not seeking a revelation, nor does he have any intention of drawing near to a ‘holy place’ in the hope of meeting God. He is simply engaged in his ordinary daily business when God approaches him. This factor also is characteristic in the performance of a miracle. God comes to man to convince man that He is man’s Redeemer. Hence, the address, ‘Moses, Moses.’” Young, p. 11.
71 “It is the presence of God which renders the place holy, and the putting off of the shoes is intended as a recognition of that fact. Removing the sandals is a sign of reverence to God, whose presence sanctifies the place of His appearance to Moses.” Young, p. 14.
72 The translators of the NIV (above) and the NASB have accurately rendered “father” above, instead of “fathers,” as other translations have chosen to do. The Hebrew text uses the singular term (“father”), rather than the plural (fathers). The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), however, does use the plural, which Stephen also employs in Acts 7:32. Since the singular can be used with a plural sense, one should be cautious to make too much of the singular form here.
73 Some liberal scholars would have us believe that Moses here really came to adopt the god of his father-in-law” as his God, and thus Israel’s God as well. This is referred to as the Kenite theory. Young briefly outlines this theory and its origin: “The late George A. Barton, for example, maintained that as Moses was alone with the flock in the desert he spent the time brooding upon the ‘acute problems of life as he had experienced it.’ Among these thoughts were considerations of the nature of the ‘desert god’ that his father-in-law, Jethro, served. The mountain was volcanic, and its smoke and flames expressed the wrath of the desert god, Yahweh, whose presence was indicated by the smoke of the volcano.” Young, p. 9.
Cole states: “Moses brings no new or unknown god to his people, but a fuller revelation of the One whom they have known. …Yet in its day the Mosaic revelation, while a fulfilment of patriarchal promises, was as new and shattering to Israel as the coming of the Messiah was later to prove to be.” Cole, p. 66.
74 “It is, however, important to realize that these ‘nations’ of Canaan are not mutually related to each other, as Israel’s twelve tribes were. They may have shared a common cultural and religious pattern, but that is all. There is no evidence that they shared common historical traditions, in the way that Israel’s tribes did: nor indeed have we evidence to show that they even lived in distinct and separate areas.” Cole, p. 67.
75 “…‘oozing’ would be a better translation. This is a dairyman’s metaphor: the drops of milk ooze from the animal’s teats, so full of milk is she. This description of Canaan is a pastoralist’s dream. Milk, curds, cheese and honey are not the produce of closely-settled arable country. Cf. Isaiah 7:22, where ‘curds and honey’ are the product of an area that has reverted from tilth to pasture, because of war. The phrase is a frequent and probably proverbial description in the Pentateuch of the hill country of Canaan, and is an accurate one, when Canaan is compared with the more arid country of Sinai or even with oases like Kadesh-barnea.” Cole, p. 66.
76 “Interestingly while God promised the people two things (deliverance from Egypt and entrance into a new land), He commissioned Moses to accomplish only the first. God knew Moses would not enter the Promised Land (Deut. 32:48-52).” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), (Old Testament), p. 112.
77 As I understand these two questions which are found in chapter 3, Moses is legitimately seeking clarification. The questions in chapter 4, however, cross over the line of what is appropriate and acceptable, for they reveal a deficiency in the faith of Moses, one that exasperates God to the point where the reader begins to fear for Moses, if he were to resist God’s commission any further. Cole writes, “God answers Moses’ objection as to his own inadequacy in two ways. First He promises His own presence; secondly He gives Moses a sign or proof that He is with him. After this Moses has no right to protest further. It is now no longer lack of self-reliance (which is good), but lack of faith (which is sin).” Cole, p. 68.
79 “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as we say. It will be the success of Moses’ mission that will show beyond contradiction that God was indeed with him and had sent him. Such signs always follow faith. Meanwhile Moses must go forward in faith: this is typical of the whole biblical approach to signs.” Cole, p. 68.
80 There are some very interesting parallels between the incident of the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 and the “burning mountain” in Exodus 19. In both, God is revealed in His holiness and power by means of fire. In the first instance, God reveals Himself to Moses, demonstrating His character and His authority, under which Moses is to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites. In the second instance, God reveals Himself to the people, demonstrating to them the authority which He has given Moses. I encourage you to compare these two chapters more thoroughly in your own study.
81 “… to the Semite the name had far deeper significance than is the case in our occidental world. With us the name is little more than a vocable; to the Semite, however, it either signified the character of a person or brought to mind something distinctive about him. To ask for the name of God was to desire to know the nature of God.” Young, p. 15.
“We cannot assume that the Israelites were ignorant of the titles of the God worshipped by their patriarchal ancestors, and presumably also worshipped by them during their stay in Egypt (but see Joshua’s blunt words in Jos. 24:14). …To ask the question, ‘Under what new title has God appeared to you?’ is equivalent to asking, ‘What new revelation have you received from God?’ Normally, in patriarchal days, any new revelation of the ancestral God will be summed up in a new title for Him (Gn. 16:13) which will in future both record and recount a deeper knowledge of God’s saving activity. We may therefore assume that, in asking this question, they were expecting a new title for the patriarchal God.” Cole, p. 69.
82 “The concern of the people in asking after the Name of God was to discover what relation this God sustained to themselves. Of what help would He be in this very present time of trouble? … The people were not interested merely in a question of metaphysics; they were interested above all in the practical matter of how the One who claimed to be the God of the Fathers could be of aid to them.” Young, p. 21.
83 “Here, the full form of the divine name is used, YHWH, usually represented as LORD (in capitals) in English versions. The pious Jew of later years was reluctant to pronounce God’s name lest he incur the penalty for taking the name of YHWH in vain (Ex. 20:7). He therefore read the vowels of adonay ‘my Lord,’ with the consonants of YHWH, so producing the hybrid ‘Jehovah’ in English. … Perhaps the easiest way to understand what the name YHWH meant to the Jews is to see what it came to mean, as their history of salvation slowly unrolled. It ultimately meant to them what the name Jesus has come to mean to Christians, a ‘shorthand’ for all God’s dealings of grace.” Cole, p. 70.
84 “Davies rightly points out that since this is the only place in the Old Testament where there is any explanation of the meaning of the name YHWH, we ought therefore to take very seriously the association with ‘being’ which is clearly stated here. … Simplest of all, does it mean that God exists, as opposed to idols without being? Along these lines, Hyatt sees ‘I am He who is’ as a possible translation. … Or does it mean ‘I will only be understood by My own subsequent acts and words of revelation’? … The revelation of the name therefore is not merely a deep theological truth; it is a call to the response of faith by Moses and by Israel.” Cole, pp. 69-70. Cf. also, Young, pp. 18-23 for a summary of the various interpretations of these verses, along with his carefully arrived at conclusions.
“In the bush, he [Calvin] holds, we see the humble and despised people surrounded by the flames of oppression; yet in the midst is God who prevents the flames from devouring the nation. Keil appeals to Judges 9:15 to support the position that in contrast to the more noble and lofty trees the thornbush aptly represents the people of God in their humiliation. On this particular point there seems to be fairly widespread agreement among interpreters.” Young, p. 5.
“… this [vss. 7-12] was, in fact, a self-revelation of God to Moses. … The holiness of God is emphasized (v. 5). While He is a God of power and transcendent glory, He is also imminent and therefore the God of history (v. 6). The section presently under consideration reveals additional information concerning the One who was challenging Moses. According to verse 7 He was a God sensitive and aware of the deep need of His people. He was a merciful God. He had seen and heard their cry and knew their sorrows, and the means by which God would care for the tragedy of His people would be to “come down” to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians (v. 8). The description here is that of a God who acts not above history, but in and through history.” Davis, p. 63.
85 “Thus at the burning bush God gave to Moses the revelation of His NAME. In His historical revelations He is absolutely independent of His creation, the self-existing one, who manifests in deeds of wonder the nature of His being expressed in His Name. … At the burning bush there appeared to Moses One who is eternal, who changeth not, who depends not upon His creation, but in sovereign and supreme majesty, exists independently of that creation. He, the BEING ONE, is unchangeable; yet He is the living and true God. In His revelation of deliverance He displays the glory of His majesty, the blessed truth that He alone is the I AM.” Young, p. 23.
“… the Lord is the God of the covenant (see v. 15). As such He remains the same, is consistent. What He is in general comforts His people through its application to the specific situation (Israel’s oppression) and the special relationship (covenant) that already existed between Him and Israel’s ancestors, and now (‘I am’) will also exist between Him and the descendants ‘from generation to generation.’” Gispen, p. 55.
86 In contrast to the idols which had no life and could not move, Yahweh is the eternal, living One. He changes not, yet He is living and can reveal Himself to His creation. He will make known to Moses and to the children of Israel what kind of God He is by means of the deeds which He will perform in their midst and by means of the words which He will speak unto them. These words and deeds are such that only one who in all His attributes and perfections is infinite, eternal and unchangeable can perform them. In His revelation the I AM makes Himself known to His people.” Young, pp. 21-22.
87 “Not only does the miracle attest the present working of God but it also points to the continuity of His working in His determination to accomplish redemption. The revelation which accompanies the miracle first looks back to the promises made to the patriarchs, ‘I am the God of thy father’ (Exodus 3:6a), and it also points to the future, ‘And I came down to deliver it from the hand of Egypt’ (Exodus 3:8a). This particular miracle, therefore, was for the benefit of Moses primarily, that through it he might become convinced that the God who had spoken to his ancestors was in the midst of His people and would be faithful to His promise to redeem them.” Ibid, p. 11.
4. Beating Around the Burning Bush (Exodus 3 and 4)
When I was considerably younger, my uncle arrived at a family picnic, riding a new Honda motorcycle. Unimpressive by today’s standards, at the time it was one of the most powerful bikes on the road. Proudly my uncle let several relatives ride it around the park, barely idling. Seeing that I was drooling over the bike, my uncle asked if I had ever ridden. With great confidence, I assured him that I had. On that Honda 305, my intention was not to idle around a few stumps as I took it up to the highway and pressed the limits a bit.
I had been truthful to the degree that I had ridden a motorcycle before, but not entirely honest about the extent of my experience. You see, I had ridden a Honda 50 (the smallest Honda bike) once around the service station where I worked. I was not adequately prepared for the ride on that Honda 305 (the biggest bike Honda then made).
Moses felt that he was adequately prepared for the task of delivering the Israelites from the oppression of the Egyptians, but Exodus 2 indicates that his efforts failed miserably. He was rejected and rebuked by his fellow-Israelite, and he was pursued by the Pharaoh who wanted to kill him. This led to a 40-year sojourn in the land of Midian, where Moses married, had two children, and tended the flocks of his father-in-law.
We would readily acknowledge that Moses was not ready for leadership at age 40, but we seem to think that those 40 years Moses spent in the wilderness with Jethro’s flocks must have equipped him to serve as Israel’s deliverer. I do not think this is the case. I believe that Moses was about as prepared to lead Israel at age 80 as I was ready to ride a Honda 305 after having ridden a Honda 50. The events of Exodus 3 and 4 bear out, I believe, that Moses’ preparation for leadership had barely begun. The man we find described in this portion of Scripture is hardly the model of leadership we would expect. Let us look carefully at this chapter, because I suspect we will find Moses a great deal like us. Let us learn the kind of men God chooses and uses as leaders and the process He used with Moses.
In our previous lesson, the focus was on the character of God, Israel’s “I AM.” The focus of our study in this lesson will be on the character of Moses, the man “I AM” sent to rescue Israel from Egypt.
Moses’ Marching Orders
In our last lesson we focused on the burning bush and the character of the God who revealed Himself in the bush—the “I AM.” The revelation of the character of God, particularly by His name, is the basis for the faith and obedience which God expects (indeed demands) of Moses. In verses 16-22 the task which Moses has been commissioned to accomplish is outlined, along with an outline of the events which will take place due to Moses’ ministry. Essentially, there are three general categories covered in these verses:
(1) Moses was commanded to assemble the elders of Israel to reassure them of God’s covenant promises, and to convey God’s plan for delivering His people from their bondage, and to bring them into the land of Canaan (Exod. 3:16-17). In effect, Moses was to repeat the words which God had spoken to him from the burning bush.
(2) Moses was told to go to Pharaoh with the elders of Israel and to request a three-day “leave” to worship God in the desert (Exod. 3:18-20). This request would be denied, and only by compulsion (the plagues) would the king of Egypt release the Israelites. It is important to observe that the resistance of Pharaoh was foretold, thus preparing Moses for the hard times ahead. The release from Egypt would not come quickly or easily, but it would come.
(3) Finally, God instructed Moses to “collect,” as it were, the wages the Israelites had earned in Egypt (Exod. 3:21-22). This was to be accomplished by asking the Egyptian women for articles of silver and gold and putting them on their children.
These commands summarized the task which God had given Moses and the response of the Egyptians to Moses’ request. Here, in a nutshell, is an outline of “things to come” for Egypt. These commands clarify the task which Moses has been given. They are all based upon the promise and the prophecy which God had previously given Abraham in Genesis 15:12-20. Moses now knew who God was, and the task He had given him to do. The real struggle here is between Moses and God, and whether he will do it. I thus have entitled the message, “Beating Around the Burning Bush.” Moses will learn, as we all must, that God’s commands are not to be refused.
The Five Points of Moses
As a friend and I discussed possible titles for this section, he suggested this one, which I like a lot: “While Israel gathered straw, Moses grasped at straws.” For those who are into theological inquiry and discussion, I am convinced that Moses was a “five pointer.” Here are the five points of Moses, as he seeks to prove that he is not the man for the task which God has given him. The essence of Moses’ argument is: “Here am I, send someone else!”
Moses responds to the commission of God five times. The first two responses we have dealt with previously, but we shall briefly review them so that we can view Moses’ response as a whole.
(1) Who am I? (Exod. 3:11). After prematurely and presumptuously asserting himself as a deliverer (Exod. 2:11-15), and being rebuffed by a fellow-Israelite (“Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Exod. 2:14), Moses was not so full of self-confidence. Moses, we are told in Scripture, was the “meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). To the degree that Moses’ question reveals true humility, it is legitimate. But in this instance, I fear that his humility is out of bounds. The issue here is not who Moses is, but whose he is. God has sent him, and it is God who will be with him. Moses’ authority is based upon his divine call and the divine presence with him as he goes (Exod. 3:12).
There is a great deal of discussion these days about self-esteem. While one’s self-concept has a great deal to do with how one feels about himself and how he (or she) may function in life, it is not the key to Christian growth or obedience. Why? Because the orientation is wrong. Self-esteem focuses one’s attention selfward. One can only be confident if one is confident about one’s self. God redirects Moses’ attention to Himself. The burning bush is a revelation of God to Moses, not an introspective analysis of Moses himself. No man, no matter how capable, is fit or able to adequately serve God. It is God who is infinite, eternal, and all-powerful. Thus, when Moses has a proper God-concept, he is able to serve. Let us learn from this text to focus our attention on the One whom we serve, rather than on ourselves.
(2) Who are you? (Exod. 3:13). If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him, then it is surely worthwhile for him to inquire as to the nature and character of God. If it were not for the other three responses of Moses (the last two are protests, not inquiries), we might find this question altogether acceptable. My own inclination is that Moses already knew enough.
Knowing God is the highest calling of the Christian and a lifetime occupation (cf. Phil. 3:10). As such, one should always seek to know more of Him. But Moses does not seek this knowledge for himself; he seeks it because he fears that the Israelites will reject his authority. In other words, this is really a reflection of the same fears of Moses which were more openly admitted in the first question. God’s answer to the first question was not sufficient for Moses, so he asked it again, in different terms. Moses still expects to be rejected by the Israelites, as he was 40 years before.
I find many of us seek to avoid immediately acting on the commands of God, excusing this by our “lack of information, knowledge, or training.” How many people “want to think it over,” or “pray about it,” when in reality they are reluctant to obey God’s leading? How many have excused themselves because they have not gone to seminary or Bible college? Very often, these are merely a smoke-screen for unbelief. We are never ready when we act on our own, but we are always ready when God says, “Go!”
(3) What if they89 do not believe me or listen to me? (Exod. 4:1). Is this question not a bit shop worn? Moses is asking the same question of God for the third time. This time, it is even more inappropriate. No, I have not said it strongly enough. This time, the question is sinful. In the past, Moses doubted his calling; now he is doubting the Word of God, for the Lord has just told him, “The elders of Israel will listen to you” (Exod. 4:18). From the words which follow this assurance, we know that Moses was not only told that the leaders of Israel will accept his leadership, but that it will all work out, just as God has said. Moses therefore is guilty of unbelief, pure and simple.
I have been rather hard on Moses, and I believe that the text (which Moses wrote) is making his weakness and unbelief clear. As an inveterate coward, let me say a word or two in behalf of Moses. Have you ever had to face a group of skeptics and convince them that God sent you, based upon a conversation you had with a bush? I find it easy to understand why Moses feared that no one would believe his story. People don’t stand around talking to burning bushes. That this was unusual was an evidence of its significance. It is also something which is difficult to convince others is true.
God still graciously deals with the weakness of Moses here. In response to his question, God grants Moses the ability to perform three signs.90 The first two Moses performs on the spot, at God’s instruction, so as to assure him. The final sign (turning water from the Nile to blood) has to wait until the raw materials (Nile water) are available.
The specific meaning of each miracle91 is without common consensus among scholars. Overall, I believe that we can see several important contributions of these signs. First, for the Israelites these signs were visible evidence that God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Would they refuse to believe the account of the burning bush? Let them see a shepherd’s staff92 turned into a serpent, and then transformed once again to the staff. Let them see a hand turned leprous, and then restored. A burning bush is no harder to believe than these phenomena.
Second, for the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, these signs were evidence of the “finger of God” (cf. Exod. 8:19). Not only did they emphatically prove the existence of the God of the Hebrews, but they gave evidence of His superior power. More than this, these three signs were of a similar kind. At the word of Moses, a staff could become a serpent, leprosy could be inflicted, and water contaminated. In other words, Moses had the power to inflict injury and to destroy. Pharaoh had tried, in vain, to destroy Israel. Moses could easily destroy Egypt. The signs were all “plague-like,” and Pharaoh would do well to take heed. He had been warned, not only of the power of God, but also of the nature of the divine judgment which he could and would inflict on Egypt. Finally, since Moses had the power to reverse the adverse plague, Pharaoh was also instructed as to Moses’ power to restore, once a plague was brought to pass. The three signs were therefore very significant, both to the Israelites, and to the Pharaoh.
(4) But I am not eloquent! (Exod. 4:10; cf. 6:12,30)93. From here on, it is all down hill—fast. Moses is still hung up about his inability. Rather than acting on the basis of who the God is who commissioned him, Moses is now retreating on the pretext that he is not a gifted communicator. This is indeed a piece of false humility. Look at what Stephen has to say about Moses’ abilities: “When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:21-22, emphasis mine). Moses did not have a speech problem, as some might suppose. Neither was he ungifted in speech. According to Stephen, Moses was eloquent. Moses is not only doing a disservice to God (by refusing to believe Him and obey in faith), but to himself. Moses should not trust in his own abilities, but neither should he deny the abilities which God has given him.
The historian Josephus goes even farther than Stephen. Now, of course, Josephus did not write under inspiration. Worse yet, Josephus has been accused of exaggerating. But it is interesting to note that Josephus writes that Moses was a commander of the Egyptian army, attacking and defeating the Ethiopians who had humiliated Egypt.94 It is a glorious story—too much so to take too seriously. Nevertheless, it indicates that at least Josephus didn’t take Moses’ excuse seriously either.
The Lord’s response reveals His displeasure and has the tone of rebuke.95 Little wonder! Moses is talking to His creator. He is saying, in effect, “God, I can’t do what you ask because you did not make me well enough.” God reminds Moses that, as his Creator, He fashioned him precisely as He intended, and he was therefore fully able to carry out his commission. The problem of what to say is one that the Lord will handle in due time. He will teach him what to say (Exod. 4:12).96 While Moses is worrying about what he will say when he gets to Egypt, God is spurring him to get going. Moses is looking too far down the path. His immediate task is to get going.
(5) Please send somebody else (Exod. 4:13). Here is the bottom line. Moses does not want to go. It is not that he lacks the assurance or the authority; he simply lacks the courage to act. No reason is stated here as to why God should send someone else, because Moses is all out of excuses. And so Moses pleads with God for someone else to go.
God is longsuffering and patient, but now He is angry. I do not know precisely what physical manifestations evidenced the anger which Moses mentions in verse 14, but my own impression is that this must have scared Moses half to death. Can you imagine making God mad and then having to stand there faced with His anger? If Moses was afraid of the presence of God in the burning bush before (Exod. 4:6), one can hardly imagine the fear which Moses had at this point.
God’s anger was not only reflected in some visible way (did the burning bush suddenly flare up?), but it was evident in the answer which God gave to Moses (vv. 14-17). Aaron could speak fluently, so let him speak for Moses. As later events will indicate, the presence of Aaron was a burden for Moses and a stumbling block for others. Among other things, Aaron fashioned the “golden calf” and led Israel in false worship (Exod. 32:1-6). Aaron was, at best, a mixed blessing.
Moses’ Request to Return
Clutching his staff, Moses set out to ask Jethro’s permission to leave, along with his wife and two sons. It would seem that such permission was required (cf. Gen. 31, esp. vss. 26-30). Moses’ request was evasive, even deceptive: “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive” (Exod. 4:18).
Moses avoids telling Jethro of God’s appearance in the burning bush and of the commission he had been given. Can you imagine asking your father-in-law to release his loved ones to accompany a man who is going to take on Pharaoh and the entire nation of Egypt? And can you conceive of trying to convince Jethro that you were sure of this, based upon a conversation you had with a bush that burned, but did not burn up? No wonder Moses wished to avoid the real purpose of his return.
Avoiding the true (or the whole) purpose of his return was one thing, but Moses went beyond this. He told Jethro that he wanted to learn if any of his people were still alive. It is possible that Moses meant that he wanted to see if his mother and father were still alive. He certainly knew that the Israelites were living, for how could God send him to rescue a people who had been exterminated (which was, of course, Pharaoh’s intention)?
Verse 19 seems to serve as a kind of explanation for the reason which Moses had given Jethro for returning to Egypt: “Now the Lord had said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead’” (Exod. 4:19). Moses had no reason to fear, God assured him, for the Pharaoh who had sought to take his life was dead. But it almost seems as though Moses rearranged the facts God had given, so as to suggest that Moses needed to see if his own people were, in fact, alive and well. Did Moses inadvertently confuse the facts, or did he deceptively rearrange the facts so as to gain the permission of Jethro to take his family to Egypt? We do not know, but Zipporah and her two sons did return to her father’s house (cf. Exod. 18:2-6), perhaps after the incident in verses 24-26.97
Jethro, who seems to be a wise and gracious man, grants Moses’ request, wishing him well (v. 18). And so it was that Moses set out on his way back to Egypt, taking along his wife and two sons. Moses, we are told, took the “staff of God” in his hand (v. 20). How he must have studied that stick, which he had carried so long, and which now was an instrument of God.
Matters Between Fathers and Sons
One’s initial impression could be that these verses are inappropriate or out of place. Since we are not willing to say that the text has been rearranged, we can only conclude that these words from the Lord to Moses were spoken after Moses had departed from the house of Jethro, or they were spoken from the burning bush but recorded here for a specific purpose.98 I am inclined toward the latter because these words then provide the backdrop for the incident depicted in verses 24-26. One might, in fact, better grasp the thread of the argument of verses 21-26 by entitling the section, “between fathers and sons,” for there are three father-son relationships referred to here: (1) God as the Father of Israel, His firstborn son (vv. 22-23a); (2) Pharaoh and his firstborn son (v. 23b); and (3) Moses and his son (firstborn?—cf. fn. 17) (vv. 24-26).
God had instructed Moses to perform all the wonders he was empowered to do before Pharaoh. This was not in the hope of convincing or converting Pharaoh, however, for his heart would be hardened by God. We are also told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.99 Both statements are true and do not contradict each other.
Here, for the first time, the nation Israel is referred to as the firstborn100 son of God (Exod. 4:22-23). Because Pharaoh would not release Israel, God’s firstborn son, to worship Him in the desert, God would have Moses tell Pharaoh that He will kill his firstborn.
