In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today we begin our study of Exodus proper. And with the book of Exodus, we encounter a new character in the salvation story of God – the character of Moses. Now with Moses, beginning with the book of Exodus, we encounter a new phase (so to speak) in the salvation story so I want to introduce a couple of things to keep in mind.
Firstly, it’s hard to escape the fact that Moses looms large over the imaginations of Jews and Christians alike. For Christians, apart from Jesus, and probably the apostle Paul, Moses is likely the most significant figure in the Bible. Now Moses is so significant because of his role in passing to the people of Israel the Law of God. And it’s the law that, in many ways, defines the people.
So, with that in mind, one of the main things that we’ll pay attention to in Exodus (which is carried on particularly in Deuteronomy, the second proclamation of the law) is the role that law plays in the formation of the people. We talked about formation last week. The giving of the law, or the instituting of the law, moves the story from calling to formation. In other words, the story of Abraham (and by this, we focus on the covenant spoken to Abraham, which includes the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) seems to be about beginnings, about God establishing or instituting the nation. The story of Moses, with the giving of the Law, seems to be about formation. About what it means to be the people of God. What it means to be a holy people; by which we mean a people who are set apart.
So what about our passage today? Properly speaking, our passage today is the end of the introduction. In other words, chapters 1 and 2 function together to introduce us to what’s going on with the people of Israel in Egypt. And what we learn is that 400 years have passed since the story of Joseph where the sons of Jacob and their families have settled in Egypt. As we discussed last week, and the first chapter of Exodus gives us a little more information, the Israelites have moved from being honoured guests to becoming slaves.
The first chapter of Exodus also tells us that the Pharaoh of the time, the one after Joseph’s Pharaoh, became concerned about the proliferation of the Israelites. He was afraid that the Israelites would become so numerous as to overpower Egypt (essentially). So he hatched a horrendous plan to suppress their numbers by killing all of the newborn males. Nevertheless, God preserves, and continues to bless, the Israelites.
Now it’s in the midst of this situation that we’re introduced to the story of Moses, which is where we are in our passage today. We find out that Moses was born into the tribe of Levi. His mother hid him but when she could do so no longer, she put him in a basket and set him adrift on the river. Moses was found by Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him.
We understand that Moses likely grew up as a grandchild of Pharaoh. But we also learn that there is at least some sense in which Moses knows that he is, or identifies himself as, an Israelite. So when Moses sees a fellow Israelite being beaten and abused by an Egyptian, he murders the Egyptian. Realizing that his crime isn’t as secret as he thought, Moses flees Egypt and winds up in the land of Midian. Moses settles in that land, marrying a Midianite woman and beginning a family. And this is where God encounters him.
Now the last couple of verses in our passage are important for us today.
23 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. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
Verses 23-25 serve as kind of a summative statement to the chapters that precede them. And this is kind of important because we don’t want to get the impression that all of these things happened, that 400 years passed in slavery, Moses showed up on the scene, and then God noticed.
Rather, these verses sum up what has been happening. Again, this is important because it’s pretty easy to think that God just showed up at the beginning of the Moses story, in the middle part of Moses’ life. But God has been present, and working, this entire time.
If you were here last week, we talked about that gap between Joseph and Moses. There were 400 years between these stories. (It might be worth mentioning that some have noted inconsistencies in the number of years – for our purposes, and I think ultimately, the exact number is unimportant and certainly not the point). At any rate, we know that it was a long time – long enough for Jacob’s family to become extremely numerous. The majority of these years are spent in slavery. And I tend to believe that this period of time is actually important for God’s forming, creating, a people. However, it’s impossible to think that the Israelites wouldn’t have been suffering a lot of doubt. I imagine, during this time, that there was an awful lot of “where is God in this?”
We’ve all been in that place where we’re going through something and we don’t know where God is. We can all relate to the feeling of being abandoned, neglected, or forgotten. What do you do when you can’t see God in your circumstances?
First of all, let me say that I don’t have any clear, easy answers to this. It’s not as if, “Do this and you will get that.” Life, and God, doesn’t work this way – at least a lot of the time.
