Exodus 5:1-6:12

Jimmy JoExodus, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

In a Nutshell…

Read the passage here.

Last week we talked about the weird passage in Exodus – the circumcision of Moses’ son by Zipporah. As well, we looked at the idea of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  Once again, this is one of the more/most and difficult and contentious passages in Exodus. The basic points that we wanted to make in this passage is that, 1) Moses needed to make an actual decision; would he or would he not follow God?  And 2) this passage seems to introduce the theme of God prevailing over all other gods (as represented by Pharaoh).

So last week’s story essentially wraps up the introduction to the historical exodus; the pre-exodus, if you will. Today’s passage begins the account of Moses’ experiences in Egypt.

There’s an extent to which we can look at today’s passage in three movements in plot:

  • Moses and Pharaoh (5:1-9): Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh and report that the Lord God wants the Israelites to be freed.  Of course, Pharaoh refuses.
  • The supervisors and the Israelites (5:10-21): Pharaoh, because he is angry with the demands of Moses (how dare this Hebrew make demands of mighty Pharaoh?), increases the work of the Israelite slaves.  The Israelites become angry at Moses because his actions led to their increased suffering.
  • Moses before God (5:22-6:12): Moses, disappointed because of Pharaoh’s response (or lack thereof) and despondent because of the criticisms of the Israelites, complains to God.  God’s response?  “Just you wait and see.”

The first of these has to do with one of the themes we looked at last week: Yahweh vs. the gods of Egypt, as represented by Pharaoh (and by extension, all other gods).  The story of the Exodus is not really the story of Moses.  In the same way that Genesis is not the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The story of Exodus is the story of God redeeming His people.  And part of that story is God overcoming the so-called gods of the world.  By his mighty works, by his redemption of His people, by His giving of the law, God demonstrates His supreme authority, His unique sovereignty over all things.

This is precisely why Pharaoh is so offended by Moses’ demands. It’s why, in response to Moses’ demands, he increases the workload of the Israelites – as if to say, “who are you to ask such a thing from Pharaoh?”  When Moses comes before Pharaoh to communicate that God has demanded that the Israelites be set free, Pharaoh says,

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

Pharaoh, as all Egyptians would have, believed himself to be divine – a god himself with supreme rule over all Egypt. Who is this that makes demands of Pharaoh?

Now in this response, Pharaoh introduces another theme that we want to pay attention to in Exodus. Representative of this YHWH vs. all other gods battle, Pharaoh says, “I do not know the Lord (YHWH) and I will not let Israel go.”  Knowing becomes a key theme in the book of Exodus, the question ultimately being, “Does Israel know the Lord?”

Nahum Sarna says about this word, to know:

  • know This is the first appearance in Exodus of the verb y-d-ʿ. It is a key term in the Exodus narratives, occurring over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters. The usual rendering, “to know,” hardly does justice to the richness of its semantic range. In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another’s humanity.  (Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary, 5.)

In other words, knowing has little to do with mental familiarity or intellectual assent. Rather, knowing is relational.  Pharaoh does not know God – of course he doesn’t.  He might have meant something like, “I’ve never even heard of your god.”  But in the context of the book of Exodus, we learn that, more importantly, Pharaoh has no relationship with God.  There is no covenant.  There is no calling.

The question for the Israelites will ultimately be the same. Not whether they have heard of God.  Not whether they are aware of YHWH.  But do they know Him.  As they wander through the wilderness, as they walk in the desert, as they worship, as they work, as they live, do they know God?

Lastly, let’s take a look at the response by the Israelites (to this situation) and Moses’ response in return.

19 The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” 20 When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 21 and they said, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

When Pharaoh, because of his indignation, increased the Israelite slaves’ workload, they were furious with Moses and Aaron. “What have you done?” they said.  “You’ve simply made a bad situation worse.”

Now we could spend a lot of time just in these few verses. There’s a sense in which the Israelites, so accustomed to their lot in life as they were, were unable to see God’s redemption when it came.  They would rather stay in their pitiable state, their life of slavery, because quite simply that is what they were used to.  We could also talk about how the Israelites appeared to almost prefer serving a foreign god (Pharaoh) rather than face some discomfort.