What is the significance here of this statement about Pharaoh’s firstborn son? It would seem that it is intended to serve as a backdrop for the strange, almost bizarre, incident described in verses 24-26.101 Here Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons are on their way to Egypt (v. 24) via Mt. Sinai it would appear (cf. 4:27). The Lord102 met Moses at their lodging place and seemed103 intent to kill him. This action on God’s part seems so unusual and so harsh that some have even suggested the “deity” was demonic.104 Moses’ life was spared by the quick action taken by his wife, Zipporah. She took a flint knife (cf. Josh. 5:2-3), circumcised her son,105 and touched Moses106 with the foreskin, with the rebuke, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Because of her actions, God let Moses alone.
What does this action on Zipporah’s part mean, and what is the purpose of including this story in Exodus? Surely this is the kind of incident which Moses would not wish to become public, let alone become a part of holy Scripture. And remember, Moses wrote this book and could have omitted it. What then does this mean, and what are we to learn from it? I would suggest that this enigmatic event is the key to the entire chapter, explaining Moses’ deeply rooted resistance to obeying the call of God to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites.
The “gospel,” if you would, of the Israelite was the covenant God had made with Abraham and reiterated to the patriarchs and now, through Moses, to the people of God, the Israelites. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant, an evidence of the parents’ faith in the promise of God to Abraham that through his seed blessings would come to Israel and to the whole world (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). As a testimony of the parents’ faith in God’s covenant promise, every male in Israel was to be circumcised:
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:9-14).
So there we have it. The basis of Israel’s preservation (as pictured by the bush that didn’t burn up) was the covenant made with Abraham by the eternal God who is, from now on (cf. Exod. 3:15) the “I AM.” The covenant was the “gospel,” the promise of blessing and salvation which every Israelite was called upon to believe and whose belief was symbolized by the circumcision of his sons and all the males in his household. Moses was to go to Egypt and tell the Israelites that God was about to fulfill His promises, based upon His covenant. And yet Moses had not yet circumcised his son.107 And if this son is his firstborn, he has had many years in which to do so.
If God takes the “hardness of Pharaoh’s heart” so seriously as to kill his firstborn son (Exod. 4:21-23), then He must likewise deal with the sin of Moses who by not circumcising his son has endangered him greatly. According to the word of the Lord recorded in Genesis 17, his son should have been “cut off from his people.” The holiness of God is clearly manifested in the near fatal illness of Moses. God does not look lightly on any sin.
Moses’ wife rightly perceived the problem and spared the life of her husband by her prompt action. The great man Moses was saved by his wife’s keen perception and decisive measures. Her rebuke was well-deserved, and Moses was man enough to record it for posterity. Would that we husbands had the integrity to be so honest.
For whatever reasons, Moses’ wife and children do not appear again in the account of Exodus until chapter 18. It may therefore be that Zipporah and the two sons returned to the home of Jethro at this time.108
By divine revelation God instructed Aaron to meet Moses in the wilderness (4:27). They met on the holy mountain of God. What a happy reunion that must have been. At least 40 years would seem to have passed since they had seen each other. Most of all, Moses had to share the most recent events of his life, especially his encounter with God at the burning bush, the commission he had been given to deliver Israel, and the part which Aaron was to play in it all. One can only surmise what Aaron’s response to this might have been.
Together Moses and Aaron went back to Egypt and met with the elders of the Israelites, telling them all that God had said to Moses and performing all the signs which God had given Moses (4:29-30). Both the elders of Israel and the people believed Moses and bowed down to worship the God of their fathers (4:31). This brief account of Israel’s belief and worship underscores the fact that all of Moses’ fears were unfounded.
The conclusion of chapter 4 serves as a divine commentary on the five-fold objection of Moses to the call of God. The last verses of the chapter, which report the belief of the people and their worship of God, inform us that Moses’ fears were unreal and unreasonable. All of his fears and all of his objections as reported in chapters 3 and 4 were groundless, based more on Moses’ fears than on reality.
Verses 24-26 then identify the underlying problem with Moses’ fears: unbelief. If one were to summarize the objections of Moses to his commission to return to Egypt, it would be this: “But God, they won’t believe me.” But Moses’ fears about Israel’s unbelief are rooted in his own unbelief. The basis for God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage is the Abrahamic Covenant. Consequently, God repeatedly identifies Himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (cf. 3:6,15,16,18; 4:5). The reason why Moses was not ready to return to Egypt is that he did not have sufficient faith in the covenant which God had made with his fathers. And since he did not have great faith in God’s covenant promises, he did not expect the Israelites to have it either. The evidence of Moses’ lack of faith is here, in his failure to circumcise his son as an evidence of his trust in God’s covenant promises.
In this text there are two separate threads pertaining to Moses which are intertwined. The first we might call his personal walk with God. The second we will call his public work for God. Moses’ objections all deal with God’s call and commission with reference to his public work. The essence of his protest is summed up in his last petition, “Please send someone else.” While God graciously answers each inquiry (points 1-3) and makes provision for his concerns (points 4 and 5), we never really get to the root of Moses’ problem until we come to verses 24-26.
We find that Moses’ problems with regard to his public work (returning to Egypt to rescue Israel) are all rooted in his private walk. His son is not circumcised. He cannot challenge men and women to step out in obedience, based upon their faith in God’s covenant promises when he has not yet even circumcised his son as an evidence of his faith. Thus, Moses’ problems in relationship to his public work are rooted in his personal walk. No wonder Paul wrote this to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16, NASB).
Take note that Paul urged Timothy to take heed to himself (his personal walk) and then to his ministry (his public work). One’s personal spiritual life takes priority over one’s public ministry. When our personal walk is deficient, our public ministry will suffer as well. In the context of Paul’s exhortation in this passage, it is clear that Timothy needs to pay attention to his personal walk, as well as to his ministry. Moses’ problems are an illustration of what happens when one’s personal walk is defective. It is hard to call people to faith when one is deficient in this very area. It is difficult to challenge people to obey God when we are disobedient.
I am suggesting that one’s personal walk with God has priority over one’s public work for God. God became angry with Moses regarding his reticence toward his public work. The result of this anger was to be stuck with Aaron as an assistant. But when God became angry with Moses relative to his private walk, it nearly cost Moses his life. I would infer from this that the latter evil was greater than the former. Thus, one’s private walk is the highest priority for our lives.
This incident also suggests that the saints often fall because of their failures in the most elementary areas of the Christian life. Think of it. Moses had an extensive education in Egypt, and a post-graduate course at the burning bush, and yet with all this knowledge Moses failed to obey God in the simplest area of his life—to circumcise his son. In the failures which I have observed in the life of great Christian leaders (as well as in my own life), these have most often been failings in the simple disciplines of life, especially related to our personal faith and walk and to our family. Such was the case with Moses. The cure for the problem was not hidden, not deep, not profound. Zipporah knew what needed to be done by Moses and did it for him when he was stricken (to act in his behalf at any other time would have been wrong, in my opinion).
May I suggest that this passage and the principle of the priority of one’s personal walk has a great deal of relevance to Christians today. Very often I find the attention of Christians focused on the same areas which Moses raised in protest to God’s command. Allow me to characterize the complaints or objections of Moses, and then relate them to our day.
(1) Moses was introspective, looking at himself, rather than looking to the God who called him. The questions, “Who am I?” and “What if they don’t believe me?” are both self-oriented, rather than God-oriented. God’s answer was to direct Moses toward His character and toward His provisions for Moses’ ministry. Many of the excuses which many of us are using for failing to do what God has commanded us to do are of the same kind—they are self-oriented.
One of the catch concepts of Christianity (and, significantly, of the world) is that of one’s self-concept or self-image. We seem to find a “poor self-image” the basis for crime, improper behavior, marital failures, and who knows what all. Now I do not wish to be understood to say that “self-image” is all hogwash. Much of it is, but not all of it. I am not saying that we should never consider the area of self-concept. I am saying that it is, at best, a symptom, more than it is a cause. Moses, we might say, had a bad self-image, but God did not work to change his self-image. Instead, God focused Moses’ attention on Himself, by revealing Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the “I AM.” When Moses grasped the greatness of the God who called him, then his self-image began to revolve around God, not man. The greatness of Moses is to be found in the greatness of the One who called him and who sent him. God listened to Moses’ objections founded on his self-concept, but He corrected Moses by focusing his attention elsewhere.
(2) Moses was more interested in academics than he was with action. Moses wanted to know more about God, and thus the question regarding the name of the God who sent him. I know of many people who would rather study about ministry than to do it.
I know of many who want to study about God, as an excuse not to serve Him. Study is important, but it is not a substitute for service, especially when God calls us to serve. Many are the intellectual pursuits of those who are resistant to obey.
(3) Moses was more concerned with his method than with the message he was given. The protest, “But I have never been eloquent” (4:10) is not only a lie; it is a diversion. The method of presentation (while important) was not nearly as important as the message. God promised to provide Moses with both (4:12). Many seem to think that the reason people don’t witness is because they don’t know how and that teaching them a method will produce evangelism. As helpful as training in methods of evangelism can be, the real problem is with our motives, not with our methods. A newly married couple does not need a manual on making love, and the reason is that they have the motivation to learn. Moses’ problem was not a methodological one, but a motivational one—he didn’t want to go, as evidenced by his final plea, “Please send someone else.”
(4) Moses’ problem was not so much a fear of failure as it was a failure of faith. Moses problem, bottom line, was not to be found in the things Moses expressed in his objections but on those which God exposed in verses 24-26. Moses’ problem was fundamentally a lack of faith—unbelief. He did not take the Abrahamic Covenant seriously, personally, and thus he found the thought of basing a ministry on it frightening.
Although hard to admit, I believe that many, if not most, of our problems as Christians are rooted in unbelief. The reason we are so lax in witnessing is because we do not really believe the gospel as we should. We don’t believe our friends and relatives are facing a Christless eternity, in continual torment. We don’t really believe that apart from faith in Christ men are hopelessly lost. We don’t really believe that the things of this life are momentary, and that eternity will expose what is both lasting and enjoyable.
If the gospel is the bedrock foundation on which our personal walk and public work is based then we dare not become forgetful of it. This is why we as a church believe that the remembrance of the Lord’s death is necessary on a weekly basis. We therefore observe the Lord’s table every week, and in this way remind ourselves of what is essential and foundational to our faith and walk. Let us never cease to look to the cross of Calvary. You see, the gospel of the Old Testament saint was summed up in the covenant of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The gospel of the New Testament is summed up in the cross of Christ on Calvary and in the “new covenant in his blood” (Luke 22:20). Let us never lose sight of the bedrock of our faith and of the devastation of unbelief.
In conclusion let me suggest some secondary applications which come by inference from our text. With regard to leadership, it seems that many of the current conceptions of Christian leadership are challenged by the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. Moses is sovereignly called to lead; he does not volunteer. In fact, Moses’ self-confidence and self-assertiveness are set aside before he is called to lead.
Not only is Moses sovereignly called, but he is prepared in a way quite different from what is proposed as normative today. Moses was not discipled, as we seem to think is required today. Moses learned most of his lessons in solitude and the rest in a secular (dare I say secular humanist) educational environment in Egypt. Moses is not trained so much by his successes as by his failures.
Moses is not called and commissioned because he is so spiritual, or so successful, or because he is “ready,” but because God is ready, and He will equip him to serve as he serves. There is more “on-the-job” training here than we might wish to admit.
The leaders whom we find portrayed in the Bible are not the giants we would like to find, but men whom God has used in spite of their weaknesses and failures. Surely we must admit that Moses, like Elijah, was a man of “like passions” (cf. James 5:17), a man who had the same fears and failures as we do. It is not the greatness of the man which is the key to his success, but the character of the God who calls and uses fallible men to do His will.
We expect our leaders to succeed and always to do the right thing. Nothing in the Scriptures gives us the right to expect such perfection, either in our leaders or in ourselves. Let us look upon our leaders as men who have fears and failings like ourselves, and who need our prayers, and our encouragement and exhortation as much as we need them.
In this brief glimpse of the life of Moses covering 80 years, let us recognize that that are two equally dangerous extremes with regard to leadership. The first is that of self-confident, self-assertiveness. Moses presumptuously set out to deliver his people and ended up running for his life. That is because he was neither called nor commissioned to lead at this point in his life. Many are those who would like to lead and who assert themselves as leaders, whom God has not commissioned to lead. Presumption in leadership is deadly.
Second, there is the danger of self-conscious passivity. This is what we see in Moses at the time when God did commission him to go to Egypt. Now Moses is full of all kinds of excuses why he is not the man for the job. There are many Christian men who seek to step away from leadership which God has thrust upon them. In the final analysis, it is because they do not trust God enough to believe that He can achieve His purposes through them.
Regardless of the ministry which God has given, let us do so with diligence, looking first to our own walk and then to our work, trusting and obeying the “I AM” who has called us and is forever with us.
89 One may wonder to whom the “they” of verse 1 refers. Is Moses doubting that the Israelites will believe God has appeared to him, or the Egyptians (especially the Pharaoh)? The context clearly indicates that the “they” refers to the Israelites. First, they would need to know that God had appeared to Moses, not Pharaoh. Pharaoh was simply to be told that “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us” (Exod. 3:18). Secondly, Exodus 4:5 specifies that the Hebrews will believe that “the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob— has appeared to you.”
90 It is absolutely incredible what some people are able to do with these miracles. Below are a few statements for you to consider: “The first sign was that Moses’ staff (which according to an Arabian saga was taken from paradise by Adam, but according to Moses’ own words was nothing more than an ordinary staff) was changed into a snake.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 59.
“The magical trick here performed is probably based on knowledge of an Egyptian snake-charmer’s trick.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 82.
“Moses is thus taught magic by the Lord of all wonders. The three he learns are transformation-miracles, in which one substance is changed into another. Moses himself performs two of the miracles immediately, perhaps to gain confidence, but the third can be carried out only in Egypt with the Nile water.” Ibid.
91 For example, Hannah writes: “Because snakes symbolized power and life to the Egyptians, God was declaring to Moses that he would be able to overcome the powers of Egypt.” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 113.
92 “In verse 20 it is called God’s rod, as being used in signs, and in Exodus 7:9 it is used by Aaron.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 73.
“The Hebrew reads ... ‘I am not a man of words.’ Later in the verse he speaks of the fact that he was ‘slow of speech’ and ‘slow of tongue.’ The Hebrew literally reads ‘heavy in mouth and heavy in tongue’; that is, he was not fluent in speech.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 68.
95 “Compare Exodus 5:23 for a similar rebuke. Such an attitude to God is culpable, but very natural and common, not least among the saints of the Old Testament covenant (Jeremiah [Jer. 1:6], the psalmist and Job are noted instances). Like Peter’s failings, these lovable faults bring them very close to us, since we see ourselves only too clearly in them. I am slow of speech: lit. ‘heavy of mouth.’ This vividly expresses the frustration of the man who knows that he cannot speak (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 10:10 for a similar rueful admission). We are never told that Moses’ self-estimate was incorrect. He is blamed for making excuses, not necessarily because the reasons given are untrue, but because they indicate lack of faith.” Cole, p. 75.
96 “The Hebrew word for ‘teach’ contains the same root as tora, ‘instruction,’ especially used in later times as a title for the Law of Moses. There may be a hint of the later meaning here.” Cole, p. 76.
98 You will notice that the NIV renders verse 19, “Now the Lord had said to Moses. …” The inference is that these words were spoken earlier, perhaps at the bush, but that they were recorded here for a reason. The reason is that we find out how Moses either misunderstood what God had told him or how he distorted it. God never suggested that “his own people” had died, but that “those who wanted to kill him” had died. When God’s words are placed in juxtaposition with those of Moses, Moses’ words do not conform to the truth. This revelation of God, placed where it was, informs us that Moses hedged concerning the truth.
99 “Three different Hebrew words are used to describe this condition attributed to Pharaoh. The first is the verb kabed which has the idea of ‘to be heavy, insensible, or dull,’ and is used in 7:14; 8:15,32; and 9:7,34. The next word used is qasah which conveys the sense of ‘being hard, severe, or fierce.’ In the Hifil stem it has the sense of ‘making difficult.’ There are two occurrences of this term, one in 7:3 and the other in 13:15. The final term used is hazaq which is one of the strongest terms employed, meaning ‘to be or grow firm, strong.’ In reference to its use in this context, it has the sense of ‘growing stout, rigid, or hard.’ Two things should be observed in connection with this problem. One is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and resisted the demands of God. This is clearly indicated in a number of the passages (cf. 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34-35; 13:15). … On the other hand, it is clearly stated that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17). This act of God should be considered judicial and real.” Davis, pp. 69-70.
“Three different Hebrew verbs are used, but there is no essential difference in their meaning. Sometimes it is said that God hardens pharaoh’s heart, as here. Sometimes pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, as in Exodus 8:15. Sometimes the position is described neutrally, by saying that pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Exodus 7:13. Even to the Western scholar, it was a problem of theological interpretation, not one of history and fact. No one doubts that pharaoh was stubborn, that he had an iron will and purpose, that he found it impossible to change his pattern of thought and adjust to new ideas. These and more are all implied in the biblical ‘hard-hearted,’ which does not refer to emotion, as in English, but to mind, will, intelligence and response. Often ‘dull-witted’ would be a good translation.” Cole, p. 77.
“Another factor in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is that it was a reversal of an Egyptian belief. Egyptians believed that when a person died his heart was weighed in the hall of judgment. If one’s heart was ‘heavy’ with sin, that person was judged. A stone beetle scarab was placed on the heart of a deceased person to suppress his natural tendency to confess sin which would subject himself to judgment. This ‘hardening of the heart’ by the scarab would result in salvation for the deceased. … For the Egyptians ‘hardening of the heart’ resulted in silence (absence of confession of sin) and therefore salvation. But God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resulted in acknowledgment of sin and in judgment.” Hannah, pp. 114-115.
Lest we begin to feel a little puffed up about Pharaoh’s hard heart, let us recall that Israel is persistently described in Scripture as “stiff-necked.” Pharaoh was hard-hearted in not acknowledging the truth. Israel was stiff-necked in refusing to obey what they knew to be the truth.
100 “The mention of Israel as Jehovah’s ‘firstborn’ is significant in this larger context. The firstborn son was to the Egyptians not only special, but in many respects sacred. It is therefore most interesting that the people of God are regarded as firstborn in this passage (cf. Hos. 11:1).” Davis, p. 71.
“This is the first introduction of the ‘first-born’ theme in the book (cf. Gen. 22). Passover, unleavened bread, and the redemption of Israelite first-born are inextricably linked with the events of Exodus (cf. Ex. 11:4) for reappearance and therefore doubtless in Israel’s religious thought afterwards. The connection is very simple and patterned on the ‘lex talionis,’ a fundamental principle of Hebrew Law (Ex. 21:23). Israel, considered collectively, is God’s first-born, presumably as being His chosen people and as ‘first-fruits’ of all the peoples (Jer. 31:9; 2:3).” Cole, p. 78.
101 “This is the most obscure passage in the Book of Exodus. It has given rise to a number of different interpretations, none of which is wholly satisfactory. The obscurity arises in part from the extreme brevity of the account, and the indefiniteness of reference of several of the personal pronouns.” Hyatt, p. 86.
103 I have chosen the word “seemed” advisedly. There are a number of times in the Bible when the appearance was different than God’s intended outcome. God appeared to desire to destroy Israel and to make a new nation out of Moses, but this is something God would not do, based upon the argument of Moses that He could not do it without breaking His promise to Abraham and failing to accomplish His purposes (Exod. 32:7-14). In the New Testament, the resurrected Lord “acted as if he were going farther,” but He did not actually do so (Luke 24:28-29). So, in this passage in Exodus as well, I believe that God appeared to intend to put Moses to death, but he was the one who had been commissioned to deliver Israel. Thus, it only seemed that God would put him to death.
104 “It is a very ancient, primitive story that pictures a ‘demonic’ Yahweh. It is very probable that it has been borrowed by the Israelites from a pagan source, possibly Midianite, and imperfectly assimilated to Israelite theology. … The original story may have concerned a demon or deity of the boundary between Midianite territory and Egypt whom Moses failed properly to appease.” Hyatt, p. 87.
105 The text does not tell us which of the two (cf. Exod. 4:20; 18:3, 6) sons of Moses was circumcised. Gershom, the first-born could have been as old as 40, which makes the second son a possibility. This is the preference of Gispen, who writes, “Usually the son is understood to be Gershom, but since verse 20 speaks of sons, and the word circumcision is used in the plural in verse 26, I believe that we must think here of the younger son, Eliezer (18:4). Gershom then had already been circumcised, but Moses, under pressure from Zipporah, had neglected to circumcise his second son. That this happened at Zipporah’s instigation follows in my opinion from her action and from her words later.” Gispen, p. 63.
The emphasis on the firstborn in the preceding context (4:22-23) would tend to favor Gershom being the uncircumcised son. The name of the son is not that important in this text, however, which is precisely why the matter is not clarified in the text.
107 A number of interpreters seem to feel that Moses failed to circumcise his son due to Zipporah’s disdain for this practice. This view is reflected in the statement, “It is generally the view of commentators that these words were an expression of reproach and unhappiness. They reflect the fact that Zipporah performed the rite grudgingly, not from a desire to obey the God of Moses, but primarily out of practical necessity to save his life. Perhaps Moses had neglected this rite in order to accommodate the wishes of Zipporah. In any event, he was punished by God and was apparently desperately sick.” Davis, p. 71.
I find no evidence to indicate that Zipporah is the problem, and in this passage, she is the solution while Moses is the problem.
108 “Some exegetes assume that Moses sent Zipporah and the children back to Jethro after the circumcision of Eliezer, in order to establish agreement with 18:1ff.; this is probably correct.” Gispen, p. 65.
5. The Finger of God (Exodus 7:14-10:29)
There are some tragedies in life which are simply that—tragedies. The crash of Delta flight 191 this past Friday evening is certainly one of those tragedies. No one would dare, at this point in time, to call this tragedy an act of divine judgment. It is simply one of those tragedies which is a part of the sufferings and sadness of life. There are also tragedies which have a very positive and beneficial purpose. The tragedies of Job’s life, for example, were beneficial to his walk of faith. The “tragedy” of the cross of Christ was beneficial, for it is through His death that we can be saved. The sufferings of the nation Israel during the 400 years of their slavery in Egypt also will, in the drama of Israel’s history in the Book of Exodus (and in the course of our study), prove to be beneficial.
There are also those tragedies which are the outworking of the wrath of God. The plagues which God brings upon the Egyptians are a part of God’s judgment of Pharaoh and his people for their oppression of His people, the Israelites (cf. Gen. 15:13-14; Deut. 11:1-4; Ps. 78:44-52). This is a side of God’s dealings with men which we would like to ignore, but we dare not.
The judgment of the Egyptians is given a significant amount of space in the Book of Exodus. If we are sensitive to God’s “editorial policy” then we must acknowledge that this judgment is important for us, as well as for the Old Testament saints. Not only does Moses go into a great deal of detail in describing the plagues of the Exodus, but this incident is frequently referred to throughout the Old Testament and the New. Thus we must come to the plagues as a rather unpleasant subject, but one that is vitally important to each of us. At the conclusion of this message we shall seek to explain why.
In response to the suffering of the Israelites (chap. 1), God has called Moses, whom He has divinely protected and prepared for the task of delivering His people from Egypt (chaps. 2-4). After considerable resistance, Moses has returned to Egypt, where he has been received by the elders and the people of Israel, rebuffed by Pharaoh, to the consternation of the Israelites. In chapter 7 we come to the beginning of the plagues which God will bring upon Egypt through Moses and Aaron. Because of the significance of the final (10th) plague, we shall make it the subject of our next lesson. This lesson will focus on the first nine plagues, which seem to have a distinct pattern of their own, as will be pointed out shortly.
The resistance (hardened heart) of Pharaoh and the resulting plagues come as no surprise, either to Moses or to the reader. God had foretold the necessity of the plagues which were to be brought upon Egypt: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exod. 3:19-20). Pharaoh may have found the petition to release the Israelites for three days so that they could worship their God in the wilderness especially irksome, for two principle reasons. First, he would not be inclined to acknowledge the existence of some other God, especially since he, himself, was regarded as a god. Second, religious observances necessitated a “day off,” and there seem to have been a sufficient number of those already:
But Pharaoh contemptuously dismissed this God as one more obscure Semitic godling—there were already enough religious holidays and festivals on which no work was done, and this was just an excuse to be idle (Ex. v. 8, 17).