One of the odd things about human “achievement” is the belief that we can understand or comprehend anything. Over the millennia, human beings have made remarkable progress – we’ve built huge, complicated things, we’ve produced remarkable art and literature, we’ve split the atom and unpacked the human genome. The more and more advanced we get, the more and more we think we can do anything. And at every stage in human history, it seems like we think we know everything there is to know.
So the first thing to recognize is simply the way human minds tend to work. I think that’s part of the problem of sin.
The second thing to recognize is that, though the Israelites may have doubted it (maybe they didn’t – we don’t know), and though not much seemed to have happened during that 400 years, God was still present, God was still watching, and though God was (in scripture) silent, God was still working.
And ultimately, this is about having an understanding of the character of God. And this begins with understanding that God is God and we are not. We’ve talked about this quite a bit, but I think it’s important because it’s precisely this that we usually forget. As long as we insist on prioritizing our own sense of what God should be and is supposed to do, we will struggle to see God in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
Therefore, in the midst of God’s apparent silence, in the midst of our own suffering and waiting, we lean on and trust in, even more, the character of God. We trust in, as we talked about last week, the faithfulness of God; we trust in the goodness of God; we trust in the love, the unimaginable and incomprehensible love of God.
So What Now…?
So what we need to develop in this in-between time, in the already-not-yet time, as we proclaim the kingdom of God waiting for the fulfillment of that kingdom is a couple of things. Actually, there are a whole lot of Godly, Christ-informed characteristics that we need to practice and live out, but there’s two that I will talk about today.
The first is patience. We have sometimes joked that we doesn’t want to pray for patience because then, (gasp), God will teach us how to be patient. I always think that’s funny and also really profound. In a self-deprecating kind of way, it reminds us that patience is really hard. Waiting is really hard. It’s why we hate line-ups. If you’re in a line-up long enough, you tend to see the worst in people.
Why are we in such a hurry? Why do we so often insist on having everything right now? We try to teach our kids the virtue of patience. We try to help them learn that it’s better to wait for something better than to have something less valuable or important just because you can have it now. But so often we don’t heed our own device.
We’ve talked about this before, but part of the problem is that, at every stage of our lives, we always think we know everything there is to know right now. And then at every stage of our lives, we look back at ourselves 10, 20, 30 years ago and think how childish we were then.
And this leads us to our second point. The second thing that we need to develop is perspective.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of what I’m saying today is repetition. In fact, I often feel like I just say the same three or four things over and over again. If you’re kind, it may speak to the possibility that the Christian life is really not that complicated – it’s not easy, but it’s not complicated. We trust in who God is and what God has done for us, and in doing so we try to live the life that He has made possible for us. In reality, it probably just means that I don’t have a lot of imagination.
My point is simply that, too often, we think too small. We see too small; and we live too small. We live as if whatever is happening to me right now is the most important thing in the world. Remember when you were a child and your mom took you shopping and you saw that toy you wanted more than anything else in the world. And you cried and cried and threw the biggest tantrum that anyone has ever seen – because this was the most important thing in the world.
Or remember when you were a teenager and you had a crush on that boy or that girl and you were devastated because he or she didn’t even seem to know you were alive. You refused to eat and couldn’t sleep and you were sullen and withdrawn and you were so depressed because this was the worst thing anyone in the world has ever experienced anywhere or at any time. We look back at those times and we can chuckle because “how little we knew about life back then.”
Now I’m not saying that what you’re going through now is not real or that it is trivial or meaningless (any more than we should say that to or think that about our kids). Our suffering is real and it’s not trivial and it does mean something.
My point is simply that, in the scheme of eternity, from the perspective of the kingdom life, there is so much more going on. God is doing so much more than making us comfortable.
Sometimes we go through suffering. Sometimes we are wandering in the desert. Sometimes, God seems absent for four hundred years and we just want some answers and we just want relief. In the midst of that, I encourage you to cry out to God, to trust in the faithfulness of God, and to rest in the knowledge that God is working for us.