However, where I want to focus is on how Moses responded to this. When the Israelites were angry at him, criticizing his actions and blaming him for their new circumstances, Moses doesn’t encourage them to trust in God no matter what.  Instead, he turns the blame on to God.

22 Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”

Essentially, Moses is saying, I did what I was supposed to do. Why am I not getting what I’m supposed to get.

Now notice God’s response:

6 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

I love this line. God says to Moses, after all his complaining, self-doubt, worry and fear, “Now you will see…”  Just you wait and see…

Before this encounter, Moses’ dialogue with God, Moses and Aaron had went to Pharaoh and reported what God had told them. No doubt, they were doing what they thought God had wanted them to do.  But Moses’ words were not enough.  A report of God’s plan was not enough.  It wasn’t until God showed, through his mighty works, the ten signs – we often hear them called the ten plagues, but they are the ten wonders – that Pharaoh relented.

And this underscores the point of the book of Exodus. It wasn’t Moses who delivered the people from Egypt.  It wasn’t Moses who saved the Israelites. It wasn’t Moses’ work.  It was God’s.

Now it’s also worth noting that, after this conversation, Moses is not convinced. And neither are the Israelites.

God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, l but by my name the Lord n I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

“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 I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 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.’ ”

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.

10 Then the Lord said to Moses, 11 “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country.”

12 But Moses said to the Lord, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?”

When Moses reports God’s word to the Israelites, they do not listen to him.

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.

Neither does Moses seem to trust in God:

12 But Moses said to the Lord, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?”

To me, this begs the question, who are the signs for? It sounds like, at this point, Moses and the Israelites were still having trouble believing.  They were still having trouble believing that Pharaoh would let them go.  They were still having trouble believing that they would be freed.  In other words, they were having trouble believing that God’s word was true.  They were having trouble believing that God was God.

The wonders of God, then, the signs of His redemptive action, are not just to convince Pharaoh, they are to convince Moses and the Israelites.

So What Now…?

Now I am not suggesting that if we are having trouble believing God’s promises, that we should ask for a sign. Jesus tells us, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign…” (Mt. 16:4).  I don’t think that this is what this story is about.

What the story does tell us, again in case we’ve forgotten, is that salvation comes from God alone.  Moses needed to know that it wasn’t his effort or conviction that brought about change and deliverance. And that is to say that it wasn’t as if Moses didn’t try hard enough or wasn’t sure enough.  It wouldn’t have mattered.  Pharaoh simply didn’t care.  Rather, it was only by the intervention of God, by the initiative of God that deliverance could come.

We often think that if we’re not “experiencing” God enough (whatever that means), that it’s because we don’t put in enough effort. Or that we haven’t found the right formula.  And this isn’t to say that effort, or rather intentionality, doesn’t matter. We can’t be in it half-way (part of what we discussed last week).  But oftentimes we treat God as if He is simply a tool or an avenue to a better life, a more prosperous, pleasant life.  And if we don’t get that better life, then we have to engage in better practices, with more sweat and earnestness, in order to convince God to give us what we want.

Rather, we are intentional because we want to know God better. We want to enter into what He is doing in our lives and in creation.  The spiritual disciplines, for example, are not about getting a better life, but about knowing God more, knowing Him more deeply, knowing Him more truly.  This is precisely what Moses and the Israelites had not yet understood.  They were like Pharaoh in that they did not know God.  Therefore, why should they trust Him?  Why wouldn’t they rather stay where they were already comfortable, remain in what they already knew?

What we fail to realize is that the better life, the true life, the life-life, is not our idea. It simply is not our doing.  If we want the better life, the life-life, it’s not about convincing God that we’re worth it.  It’s about entering into what God is doing on our behalf.  What God has done for our behalf.  If we want the better life, we need to see what God is doing, we need to go where God is leading.

And sometimes, God will lead us where we don’t want to go. He will lead us through the desert.  He will take us through the wilderness.  And we will wish we were back in Egypt, where things at least were familiar and predictable.

But God has a better plan.  Because of the work of Jesus, because that work is imparted to all who would participate in it, God leads us to the promised land.  He has made a way for us.  He is making a place for us.  See and taste that the Lord is good.

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