… As for absence from work, Egyptian ostraca … include journals of work that give a day-to-day record of absenteeism, names of absentees, and reasons. One ostracon shows that the workmen of the royal tomb were idle at one period for thirty days out of forty-eight. One journal of absences takes note of several workmen, ‘offering to his god’ … and the laconic entry wsf, ‘idle,’ is not infrequent in such journals.109
One wonders if the “days off” which religious worship necessitated might not have been a factor in Israel’s worship of the gods of Egypt (cf. Josh. 24:14). After all, by simply going along with the worship of the various Egyptian deities, a brief rest from their hard labor was the reward for the Israelites.
For many reasons, Pharaoh was unwilling to release the Israelites so that they could worship their God. This necessitated the demonstration of the mighty hand of God through the plagues, which would compel Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
The Nature of the Plagues
Before we look briefly at each of the plagues individually, it will be helpful to consider all of the plagues as a unit. When we seek to discern the nature of the plagues, explanations generally fall into one of these categories:110
(1) The plagues were mere myth. There are those who hold that none of the plagues which are described in this portion of Exodus as though they were miracles even occurred. This account, some believe, is merely a fabrication, myths which are fabricated to dramatically or creatively communicate certain religious beliefs. This view cannot be taken seriously, for it fails to take the Bible seriously, certainly not as the inspired Word of God.
(2) The plagues did occur, but were not miraculous. Such scholars take the events to be natural disasters which were common in Egypt, and which were interpreted as an act of divine judgment. This is an improvement over the first view in that it takes the text more seriously. It, however, fails because it does not want to find anything miraculous here, either. The event is true, but the miraculous element is false, being added by the author(s) for ideological or theological reasons.
(3) The plagues did occur as natural disasters, which were moderately miraculous. There are some writers who would be included in the camp of evangelicals who still lean a bit too far (in my opinion) toward the second view. These “miracles” would appear to be either Class C or Class B miracles, but not really first class (Class A) miracles. The miraculous element is to be found, we are told, in the timing and intensity of the natural disaster. K. A. Kitchen111 and Alan Cole112 both seem to fall into this category. The Nile turned to blood is viewed either as having reached flood stage, laden with red colored silt, or with some kind of micro-organism, which gave the river a red color. All of the other eight plagues are a kind of aftermath, a natural outworking, of the first plague.113 While nature is certainly employed (frogs, storms, locusts, etc.), there is something here which is more miraculous than just a greater-than-average natural disaster. These miracles were signs, and thus significantly out of the ordinary.
(4) The plagues involved nature and natural forces, but in a way that was designed to be decidedly and convincingly miraculous.114 As the magicians put it, “This is the finger of God.” There is a tension which we must be willing to acknowledge. On the one hand, the text tells us that the Nile was turned to blood. On the other, we know that elsewhere, “blood” is used in a non-literal way. We are told in Joel 2:31 and Revelation 6:12 that the “moon will be “turned to blood.” In the final analysis, we must take the text as literally and seriously as possible. Our motivation must be to understand the passage as it was written, and not in accordance with the explanation which is most believable.
Joseph P. Free lists five unique aspects of the plagues which set them apart as miraculous events. These are as follows: (1) Intensification. While frogs, insects, murrain and darkness were known in Egypt, these were intensified far beyond any ordinary occurrence. (2) Prediction. The fact that Moses predicted the moment of the arrival and departure sets them apart from purely natural occurrences (cf. 8:10, 23; 9:5, 18, 29; 10:4). (3) Discrimination. Certain of the plagues did not occur in the land of Goshen where Israel was living (8:22, no flies; 9:4, no murrain; 9:26, no hail). (4) Orderliness. There is a gradual severity in the nature of the plagues concluding with the death of the firstborn. (5) Moral Purpose. “These were not freaks of nature but were designed to teach moral precepts and lessons.”115
The “Miracles” of the Magicians
In addition the determining how “miraculous” the plagues of Moses and Aaron were, we must come to some conclusion as to the nature of the “miracles” performed by the magicians. The first two plagues were, to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, reproduced by his magicians. There are several ways to understand what was accomplished by the magicians.116 At the bottom line, we have but two options:
(1) The “miracles” were only apparent miracles, performed by some kind of illusion or sleight of hand. Either by trickery, deception, or sleight of hand, the magicians appeared to reproduce the miracles of Moses and Aaron. We are told, for example, that the cobra can be made rigid by applying pressure at the proper spot at the back of the creature’s head. Thus, the staffs of the magicians were really serpents all along, only appearing to be sticks.
(2) The “miracles” were supernaturally empowered, by Satan or his demonic helpers. It would appear that the magicians actually did reproduce the first two plagues, but were prevented from removing any of the plagues or of reproducing any others. In the case of the plague of the gnats, the text seems to indicate that the magicians thought they could produce gnats and tried, unsuccessfully, to do so (Exod. 8:18). There are several lines of evidence which inclines me toward the view that Satan was, indeed, the means of the magicians reproducing the first two “miracles.”117 This is more than just a contest between Moses and the magicians, it is God challenging the gods of Egypt (Exod. 12:12), behind which is Satan and his demonic assistants. False worship is often demonically inspired (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20-21; I Tim. 4:1).
The Pattern of the Plagues
As one views the first 9 plagues as a whole, there is a distinct pattern to them (note the summary chart at the end of this lesson). The 9 plagues can be grouped into a series of 3 contests, each composed of 3 plagues. The first plagues (1-3) produce discomfort; the next 3 bring about greater damage or destruction (4-6); the last 3 (7-9) produce the added dimension of downright dread. So the plagues progress from discomfort to destruction to dread. The first plague of each series (plagues 1, 4, and 7) begins with the expression “in the morning.” The last plague of each sequence (3, 6, and 9) comes unannounced and without the warnings of the others.
In the first series of plagues (1-3), the staff is stretched out by Aaron. In the second series (4-6), no staff is used. In the third series (7-9) Moses uses his staff. As the plagues progress, Pharaoh’s heart becomes increasingly hardened. When the king of Egypt bargains with Moses for relief, he agrees to grant more and more concessions, but he fails to keep his promises. In the first series of plagues, no mention is made of the Israelites being distinguished from the Egyptians so far as experiencing the plagues is concerned. From the second series onward, a distinction is either clearly made or implied.
The plagues begin with the magicians imitating the miracles of Moses and Aaron; then they themselves move to admitting the hand (or finger, to be more exact) of God in the plague; next, they are themselves so afflicted that they cannot stand before Moses. The “officials” of Pharaoh (who seem to be a different group from that of the magicians) have within their number those who heed the warning of Moses and put their slaves and cattle under cover (9:20). Finally, all of Pharaoh’s officials plead with him to release the Israelites before Egypt is completely ruined (10:7).
The Plagues in Particular
Having considered the plagues as a whole, we will now briefly consider each of the plagues individually. Each of the plagues conveys a message from God.
PLAGUE ONE: THE NILE TURNED INTO BLOOD (Exod. 7:14-25). The Nile is virtually the “life blood” of Egypt. Without the silt provided during its times of overflow and the water with which it constantly sustained life, Egypt would be almost uninhabitable. John Davis informs us of the importance of the Nile to the Egyptians and the way this affected their theology:
Were it not for this inundation Egypt would be as desolate as the deserts on either side. The Egyptians fully recognized this fact, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of the Nile, hymns were written. Not only were gods associated with the Nile, but fertility, blessing, and happiness were also associated with the faithfulness of this river. From the New Kingdom period comes a document known to us today as the “Hymn of the Nile,” a composition which may have originated in the Middle Kingdom period. The words of this hymn best tell the story of the importance of the Nile River to the Egyptian.
Hail to thee, Oh Nile, that issues from the earth and comes to keep Egypt alive! … He that waters the meadows which Recreated, in order to keep every kid alive. He that makes to drink the desert and the place distant from water: that is his dew coming down (from) heaven.118
The meaning of this miracle of turning the Nile to blood can best be understood in the light of the later prophecy God gave through Ezekiel:
“Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams. You say, ‘The Nile is mine; I made it for myself.’ But I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales. I will put you out from among your streams, with all the fish sticking to your scales. I will leave you in the desert, you and all the fish of your streams. You will fall on the open field and not be gathered or picked up. I will give you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air. Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the Lord’” (Ezek. 29:2-6).
PLAGUE TWO: THE FROGS (Exod. 8:1-15). Frogs were also regarded as having divine power:
In the Egyptian pantheon the goddess Heqet had the form of a woman with a frog’s head. From her nostrils, it was believed, came the breath of life that animated the bodies of those created by her husband, the great god Khnum, from the dust of the earth. Therefore frogs were not to be killed.119
Frogs were not uncommon in Egypt, especially around the Nile river. But there had never been so many. The account of the frogs is almost humorous. One can visualize them hopping and croaking all over Egypt. Especially delightful is the thought of them overrunning the palace of the Pharaoh. In my childhood, one of our favorite tricks at camp was to place a slimy creature, like a frog, in someone’s sleeping bag. In Egypt, the bag would have been full of frogs. They got into the food, into the kneading troughs, ovens, everywhere. The fact that the magicians of Egypt could produce even more frogs must have been a real delight to the Egyptians. What they wanted was no frogs, not more frogs.
Only Moses could take the frogs away. Moses gave Pharaoh the option of naming the time for the frogs to be removed. Pharaoh chose the next day. I would imagine that he did not ask for the frogs to be removed immediately, hoping that they would go away by themselves, before the appointed time, thus showing that Moses was not in control of the situation. Egypt was rid of the frogs through their death, which meant that huge heaps of frogs were piled all over the country, creating a stench that was a plague in and of itself. One can imagine that frog legs were not a delicacy offered in the fancy restaurants of Egypt for many years, due to the memory of this plague.
PLAGUE THREE: THE GNATS (Exod. 8:16-19). It is not altogether certain what is meant by the Hebrew term translated “gnat” in the NIV. The KJV renders the term “lice,” which is also possible. Some have suggested that it was a plague of mosquitoes. Having suffered from mosquitoes in the past, I find this at least a believable option. It does not really matter exactly what is meant. The gnats plagued both men and animals. I can almost see the Egyptians (and their animals) constantly scratching themselves (or swatting away at the creatures), trying to get some relief.
The importance of this plague is that the magicians of Egypt were unable to produce these gnats, even though they tried. This was convincing enough for the magicians to say to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (v. 19). From the other places where this same expression is found (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10; Ps. 8:3; Luke 11:20), it seems to refer primarily to the power of God, directly intervening in the affairs of men. Nevertheless, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he refused to listen.
PLAGUE FOUR: THE FLIES (Exod. 8:20-32). With this plague, the second sequence of three plagues is commenced. Here, discrimination is made between the Egyptians and the Israelites. While we cannot be certain of the exact species of flies that plagued Egypt,120 we would probably be safe in assuming that they were bigger, and bit harder than the gnats previously set loose on the Egyptians.
The flies were so bothersome, Pharaoh was willing to negotiate with Moses. He offered to let the Israelites have time off to worship their God, but only if they were to stay in the land of Egypt (8:25). When Moses refused this offer, Pharaoh countered with an offer that they could “go into the desert, but not very far” (8:28). Pharaoh’s request, “Pray for me” (v. 28), indicates his self-centered interests. Moses left, but with the warning that there must be no more deceit on Pharaoh’s part regarding his promise to let Israel go. But when the flies were gone, so was Pharaoh’s motivation to let Israel go.
PLAGUE FIVE: LIVESTOCK KILLED (Exod. 9:1-7). The fifth plague was one that was directed against the livestock of the Egyptians, but which did not affect the cattle of the Israelites. Speculations as to what the cause of death was are simply that. By whatever means, God virtually wiped out the cattle of the Egyptians. Since wealth was measured largely in terms of cattle, this was an economic disaster. The gods of Egypt were once again proven to be lifeless and useless:
… many animals were sacred (cf. 8:26), particularly, as stated earlier, the bull which represented the god Apis or Re, and the cow which represented Hathor, the goddess of love, beauty, and joy. Hathor was depicted in the form of a woman with the head (or sometimes only the horns) of a cow. Also Khnum was a ram-god.121
PLAGUE SIX: BOILS (Exod. 9:8-12). Hannah writes, “The Egyptians, fearfully aware of epidemics, worshiped Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess with alleged power over disease; Sunu, the pestilence god; and Isis, goddess of healing.”122 There is another humorous note here. The magicians are not only unable to rid the land of Egypt of the boils, they are also so afflicted themselves that they cannot even show up to stand before Moses. The expression, “Physician, heal thyself,” surely applies here.
PLAGUE SEVEN: THE STORM123 (Exod. 9:13-35). Usually, this plague is referred to as “the plague of hail” (cf. NIV). This, however, is only partly true. In reality, the plague is the worst thunderstorm in Egypt’s history (9:18). The death and destruction which occurs is the result of both hailstones and lightening (v. 24).
This plague begins the third and final trilogy of plagues. Things get considerably worse, and the account of the plagues become more lengthy and detailed. These last plagues begin with the warning that unless Pharaoh releases the Israelites, God will “send the full force of His plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt” (v. 14). God could have legitimately and easily wiped out all of Egypt in one blow, but He did not (v. 15). Now, if Pharaoh persists in his hardness of heart, things will get considerably worse.
In verse 16 Moses explains why God has allowed Pharaoh’s stubbornness to persist. God raised Pharaoh up for the purpose of hardening his heart and thus of providing the occasion for God to manifest His power to men. That God is free to do so is the point Paul makes in Romans chapter 9, citing this statement to Pharaoh as an example.
PLAGUE EIGHT: LOCUSTS (Exod. 10:1-20). The previous plague of the thunderstorm had destroyed the flax and barley crops, but the wheat and spelt crops were not destroyed, because they matured later on (9:31). The locusts would wipe out the wheat and the spelt crops.
This plague would, God said, give the Israelites something to tell their grandchildren about (10:1-2). When Moses foretold of the coming of the locusts on the next day, Pharaoh’s officials pled with the king to let the Israelites go (10:7). Egypt, they protested, was ruined, so why incur any further disasters? Pharaoh offered to let the men go, but not the women, and then drove Moses and Aaron out of his presence (10:10-11).
When the plague struck Egypt, Pharaoh confessed that he had sinned against God and against the Israelites. He asked Moses for forgiveness, and that he pray for the plague to be removed (10:16-17). A strong west wind carried the locusts into the Red Sea. When the plague was removed, Pharaoh returned to his old ways, and would not let Israel go (10:20).
PLAGUE NINE: DARKNESS (Exod. 10:21-29). The ninth plague was that of a darkness so intense that it produced a dread in the hearts of the Egyptians. For three days the Egyptians and the Israelites were confined to their homes. For the Egyptians, it would seem that their homes were darkened as well, but for the Israelites, there was light in their homes (10:22-23). Some have suggested that this “darkness” was only a partial darkness, created by a dust storm.124 This can hardly be the case, for the darkness which is described here is much more intense. The three days of darkness must have had a tremendous emotional and psychological impact on the nation as a whole. The experience may have been something like the 3 day period of blindness which Saul experienced prior to his conversion (cf. Acts 9:8-12).
This plague of darkness struck hard at the Egyptian deities:
This plague was aimed at one of the chief Egyptian deities, the sun god Re, of whom Pharaoh was a representation. Re was responsible for providing sunlight, warmth, and productivity. Other gods, including Horus, were associated with the sun. Nut, the goddess of the sky, would have been humiliated by this plague …125
The ninth plague, like the third and the sixth plagues, came upon the Egyptians without warning, which would have given them no opportunity to prepare for the disaster, either physically or psychologically. Pharaoh’s response to the plague was to offer to allow all the Israelites to leave Egypt to worship God, but that the cattle must remain behind (10:24). When this offer was rejected, Pharaoh hotly warned Moses that he must leave his presence, and to return would be his death. Moses agreed, but he had yet one more plague to proclaim before his final exit from Pharaoh’s presence. This tenth plague, he threatened, would bring about the release of the Israelites.
The Point of the Plagues
The plagues came from God upon the Egyptians for specific purposes. Let us briefly review what these purposes were.
(1) The plagues were an indictment and judgment of the gods of Egypt. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12; cf. 18:11; Num. 33:4; Isa. 19:1).126 Not only did the Egyptians need to renounce their pagan gods as no-gods, but so did the Israelites, who also worshipped them (cf. Josh. 24:14).
(2) The plagues were a demonstration of God’s existence and power. Pharaoh rejected Moses’ request that he allow the Israelites to travel three days into the wilderness to worship God (Exod. 5:1-2). The plagues were a rebuttal to Pharaoh’s response. They proved that Israel’s God alone was Lord. “And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it” (Exod. 7:5; cf. also, 7:17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16; 10:2).
(3) The plagues were a judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their cruelty and harshness. “But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (Gen. 15:14).
(4) The plagues were God’s means of forcing Pharaoh to release Israel from Egypt. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exod. 3:19-20; cf. 6:1; 7:4-5; 12:31, 33, 39; 13:3).
(5) The plagues were a prototype, a sample of God’s future judgment. The plagues which came upon the Egyptians for their sin were like those which Israel would experience, if this nation disobeyed the Law which God was soon to give them: “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured” (Deut. 28:27). There is also much similarity between the plagues of Egypt and the plagues described in the Book of Revelation, which are poured out upon the earth in the last days, just preceding the return of our Lord. Thus, in the Book of Revelation we find the victorious tribulation saints singing the “song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3).
As we begin to probe the principles which underlie our text and their application to our lives, let me warn you not to assume that all calamity is the result of our sin, and evidence of God’s judgment. Job’s adversity, as outlined in the Book of Job, was not the result of Job’s sin, but a means of Job’s growth in his walk with God. In addition, Job’s affliction was a teaching tool for Satan, who cannot fathom why a saint would continue to worship God when it not profitable, but painful to do so.
The plagues of our passage were the judgment of God upon the Egyptians, but notice that God clearly identified them as such. The Egyptians may not have chosen to believe it, but God was clearly judging the gods of Egypt and those who would worship them. When God’s judgment comes upon men, He will let them know what is happening and why. When God is disciplining one of His saints, He will be sure to let that saint know what is going on. We need not agonize, searching for hidden sin, at the onslaught of every adversity and affliction. When God chastens us for sin, we’ll know about it.
When God is punishing men for sin, He is not silent about it. When He is silent at the time of the suffering of a saint, this is a test of our faith, not an evidence of God’s judgment.
This text reminds us of the seriousness of sin. God takes man’s sin very seriously. The severity of the plagues is the measure of how seriously God took the sin of the Egyptians. It is not just the sin of the Egyptians which God abhors, He hates our sin just as much as that of the pagans. Christians sometimes minimize the sin in their lives, and when they do so they fail to take our text seriously. Sin is serious business.
This is why God warns the Israelites of the judgment which awaits them for their disobedience (Deut. 28). This is why God sought to slay Moses on his way to Egypt (Exod. 4:24).
The seriousness with which God deals with sin is also the measure of His holiness. Often times we find ourselves horrified at the severity with which God deals with the sinner. When we think of God as harsh in such instances we only reveal our failure to grasp the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. R. C. Sproul has recently written an excellent book entitled, The Holiness of God, in which he deals with the difficult judgment texts of the Old Testament. I highly recommend this book to you for your reading.
If we think God’s judgment of the Egyptians to be severe, let me remind you of several other factors. The first is that God judged the gods of Egypt more than He did the Egyptians. Just as hell is the place prepared for Satan and his angels, so judgment here was for the Egyptian gods. But whoever chooses to serve these gods shares in their judgment. Second, God’s judgment was intended, I believe, to bring some of the Egyptians to a saving faith. The fact that some Egyptians left Egypt with the Israelites (Exod. 12:38) gives substance to this possibility. Third, God’s judgment upon the Egyptians was the means of delivering His people from terrible bondage. Finally, God’s judgment was poured out upon His own Son on the cross of Calvary, so that all men might be saved. God’s “severity” extended to His own Son. Finally, there was an alternative provided by God to suffering the plagues of Egypt, and that was believing God’s warning and doing as He commanded. God’s judgment could be avoided by faith and obedience.
The judgment of God on sin is something which false religionists seek to deny. Judgment is not something which men would choose to believe nor a subject which men like to dwell upon. In his second epistle, Peter speaks of the false teachers who deny the coming of our Lord to judge men: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’” (2 Pet. 3:3-4). Judgment is not a popular subject, and thus the plagues of God against Egypt are not popular reading. But it is nevertheless a subject which we must give heed to, for it is a vital part of divine revelation.
This passage reminds us of the fact that the judgment of God is a strong motivation. It is a strong motivation for evangelism. It was the desire of Peter’s audience in Acts chapter 2 to avoid the coming wrath of God which motivated them towards repentance and faith. The Holy Spirit convicts men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8), bringing the sinner to faith in Christ. It is also an awareness of the coming judgment of God which motivates the Christian to evangelize (2 Cor. 5:11) and to live pure and holy lives until He comes (2 Pet. 3:11-12).
It has just occurred to me that the judgment of God, like His salvation, is a matter which must be believed and applied by faith. The psalmist in Psalm 73 looks about and senses that the wicked are not suffering for their sin, but are prospering, while the righteous seem to be the ones who suffer. In this present day, it may seem that sin is profitable, while righteousness is painful. At such times we must remember that we accept the fact of God’s future judgments (as we do His future rewards) by faith. It is no wonder that so few believe in the judgment of God, or live their lives as though judgment were a certainty.
The Book of Revelation speaks a great deal about this future judgment, and the descriptions we find of it make the plagues of the Book of Exodus almost pale. There is coming upon the earth of time of judgment that will be unlike that of any age. It surely is a time which should be avoided. The solution is that of faith in the provision which God has given—His own Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place, who suffered our judgment, so that we might be forgiven.
Level of Pain: Discomfort
Conditions / Details
Application to Egyptian Gods
Outcome / Responses
Pharaoh as he went to get water from Nile in the morning.
“In the morning”
Hapi (Apis), the bull god of Nile;
Magicians duplicated; Pharaoh refused to listen; People dug along Nile for water
Let My people go, or else …
Heqet, goddess of birth—frog head
Magicians duplicated; Moses petitioned to remove frogs; Pharaoh to set time
Set, god of desert
“This is the finger of God”
Level of Pain: Destruction
Pharaoh as he goes to get water in early morning
“In the morning”
Re, sun god;
Moses summoned / Pharaoh bargains: “Don’t go far”
If you refuse…
Israel’s cattle exempted,
Hathor, goddess with cow head; Apis, the bull god (fertility)
Pharaoh informed, no repentance
Soot of furnace tossed in air
Sekhmet, goddess over disease; Sunu, pestilence god
Magicians afflicted, could not stand before Moses. Pharaoh hardened.
Level of Pain: Dread
“Let my people go, or else… Plagues full force!”
“In the morning” worst storm in Egypt’s history. Time set. Bring in livestock.
Nut, sky goddess;
Set, god of storms
Some officials brought in servants, cattle.
“Let my people go … if you refuse. . .”
Nut, sky goddess
Officials plead for release of Israel before plague.
Re, sun god
“Go, without herds”
111 “The element of miracle in these plagues is usually bound up with their intensity, timing, and duration. By far the most painstaking study of the plague phenomena is that by G. Hort in ZAW LXIX, 1957, pp. 84-1-3, and ZAW LXX, 1958, pp. 48-59. While her treatment of the first nine seems excellent, her attempt to explain the tenth as ‘firstfruits’ instead of firstborn is decidedly artificial and unlikely. Hort has pointed out that the first nine plagues form a logical and connected sequence, beginning with an abnormally high Nile-inundation occurring in the usual months of July and August and the series of plagues ending about March (Heb. Abib). In Egypt too high an inundation of the Nile was just as disastrous as too low a flood.” K. A. Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” The New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas, ed., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 1001.
113 “This would correspond with the conditions brought about by an unusually high Nile. The higher the Nile-flood, the more earth it carries in suspension, especially of the finely-divided ‘red earth’ from the basins of the Blue Nile and Atbara. And the more earth carried, the redder became the Nile waters. Such an excessive inundation could further bring down with it microcosms known as flagellates and associated bacteria: besides heightening the blood-red colour of the water, these would create conditions so unfavourable for the fish that they would die in large numbers as recorded. Their decomposition would foul the water and cause a stench.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” pp. 1001-1002.
“The heavy precipitation in Ethiopia and the Sudan which led to the extraordinary high Nile would also provide favourable conditions for a dense plague of locusts by about March. These, following the usual route, would in due course be blown into northern Egypt by the east wind; the ‘west wind,’ … is literally ‘sea-wind’, i.e. really a north (or north-west) wind, and this would blow the locusts right up the Nile valley.” Ibid, p. 1002.
114 Gispen, in my opinion, best handles the issue of the nature of the plagues. W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 84-85. Hannah also takes a conservative stance here. John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 121.
117 “…since the Septuagint translates this word [enchantments (KJV); secret arts (RSV); witchcraft (Jerusalem Bible)] as pharmakeiais which means “sorcery, magic, or magical arts” (cf. Gal. 5:20), it may well be that the original root was the Hebrew lat … which means secrecy or mystery.” Davis, pp. 82-83.
The magical arts of the Egyptians included “… cursing (including killing); curing; erotic magic; agricultural (including weather); divination; and resurrection.” Barbara Mertz, Red Land, Black Land (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 207-208, as cited by Davis, p. 82.
120 “These flies may have been the dog flies known for their painful bites. They may have represented Re, a prominent Egyptian deity. Or the flies may have been Ichneuman flies, who depicted the god Uatchit.” Hannah, “Exodus,” p. 122.
Some have asked, “If all the cattle died here, how, then, can we later (vss. 10; 20-21) read of other livestock which is killed in the thunderstorm?” Hannah (p. 113) suggests (1) hyperbole or (2) only all the animals in the field were killed. A better suggestion may be that the Egyptians purchased cattle from another country. To allow some time for the Egyptians to begin to recover from one disaster, only to lay them low again, is of much greater economic consequence.
123 “Nut, the sky goddess, was not able to forestall the storm; and Osiris, the god of crop fertility, could not maintain the crops in this hailstorm; nor could Set, the storm god, hold back this storm.” Ibid.
124 “This was a khamsin dust storm, but no ordinary one. The heavy inundation had brought down and deposited masses of ‘red earth,’ now dried out as a fine dust over the land. The effect of this when whirled up by a khamsin wind would be to make the air extraordinarily thick and dark, blotting out the light of the sun. The ‘three days’ of Ex. x. 23 is the known length of a khamsin. The intensity of the khamsin may suggest that it was early in the season, and would thus come in March. If the Israelites were dwelling in the region of Wadi Tumilat as their part of Goshen, they would miss the worst effects of this plague.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” p. 1002.
126 Davis writes, “Unlike other rulers in the ancient Near East, the Egyptian Pharaoh did not merely rule for the gods, but he was in a literal sense one of the gods. His birth was a divine act. He was counted specifically as the child of certain deities and thus possessed the properties of deity. … In light of this observation it is not difficult to see why Pharaoh reacted as he did to the initial request of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 5:2). The king, as god, was to have sole rule over the people. … The plagues served to demonstrate the impotency of Pharaoh, both as a ruler and as a god. He was subject to the same frustrations and anxieties as the average man in Egypt during the period of the plagues. The fact that he called for Moses and Aaron rather than the wise men of Egypt during times of greatest distress attests to this fact.” Davis, pp. 89-90.
Kitchen adds, “In Ex. xii. 12 God speaks of executing judgments against all the gods of Egypt. In some measure He had already done so in the plagues, as Egypt’s gods were much bound up with the forces of nature. Ha`pi, the Nile-god of inundation, had brought not prosperity but ruin; the frogs, symbol of Heqit, a goddess of fruitfulness, had brought only disease and wasting; the hail, rain, and storm were the heralds of awesome events (as in the Pyramid Tests); and the light of the sun-god Re` was blotted out, to mention but of few of the deities affected.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” p. 1003.
6. The Passover and the Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1-13:16)
This last week marked the 40th anniversary of the first atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima. A number of commemorations were held, ranging from memorial services for those killed or injured to demonstrations protesting the use of nuclear weapons. Underlying most of these commemorations there was a reaction to the killing of thousands of people who were not personally involved in the military forces of Japan, many of whom were women and children.
Not too long before, there was a very strong reaction to the visit of President Reagan to a German cemetery, where some Nazi soldiers were buried. It was felt by many that it was inappropriate for our president to dignify the deaths of those involved in the mass slaughter of Jews, based solely on their race. Here as well, those who died were not military combatants, but civilians, among whom were many women and children.
It is with such protests in mind that we must seek to interpret and apply the killing of every firstborn in Egypt, not only of men, but of the animals as well. Our text informs us that this slaughter (no need to use a more euphemistic term) was directed at the Egyptians alone, and without regard to social or economic status. While every Egyptian home suffered loss (cf. Exod. 11:5; 12:29-30), all of the Israelites were spared. The nation Israel did not suffer so much as a dog bark (or bite, Exod. 11:7).
The slaughter of the Egyptians took place a long time ago, and thus we do not have the kind of emotional reaction to this account as we have seen to the bombing of Hiroshima or the Nazi death camps of Germany. Nevertheless, we must come to grips with the tremendous moral issues which this account raises. Not only is the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn the means God used to release His people from slavery, it is the angel of the Lord who smote the firstborn. In other words, while we can refer to the deaths occasioned by the other plagues as “acts of God” (meaning that some natural disaster occurred), this 10th plague is very literally an “act of God” for God Himself slew the firstborn of Egypt (Exod. 11:4-8; 12:29).
How, some will ask, can we find it possible to justify God’s actions here? Not only are innocent children slaughtered by God here, but the occasion is the basis for an annual celebration by Israel, one that is to be carried on forever (Exod. 12:14, etc.). While the deaths of innocent Jews and Japanese are protested, in our text God is to be praised, partially on the basis of the slaughter of the Egyptians.
In our study of this text we will seek to face these moral issues squarely. I must say at the outset that Christians are obliged to praise and worship God, regardless of whether or not we understand His actions, and that, as God He is free to act in any way He chooses. Nevertheless, God’s actions here (and similar actions elsewhere) are explainable. Thus we shall seek to grasp the meaning and the application of God’s judgment to our lives. It is a holy God whom we serve, and this text will remind us of that fact as we come to it with reverence and sincerity. Let us each ask God to prepare our hearts to take the lesson of this incident seriously.
The Structure of the Passage
In the final verses of chapter 10, Pharaoh angrily demands that Moses and Aaron leave his presence, threatening that to do so again will mean their death (v. 28). Moses tells Pharaoh that he is right, that he will never see his face again (v. 29). And then, in the 4th verse of chapter 11 Moses seems to appear again before Pharaoh, in contradiction to Pharaoh’s order and to Moses’ retort. The solution to this apparent discrepancy is to observe the way this text (as well as others in Exodus) is structured.
Several times the narrative of events is interrupted by explanatory statements, which serve to explain the “turn of events” which is described in the narrative. In chapter 11, verses 1-3 and 9-10 are parenthetical explanations.127 The statements which are quoted have been made previous to the event, but are interspersed to explain why things are happening as described. Thus, Moses has not left Pharaoh’s presence at the end of chapter 10 and returned again to make his statement in verses 4-8 of chapter 11. Instead, verses 4-8 are Moses’ final retort to Pharaoh, made immediately after his demand that Moses leave. Verses 1-3 are cited before the announcement of Moses to Pharaoh that the firstborn of Egypt will be slain. This explains how Moses knew that this was the final plague, and why Pharaoh will nonetheless reject the warning. It also informs us that Moses had nothing to say to Pharaoh, but that which God had commanded him to speak. Verses 9 and 10 are also a parenthetical explanation of why Pharaoh stubbornly refused to heed the warning of the plagues.
In chapters 12 and 13 there is constant alternation between (first) the instructions God gave Moses, and these same instructions as Moses conveyed them to the people. There is not a great concern for a smooth flow chronologically as there is for laying, as it were, a historical and theological foundation for the ordinance of the Passover. Great effort is taken here to establish the fact that the Passover is based upon Israel’s experience in time and space, and upon the direct revelation of God, made to and through Moses. The purpose of this revelation thus dictates its form. Since the purpose is not merely a chronological review of history, chronological smoothness is set aside in deference to theological explanation.
Let us remember that when we come to the Passover celebration and the plague of the firstborn, we are now dealing with the tenth and concluding plague which God has brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Thus, this plague is the capstone, as it were, of the plagues. It is the final blow of the ten plagues (there is yet to be the drowning of the Egyptian army) which will compel Pharaoh to release the Israelites.
The Plague of the Firstborn and the First Passover
(11:4-8; 12:1-13, 21-23, 29-30)
The tenth and final plague is described in several phases. The first is the pronouncement to Pharaoh by Moses that this plague is about to come upon all of Egypt. The second is the instructions given to the Israelites regarding the Passover, which is God’s means of protecting His people from the plague. Finally, there is a brief account given of the plague itself, just as God had said through Moses.
Moses’ pronouncement to Pharaoh: the coming of the final plague (Exodus 11:4-8). As I understand the sequence of events in chapters 10 and 11, Pharaoh had just demanded that Moses leave his presence, and warned that to return would mean death (10:28). Verses 1-3 of chapter 11 inform us of a revelation God had given Moses sometime before, in which the details of the final plague had been outlined. In verses 4-8, Moses declared the essence of this revelation to Pharaoh, as it related to him. At midnight, God would go throughout Egypt, slaying the firstborn, from Pharaoh’s own son, to the firstborn son of the lowest slave. No grief will have ever been greater for the Egyptians, and yet not the least evil128 would fall upon the Israelites. After this blow, Pharaoh’s own officials (who must have been standing there in Pharaoh’s court during this confrontation) would come to Moses, begging him to leave, with the Israelites. Hot with anger, Moses then left the presence of Pharaoh.
Moses’ pronouncement to Israel: instructions regarding the Passover (Exodus 12:1-13, 21-23). Chapter 12 can be divided into four major sections. (1) Verses 1-20 contain the revelation which God had given to Moses and Aaron. (2) Verses 21-30, the revelation which Moses conveyed to the Israelites. (3) Verses 31-42 give a historical overview of the exodus, from the command to leave issued by Pharaoh to an account of the departure, showing that God’s promises had been carried out in accord with His schedule—to the very day. (4) Verses 43-51 conclude with further instructions for the Israelites regarding the celebration of the Passover in the future, especially focusing on the participation of foreigners.
Since we will not attempt to cover all the material contained in chapter 12 in this message, I want to point out that the structure of the chapter links the instructions given by God to Moses (verses 1-20) and the instructions from God spoken by Moses (verses 21-30). God would have Israelites (and the reader of New Testament times as well) know that the institution of the Passover was done in accordance with direct divine revelation. This was not a feast which Israel devised on her own, but one which God designed and very carefully prescribed.
The instructions for the celebrations of the first Passover were specific, and dealt with several aspects of the feast. We will briefly review these:
(1) The time of the Passover meal. A new religious calendar was given to the nation at this time. Since the Passover was the commencement of a new life, the month (of Abib129, cf. 13:4) was to be viewed, from this time forward, as the first month of the year (Exod. 12:1-2). The Passover lamb was to be purchased or selected on the 10th day of the month, and slaughtered at twilight130 on the evening of the 14th.
(2) The Passover lamb (12:3-8, 21-23). The Passover animal was to be a male yearling, either a goat or a sheep (12:5). There was to be one sacrificial animal per household, unless the family was too small to consume one. Under such circumstances, two families could share one (12:4). There was to be provision of enough meat for each person to be adequately supplied. The blood of the animal was to be put on the sides and tops of the door frames where the animal was to be eaten (12:7). This blood was to serve as a sign, which would protect the Israelites from the death angel (12:13, 23).
(3) The Passover meal. The Passover meal was largely provided by the Passover sacrifice. The animal was to be roasted whole over the fire, not boiled or eaten raw. Each household was to eat the meal inside the door on which the animal’s blood had been placed. The meat was eaten along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (12:8). Surplus food was not to be kept overnight, but was to be burned (12:10). There would be no “leftovers” for dinner because they would be long gone before another meal could be eaten. This is why the meal was to be eaten with an atmosphere of readiness and anticipation. They were to eat the meal in the same way we would eat in an airport restaurant, knowing that the departure of our flight was about to be announced. In our day, we would have our coats on and our briefcase in hand. In that day, they were to have their cloak tucked in (so they could hurry without tripping over it), their sandals on their feet, and their staff in hand (12:11).
(4) The participants of the Passover. The Passover was a corporate celebration in that all Israel observed the meal, just as Moses had instructed them (12:28, 50). On the other hand, the meal was a family matter. Each family was responsible for its own sacrificial animal, its own act of placing the blood on the door frame, and its own celebration of the meal. There is no specific mention of any Egyptians celebrating the first Passover, although this is possible, even likely. This possibility is enhanced by the report that some Egyptians had taken heed of previous warnings (9:18-21). Also, in the instructions God gave concerning the future observance of Passover, foreigners who placed themselves under the Abrahamic Covenant (as signified by circumcision) were allowed to participate, with no distinctions made between them and (other) Israelites (12:43-49). Those who did not refrain from eating leavened bread were to be banned from the congregation of Israel, whether or not he was a native Israelite (cf. 12:19).
The account of the Passover plague (Exodus 12:29-30). There is absolutely no sensationalism here, but only the most cursory account of the fulfillment of the Word of the Lord, spoken through Moses. At midnight, the firstborn of the Egyptians were slain, from the king of Egypt to its cattle, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to that of the prisoner. The weeping and wailing that night was not like anything ever heard in the land before. At the same time, none of Israel’s firstborn, whether man or beast, was smitten. God’s promises, for pleasure or pain, of prosperity or peril, are certain. There is no need to elaborate further.
The Passover and Related Ceremonial Observances
The initial Passover meal was the first of endless annual celebrations (12:14, 17, 24; 13:10). The instructions concerning the Passover celebration alternate between the present and the future. What Israel did on that first Passover night was a prototype for all future Passover observances. We shall therefore now consider the future implications of the first Passover celebration, as outlined in our text.
(1) The redemption of the firstborn (Exod. 13:1-2, 11-16). The firstborn of all the Egyptians were smitten, while those of the Israelites were spared. We must acknowledge that God had the right (as He still does) to smite the firstborn of Egypt. Indeed, He had the right to smite the firstborn of Israel as well, and this would have happened apart from the provision of the Passover lamb and the shedding of its blood. God therefore struck down the Egyptian firstborn while He spared the Israelite firstborn. Because the sparing of the Israelite firstborn was not a matter of merit, but of grace, God owned them. Since He had spared their lives, He possessed them. The rite of redeeming the firstborn was a constant reminder to the Israelites of all subsequent generations that the firstborn belonged to God, and that this was due to the sparing of the firstborn at the Exodus. Thus, every time the first boy was born to an Israelite family, the parents were reminded of their “roots” and the reason for their blessing, and every child was retold the story of the exodus.
(2) The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 12:14-20; 13:3-10). The first Passover meal was to consist of the roasted sacrificial animal, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread (12:8). The hasty departure of the Israelites did not afford the time required to bake leavened bread (12:34, 39). The Passover celebration was to commence the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On the first day of the feast, all presence of yeast is to be removed from the house. On this first and last of the seven days, a sacred assembly is held (12:16). On these (two) days, no work was to be done, other than cooking. For the entire seven days, no leavened bread was to be eaten. The entire week of celebration was to serve as a reminder to Israel of the day on which God brought them out of Egypt.
The Purposes of Passover Celebrations
Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the redemption of the firstborn, the Passover was to become a permanent part of Israel’s religious liturgy (cf. 12:24-25). There were several purposes for the Passover celebration, some of which were to be understood at a later time. We will briefly survey the principle purposes of the Passover.
(1) The Passover was a memorial of the deliverance of Israel, accomplished by the mighty power of God: “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the Law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand” (Exod. 13:9; cf. 13:14, 16; 3:20).
(2) The Passover and its related celebrations, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the redemption of the firstborn, were intended to serve as a means of instruction for the future generations of Israel (Exod. 12:26-27; 13:8, 14-16). God directed that the meaning of the celebration was to be explained to the children (13:8). Also, when a child asks the meaning of a celebration, the parent is to teach its significance (12:26-27; 13:14). God therefore designed these celebrations as occasions for instruction. Thus the story of the Exodus was to be retold, and its meaning reinforced. The “bitter herbs” (12:8) would certainly help the children gain some sensory stimulation in this educational endeavor.
(3) The Passover celebrations was a means of incorporating or excluding the Gentiles in the covenant of God to Abraham (Exod. 12:38, 43-49). Those who ate anything leavened during the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to be excluded from the community of Israel, whether this person was an Israelite or a foreigner (12:19). No uncircumcised person could partake of the Passover, but by receiving circumcision—that is, by identifying oneself with the Abrahamic Covenant—even a foreigner could partake of Passover, and with no distinctions between this individual and an Israelite. Thus, circumcision enabled one to participate fully in the Passover celebration. Passover thus was a kind of dividing line between a true believer and an outsider. Since a number of foreigners accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt (12:38), this was a necessary distinction.
(4) The Passover Lamb was a model, a prototype (a type) of the Messiah, the “Lamb of God” through whom God would bring redemption to both Israel and the Gentiles (Exod. 12:5-7, 46-47). This was likely not immediately perceived, but there are several similarities between the Passover lamb and the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrificial lamb131 was to be without defect (Exod. 12:5), just as the Lord Jesus was without blemish (1 Peter 1:19). It was the shed blood of the lamb which saved Israel’s firstborn from the plague (Exod. 12:12-13, 22-23), just as it is the shed blood of the Lamb of God which saves men from the judgment of God (1 Peter 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). As there was to be no bone broken of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:46), so no bone of our Lord was broken (John 19:32-36). Thus, the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, could speak of Israel’s Savior as a lamb:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:6-7).
The Passover in the New Testament
(John 1:29, 36; Luke 22:1-23; 1 Cor. 5:1-8; Rev. 5:6-14)
John the Baptist could thus identify and introduce our Lord as Israel’s Messiah by the words, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The Passover meal was very naturally transformed into the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table. Thus, in the gospel accounts, we find the death of our Savior corresponding with the sacrifice of the Passover sacrificial lambs and the Passover meal (cf. Luke 22:1-23). Paul clearly identified the Lord Jesus as the Passover lamb: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). One can see that the first Passover, along with each subsequent annual remembrance of Passover, was an event of great significance, one which was to be celebrated from that time on.
The meaning of the Passover plague for the Egyptians
The Passover and the plague of the firstborn had several purposes with regard to the Egyptians.
(1) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was a defeat of Egypt’s gods: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12). As the tenth and final plague, the smiting of the firstborn of Egypt conclusively proved that the “gods” of Egypt were powerless, non-existent, while the God of Israel was all-powerful.
(2) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn served as the final blow, which compelled the Egyptians to let the Israelites go (Exod. 3:20; 6:1; 11:1; 12:31-32). After the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the Egyptians did not want to be reminded of their grief by seeing the Israelites. Thus, this final plague brought the Egyptians to the point where they virtually compelled the Israelites to leave. This plague accomplished precisely what God intended, and what Moses had been asking for all along.
(3) The plague of the firstborn was an appropriate punishment of Egyptians for their oppression of Israel (Gen. 15:14; Exod. 1 and 2; 7:14ff.). God had told Abraham that the oppressive nation (which we now know to be Egypt) which would enslave Israel would be punished (Gen. 15:14). The plague of the firstborn was exceedingly appropriate since the Egyptians were seeking to kill all of the male babies born to the Israelites (cf. Exod. 1:22).
(4) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was an act of grace, as well as an act of judgment. I believe that there is grace to be seen in this final plague (as in the rest), not only toward the Israelites, but also toward the Egyptians. The plagues revealed the powerlessness of the gods of Egypt, and the power of the God of Israel. The plagues pointed out the sin of the Egyptians and their need to repent and believe in the God of Israel. While the account is not written to underscore the conversion of Egyptians (the thrust of the account is on the judgment of Egypt, especially her gods), I think that there is ample evidence to suggest that some of the Egyptians were converted to true faith in the God of Israel.
In the first place, most of the plagues were preceded by an announcement and a warning. Each succeeding plague was further proof of God’s existence and power, and gave greater substance to the warnings which followed. All of the Egyptians came to respect Moses (11:3), and some took heed to his warnings (9:13-21). Provision was also made for non-Israelites to partake of the Passover, if they were circumcised (acknowledging their faith in the Abrahamic Covenant, cf. Exod. 12:48-49; Gen. 17:9-14). Since there were many non-Israelites who left Egypt with Israel (Exod. 12:38), it is likely that a number were converted and physically spared from death through the process of the plagues and the provision of the Passover.
(5) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was an occasion for God to manifest His great power: “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:16). Like it or not, God is the Creator of the universe (in general) and of man (in particular). As man’s Creator, God is absolutely justified in dealing with His creation as He sees fit (cf. Romans 9). When the sinfulness of man is added to his creatureliness, God’s wrath is even more clearly seen to be right.
The meaning of the Passover for the Israelites
The Passover and the final plague also had great meaning and significance for the Israelites.
(1) The Passover and the tenth plague served as a judgment on the gods of Egypt, whom the Israelites had worshipped in Egypt (cf. Josh. 24:14). Because the Israelites had also worshipped the gods of Egypt, the judgment of these gods caused God’s people to turn from their false worship, at least for the moment. Ridding them of their false worship entirely was a much more long-term operation, but this was at least a beginning.
(2) The Passover was for Israel a manifestation of God’s power. One of the most commonly repeated phrases employed in conjunction with the Passover is “with a mighty hand” (Exod. 13:3, 9, 14, 16; cf. 15:6, 12; 16:3). The power of God was made manifest by the Passover and the plagues.
(3) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was proof of God’s possession of Israel. When Moses spoke to Pharaoh about the Israelites, he said, “Let My son go, that he may serve Me” (Exod. 4:23). The fact that God claimed to possess the firstborn, so that they needed to be redeemed (13:1-2; 11-16), evidenced God’s ownership. When God freed the Israelites, He did so so that they may become His servants. As we shall show later, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai was based upon the events of the exodus (cf. Deut. 5:6ff.). The firstborn of Israel thus belonged to God as a result of the Passover, and all of Israel as a result of the exodus. Israel was God’s possession. All of the commandments and requirements which God placed upon the Israelites was predicated upon the fact that they were a people who belonged to Him.
(4) The Passover was another evidence of the grace of God in the lives of His people. The firstborn of Israel were not spared because they were more worthy or more righteous than the Egyptians. Like the Egyptians, the Israelites were sinners, fully deserving of divine wrath. Had Israel been worthy, there would have been no need of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, with its blood applied to the door frame. The firstborn of Israel were spared due to the grace of God alone. God’s provision of a means of escape was based upon His grace, not Israel’s merits.
The meaning of the Passover for unbelieving men and women today
There is no clearer example of salvation by grace in the Old Testament than the Passover which we have just studied. Every person in Egypt, whether an Israelite or an Egyptian, was worthy of God’s divine judgment. The reason why men find the judgment of God in the smiting of the firstborn so difficult to justify is that they do not grasp the seriousness of their own sin. I happened to overhear a small portion of a television program the other day, where a young woman asked, “Do I have to suffer the rest of my life for one little indiscretion?” Whatever her “indiscretion” was, I would imagine it would better be labeled “sin.” So the answer to her question should be, “For as much as one sin, God is just in condemning you, not only for time, but for all eternity.” The reason why we have so much difficulty with the subject of judgment is that we fail to comprehend the immensity of our sin. The striking of the firstborn of Egypt should cause us to rethink the matter of sin.
Our attitude toward sin is very much shaped by our own perspectives and experiences. Drunks are people we can laugh at, until they get behind the wheel and kill one of our loved ones. Sex offenders are people who simply have a different sexual orientation or preferences, until they molest someone close to us. So, too, idolatrous worship doesn’t seem very serious, until we view this evil from God’s perspective. Ignoring God does not seem so serious, until we understand the importance of trusting and obeying Him.
Once we have come to grips with the seriousness of sin, we need to focus on the solution. Just as the firstborn were worthy of divine judgment, and in danger of it, God’s solution must be believed and acted upon. The divinely provided protection from the death angel was the sacrifice of a lamb, with its blood applied to the door frame. All those who remained within the house which had blood applied to its door frame were spared.
Just as the firstborn in Egypt were in danger of being smitten by the death angel, so men, women, and children are in danger of living out eternity in Hell, enduring the eternal wrath of God (cf. Rev. 20:11-15). The solution to the problem is, once again, a Lamb, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, on whom our sins were laid. He died for our sins; He bore the wrath of God, so that men could escape from the coming wrath of God, and could participate in His promised blessings (Isa. 53). It is my prayer that you will, even at this moment, accept the salvation which God offers to you through the sacrifice of His Son, who has been raised from the dead and who will return to the earth to execute judgment on all those who have rejected His sacrifice (cf. 2 Thes. 1). The offer of salvation is before you.
The meaning of the Passover for Christians
The New Testament teaches a number of practical applications of the Passover for contemporary Christians. Let me outline some of them briefly.
(1) Because Christ is our Passover Lamb, we are God’s possession. The firstborn of Israel had to be redeemed because God had spared them, and thus they belonged to Him. While only some of those Israelites who were in Egypt were firstborn, and thus in need of being redeemed, all of us who have trusted in Christ belong to Him. Every child of God belongs to God, and must live in the light of belonging to Him. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23).
Since the firstborn of the Israelites belonged to God, they had to sacrifice them (in the case of an animal, except for the donkey, 13:13), or (in the case of a son) to offer a sacrifice to redeem them. Because God has spared us from His wrath by His mercy, we are to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).
Because Christians have been redeemed by the Lamb of God, they do not belong to themselves, and they must therefore live out their lives as a living sacrifice to God. I fear that all too many presentations of the gospel do not inform people that when they come to faith in Christ, they cease to own themselves, and that they become Christ’s possession. In fact, all men belong to God by virtue of creation, and all Christians belong (doubly) to God by virtue of redemption. We cannot live our lives independently, autonomously, as Christians, but we must live them out as those who have been bought with a price and as those who belong to God. Just as God’s claims on the Israelites were spelled out in the Law, given a little later on in Israel’s history, so God’s claims on our lives as believers are given to us in the Scriptures. Let us heed His commandments well, for we belong to Him.
(2) Because Christ is our Passover lamb, we must live our lives in purity, in holy living. In the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, we read, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
In the context of this chapter in First Corinthians, Paul has been speaking of a Christian who was living with the wife of his father (5:1). The Corinthians had not done anything to remedy the situation, and even seemed to be proud of their liberality in this matter (5:2). Paul told them he had already acted (5:3-4), and that they should do likewise, by putting this man out of the assembly.
The principle on which Paul based his instruction was that of the relationship between the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The sacrifice of the Passover lamb set in motion the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Since Christ is our Passover lamb, and He has already been sacrificed, the Corinthians should begin the Feast of Unleavened Bread, looking for any sign of leaven (a symbol of sin) and putting it far away from them (5:7-8). Thus the fact that Christ is our Passover lamb necessitates maintaining purity in our lives, and in the church as well.
(3) The Passover teaches us the important role played by religious ceremony (liturgy, if you prefer) in the Christian’s experience. By the annual observance of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God not only reminded His people of His mighty deeds in the past, but also taught them concerning the future. The institution of the Lord’s Table (“communion”) serves the same purposes. The observance of the Lord’s Table reminds the Christian of the salvation which our Lord accomplished by His death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Lu. 22:14-22; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Unfortunately, Christians have come to take the remembrance of our Lord lightly, and do it infrequently, often as a kind of footnote to some other service. Let us learn to value and to practice those times of remembrance and anticipation which God has established and commanded us to do.
Just as the Passover celebrations (including the redemption of the firstborn and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) provided an opportunity to instruct the children concerning God’s work in the past and its bearing on the present, so the Lord’s table and baptism provide us with teaching opportunities which we dare not neglect.
(4) The Passover (Passion) of our Lord is a pattern for Christians regarding suffering. While it is true that the Egyptians suffered for their sins in the plague of the firstborn (and the other plagues too), we ought not overlook the suffering of the Israelites during the 400 years of oppression, and even during the days which immediately preceded the exodus. Some Christians believe that suffering is not to be a part of the experience of one who trusts in the Lord and is obedient to Him. This is entirely untrue. Ultimately, it was not those many Passover lambs which spared the Israelite firstborn from death, it was the suffering and death of the Lamb of God, who died for all who would believe. The Passover necessitated the suffering of the Son of God. The degree to which He suffered can only be estimated in the light of the holiness of God and the dread which our Lord experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane when He anticipated the cross.
In the first epistle of Peter, the apostle informs Christians who are suffering that the passion, the suffering of the Lord Jesus, the Passover lamb, was a pattern for the suffering of all the saints (cf. 1 Pet. 2:16-24). The Lord Jesus, as the Passover lamb, is the pattern for Christian suffering, and the way it should be dealt with.
Paul also speaks of our suffering in “Passover” terms. In the 8th chapter of his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes of the victory which the Christian can have in suffering (8:31-35). He then quotes this passage from Psalm 44 to show that we, like Christ, are called to suffer as “sheep”: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36).
In the context of Psalm 44, from which this citation was taken, we learn that those saints who suffered as described above were those who were faithful to God, not those who were disobedient. The Passover lamb is therefore a pattern for the saints, showing us that innocent suffering is often a part of God’s will for the righteous, and that through the suffering of the saints, God’s purposes may be accomplished.
Let no one seek to suffer in this way, but let no one dare to suggest that suffering in the life of the saint is inappropriate, the result of either sin or unbelief. The suffering of the Passover lamb is the pattern for the saints to follow when they suffer.
127 The NIV takes these verses as parenthetical and indicates so by rendering the text as a past perfect, rather than as a simple past tense. Thus, verses 1 and 9 of chapter 11 begin, “the Lord had said to Moses…”
128 “This is expressed by a proverbial saying, ‘A dog would not move his tongue against man or beast’ (v. 7). The word which is translated ‘move’ … literally means ‘to cut into,’ ‘to sharpen,’ or ‘to bring to a point.’ The allusion here is to the fact that none would bring injury to Israel (cf. Josh. 10:21).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 136.
129 “Another name for this first month of the sacred calendar is Abib (Exod. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut. 16:1) which literally means ‘ear-month’ because it was at that time that the grain was in the ear. The month of Abib approximates to our month of April. After the Babylonian captivity, new calendar names were adopted and the ancient name Abib was changed to Nisan (cf. Neh. 2:1; Esth. 3:7). From this time onward two calendar reckonings were employed by the Israelites: one for sacred and the other for civil purposes, the first month of each year being in the seventh month of the other though the numbers always from Nisan as the first.” Davis, p. 137.
130 There is considerable discussion and disagreement over the precise time at which the Passover sacrifice was to be slain. It may not be possible to determine with any degree of certainty, nor is it necessary that we do so. For a survey of the different views, cf. Davis, pp. 138-139.
131 We use the term “lamb” aware that the sacrificial animal could have been either a lamb or a goat (Exod. 12:5), but since our Lord was referred to as “the Lamb,” I have chosen to speak of the sacrificial animal as a lamb.
7. The Red Sea: Israel’s Deliverance and Egypt’s Defeat (Exodus 13:17-14:31)
Dr. James Dobson has recently been sharing some of the letters he has received from his listeners concerning the funniest thing which has happened to their family. There is one story which is both amusing and relevant. I will retell the story to the best of my recollection:
This family lived in the Northeast part of the country. In the bitterly cold part of winter their car had become especially dirty, what with road salts, frozen slush, and other wintry deposits. Conscious of the condition of their car, this family was driving down the road and came across an unusual sight. Water was gushing into the air from a broken pipe, beneath the surface of the road. A work crew had arrived and was just getting set up. Simultaneously, the family concluded that this was the perfect occasion for a car wash. They pulled the car far enough forward to park under the shower of water. The road crew watched, somewhat puzzled, and a little amused.
Since it was still bitterly cold, they left the engine running, and kept the heater going as well. In a short time, a rather unpleasant odor began to dominate. It was about this same time that the family noticed that the water which was running down the windshield was not clear, not clear at all. Finally they understood the problem—they were not parked under the shower of a broken water main, they were under the shower of a broken sewer main. Quickly. they departed, watching the filthy matter freeze to their car in the bitter cold of that day.
Things do not always turn out the way we expect. One can surely say this with regard to the Egyptian soldiers, who were pursuing the Israelites in the Egyptian desert. They left Egypt hastily, expecting that it would take but a little time and effort to round up the Israelites and drive them back to Egypt. Confidently, they pursued them into the midst of the Red Sea, only to discover, too late, that God was fighting for Israel and against them. In spite of their best efforts to escape, the entire army was wiped out that day, drowned in the Red Sea.
Israel’s passing through the Red Sea is one of the most exciting events recorded in the Old Testament. It was an event of great importance to the nation. It rid the Israelites, once for all, of Pharaoh’s dominion. It also released them from their obligation to return to Egypt, after traveling three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. This was, in fact, the birth of the nation Israel.
While this story is an exciting account of Israel’s escape, it is also the awesome account of the destruction of the Egyptian army who pursued them. In our next lesson, we will focus more on the deliverance of the nation Israel, but in this study we shall concentrate our attention on the destruction of the Egyptian army which pursued them into the sea. It is one of the vivid accounts of the judgment of God which we dare not neglect. Let us, then, consider the destruction of the enemies of God.
Charting Israel’s Course
The structure of verses 17-22 is an important clue to our understanding of this passage. I agree with Gispen132 that verses 17-19 are parenthetical and explanatory, and that verse 20 begins the description of Israel’s movements as they leave the land of Egypt and begin the trek to Canaan. Verse 20 therefore does not describe a change in course, but begins to describe the course which was the outworking of God’s purpose for Israel, as outlined in verses 17-18.
There were three possible land routes for Israel to take, by which they could have reached Canaan.133 The shortest route would have been to follow the “way of the land of the Philistines” (v. 17),134 but God deliberately avoided this road. The reason given is that they would have encountered war and this would have caused them to lose heart and turn back to Egypt (v. 17).
It is not altogether certain with whom the Israelites would have had to fight. Some reject the possibility of fighting with the Philistines because they have concluded that the Philistines had not settled in Canaan in sufficient numbers as yet.135 I am inclined to think that it is war with the Philistines to which Moses is referring here.136 While the Egyptians had forts strategically located along the routes to other countries, the Israelites had gained Pharaoh’s permission to leave Egypt. Besides this, Israel did, in fact, confront the army of Egypt at the Red Sea.
It may seem strange that God wanted to avoid a military confrontation when we are told in verse 18 (cf. also Exod. 6:26; 12:41) that the Israelites were “armed for battle.” The expression used here has been understood to refer only the orderly way in which the Israelites (nearly 2 million people, counting women and children, cf. Exod. 12:37) departed Egypt.137 Others understand that the Israelites did come out of Egypt at least partially armed, but all seem to agree that Israel was not at all prepared to fight a full scale battle at this point in time.138 It would be some time before the Israelites were ready to do battle. At this time, all Israel needed to do was to “be still and watch” (14:14).
Note is made of the fact that the “bones of Joseph” were taken along. This was a reflection of the faith of Joseph, and the carrying out of his instructions that his remains be preserved and carried from Egypt to Canaan (cf. Gen. 49:26; 50:24-26). The fulfillment of Joseph’s request is recorded in Joshua 24:32. Stephen also refers to this in Acts 7:15-16. The exodus of Israel is thus linked historically to the Abrahamic Covenant and to the faith of the patriarchs of Israel.
While the writer gives us the names of the places where the Israelites stayed,139 the exact locations of these places are simply not known.140 At best, one can only conjecture as to their locations, and even at this scholars disagree. In general, we can safely infer that the nation was moving in a south-easterly direction. The wilderness which the Israelites are skirting is not the wilderness of Sinai, but of Egypt.141
Verses 21 and 22 describe one of the primary means God employed to guide the people as they traveled. A pillar-shaped cloud, in which God was present (cf. 14:24), served to guide the people both day and night.142 In the daytime the pillar took the form of a cloud; at night the pillar was a pillar of fire, thus being visible as a guide, as well as providing light for the people as they traveled (remember that at night vipers would be active, for example). Later, this pillar would serve as a protective buffer when moved between the Israelites and the Egyptians (14:19-20). There have been a number of naturalistic explanations of this pillar, but their only value is for our amusement.143
The important thing to observe, I believe, is that God was faithful to provide the Israelites with a visible manifestation of His presence, protection, and guidance. The pillar, we are told, was constantly with them and never left (or failed) them. God continually gives His people evidences of His presence with them.
Changing Israel’s Course
With the pillar to guide the Israelites, one may wonder why it was necessary for God to speak to Moses concerning the leading of the people in verses 1-4 of chapter 14. There is a very good reason, I believe. Moses was to bring about a “change of course” for the Israelites, one that would greatly perplex the people without an explanation. The Israelites were instructed to “turn back” and to camp near Pi Hahioroth, between Migdol and the sea.144
Had the pillar of cloud moved in this direction without any word from God, the people may have been inclined to disregard it. They might have thought that the pillar needed repair. There are several reasons why.
God’s instructions were required to assure the Israelites that the new course which the pillar would set were correct, even though perplexing.
First, the Israelites were going to “turn back,” that is, to reverse their direction. Why in the world would they possibly retrace their steps backwards? Instead of fleeing from Pharaoh, it might look as though they were making it easy for him to catch up with them. Second, the course which they were about to take would be one that would place them in a very dangerous position.
Through Moses, God ordered a change of direction which to many Israelites must have seemed strange and indeed risky, for their course was to turn in a southwesterly direction which in a short time would place great bodies of water between themselves and the Sinai peninsula to the east.145
It didn’t take a military genius to figure out that what the Israelites were doing was to put themselves in a very vulnerable position, trapped, between natural barriers. Were Pharaoh to pursue them, they would be in a bunch of trouble. God explained through Moses that this change of course was indeed intended to encourage Pharaoh’s pursuit. Pharaoh, God knew, would think that the Israelites were miserably lost or misguided, and that recovering them as a work force would be like “taking candy from a baby.”146 Pharaoh’s attack would result in his defeat, to the glory of God (v. 4).
Changing Pharaoh’s Mind
From what we are told in these verses, Pharaoh was ready for any sign of hope that he might recover the slave labor which he had released. Shortly after the Israelites had departed, Pharaoh and his officials had second thoughts about the wisdom of releasing this valuable economic resource—slave labor (v. 5). Pharaoh mustered his entire division of chariots and went after them in hot pursuit, six hundred chariots in all (v. 6). Pharaoh’s decision was not only hard-hearted, it was hard headed. Six hundred chariots (with 2, or at the most 3 men per chariot) would hardly seem to be a match for 600,000 men.
The change of course of the Israelites seemed to be playing right into Pharaoh’s hands. He overtook the Israelites at Pi Hahiroth, undoubted looking like the cat that had just eaten the canary. How could he possibly fail?
Calming Israel’s Fears
Israel was in trouble now. “To the east was the sea, to the south and west were the mountains, and the north was blocked by Pharaoh’s armies.”147
The Israelites were shaken by the sight of the rapidly approaching chariots of Pharaoh and his men. They were terrified (v. 10). At first, the people cried out to the Lord (v. 10), but as the troops drew nearer and as Israel’s hopes of escape faded, their fear turned to bitter regret, focused toward Moses. Were there not enough graves in Egypt? Had they not told Moses to leave them alone, and not to meddle with Pharaoh? What had Moses done to them now? They would have been better off to have stayed on as slaves in Egypt. Such is the reasoning of fear and unbelief.
Moses was much more calm, at least initially. Confident that God would deliver them from the Egyptians, Moses sought to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection, and of the defeat of the Egyptians. They were told to “fear not.” They need not fight, but only to stand firm and observe God’s victory over the Egyptians. They would never see these Egyptians again.
From what God had revealed to Moses, he was confident of the defeat and destruction of the Egyptian army, now hotly pursuing them. What Moses was apparently not aware of was how and when this victory would occur. As the Egyptians drew closer, Moses probably expected to see them wiped out before the eyes of all, perhaps by some plague. Instead, they only got closer—much too close for comfort. Moses may have raised his staff, pointing it in the direction of the Egyptians. Like a jammed rifle, it didn’t seem to work. At some point, Moses began crying out to God, not unlike the Israelites had done before him (compare 14:10 with 14:15). The man who had begun “cool and calm” had begun to lose his grip.
Divine Instruction and Intervention
My imagination may have run a little wild in the description I have just given of Moses’ uncertainty, but I doubt that it is too far afield. Without informing us of the exact manifestations of Moses’ fears, the text does give us a record of God’s mild rebuke to Moses in verse 15: “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” Not only do we know from God’s words to Moses that he had cried out to Him, but there is a very clear inference that Moses was wrong in doing so. Why was it wrong for Moses to cry to God for help? There is only one reason that I can think of: Moses should have known what to do, and he should have done it.
It is possible that Moses knew what to do because God had already given him precise instructions. Because we do not find any such instructions in our text, I am inclined to set this possibility aside. It is my opinion that God rebuked Moses for crying out for instructions because Moses should have been able to figure out what to do, and he should have then done it.
Let’s think for just a moment about what Moses did know. He knew that God had guided them to the place in which they found themselves—between the Red Sea and the Egyptians. The pillar had led them there (13:21-22; 14:19), and God had also explained to Moses that this was what He was going to do, so that He could gain glory through Pharaoh and his army (14:1-4). Moses knew that God had promised to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan, which was across and beyond the Red Sea (cf. Gen. 15:13-21; Exod. 3:7-8, 16-17; 6:4; 12:25; 13:5). Moses also knew that God had given him power through the use of his staff.
It is therefore my opinion that Moses should have reasoned that the only direction he could and should go was toward Canaan, and that meant through the Red Sea. The means for passing through the sea was for Moses to lift up his hand with his staff and to part the sea. This is precisely what God instructed Moses to do, but I believe that God’s gentle rebuke of Moses in verse 15 implies that Moses should have reasoned this all out.
I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the relationship between faith and reason. Some seem to think that faith and reasoning are opposed to each other, and that faith is therefore, by its very nature, unreasonable. I think this is far from the case. When God had Israel turn back, it only seemed unreasonable, until the purpose of God (in causing Pharaoh to think that they were lost, thus prompting his attack) was made known by God to Moses. God’s actions were very reasonable, when seen in terms of God’s purpose.
Our Lord persistently encouraged men and women to use their minds. “Consider the lilies of the field,” He urged (Matt. 6:28), which was an appeal to man’s ability to reason. Abraham, we are told, “reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Heb. 11:19), when He commanded him to sacrifice his son. God did not tell Abraham He would raise his son, Abraham reasoned it was so, based upon his experience of having a son when he and Sarah were “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19-21). God delights in faith that reasons and then responds. Moses should thus have reasoned what God wanted him to do and done it without asking God for guidance. I believe that we often ask God for guidance when reason would clearly indicate our course of action already.
In spite of Moses’ lack of faith, God graciously responds to his cry for help. He specifically instructed Moses to raise his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea, so as to divide the water, making it possible for the Israelites to pass through on dry ground (14:16).148 The Egyptians, God informed Moses, would enter the sea behind them, due to their hearts being hardened, but this was to result in their destruction and God’s glory (v. 17). The nation of Egypt will know for certain that God alone is Lord through this event (v. 18).
God did more than just speak. The angel of the Lord, manifested in the pillar of cloud and/or fire, moved from in front of the Israelites to become their rear guard. He stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Throughout that night the pillar brought darkness to the Egyptians and light for the Israelites, thus enabling the Israelites to see as they passed through the sea, and perhaps preventing the Egyptians from seeing the sea as they followed after them (v. 20).
Israel’s Deliverance and the Egyptians’ Destruction
Moses did as he was instructed, stretching forth his hand over the sea. This brought about a “strong east wind”149 which drove back the sea all night long, even turning the seabed to dry ground (v. 21). This was no doubt to facilitate the need of the Israelites to quickly pass through the sea with their goods, which were likely loaded on wagons or carts of some sort.
It must have taken a certain amount of faith on the part of the Israelites to enter into the sea.150 They, unlike the Egyptians, had the benefit of the light provided by the cloud. Thus, they were able to clearly see the water of the sea piled up like walls151 on both sides of them (cf. 14:22). What faith the Israelites lacked was compensated for by the fact that the Egyptians were right behind them. When confronted with the choice between the sea and the Egyptians, the sea would have been the less dangerous choice. God’s motivations are a wonder to behold!
To me, the most difficult thing for me to believe is not the parting of the sea, or of the Israelites passing through it, but the fact that the Egyptians followed them into the sea. Think of this for just a moment. Any well-trained army knows better than to plunge (pardon the pun) into an ambush. Whenever an army is faced with its enemy ahead and barriers are on both sides, there is a serious concern of being trapped in the middle by your opponent. Even worse, if you were to see the sea parted by the God of your adversary, would you be inclined to enter into that sea, knowing that you were seeking to capture the very people God was aiding to escape? To me, there are only two possible explanations to the entrance of the Egyptians into the sea, and both of them are incredible.
One surprising possibility is that the Egyptians entered into the sea without even knowing it. This possibility is usually one which we would not even entertain, largely due to our own preconceived ideas of what happened. I do not know of anyone else who has come to this conclusion, so I would caution you to think critically here (as elsewhere). Nevertheless, there are several observations which make this an option which must be reckoned with.
First, we are not told anywhere that the Egyptians knew that they were entering into the sea. We are told that they entered the sea (v. 23), but it is not specifically reported that they knew this was the case. Second, the time of the passing through the sea (for both the Israelites and the Egyptians) was late at night (cf. 14:20, 24,27). Third, the pillar which gave light to the Israelites, produced or promoted darkness for the Egyptians (v. 20). True, the Israelites could see the sea in the light provided by the pillar, but could the Egyptians? Fourth, it would seem highly unlikely that the Egyptians would enter into the sea, knowing that God had parted it for His people. Fifth, the Egyptians appear to be guided only by the Israelites. The Egyptians were in hot pursuit. Where the Israelites went, the Egyptians followed. (It wouldn’t be difficult to follow the tracks of 2 million people, now would it?) The Egyptians were concentrating on the object of their pursuit (the Israelites), not the scenery around them. You tend not to see what you are not looking for. Sixth, since the seabed had become dry ground, there would be no particular evidence that the Egyptians were in the midst of the sea. If, perchance, my speculations here are correct, can you imagine the horror of the Egyptians when they first realized where they were? They really did get in “over their heads” this time.
The only other possibility is that the Egyptians knowingly pursued the Israelites into the sea, somehow blinded to the incredible dangers of doing so. As I have said before, it is absolutely incredible that the most powerful, well-trained army of that day could blunder so badly as to march straight into a perfect ambush, without the least hesitation. There is only one explanation for their actions—hearts which were supernaturally hardened, to the degree that the Egyptian army failed to see the obvious, to their own destruction. As God said to Moses, “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).
In the morning watch, which is known to be from 2 a.m. till dawn,152 God looked down from the pillar of fire and brought confusion to the Egyptian troops (v. 24). This was brought about by causing the wheels of their chariots either to fall off,153 to swerve, or to sink into the sands, which may now be wet. The poetic description of Psalm 77 seems to inform us that the occasion for the confusion was a thunderstorm:
The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen (Ps. 77:16-19).
Assuming that the Egyptians did not know they were entering the sea, can you imagine the horror of the charioteers when the first bolt of lightening revealed the seas towering above them? Too late, the Egyptians recognized that God was fighting for the Israelites and against them. They sought to retreat, returning to the shore from which they had entered the sea. Instead, they plunged, headlong, into the waters (cf. v. 27) as they returned to their place.
At daybreak, God instructed Moses to once again lift his staff over the sea, but this time to bring the waters of the Red Sea thundering down upon the Egyptians. The sea closed in on the Egyptians, so that every one of them was drowned (v. 28). In marked contrast, the Israelites passed through the sea on dry ground, safely reaching the other side (v. 29). The Red Sea thus became the instrument of Israel’s deliverance and the Egyptians’ destruction. The Israelites witnessed the power of God and came to a deeper appreciation of Moses as the leader God had appointed, and through whom God’s power was manifested in a mighty way (v. 31).
The destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea causes us to look seriously at the judgment of God. Several principles of divine judgment are evident in the events of the exodus as described in our text.
The judgment of God begins sooner than His final destruction. To put it differently, the judgment of God begins with the hardening of men’s hearts. While the final destruction of the army of Pharaoh came at the time Moses lifted his hand over the sea and it came crashing down on the enemies of Israel, that judgment was already at work much earlier. The drowning of the charioteers was but the final blow of divine judgment, a judgment which had begun a year or more earlier.
God had begun to judge the Egyptians at the time that Moses returned to Egypt and appeared before Pharaoh, and the plagues were commenced. Each plague was a judgment of the gods of the Egyptians (cf. Exod. 12:12). For about a year, the ten plagues had been poured out upon Egypt. The destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea was the culminating act of divine judgment.
But how is it possible, given ten previous plagues and the present perils of entering into the Red Sea, that the Egyptians could so blindly persist in their oppression of God’s people, and in their indifference to God’s warnings? The biblical answer, found in Exodus and confirmed in other biblical texts, is that they persisted to pursue their own destruction because their hearts were hardened.
A little investigation in a Bible concordance will show that reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (and sometimes his officials’ or his army’s hearts) occurs 14 times in Exodus. Of these 14 instances, six refer to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8), three refer to Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34), and five are indefinite (7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). From these passages and others, we can identify several characteristics of hardening.
(1) The hardening the heart is a process. Pharaoh’s heart was not hardened once, it was hardened repeatedly. Hardening is thus a process, not a one-time event.
(2) The hardening of the heart involves both divine and human initiative. On the one hand, God hardens a man’s heart, yet, on the other hand, a man hardens his own heart. When God hardens a man’s heart, He does not cause a man to think and to do other than what that individual is inclined to do. God does not harden a man’s heart by making him want to sin. Pharaoh did not want to release the Israelites, nor did he wish to submit to the God of Israel. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he would pursue the Israelites (14:4), but this is precisely what Pharaoh was already predisposed to do (14:5).
Men often harden their hearts at crucial decision points. Notice that Pharaoh’s heart was always hardened with respect to a particular decision. Each time hardening occurred, it was in regard to a decision which Pharaoh had to make. During the period of the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to let Israel go. After the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to pursue the Israelites to bring them back (thus breaking his word which gave them permission to go). Pharaoh’s army had to make a decision whether or not to pursue the Israelites into the sea. At each decision point, the Egyptians were hardened or hardened themselves.
From a divine perspective, God hardened men’s hearts in order to achieve His pre-determined purposes (such as the destruction of the Egyptian army and the deliverance of the Israelites). From a human point of view, men hardened their hearts by deciding to do that which was clearly identified as sin. The link between sinning and hardening is seen in Pharaoh’s actions: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses” (Exod. 9:34-35). The New Testament likewise speaks of hardening as the product of the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Thus, we can say that men not only harden their hearts, which results in sin, they also sin, which results in a hardened heart.
(3) The hardening of a man’s heart occurs when God “locks that man on his course.” The man makes his choice, based upon his own nature and course, but when God hardens that man’s heart, He prevents man from changing the course he has set for himself. What I am saying is that hardening the heart does not override the choices a person would make for himself, it is like a catalyst which causes the person to lie in the bed he has chosen to make, as it were.
I know of people who have heard the gospel and have said, “I know that I am a sinner, and that I need to trust in Christ as my Savior. I also know that to make such a choice will necessitate a change in my lifestyle. Therefore, I am going to live my life the way I want to (sinfully), and then, when life is nearly over, I will trust in Christ and be saved from the coming wrath of God.” But, you see, God does not give such a person any consolation in this decision. The hardening of a man’s heart compels that man to live out the consequences of his choices and lifestyle. The process of the hardening of the heart forces us to make our eternal choices now, knowing that we may not be free to change our course in days to come.
(4) The hardening of a person’s heart dulls and deadens their perception of danger and judgment. As we have seen in the headlong plunge of the Egyptians into the sea, the only explanation for such a foolhardy advance is that their hearts were hardened, so that they advanced, with little or no perception of the dangers of their actions. It was not until things actually began to fall apart that the Egyptians finally realized the grave danger they were in (14:25). When one’s heart is hardened, they are unable to see the danger which is abundantly clear to others.
(5) The hardening of the heart can occur both to believers and to unbelievers alike. Pharaoh and the Egyptians who died in the Red Sea were undoubtedly unbelievers. It is not difficult to acknowledge the hardening process in the lives of unbelievers. I believe Scriptures indicate that a similar hardening can happen to the Christian. We read, for example, that the Israelites of old had their hearts hardened (2 Cor. 3:13-14; Heb. 3:7-19), and the application is extended to saints today. So, too, the hearts of our Lord’s disciples were hardened (cf. Mark 6:52; 8:17). I have seen numerous instances where Christians have chosen to do wrong, and as they progress on the path of sin, their hearts become increasingly hardened. Their fate will not be that of the unbeliever, but surely severe consequences will follow (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5).
(6) The hardening of men’s hearts is for the purpose of achieving what is good. The hardening of the hearts of Pharaoh and his soldiers was for the purpose of releasing Israel, once and for all, from Egyptian bondage. It was also for the purpose of glorifying God. And finally, it was for the purpose of demonstrating to the remaining Egyptians that God alone is Lord (Exod. 14:4). Is it possible that because of this disaster, Egyptians came to faith in the God of Israel?
The final judgment of God comes suddenly and unexpectedly upon those whose hearts have been hardened by sin. We have already seen that the hardening of men’s hearts is the judgment of God. In other words, it seals the fate of those who are destined for judgment. Because of this, hardening the hearts of men dulls their sensitivity to sin and judgment so that it comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, as it did to the Egyptians.
As I was thinking of the aloofness and apathy of men with regard to God’s judgment, it occurred to me that throughout the Scriptures those whose hearts have been hardened have found that judgment comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly.154
The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him (Deut. 28:20).
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (Ps. 73:18-19)
Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 6:15).
A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 29:1).
While they are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thes. 5:3).
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon” [quickly, NASB]. Amen. Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).
Throughout the Scriptures the judgment of God falls quickly and unexpectedly on the unbelieving, whose hearts have been hardened to sin and to the judgment to come. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of the saints as being ready, expectant, sensitive to sin, and pursuing and promoting purity as the day of the Lord’s return draws near (cf. 1 Thes. 5:4-11; 2 Pet. 3:8-18; 1 John 3:2-3).
In marked contrast to the destruction-bent pathway of the Egyptians is the security of the Israelites, whether or not they perceived it at the moment. Reading the account of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea reminded me of the fact that things are often not what they seem to be. The Israelites were fearful, concluding from their circumstances that the Egyptians would be victorious over them. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were confident, thinking that there was no way they could not recapture the Israelites and take them back to Egypt as their slaves. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites were wrong in the estimation of things. Confident as they were, the Egyptians perished in the sea. And fearful as the Israelites were, they passed through the sea, delivered once and for all from their oppressors.
The Egyptians felt confident and secure because it appeared that they had the upper hand. They had the chariots and the soldiers. They had the military might of Egypt. But the Egyptians failed to reckon with the fact that they were opposing themselves to God and to His people. No matter how strong and secure one might feel, opposing God is a deadly occupation.
The Israelites were fearful and would even have considered going back to Egypt (cf. Exod. 14:10-12). The only thing which prevented this was the providential care of the God who had purposed and promised to deliver them safely to the promised land. Thus, God led them by another way than the “way of the Philistines,” knowing that war would have resulted in their losing heart and retreating (13:17-18). The Lord also assured the Israelites of His presence and guidance by the pillar of cloud and fire, and informed them as to why He was leading them so as to appear to have lost their way. The Lord also prevented the Israelites from retreating by placing the pillar of fire and the Egyptian army behind them. While the destruction of God’s enemies was assured, so was the deliverance of His people. No people were more secure than the Israelites, no matter how the circumstances appeared. No people were in greater peril than the Egyptians, regardless of their confidence and military might.
The ultimate issue, which determined the destruction or deliverance of God, was this: ON WHICH SIDE OF THE CLOUD DO YOU STAND? In our text, the judgment of God and the salvation of God employed the same means—the Red Sea. Those who stood in the sea in front of the cloud (the Israelites) were delivered, but those who stood behind the cloud (the Egyptians) were destroyed. To put it in a little different way, those who had sided with the God of Israel were saved, while those who opposed Him were struck down by the sea.
While this text graphically portrays the hardness of man’s heart, which leads ultimately to his destruction, it also pictures very clearly the salvation which God offers to all men, regardless of race. The sea was the instrument of God’s wrath, which destroyed the Egyptians. But that sea was also the instrument of Israel’s deliverance. Today, the dividing line between those who will be saved and those who will suffer God’s wrath is not a cloud, but the cross. God’s righteousness demands that sin must be paid for. The sinner must face the wrath of a righteous God. But in His grace, God has provided salvation, by pouring out His wrath on His Son, Jesus Christ. This he did nearly 2,000 years ago on the cross of Calvary. All those who accept Christ’s sacrifice on that cross are saved, and all those who reject it (either actively or passively), must bear the coming wrath of God, which will come upon them just as quickly and unexpectedly as God’s wrath fell on the Egyptians.
If this is true, the most important question you will ever answer is this, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH REGARD TO CHRIST AND HIS CROSS? Our Lord Himself said,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18).
I urge you not to delay in this decision about the cross of Christ. To delay is to further the hardening process of your own heart, and to bring about greater blindness and insensitivity toward your sin and the judgment which will come upon you.
133 “Most traffic leaving Egypt heading eastward would take one of three roads. The most direct route to Canaan was the Via Maris, ‘the way of the sea.’ This road began at the frontier fortress of Sile, near modern Qantara, and reached Canaan at Raphia. … Another route that was taken by travelers heading eastward was ‘the way of Shur’ which crossed the Sinai peninsula to southern Canaan where it connected with the important water-parting route from Jerusalem and Hebron to Beersheba in the Negeb. … The third route, known today as ‘the pilgrim’s way,’ ran across the peninsula from the head of the Gulf of Suez to Exion-geber which was located at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 155-156.
“The fact is that it was not absolutely necessary for the Israelites to cross a body of water in order to travel from Egypt into the Sinai peninsula. Many persons imagine that Egypt in ancient times was separated from that peninsula by a continuous body of water, as it is today. But the Suez Canal was dug in the nineteenth century A.D. The isthmus of Suez at its narrowest is about 70 miles from north to south. Of this distance, about forty miles are covered by lakes, the rest being land.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 156-157.
134 “This was the direct route, but was heavily guarded by Egypt: the commentators give instances of the careful lists, kept by the Egyptian guards, of arrivals and departures at the frontier. The Israelites would certainly have ‘seen war’ (Hebraic for ‘experienced war’) along that route.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 116.
“The Pharaohs used this road for their expeditions to Syria, both during Moses’ time and afterward; it was the most direct link between Egypt and Canaan. Yet God avoided it, since the Philistines were outstanding soldiers, and God did not want His people to lose heart and change their mind when they were attacked by chariots in the open plains and would prove inferior to the Philistines in military equipment.” Gispen, p. 138.
135 “The mention of the Philistines has been used as an argument against the factual accuracy of this narrative; it is claimed that the Philistines did not yet live in the southern coastal plains of Canaan at this time and did not settle there until after 1200 B.C., while the Exodus took place around 1445 B.C. … However, the Philistines were already mentioned in Genesis 26 as living in Canaan, and Gerar was called ‘the land of the Philistines’ in Genesis 21:32, 34. The Philistines are also mentioned in 15:14 and 23:31. Noordtzij has offered plausible reasons why the Egyptian inscriptions before 1200 B.C. are silent about the Philistines. … Excavations, especially those at Gerar, where pottery from the period 2000-1500 B.C. has been found similar to that of the later Philistines, also support Noordtzij’s opinion. It is thus correct to speak here of the land of the Philistines.” Gispen, p. 139.
136 Keil and Delitzsch hold this view, observing that, “The Philistines were very warlike, and would hardly have failed to resist the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan, of which they had taken possession of a very large portion.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 38.
“The statement that the Israelites left Egypt ‘armed for battle’ (some think that the word used here is related to the Egyptian word for ‘lance,’ others that it means ‘arranged in battle units,’ …) serves to explain their subsequent readiness to do battle with e.g., Amalek (ch. 17). The Israelites took not only jewelry, but also arms out of Egypt!” Gispen, p. 139.
“The use of this term in Joshua 1:14; 4:12 and Judges 7:11 has led some to suggest the meaning ‘armed’ or perhaps ‘equipped for battle.’ Whether it is approriate to describe the children of Israel as ‘armed’ at this point is doubtful. They, in all probability, did secure some armor from the Egyptians but could not at this point be described as a mobilized army.” Davis, pp. 156, 158.
142 “This pillar of cloud and fire is mentioned on several occasions during the wilderness journey, cf. 40:38; Numbers 9:15-23; 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:33; Nehemiah 9:12, 19; Psalms 78:14; 105:39; 1 Corinthians 10:1. This pillar, the proof of the Lord’s presence, expressed His love and care for Israel (cf. Gen. 15:17).” Gispen, p. 140.
143 Cole is disappointingly wishy-washy here, leaning toward the explanation that the pillar was a desert ‘whirlwind.’ Cf. Cole, p. 118. Hyatt (p. 150) includes such possibilities as the tradition of the Arabs of carrying braziers filled with burning wood at the head of an army or caravan to indicate the line of march. He also suggests volcanic activity as a “more probable” explanation.
146 “If Israel encamped by the Sea opposite Baal-Zephon (which lies on the other side), then Pharaoh would think that they were confused or had lost their way, and did not know their way in the wilderness east of Egypt and west of the Red Sea. This was an obvious conclusion from the rather curious route Israel followed. Then the Lord would harden Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8, 17; Josh. 11:20) so that he would pursue Israel, and the final outcome would be that the Lord would gain glory for Himself through Pharaoh and his entire army, so that the Egyptians would know that He was the Lord (cf. e.g., 10:2). Verses 2-4 give us an impression of Pharaoh’s reprobation and of God’s omnipotence (cf. 9:15; Rom. 9:17, 22-23). From a human standpoint this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was necessary to give Israel complete freedom and to release it from any obligation to return, since Pharaoh had broken his promise. … Pharaoh’s disposition toward Israel, and that of his officials … changed. They were not forced to sin, but made a voluntary choice in the wrong direction. And what was seen in the first chapter was repeated: greed and the desire for gain once again came to the fore, now that the plagues had been gone for a few days. They asked themselves and each other what could have induced them to let their cheap labor go. But the mistake could be corrected.” Gispen, pp. 141-142.
148 I must, of necessity, point out that there are many attempts made to explain the passing through the sea in terms of natural causes. Davis warns us that, “A very popular view is that the Israelites crossed in a generally shallow and marshy district which could easily have been cleared of water and laid dry by the normal action of a strong wind.” Davis, p. 164.
I believe Gispen’s advice should be taken at this point: “No sound arguments can be brought against the historicity of this event. … We should stay with the text of Exodus for both the fact and their explanation…” Gispen, p. 136.
Another (often related) item of discussion among the scholars pertains to the place from which the Israelites crossed over the “sea”: “Broadly speaking, there are only three possible routes for the exodus, either near the Mediterranean coast (which is unlikely, because of the proximity of the Egyptian outposts) or directly across the Sinai peninsula to Kadesh (which not only seems to conflict with the biblical evidence, but would be very difficult from the point of view of the water supplies), or south to Sinai, and then north to Kadesh (which seems most likely on any score).” Cole, p. 117.
“… I am of the opinion that, even if the Gulf of Suez was still connected with the Bitter Lakes and the Lakes were thus part of the Gulf, the statements in the text more fully agree with a crossing through the Gulf of Suez where it is deeper, thus in the vicinity of present-day Suez. … The biblical data point to the Gulf of Suez, not to the Mediterranean Sea. It would also be difficult to imagine that Solomon’s fleet was stationed on Lake Serbonis (cf. 1 Kings 9:26).” Gispen, p. 137.
149 Davis concludes that while the wind is a ‘natural’ force, this ‘wind’ had to be supernatural: “This writer feels that the best interpretation of the ‘strong east wind’ is to regard it as a supernatural wind rather than a purely natural wind. There are at least four reasons for assuming this view. First, it is doubtful that a purely natural wind would make a ‘wall’ (v. 22). Second, if this wind came from the east (v. 21) it most likely would have walled up the water in the wrong direction; that is, north and south. Third, two walls are mentioned (v. 22) which indicates that the waters were divided by this special wind (cf. v. 16). … Fourth, if this were a natural wind capable of moving enough water so as to provide a depth to drown the Egyptians, could the people have walked through such an area, assuming that a natural wind would have come through the area with tremendous velocity?” Davis, pp. 165-166.
Cole adds, “Winds and fire are often described poetically in the Bible as almost personified messengers of the God who controls them (Ps. 104:4).” Cole, p. 121.
150 “Hebrew yam is a very general word which may be used of a lake, a sea (such as the Mediterranean), a river (such as the Nile, Isa. 19:5) or possibly other bodies of water. However, in Exod. 13:18 a body of water is referred to as the Red Sea, and that is the designation often used in other passages which speak of the crossing of the sea (Exod. 15:4, 22; Dt. 11:4; Jos. 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Ps. 106:7, 9, 22; Neh. 9:9 etc.). The Hebrew in such passages is yam sup, which means literally ‘sea of reeds,’ or ‘sea of rushes.’ In Exod. 2:3, 5 sup is used of ‘the reeds’ in which Moses was placed. Yam sup could well be rendered ‘Reed Sea.’ The translation of RSV by ‘Red Sea’ is based upon the rendering in LXX, eruthra thalassa, and Vulgate, mare rubrum. In antiquity ‘the Red Sea’ was a general term including the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps even more. … The OT uses yam sup with more than one meaning. In 1 Kg. 9:26 it clearly refers to the Gulf of Aqaba, and probably also in Num. 21:4; Dt. 2:1. In Num. 33:10 (P) yam sup obviously means the Gulf of Suez, and is distinguished from ‘the sea’ through which the Israelites had passed just after leaving Hahiroth (33:8).” Hyatt, p. 158.
151 It is disappointing to read Cole’s conclusions about the “walls” of water on both sides of the Israelites: “This metaphor is no more to be taken literally than when Ezra 9:9 says that God has given him a ‘wall’ (the same word) in Israel. It is a poetic metaphor to explain why the Egyptian chariots could not sweep in to right and left, and cut Israel off; they had to cross by the same ford, directly behind the Israelites.” Cole, p. 121.
While the Bible often uses metophorical language, it seems to me that Cole is somehow trying too hard to find a phenomenon here that is too ‘natural’ and not enough ‘supernatural.’ Davis writes, “It appears that the basic sense of the use of the word wall (Heb. homah) is to designate a passageway between two generally perpendicular masses. On the basis of the Hebrew text alone, however, it is difficult to determine whether a literal perpendicular wall is necessarily implied. … In the light of the full context, however, preference certainly must be given to the former [perpendicular wall] viewpoint …” Davis, pp. 167-168.
152 “I Samuel 11:11 also mentions this, the last of the three watches, from 2 a.m. to dawn, about 6 a.m. This, the darkest hour before the dawn, was traditionally the time for attack, when men’s spirits are at their lowest.” Cole, p. 122.
153 “The expression ‘took off’ their chariot wheels (v. 25) is a translation of the Hebrew word sur meaning in the Hif’il stem to ‘take away or to remove.’ … The Septuagint, on the other hand, speaks of God ‘clogging their chariot wheels’ an idea which has been carried over into the Revised Standard Version.” Davis, p. 167.
8. The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15)
A number of years ago, a child was tragically killed in an accident. The child was the son of the minister of a very liberal church. His funeral was one of the saddest occasions because there was no evidence of a truly Christian faith on the part of those most intimately involved. I will never forget the song that was given as an expression of the young boy’s affirmation of faith. The song was “Zippiddy Doo Dah.”
Israel’s first great affirmation of faith was expressed in a song as well, but a very different kind of song. Some have titled this song, the “Song of the Sea.” Since it is not the only song of Moses (cf. Deut. 32; Psalm 90), this title is definitive enough, linking it to Israel’s passing through the Red Sea, as described in Exodus chapter 14.
The 400 years of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt which God had foretold Abraham (Gen. 15:13-15) has now ended, fulfilled precisely, to the very day (Exod. 12:40-41).155 The affliction of the Israelites was noted by the God who had covenanted with Abraham to bless him through his offspring and to bring them out of bondage into the land of Canaan. Sending Moses to Pharaoh, God forced this reluctant ruler to release the Israelites through the ten plagues wrought by the hand of Moses. The death of every firstborn male of the Egyptians moved them to urge the Israelites to leave their midst, providing them with gifts of the best of Egypt (Exod. 12:31-36). After the Israelites, Pharaoh and his officials had second thoughts, and with the report which led them to believe that the Israelites were wandering about, lost in the wilderness, they pursued them, up to and even into the Red Sea, where they were destroyed as the waters of the sea returned to their place (Exod. 13:17–14:31).
The deliverance of the Israelites and the defeat of the Egyptians is the occasion for the song which is recorded in Exodus chapter 15. It would appear that Moses wrote this song, which is no surprise in the light of the other songs he has written (Deut. 32; Psalm 90). The mood of the song is triumphant. The song is a description of the power of God as Israel’s defender, as evidenced in the destruction of the Egyptian army and in the deliverance of Israel by means of the Red Sea. The recent victory of God at the Red Sea is seen as a guarantee of the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel in the future, especially in the defeat of their enemies and in their possession of the land of Canaan.
The structure of Exodus 15 is straightforward. Verses 1-21 contain the “Song of the Sea.” Verses 22-26 describe the incident at Marah, occasioned by thirst of the Israelites and the bitter water which they found there. Verse 27 records the arrival of the Israelites at Elim, where there was water in abundance.
God’s Victory Over the Egyptians in the Red Sea
Generally speaking, the structure of the “Song of the Sea” is straightforward. The simplest division of the song is two-fold: (1) What God had done for Israel by drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea (vss. 1-12); (2) What God will therefore surely do for Israel in the future (vss. 13-21). Finer distinctions can be drawn, but there is less agreement as one becomes more detailed in the breakdown of the song.
Moses apparently wrote the song,156 and may have led Israel as they sang it. The first refrain, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (v. 1) is echoed by Miriam,157 who led the women in singing almost the same words and dancing: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (v. 21). While this song was sung corporately as Israel’s expression of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea, verses 1 and 2 express this praise in a personal and singular. The first person pronouns “I” and “my” make the praise here personal.
In typical psalm-like fashion, the acts of God are viewed as evidences of His nature and character. Consequently, the defeat of the Egyptians is described in poetic imagery. God’s deliverance is then viewed in the light of the character of God which is demonstrated in His deliverance.
With dramatic poetic strokes, the event which just occurred in the midst of the Red Sea is described. While natural forces are employed, they are seen as miraculous events, brought about by the direct intervention and involvement of God. The Lord is said to have “hurled the Egyptians into the sea” (v. 4). They sank to the depths158 “like a stone” (v. 5). The winds are described as coming from the “nostrils of God” (v. 8). The waters “congealed” so as to “pile up like a wall” (v. 8). God’s sovereignty is evidenced by His control over the forces of nature (e.g. the winds), and by His ability as the Creator to cause nature to act unnaturally (e.g. the “congealing” of the water, so as to pile up like a wall).
In verses 9 and 10, the sovereignty of God is seen in His ability to prevail, as a mighty warrior (cf. v. 3) over the Egyptians, the mightiest army on the face of the earth. They arrogantly pursued the Israelites, confident of victory (v. 9). In spite of their power and confidence, God simply “blew them away,” causing them to “sink like lead” in the sea (v. 10). The greatest army on the face of the earth was no problem for the God of Israel to dispose of.
Verses 11 and 12 summarize the implications of the mighty acts of God at the Red Sea, focusing upon God’s nature and character: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them.” The greatness and the goodness of God are thus recognized by the Israelites as they reflect on God’s victory over their enemies, the Egyptians. What impresses me about the conclusions which this song reveals is that they are the same as those purposes God has already stated in the Book of Exodus. What God intended for His people to learn from the miracles of the exodus is exactly what they concluded, as indicated in the song which they sang.
Before his return to Egypt, God told Moses that Pharaoh would not release the Israelites until He compelled him to “with a mighty hand,” revealed by performing “wonders” among them (Exod. 3:19-20; cf. 6:1). Now, after their passing through the Red Sea, Israel praised God for what His “mighty hand” had done (vss. 6, 9, 12). God revealed through Moses that He was about to “bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exod. 12:12). Now, after the exodus, Israel proclaims, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord?” (Exod 15:11). By the exodus, God said that Israel would know He was the Lord their God, who brought them out from under the yoke of the Egyptians (Exod. 6:7). Thus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites sang, “He is my God, and I will praise him” (Exod 15:2). That which God sought to accomplish in the events of the exodus, He did accomplish, as seen by the praises of His people in this song.
God’s Victory Over the Enemies of Israel in the Future
The first half of the “song of Moses” emphasizes the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the Egyptians. The second half of this song, in verses 13-21, is upon the defeat of those who would oppose Israel in the future. To state the matter differently, the first half of the song dwells on the Egyptians’ defeat, while the second half focuses on Israel’s deliverance, especially that deliverance which was yet to come, the defeat of those enemies who would resist Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan, which God promised He would give them.
The New International Version clearly underscores the shift from the past defeat of the Egyptians to the future defeat of Israel’s enemies by consistently rendering the verbs of verses 13 and following in the future tense.159 Thus, while verses 1-12 have dwelt on God’s past deliverance of His people, verses 13-21 look to His future deliverance of the Israelites.
Rightly, the Israelites saw the plagues and their passing through the Red Sea as a beginning. God did not just promise to release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, He promised to bring them into the promised land of Canaan. In one sense, the whole exodus event was somewhat of a secondary matter, a means for His people to possess the land of Canaan:
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. … And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord’” (Exod. 6:6, 8).
Verse 13 therefore begins with a summary statement of what God is yet to accomplish for His people. Out of His unfailing love, He will lead His people, whom He has just redeemed, into His “holy dwelling.” There is a lack of consensus as to what is meant by the expression “holy dwelling” here. I doubt that it’s primary reference is to the temple (cf. Psalm 92:13), which is, as yet, not an element of Israel’s hope.160 The song could be referring to the promised land of Canaan as God’s “holy dwelling” (cf. Psalm 78:54; Isaiah 11:9). In the light of the promise of God to Abraham that the sign of His presence with Israel would be that Israel would worship God on “this (holy) mountain” (Exod. 3:12; cf. v. 5), the “holy dwelling” may be Mount Sinai. In any case, I believe that the “holy dwelling” of God is a reference to the promised land, whether or not a particular place (either Mt. Sinai or the temple) is also in mind.
The hope expressed in verse 13 will require the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the Canaanites, who will resist their entrance and possession of the land. The means of accomplishing this are viewed as the same as those used to deliver her from Egypt and the Egyptian army. The defeat of Israel’s Canaanite foes is thus described in verses 14-15.161 The defeat of the Canaanites is assured by the defeat of the Egyptians, the most formidable enemy of all. The Canaanites will be more easily overcome because of the terror produced by the report of the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. They will know that the God of Israel is a God of might, a warrior (v. 3), who is able to overcome the enemies of His people.
There is a play on words evident in the second half of the “Song of the Sea,” which takes up some of the same expressions or imagery employed to describe the defeat of the Egyptians and uses them to apply to the defeat of the Canaanites. For example, the Egyptian soldiers were said to have sunk “like a stone” in the Red Sea (15:5). Now, the terrified Canaanites are prophesied to become “as still as a stone” (15:16). As the arm of the Lord enabled Israel to pass through the Red Sea, so the Israelites will pass through their enemies (15:16).
Verses 17 and 18 conclude with a confident affirmation that God will bring His people in to the promised land, where He will plant them on His holy mountain. Perhaps now the reference to the Lord’s sanctuary does refer to the temple. At least this can be the fulfillment in a way that is more specific than Israel anticipated. There, the Lord will reign over His people for ever and ever. The Lord is now seen, for the first time I believe, as Israel’s king. The treaty between God and His people will be delivered to them from Mt. Sinai. The exodus will serve as the basis for that treaty, as the early chapters of Deuteronomy will make clear.
Verses 19 and 20 turn from poetry to prose, but they may still be a part of the song. These verses serve to emphasize the fact that Israel’s hope for the future is directly related to God’s act of deliverance at the Red Sea. Miriam, a prophetess and the sister of Aaron (not to mention Moses, cf. footnote 3), led the women as they repeated the first refrain of the “Song of the Sea,” which must have been quite a feat for a woman who would have had to be around 90 years old. Both the men and the women seemed to have sung their own parts in this marvelous hymn of praise.
The “Song of the Sea” was obviously important to the Israelites who passed through the Red Sea, and who sang it as recorded in our text. It served as a vehicle by means of which they could praise God. It also provided the mechanism for recording and recalling God’s great act of deliverance at the Red Sea. It directed Israel’s attention on the character of God, and it produced hope and confidence in God’s future protection and blessing.
The “Song of the Sea” reveals the great significance the exodus event had for the one who had passed through the sea, but what value does this event have for others? Is the exodus and the passing of Israel through the Red Sea only dull history, unrelated to our lives? Far from it, the exodus is a theme which permeates the remainder of the Old Testament, as well as the New. For saints of every age, the exodus is both a prototype and a prophecy of the future redemption(s) of God. Notice the following allusions to the exodus or to the terminology of the “Song of the Sea”:
(1) The events of the exodus were retold to the next generation of Israelites, as the basis and motivation for their obedience to the Law which God had given (cf. Deut. 4:32-40; 7:17-19).
(2) In the crossing of the Jordan, there is a decided parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea (cf. Josh. 3:14-17).
(3) The story of Israel’s exodus and portions of the “Song of the Sea” are frequently quoted in the Psalms.162
(4) Throughout the Book of Isaiah, as well as in some of the other prophets, the deliverance of Israel from its bondage in Egypt was likened to the deliverance of Israel and Judah from their Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Thus, either by a direct reference or by an allusion, the exodus is constantly drawn upon as a symbol and source of hope for Israel’s future deliverance.163
(5) The exodus was, in the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament gospels, a prototype of the greatest redemption of all, the redemption of men’s souls from bondage to sin, which was accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ, the lamb of God (cf. Luke 9:31, where the “departure” which Jesus was discussing with His disciples was literally His “exodus”).
(6) In the Book of Revelation, the deliverance of Israel (as depicted in the “Song of the Sea”) was seen as typical or symbolic of the deliverance of the tribulation saints (Rev. 15:1-4).
Biblical history is not written to bore us with irrelevant details. It is written in order to provide our faith with historical roots. Israel’s hope regarding the future (Exod. 15:13-21) was rooted in their experience in history, through the plagues and their passing through the Red Sea. So, too, our future hope is based upon God’s actions in the past, both in our experience, and in the experience of those who have lived (and experienced the hand of God) before us. The Old Testament is therefore a rich source of faith-building history, which assures us of what God can do, based upon our knowledge of what God has already done. This assumes, of course, that we read the Old Testament with the “eyes of faith,” believing that these events did happen, as they were described.
The “Song of the Sea” and the exodus experience which it describes is an excellent illustration of a principle which is taught in the New Testament:
And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Rom. 5:2b-5).
Here, Paul is teaching us that the joy of the Christian remains, and even grows, in the midst of trials and tribulation. The more difficult things become, the more our faith is put to the test. The more our tested faith proves to be legitimate and living faith, the more hope we have for the future. It is the testing of tribulation and trials which shows that our faith is much more than a “fair weather faith,” thus giving us even greater confidence in the future.
Israel came to know God in a greater way as a result of the trials and testings that they experienced in Egypt and in the wilderness. We, too, come to know God more intimately and more fully in the midst of the trials which He leads us through. And when we “pass through” these trials, we look to the future fulfillment of God’s promises as even more certain, having experienced His faithfulness in the tough times of our lives.
The “Song of the Sea” which the Israelites sang also serves to remind us that our security and hope are ultimately dependent upon the character of God. While their song described the deeds of God in the destruction of their enemies, the song points to the character of God which His actions point to. God’s greatness, goodness, and faithfulness are the basis for our faith and our hope. Ultimately, we trust a person for his character, and not for his abilities. God is both able and willing to help us in our time of need. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New, and because He does not change (Jas. 1:17), we can trust in His character as demonstrated in the lives of the saints of old.
Israel’s Protests at the Waters of Marah
The “Song of the Sea” was not written to be sung but once. Perhaps the Israelites continued to sing this song as they traveled on their way from the shores of the Red Sea, entering into the Desert of Shur. For three days they found no water. This does not mean they had no water to drink, but their supplies would have been limited, and they would have had to ration them carefully. The people were no doubt anxious about their water supply as they came to Marah.
Sighting the waters at Marah must have brought great rejoicing to the Israelites. Their thirst, they thought, would be quenched, their cattle could be watered, and their reserves replenished. What a disappointment it must have been to discover that the waters were bitter, and thus unfit for consumption. Their joy at discovering water turned quickly to anger at Moses for leading them to such a place. How could Moses have bungled this matter so badly? They did not hesitate to place the responsibility for this blunder squarely on the shoulders of their leader—Moses. They demanded that he come up with a solution.
Moses cried out to the Lord, who showed him a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, causing it to become sweet. No one knows of any wood which could produce the result which is here described. The transformation of the waters of Marah (which means “bitter,” cf. Ruth 1:20) was a miracle. The casting of the wood into the water must have been a symbolic act, like Moses raising his staff over the waters of the Red Sea.
The incident at Marah was divinely designed as a test of Israel’s faith (v. 25), and as a teaching tool (v. 26). By Israel’s protest against Moses, the people had revealed their lack of faith and hardness of heart. They were deserving of the same plagues which God had brought upon the Egyptians. If the Israelites would obey Him (which, I take it, meant to obey the leadership of Moses) God would keep the plagues of Egypt from falling upon them. If they persisted in protesting against Moses’ leadership, the inference is that God would plague His people as He had done to the Egyptians. God does not tolerate disobedience and unbelief, either in the Egyptians or in His people. Just as the Lord “healed” the bitter waters of Marah, making them sweet, so He would be Israel’s healer, if they would but obey.
Having brought this message home to the Israelites, God led them on to Elim, where there was an ample supply of water. Here they camped, and gained needed refreshment from the water of the springs and the shade of the trees (v. 27).
While this chapter appears to have two very distinct accounts, there is good reason for the fact that Moses has placed them side by side. The “Song of the Sea” and the “bitter waters of Marah” are contrasting accounts, but accounts which have a direct relationship to each other. Two observations are crucial to our understanding the relationship between the praises of Israel in the “Song of the Sea” (vss. 1-21) and the protests of Israel at Marah (vss. 22-26).
(1) The Israelites failed to see the relationship between the affirmation of their faith in their worship (vss. 1-21) and the application of their faith in their daily walk (vss. 22-26). Israel had just proclaimed her faith in God as her warrior (15:3), but she was unable to trust in God as her waterer (15:22-26). That God could handle a problem with the water at Marah should not come as any surprise. After all, God had delivered Israel and destroyed the Egyptians by means of His control of the water in the Red Sea. The winds (which the song describes as coming from the breath of God, vss. 8, 10) caused the waters to part. God was able to make the waters congeal, so that there were walls of water on both sides of the Israelites (cf. v. 8). God caused the waters to close in upon the Egyptian army, drowning them all. If God could deal with the waters of the Red Sea, surely He could be trusted to deal with the waters of Marah. Israel should have been able to apply the faith she affirmed in the “Song of the Sea” to her dilemma at the waters of Marah, but she did not.
Lest we become unnecessarily perturbed at the Israelites for their lack of faith, and become a little proud of ourselves, let me suggest that the problem which Israel illustrates is also one of the greatest problems of Christians in every age, including our own. We often fail to apply our faith in God, resulting from one event, to another event which is virtually identical. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44) should have taught the disciples to trust in the Lord Jesus to feed the multitudes, and yet shortly after this great miracle, the disciples failed to apply their faith to the matter of feeding the 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10).
When we gather to worship God, we do not sing the “Song of the Sea” but we do sing many hymns and choruses which express our faith in God. We sing, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and then go our ways fretting and worrying about the petty details of our lives, as though God was not faithful at all. We sing, “It Is Well With My Soul,” but when some little irritation comes along, our faith flounders. We sing, “O, for a Thousand Tongues,” and then, when someone makes fun of our faith, we are tongue-tied and cannot find any words to say concerning our faith.
The point is simply this. It is a great deal easier to affirm our faith in public worship than it is to apply our faith in our daily walk. Here is the real crunch. Here is where the rubber meets the road. It is not that we need to worship less, it is that we must apply in our daily walk those truths which we affirm in our worship. Just as God led the Israelites to the waters of Marah, so He leads us in such a way as to give us ample opportunity to apply our faith, or at least to reveal our lack of faith.
One of the contributing factors to our failure to apply our faith in our daily walk is that we tend to create false distinctions between those areas which are sacred (church, public worship) and those which are secular (work, daily living). The result is that we think of our faith as relevant to our “devotional” activities, but not to our daily activities. It is my contention that God distinguishes between those matters which are holy and those which are profane, but not between those matters which are sacred and those which are secular. A more careful look at the Law of Moses will reveal that Israel’s faith was to govern and guide them in the minute details of their (secular) lives.
(2) Not only did Israel fail to apply their faith to their situation at Marah, they failed to even see the problem as being spiritual. In the text we read that the Israelites protested against Moses, not against God (v. 24). They demanded that Moses produce water for them, they did not cry to God for water. It is my contention that they did not see their circumstances as demanding a “spiritual” solution, but only as demanding a “secular” solution. At least when the Israelites were trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea they cried out to God for help (before they began to grumble against Moses, cf. 14:10-12). Here, at Marah, they immediately confronted Moses, and ignored God altogether.
Ironically, the Israelites forgot that the pillar of cloud was still guiding them (cf. 13:21-22), and that God Himself was present with them in the cloud. If they were wrongly led, God led them wrongly by the cloud. Imagine the protests of the Israelites, while the cloud hovered over the waters of Marah. The Israelites failed to understand that if God promised to bring them safely out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan, any obstacle which would hinder or prevent them was one with which God was concerned, and which He could overcome. They failed to see bitter water as a matter about which God would be concerned, but He was concerned because water was necessary to preserve His people.
At the Red Sea, Israel should have learned that God was able to overcome any obstacle (such as the Red Sea, which He parted) or any opponent (such as the Egyptians, which He drowned in the Red Sea—the obstacle). Thus, while the Israelites sang that God was going to overcome their opponents (the Canaanites), they did not grasp the fact that He would also overcome all the obstacles to their entrance into Canaan (such as the bitter waters of Marah).
How often we fall into the very same trap. We view God as being concerned only with the big problems of life, those which appear to be spiritual. But anything which hinders our growth, our sanctification, or our ability to do what He has purposed is a matter about which He is concerned, and which He is able to overcome. Frequently, when we encounter a problem in our lives, we do not even consider that it is something about which God is intimately concerned. We immediately begin to turn to secular solutions, without seeking God’s solution.
One reason why we fail to view our problems as an occasion for faith is that we have become accustomed to living by scientific principles rather than spiritual principles. The scientific method is a good method—for matters of science. But it is incompatible when it comes to matters of faith. Here, the scientific method must be set aside (not scrapped, but set aside). Scientific principles are essential for scientific purposes. One does not, for example, design an airplane, load it full of people, and hope that it flies. It must pass a rigorous series of tests and be proven functional and reliable.
The scientific method requires that every scientific fact be proven, being performed under controlled conditions, having hard empirical evidence, and being repeatable, time after time. In order for one to accept the account of the Red Sea on scientific grounds, the depth of the sea would have had to have been measured, the velocity of the winds calculated, and all other variables considered. In order to prove that this was something scientifically verifiable, the parting of the sea would have to be repeated time after time. And after being scientifically proven, one could only predict that the event would happen again if it were repeated under identical conditions. Any change in any variable would cause the scientist to question the possibility of repeating the phenomenon under different conditions.
The spiritual method is different. The spiritual method observes what God has done, accepting the event on face value, governed and qualified by the divine revelation which accompanies the phenomenon. The spiritual method then views the event as a manifestation of the character of God. On the basis of God’s character (as consistent with biblical descriptions of His character elsewhere), the Christian then looks at any future circumstance as an opportunity for God to act in such a way as to achieve His purposes by overcoming both obstacles (like the Red Sea, or the hardness of men’s hearts) and opponents (like Satan, the antichrist, or the armies of men who have been deceived and used by Satan). Variations in conditions do not change the character of God, nor do they pose a problem to the God who is all-powerful.
The reason why we fail to see many circumstances as occasions that require a spiritual solution (and therefore require faith as well) is because we are using the scientific method of reasoning, rather than the spiritual method of reasoning, which reasons according to God’s revealed will and in accordance with the character of God, as demonstrated in history.
As we come to the conclusion of the message, let me attempt to apply this text to a current problem, which I shall call the “charismatic problem.” Many contemporary charismatics are inclined to think and to teach that life can and will be lived on the spiritual mountain tops. Thus, we should expect the Israelites to continually experience the euphoria and optimism of the “Song of the Sea.” Such is not the case, however. God did not allow the Israelites to stay by the sea, singing their glorious song. He did not keep them on the mountain. Instead, God led the Israelites into the desert, allowed them to be thirsty, and gave them bitter water. This adverse situation tested the faith and endurance of the Israelites, and provided the occasion for God to teach His people an important lesson. Expecting to live the Christian life on a continuous high is not only unrealistic, it is unbiblical. Thank God for the times of victory and elation, but do not expect things to stay this way forever.
Now a word to my non-charismatic reader. While we often accuse our charismatic brethren of expecting the miraculous and the ecstatic to be the norm, we often have become content to expect that things will always happen according to natural laws and practices, so that we expect miracles not to happen. God is not obliged to work a miracle for our benefit, but He is able to do so, and He sometimes does do so. The Israelites saw the miraculous hand of God at work in their passing through the Red Sea, and they expected His hand to work mightily and miraculously as they entered into the land of Canaan to possess it. We, on the other hand, have convinced ourselves that we ought not expect the miraculous.
The conversion of souls is a miracle. If we do not look for God to work in miraculous ways, we may as well stop witnessing and trying to evangelize the lost. The process of sanctification as well as the manifestation of the Spirit in the lives of the saints for ministry is a miracle, and we dare not seek to serve the Lord without asking for His miraculous power to do so.
Frankly, I do not know which is worse—thinking miracles should be the rule, or thinking that miracles have been ruled out—but there must be a balance. The exodus event is a manifestation of God’s miraculous might, employed to achieve His purposes and to fulfill His promises. The Israelites saw the miracle of God accomplished in the past as a guarantee of His intervention in the future. May God give us the faith to look for (but not demand) the miraculous in our lives, when it is required to accomplish the purposes and promises of God.
If you have not personally come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you have not experienced the miracle of being born again, of having your sins forgiven, your guilt removed, and of the joy of fellowship with God and the hope of heaven. It is only when you experience this miracle of conversion that you will look for the miraculous hand of God to work in your life in the future.
155 The reason for the difference between the 400 years given in Genesis 15 and the 430 years given in Exodus 12 is easily explained. God spoke of 400 years of oppression in Genesis 15. During the lifetime of Joseph, the Israelites were not persecuted, and thus Moses writes in Exodus that Israel departed from Egypt 430 years after they had arrived. The difference of 30 years is therefore the time which Israel spent in Egypt in the favor of the Pharaoh who exalted Joseph (cf. Exod. 1:8-9).
156 I have worded this statement carefully because there is no clear statement that Moses actually wrote this song. It is, however, rather strongly implied. Moses and Miriam are the two prominent leaders in Israel’s worship. Both Moses and Miriam are prophets of God, who can give inspired utterance (Exod. 15:20; Num. 12:6-8). This song is sung by the victorious tribulation saints in Revelation 15, where it is called the “song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3). We can, I believe, safely infer that Moses is the author of this song. The motivation for rejecting the Mosaic authorship of the “Song of the Sea” is the belief that some, if not all, of this song was written considerably later than the time of the exodus. The primary reason appears to be the “prophecies” of verses 13 and following, which they choose to view as history, described after the event.
157 It is interesting that Miriam is referred to as “Aaron’s sister” (v. 20), and not as the sister of Moses. On the basis of this statement, some have suggested that Aaron and Miriam had the same father as Moses, but that Moses was the child of another wife. Others, perhaps more reasonably, have understood that this choice of words emphasized the prominence and position of Moses, even though he was the youngest of the three.
158 Davis reminds us that the description of the waters of the Red Sea is not consistent with the drying up of any shallow body of water: “The poetic description of Pharaoh’s defeat further substantiates the concept of a crossing where the water was relatively deep. In verse 5 it speaks of the ‘depths’ having covered the Egyptian army. The Hebrew word for depths … usually carries the sense of oceanic depths, the sea, or an abyss.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 174.
159 This is done even when the verb is actually a past tense. The reason for this is that the past tense is often used to describe a future event, which is certain due to the promise or prophecy of God (this is called, by the grammarians, a “prophetic perfect”). The future is so certain it can be described as already having occurred. In our idiom we would say, “It is as good as done.”
161 It is evident that the utter terror of Israel’s foes, which will cause them to “melt away in terror and dread” (15:15) is not as complete as is here envisioned. That the enemies of Israel did fear is clear from the words of Rahab to the Israeli spies in Joshua 2:9-11 (cf. also Josh. 2:24; 5:1; Deut. 2:25). Nevertheless, the Canaanites did resist Israel, in a way that seems inconsistent with the optimism of this song (cf. Num. 14:14-21; 20:18ff.; 21:4; 22:2ff.; Deut. 2:1, 3, 8). There are at least two possible explanations. First, the text of the song does not speak of immediate and total defeat, but of the fear of Israel which the exodus produced. The fierce resistance of the Canaanites was motivated, no doubt, by this fear. Secondly, Israel’s delay in entering the land would tend to minimize the impact of the Red Sea event. Had Israel attempted to take the land sooner, the defeat of the Egyptians would have had a greater psychological effect on Israel’s enemies.
162 Gispen supplies us with this list of citations from the “Song of the Sea” in the Psalms: “v. 1, cf. Pss. 66:6; 68:18; 106:12; v. 2, cf. Ps. 118:14, 21, 28; v. 3, cf. Ps. 24:8; v. 4, cf. Ps. 136:15; vv. 5-17, cf. Ps. 78:52-54; vv. 5-13, cf. Ps. 77:14-21; vv. 5-10, cf. Ps. 106:11; v. 7, cf. Ps. 78:49; v. 8, cf. Ps. 78:13; v. 11, cf. Pss. 66:3, 5; 78:4, 12; 86:8; vv. 13-17, cf. Pss. 44:2, 4; 74:2; v. 17, cf. Ps. 80:9, 16; v. 18, cf. Ps. 146:10.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 146.
163 The following are just a few of the passages in Isaiah and other prophets which are dependent upon the exodus account or exodus terminology: Isa. 12 (compare v. 2 with Exodus 15:2); Isa. 43:1-3a, 14-21; 44:24-28; 50:2-3; 51:9-11; 52:3-6, 11-12; Jer. 16:14f.; 23:7f. Hosea (takes up on the theme of Egypt) 7:16; 8:13; 9:3, 6; 11:5, 11.
9. Boot Camp and “C” Rations (Exodus 16)
This week, one of my friends reminded me of the newspaper account of a Brinks armored truck, which was loaded with money which was nearly worn out and was on its way to be destroyed. The truck was involved in some kind of traffic accident, the result of which was that the doors flew open and the money was scattered in the intersection. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to visualize what happened. People jumped out of their cars, which they left to block the traffic, and frantically ran about, trying to gather as much money as they could hold.
Naturally, none of us would have done such a thing. Well, at least none of you would. But I would. One Christmas Eve, my younger brother and I had run to our neighborhood Safeway store to purchase some last minute provisions. We wanted to be sure to get what we needed, knowing that the stores would soon close for Christmas. When we got to the checkout counter, my brother overheard the checker telling a customer that all the bread which was on the shelves was free for the taking, since it would be too old to sell after Christmas.
Besides my brother and I, several other customers heard the good news, and began to work their way over to the breads. They walked slowly, and they picked through the bread, being careful to take only a loaf or two. Not so with us. We grabbed a couple empty shopping carts and began sweeping loaves of bread into them, starting of course with the expensive specialty breads. Fortunately, we had come in my van, which we loaded with bread. Calling friends and relatives, we shared the blessing of the free bread.
These stories of human greed may strike you as amusing, but they are also relevant to the account of God’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, described in Exodus chapter 16. Having run out of food in the desert, so that the Israelites feared they would starve to death, one can only imagine the zeal with which they harvested the first provision of manna. There was enough manna, it would seem, for every Israelite to have filled his tent with it. From the account it appears that some tried, only to discover that it would not keep, turning foul and wormy. The efforts to hoard the provision of manna was in direct disobedience to God’s instructions. Their greed, like mine, and yours (admit it, you would have been trying to out maneuver me at that Safeway store), was evidenced in their attempt to hoard a surplus supply of manna, so that they could feel secure about the future.
In the passage which we will be studying in this message, Israel is guilty of two sins: greed and grumbling. We discover that both of these sins are symptomatic of an even more serious underlying sin. It is that sin which is characterized, and which God works to cure, in our text.
The background of God’s provision of manna for His people is to be found in the final verses of the previous chapter. Not finding water for three days, the Israelites came upon the waters of Marah, which they were unable to drink because they were bitter. The people initially cried out to God, and then began to grumble against Moses. They demanded to know what they were to drink. The Lord first made provision for the sweetening of the bitter waters of Marah (which means bitter), and then He spoke these words: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod. 15:26).
God’s words suggest to me that there is a relationship between the plagues which are brought upon the Egyptians and the sweetening of the waters at Marah. For all intents and purposes, the “bitter” waters of Marah were as useless to the Israelites as the “bloody” water of the Nile after the first plague was brought upon Egypt. The Egyptians were plagued by God because they failed to heed the instruction of God to “Let His people go.” When God’s command to the Egyptians was disobeyed, the plagues ensued. Now, God is laying down commands to His people, the Israelites. If they disregard His commands, they will be plagued, just as the Egyptians were. The response of Israel to the bitter waters at Marah reveals that the Israelites are sinful, too. God’s commands will be given to His people to test them.164 To fail to obey will be to invite His judgments on them.
While God’s statement to Israel is a general command to them, the first of the “commands and decrees” which God refers to here are given in chapter 16.165 These commands are God’s instructions regulating the gathering and use of the manna which He is about to provide for His people. It is these commands which serve as a test of Israel’s faith and obedience. It is these same commands which serve to strengthen Israel’s faith and to teach His people to obey Him.
After the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and Israel’s failure to possess the promised land, Israel’s wilderness wanderings are a part of her judgment, due to her unbelief. But here, at the beginning of Israel’s journey from Egypt toward Canaan, the time spent in the wilderness is not disciplinary (the result of her sin), but didactic (intended to instruct), an occasion for teaching Israel the necessity of faith and obedience. Chapters 16 and 17 describe God’s “boot camp” for Israel. Keeping God’s commands and decrees pertaining to the gathering and use of manna will teach God’s people to trust and obey.
Growling Stomachs and Grumbling Saints
A month passed between the time Israel departed from Egypt to the time when the nation reached the Wilderness of Sin.166 Water had already been a problem (cf. 15:22-26), and now they had run out of food.167 Their growling stomachs soon produced grumbling lips. The whole assembly grumbled against Moses and Aaron (16:2). They said they would rather have died in Egypt than to have been brought out into the desert to starve to death (16:3).
Characteristics of Israel’s Grumbling
Before we consider God’s response to the grumblings of His people, it may be worthwhile to point out some of the characteristics of Israel’s grumbling in this incident. Very likely, we will find that grumbling was not only a problem then, but that it is also a problem in our lives as well.
(1) Grumbling is a problem with pain or problems. Grumbling almost never occurs when we are experiencing pleasure, but nearly always when we are in pain. In our passage, there is a definite relationship between the Israelites’ growling stomachs and their grumbling lips. We grumble because we do not like the pain or the discomfort of the situation we are in. We grumble because we think that we should experience pleasure rather than pain, affluence and ease rather than adversity and deprivation.
(2) Grumbling is a problem of perception. Grumbling results from a difference between the way we perceive things to be and the way we think they should be. The problem is that when we grumble our perception of how things are is distorted. Grumbling invariably distorts the facts. In our text, Israel greatly exaggerated the benefits of Egypt. They said they “sat” (v. 3) by their flesh pots, and that they ate “all they wanted” of a great variety of foods and meat. This is, quite frankly, hard to believe. If the Egyptians made them gather their own straw and were attempting to kill boy babies, why would they be concerned to feed the Israelites so well? Also, their perception of their own imminent danger of starvation was greatly exaggerated. They believed that their hunger was starvation. No one had yet starved; at best, a few had begun to feel hunger. Worst of all, perhaps, they accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness in order to kill them. Their perception of Moses’ motivation was entirely distorted. Finally, Israel’s perception of God’s care and compassion is minimized to grotesque proportions. They failed to perceive the loving hand of a sovereign God in their sufferings.
(3) Grumbling is a problem of submission. The Israelites grumbled against their leaders, Moses and Aaron. The people had forgotten that it was God who was leading them, not only by Moses, but also by the cloud which was before them (cf. Exod. 13:21-22; 16:10). Ultimately, then, Israel’s grumbling was a protest against God’s leadership, as Moses pointed out (16:7-8).
(4) Grumbling is a sin of the tongue, which is closely related to disobedience. Grumbling occurs when we can’t control our situation. Disobedience occurs when we have an option and we choose to do other than that which God has commanded.
(5) Grumbling is a communicable disease. We are told in verse 2 that, “the whole community grumbled …” I would suggest that the grumbling of a handful of people spread into the epidemic plague of the grumbling of the whole congregation. Grumbling is not only a malady of the mouth, it is a malady which is spread by the mouth.
(6) Grumbling is the result of a failure in our faith. Grumbling is a sin, but it is a symptomatic sin. It reveals a lack of faith, for the grumbler does not see that good hand of God, refuses to accept the adversity, and sees disaster rather than blessing as the outcome of their circumstances. In fact we can go farther and say that grumbling is allowing our present circumstances to nullify our confidence in God’s purposes and promises.
God’s Response to Israel’s Grumbling
Knowing that Israel’s grumbling was the result of her lack of faith, God responded to it in a way which I would not expect. Later on, the grumbling of the Israelites resulted in some painful chastisement. The difference between God’s response to Israel’s grumblings here in Exodus 16 and His more severe dealings in Numbers 11 is explained, I believe, by the difference in time spent with God in the wilderness. Here, the Israelites have spent but one month following God, and are relatively immature in their faith. Later on, God’s Law has been given, and His faithfulness to Israel has been repeatedly demonstrated.
Consequently, God responded gently and graciously to the grumblings of the Israelites. Rather than to rebuke them for their complaining, He did two things, both of which were intended to demonstrate His presence with His people in their affliction and adversity. First, He revealed His glory to the Israelites by some special manifestation of Himself in the cloud by which He had been leading them (16:10). Second, God provided His people with quail168 and with manna (16:11-14).
The Nature of God’s Provision of Manna
As usual, there are many who attempt to demonstrate that the manna which was provided for the Israelites was not miraculous at all.169 This is very difficult to believe in the light of what the text tells us about the manna which God provided for His people.
(1) The manna which God provided appears to be very nutritious, as would be required for desert rations. Israel was given nourishment and energy for the rigorous task of desert travel. It may not have had the most exciting flavor, or at least the Israelites eventually tired of it, asking for something more spicy (cf. Numbers 11:4-9).
(2) The manna which God provided could be prepared in different ways. It could be baked or boiled (v. 23).
(3) The manna was not necessarily the only item which constituted Israel’s diet.170
(4) The manna was provided in abundance, so much so that limits had to be placed on how much was gathered (cf. vss. 13-21).
(5) The manna was miraculously provided. It was “rained down from heaven” (v. 4). It was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before (v. 15). It appeared every morning, except on the Sabbath. At the end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness it ceased falling (Joshua 5:12).
(6) The manna appeared in the morning and disappeared in the heat of the day.
(7) The manna would not keep, except over the Sabbath.
(8) Some of the manna was miraculously preserved, as a memorial of God’s provision for future generations (vss. 31-36).171
God’s Regulations Regarding Manna
When God provided the Israelites with this “bread from heaven” (16:4), He also gave instructions as to how this bread was to be gathered and used. These instructions were intended to test the Israelites as well as to teach them obedience and increase their faith. We will therefore review these instructions briefly and then consider their role in promoting Israel’s faith.
(1) Israel was to gather only what was required for that day (v. 16).
(2) It would appear that every Israelite was required to gather manna for his own needs (v. 16).
(3) Manna was to be gathered daily, and only enough for that day was to be gathered. Any excess from that day was to be disposed of at the end of the day (v. 19). In other words, manna could not be stored up or hoarded.
(4) Israel was to gather twice as much on the sixth day, and to gather none on the Sabbath (vss. 23-26).
The Meaning of the Manna
God was not imposing needless rules and regulations on the Israelites, as we sometimes accuse our government of doing today. God’s rules always have reasons. The purpose of God’s provision of manna and for His exacting rules regarding its collection and use, can be best understood in the light of the rest of the Bible, beginning with the Book of Deuteronomy and ending in the Book of Revelation. I will briefly survey the major references to manna in these texts, and then summarize their relevance to our lives today.
The temptation of our Lord (Matt. 4:1-4; cf. Deut. 8:1-3). Israel was led into the wilderness to be tested by God for forty years (Deut. 8:2). Our Lord was led of God into the wilderness to be tested (including hunger also) for forty days (Matt. 4:1-2). At the end of the forty day period, Satan approached our Lord to tempt Him. The first attempted temptation172 centered around food. Since our Lord was hungry after His forty day fast, it seemed only logical that He should eat. Satan challenged Him to prove His deity by satisfying His human need for food, doing so by the exercise of His divine power.
Our Lord’s answer was to refer Satan to Deuteronomy chapter 8, which was a theological reflection of incidents such as that recorded in Exodus chapter 16. The lesson drawn from Deuteronomy 8 was that one’s physical needs are secondary to one’s spiritual responsibilities—namely to be obedient to the will of God. Our Lord’s hunger, like Israel’s, was the will of God. To satisfy the physical need for food and, at the same time, to disobey God’s will, was wrong. In point of fact, Jesus was saying that obedience to the will of God is more life-saving for a hungry man than is the eating of bread. Obedience to the will of God is the basis for survival, and is of higher priority than the act of eating. The pertinent principle is this: Submission to the will of God is more important than the satisfaction of our physical, bodily, needs.
Think about this principle as it helps us to understand our study of the Book of Exodus. Egypt was the bread basket of the world, both in the days of Joseph, and in the days of Moses. When Pharaoh, his officers, and the Egyptians disobeyed the command of the Lord to “let His people go” that “bread basket” was virtually emptied. The plagues show the progressive agricultural and economic devastation of that nation. Thus, disobedience to the will of God brought the Egyptians to physical hunger.
On the other hand, the barren desert was no place to find food, but because the Israelites obeyed God and followed Moses and the guiding cloud, God provided the hungry Israelites with a bumper crop of manna, six out of every seven mornings, for forty years. Disobedience turned a bread basket into an empty basket. Obedience turned a barren wilderness into a breadbasket. Submission to the will of God is of higher priority than the meeting of our physical needs.
The words of our Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:11). Our Lord taught His followers to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Given the backdrop of God’s daily provision of manna in the wilderness for forty years, it is almost impossible to conceive of this prayer being unrelated to the purpose of the giving of the manna in Exodus 16. I would suggest to you that the divine daily provision of manna in the wilderness taught the Israelites to look daily to God for their daily sustenance. The Israelites had to trust God very literally for their “daily bread.” Those of us who are not living “hand-to-mouth” need to look to God as the source of our life, whether or not we have a supply of food adequate for the week. Dependence is a daily matter, and our prayers should demonstrate this kind of dependence. Whether or not we have a surplus of goods is not the issue, so much as on whom or what we have our sense of dependence. As Paul instructed Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17).
The feeding of the five thousand and the resulting discussion and discourse (John 6). The crowds had followed our Lord to a desolate place (dare I say a wilderness? cf. Mark 6:35), where there was no food available. Our Lord gave them bread and meat (fish) to eat, just as God had given the Israelites bread and meat (quail) in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The response of the crowd was to look to the Lord Jesus to become a “meal ticket” for them for the rest of their days: “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread” (John 6:34). In response, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:35-36).
Jesus not only fed the 5,000 to meet their physical needs, He sought to show them their spiritual needs, which He had come to supply. Like the manna in the wilderness, which saved the lives of the Israelites from physical death, He was the “bread of heaven” (a play on words which goes back to the manna which God “rained down from heaven,” Exod. 16:4). Unlike the “bread from heaven” which God gave the Israelites (the manna), the new “Bread from heaven” would give men eternal life. Jesus was not only claiming to be bread, but to be better bread.
If the parallel is not clear enough, we find that just as the Israelites grumbled in the context of the manna which God gave in Exodus 16 (and later on, cf. Num. 11, esp. v. 6), so, too the Israelites grumbled about our Lord as the “bread from heaven”: At this the Jews began to grumble about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). The New Testament therefore shows us that the “bread of heaven” is the instrument of God’s salvation. The former “bread of heaven” preserved men’s physical lives. The final “bread of heaven” is Him who saves men's souls from eternal death. This He has done by giving His life as a sacrifice. It is no wonder that one of the two symbols present at the Lord’s Table which we partake of each Sunday is bread.
The teaching of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 2 Corinthians 8:14-15. The Corinthian church was a self-indulgent church. There were those living in sexual immorality (cf. 1 Cor. 6). The church even condoned a man living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5). Not only was the church self-indulgent in matters of their sexual appetites, they were also self-indulging in the area of food. Rather than to abstain from certain foods for the benefit of a weaker brother, some of the Corinthians indulged in the sumptuous meals which were related to pagan worship and sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 10:14-33). Even at the Lord’s table, some did not have sufficient self-control to wait for those who had to come later (1 Cor. 11:17-34). In taking a public role in the worship meeting of the church, many indulged themselves to the exclusion of others, depriving the church of edification (1 Cor. 14).
Paul speaks to the Corinthian self-indulgence by turning their attention back to the exodus of the Israelites:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them, God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer (1 Cor. 10:1-10).
I would suggest that while there is much more referred to here than just the events of Exodus chapter 16, there is a common theme, a common element—that of self-indulgence in matters of the physical appetites. That is why the verses immediately preceding this section pertain to the self-discipline required of the Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27).
The manna which God provided in abundance in the wilderness provided the Israelites with the opportunity of over-indulging, but God’s commands pertaining to the harvesting and use of it prohibited such excesses. The manna was thus given to give God’s people a lesson in self-restraint. When Paul refers to the “spiritual food” of the Israelites, he does so in the context of self-control, and no wonder. That is what manna was all about—self-control.
The warnings and promises to the church at Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17). The church at Pergamum had fallen into an error which our Lord referred to as “the teaching of Balaam” (v. 14). We know from the context that this involved “things sacrificed to idols,” and “acts of immorality,” the very same evils as were present in the Corinthian church (see above). To those who were faithful and would be overcomers, our Lord gave this promise, “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna” (Rev. 2:17).
I would like to suggest that our Lord is promising His “hidden manna,” that is His provision of the inner needs (not just physical needs) of those who were faithful, and who exercised the self-control necessary to deny the fleshly lusts which were being peddled by the false teachers referred to as the “teaching of Balaam.”
From the New Testament references to the manna of the Israelites, I would suggest that several principles were being taught in the provision of this “bread from heaven” which are just as applicable to Christian living today as they were for the Israelites.
(1) Manna teaches us the priority of submission to the revealed will of God. The great danger which Israel faced was not starvation in the midst of a wilderness, but the wrath of God. God could make a breadbasket into an empty basket, as He had just done to the Egyptians. God could also turn a desert into a breadbasket, as He did with the manna. As the closing verses of Exodus chapter 15 reveal, Israel’s reaping of God’s blessings and her healing from Egypt’s judgments are dependent upon her careful obedience to the commands and decrees of God. It is our response to the revealed will of God that results in either life or death, blessing or judgment.
This points out the importance of our Lord’s self-revelation as the “bread of heaven.” Our Lord came from heaven to save men from the divine wrath of God, which we all deserve. God offers healing to all who will accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, as the one who died in their place, and who bore the penalty for their sins. Just as God’s provision of manna, the “bread from heaven” was not “steak and ale,” it was the only means God had provided for her life. So, too, Jesus Christ is God’s only provision as the “bread from heaven” whom we must partake of in a personal way, if we are to be delivered from the wrath of God. Obedience to the revealed word of God is a matter of life and death.
(2) Obedience to the will of God is diametrically opposed to the self-indulgent orientation of our culture. Obedience to the word of God therefore requires self-denial and self-discipline. Few cultures have been more oriented toward self-indulgence and self-fulfillment than our own. In this sense, our culture is diametrically opposed to the Word of God. The self-sacrifice of our Lord (cf. Philippians 2:5-8) is the pattern for every saint, who must “take up his cross daily” to follow Christ (Luke 9:23). Obedience to the Word of God is our highest calling, even if this means physical deprivation or even death.
Our obedience to God therefore requires self-denial, and self-denial requires self-discipline. If we would be obedient to our Lord, we must obey His commands. Since He has commanded us to deny ourselves daily and to take up our cross (Luke 9:23), we must have self-discipline to replace self-indulgence (encouraged both by our culture and our fallenness) with self-denial. More and more I can understand why God did not immediately lead His people from Egypt into Canaan. They did not have the discipline necessary to survive either the adversity or the affluence of the land of Canaan.
The more I read the New Testament, the more I see the importance of self-discipline, which, you will recall, is one of the manifestations of the Spirit of God: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Reading through Paul’s second epistle to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus has underscored in my mind the vital role which self-discipline plays in the Christian’s life. And, incidentally, it is also noteworthy to observe that one of the common characteristics of the false teacher is self-indulgence: “These men are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (Jude 16, cf. also v. 18; 2 Pet. 2:10, 13-22).
I would like to suggest two very practical outworkings of self-discipline in our daily lives. I must warn you, they are not easy, nor are they pleasant (which is exactly why self-discipline is required). The first suggestion I would make is that we must learn to do without those things which we cannot afford. Such a suggestion is so obvious, you may wonder why I make it. The reason is that contemporary advertising and credit buying consistently encourage us to buy what we neither need nor can afford. We are told that “we owe it to ourselves,” “we are worth it,” and in addition, we are given credit sufficient to enable us to buy those things which we don’t have the money to buy. I am not saying that all credit buying or borrowing is wrong. I am saying that most of us buy things we cannot afford, simply to indulge ourselves.
The second practical suggestion I would make is that we need to develop the ability to deny ourselves of some things which we can afford. I have a negative illustration from personal experience. This week, a friend took me and another friend to lunch. It was a buffet, so that once you paid, you could eat all you wanted. I ate two pieces of angel food cake, with gooey icing. Affording the cake was not the issue. Let’s face it, I indulged, I over-indulged. All of us need to learn to say no to things which we could have, but need to do without for the sheer discipline of it. That is what God required of the Israelites. They could have harvested huge quantities of manna, but He told them to take only what was required for that day.
(3) Self-discipline is not something which man can produce from within himself, but comes from God. When I speak of self-discipline, I want to be clear that I am not speaking of the teeth-gritting, self-effort which is merely a form of “works” which is displeasing to God. There are those who engage in self-denial, in a way that is offensive to God.
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).
No, we are not talking about the kind of self-denial which we generate within ourselves, feeling that such asceticism makes us more holy in God’s eyes. We are talking about the self-control which the Spirit of God works within the believer and which characterizes those who are mature in their faith and sets them apart from false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7; 2:1-7; 3:3; Titus 1:8; 2:2, 6, 12). We are talking about that discipline which is motivated by our love for God, and our love for men.
The tension which we face here, with regard to self-discipline, is a part of the broader tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The manna God provided Israel in Exodus 16 illustrates the fact that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are inter-related. God provided the manna which Israel needed, but He commanded them to collect, cook, and keep it, in accordance with His instructions. So, too, self-control is something which God produces in the saint through His Spirit, but it is something in which we participate as well.
Let me attempt to draw these matters of self-indulgence and self-control to a conclusion by summarizing several principles which relate to them:
(1) The Christian frequently must choose between immediate pleasure and eternal blessings. Self-indulgence inclines one to pursue the former, while self-discipline is required to gain the latter. Hebrews chapter 11 is filled with the names of those who chose to deny themselves of immediate pleasure for the certainty of God’s eternal blessings.
(2) The Christian who would rid himself of self-indulgence must learn to be content with the condition and the circumstances in which God has placed him (cf. Phil. 4:10-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10).
(3) The Christian who would overcome the tendency toward self-indulgence must develop a sense of daily dependence upon God to meet his every need (cf. Matt. 6:11). For those of us who have enough food for today and tomorrow and the next several weeks, we must recognize that it is God who is our provider. We must seek to avoid a false sense of confidence based upon our material wealth (1 Tim. 6:17), and we must be free to share out of our surplus (2 Cor. 8; 1 Tim. 6:18). We must recognize that we are dependent upon God daily for our life, for health, and for the grace to deal with all that comes our way. These are things which money cannot buy.
May God give us the grace to learn to live with affluence, and to avoid the perils of self-indulgence by the development of self-discipline and self-denial in our lives.
164 Note the words of Exodus 15:25: “There the Lord made a decree and a Law for them, and there he tested them.” This suggests to me that God tests men by the decrees and laws which He gives them. Surely this was the case with Adam and Eve. So, too, it is the case with Israel, and with us. Our obedience to God is revealed by our response to His commands.
165 Ultimately, the commands and decrees of God will be spelled out on Mt. Sinai, as summarized in the 10 commandments, but initially the commands of God which are referred to are those regulations regarding the gathering and use of manna.
166 In Exodus 12 we learn that the Passover meal was eaten on the night of the 14th day of the first month (12:2, 6). Israel departed early the next morning. In 16:1 we are told that Israel arrived at the Desert of Sin on the 15th day of the second month.
There is no commonly accepted view of the location of the Wilderness of Sin. Davis outlines four views, and gives his preference. This is not really a matter which bears upon the interpretation or the application of the text. Cf. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 178-179.
168 At this time the quail are barely mentioned. God gave the Israelites what they desired, and without any negative consequences. The quail were provided once, while the manna was a daily provision. It is the manna which is clearly in focus in this chapter.
169 So far as I have read, there are two primary natural explanations of the manna which is provided in Exodus 16. One is a “mossy manna,” which produces “pea-sized globules, found in central Asia, but absent from Sinai during the last 150 years.” The other is a substance which comes from the tamarisk trees, which grow in thickets in that part of the world. Cf. Davis, pp. 181-182.
It is somewhat disturbing to find Cole leaning toward the natural explanation of manna. He writes, “The manna was white, round and sweet. It was obviously unknown to later Israelites: hence the careful characterization. This description, and its quality of disappearing in the heat of the sun (when collected by ants), prove almost conclusively that it was the Arabic man, a globular exudation of two types of scale insects, living on twigs of tamarisk. This substance is chemically composed of natural sugars and pectin, and is found today only in the south-western part of the Sinai Peninsula after the rains of spring.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 133.
As to the origin of the term manna, the text informs us that the name manna originated from the question of the Israelites, when they first saw the manna, “What is it?” (v. 15). While the Hebrew expression rendered “What is it?” is not identical to the expression “manna,” they are similar. Davis (p. 180) quotes Bohl, who argues that there was another form of the question which closely approximates the term manna.
170 “It should not be assumed from these passages that manna constituted the only part of the diet of the Hebrews during this forty-year period. … That wheat and meats were available is clearly implied in such references as Exodus 17:3; 24:5; 34:3; Leviticus 8:2, 26, 31; 9:4; 10:12; 24:5; and Numbers 7:13, 19.” Davis, p. 181.
172 I refer to this as an “attempted temptation” because we know from James 1:13 that God is not temptable. This was a temptation so far as Satan’s motivation was concerned, however. Satan’s desire was to tempt our Lord, but we learn that He could not be tempted to sin because there was no inclination to sin in Him. Jesus had no sin nature, and just as a magnet cannot attract a non-metalic object, so Satan found nothing in our Lord which was inclined toward or desirous of sinning.