Tag Archives: Moses

Exodus 34: Restoring the Covenant

 

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Exodus 34: 1-10 The LORD Reclaims Identity Post Betrayal

The LORD said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The LORD.” 6 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
 forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”

 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. 9 He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

 10 He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

This chapter represents a remarkable turn in the story. In chapter 32 the people turn away from the way of the LORD and for the LORD this is an incredible betrayal which plunges the LORD into intense emotional pain and causes the LORD to distance from the people. The LORD’s wrath threatens to consume Israel, but Moses stands between God and the people. In chapter 33 Moses attempts to reconcile the people and God, and here, as we begin this chapter, the healing begins with God reclaiming God’s identity. There will be a new covenant, a new beginning and God will be who God will be despite of the peoples’ disobedience.

Pain can threaten to obscure our identities and can cause people to act in ways that seem discordant to the way they would normally act. In Exodus, the LORD’s merciful and gracious nature is threatened by the other portion of the LORD’s identity that expects faithfulness and obedience. The LORD’s emotions in Exodus are surprisingly human in nature. Yet, here after a time of grieving and making sense of the broken relationship the LORD moves in the direction of forgiveness and reclaims the identity the LORD chooses.

The name of the LORD is proclaimed multiple times and there is an almost joyous quality in this proclamation. This seems to be a moment of rediscovery for God and then we for the first time hear what is known as the Thirteen Attributes of God. These attributes are repeated fourteen times throughout the Hebrew Bible and alluded to many others. (Myers, 2005, p. 264) Within God’s identity lies a paradox: forgiving iniquity, transgressions and sins yet also accountability for iniquity. The LORD chooses to be both gracious and just. The LORD chooses to be slow to anger and yet to remain in Ellen Davis’ words a ‘fool for love’ (Davis, 2001, p. 153) God chooses the path of being vulnerable to the people of Israel.

Many people I have talked to question the final portion of these thirteen attributes where it talks about visiting the iniquity of the parent upon the third and fourth generation. On the one hand, this contrasts the steadfast love that goes until the thousandth generation which attempts to contrast the expansiveness of God’s steadfast love with the limited nature of the judgment of God. It also is something that God will respond to in Jeremiah 31: 29-30 where the children will no longer be held accountable for their parent’s sins but instead everyone will be accountable for their own sins. Finally, it is also something that I have seen play out within family systems where an iniquity, violation, brokenness or sin has impacts not only on the person who commits it but for generations to come. Regardless this is a part of the paradox of God’s identity, a God who refuses to be taken for granted, a God who cares enough to be wounded by the brokenness of God’s followers and yet chooses to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God has chosen to reclaim God’s own identity and now God chooses to reclaim the people of Israel. God again moves towards them, restates that God will provide for them and go with them as they move toward the promised land. This is one of the steps toward a renewed relationship. God chooses the people again and reenters into the covenant with them. God moves beyond God’s pain and back towards God’s people.

Exodus 34: 11-28 Restating the Commandments

 11 Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. 13 You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles 14 (for you shall worship no other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). 15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. 16 And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.

 17 You shall not make cast idols.

 18 You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.

 19 All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.

 No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.

 25 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.

 26 The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

27 The LORD said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. 28 He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

Several portions of the exposition of the law are revisited here as the covenant is reestablished. Verses 11-16 restate and heighten the words of Exodus 23: 20-33 where the commandment not to have other gods is highlighted in the context of their coming occupation of the promised land. Here in addition to making no covenant with the people of the land they are also told not to intermarry with them. The people have already shown a predisposition to copy the practices of the other nations and this serves as another reminder that they are to worship the LORD alone. After the command not to create idols is restated there is a reminder of the festivals of Exodus 23: 14-19, the reminder of the dedication of firstborns which is outlined in Exodus 13: 11-16, the essential nature of Sabbath in Exodus 23: 10-13. While I could restate much of what I have written before exploring these commandments here I think it is important to highlight the necessity of restating them as the covenant is being renewed. With the new tablets which bear the ten commandments (or ten words of God, see Exodus 20) there is also a renewal of the expectation of living in obedience to these commandments. There is a new chance for the people to order their society in a manner that reflects the justice of a covenant people. Restating the expectations for the relationship between the LORD and the people becomes another step in restoring the relationship.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Exodus 34: 29-35: The Radiance of Moses

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

The time spent by Moses in the presence of God has a transforming effect upon Moses. While the changes are invisible to Moses they are clearly seen by Aaron and the people and it is a cause for fear. This time in God’s presence has made Moses different from the rest of the people, he continues to stand apart. In his role as mediator between God and the people he seems to have brought a little bit of God’s presence back with him.

The presence of God does change people. Moses enjoys a far greater intimacy with God than any other person among the Israelites. Moses has shown great faithfulness to God and to the people as well. Moses is more than an emissary for God or even a prophet of God but one who God trusts and speaks to like one speaks to a friend. Moses has something that even Aaron will never have. Aaron and the priests will need things to announce them before God and will only be allowed to enter God’s presence rarely. Moses dwells both with God and the people. Yet, Moses seems to belong more with God now than the people. Among the people Moses needs to wear a veil to fit in, but in God’s presence Moses doesn’t need to hide the radiance of who he is.

Exodus 33: Repairing the Relationship Between God and Israel

“Ten Commandments by Anton Losenko – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Exodus 33:1-6 The LORD’s Separation from Israel

The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.'” 6 Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

Trust was broken when the Israelites cast and worshipped the golden calf. Perhaps it is my own experience of a broken relationship as well as helping others deal with broken relationships that makes me hear this passage between the LORD and Israel being like the struggling attempts of a couple after trust was broken. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved mover that many Christians imagine, the LORD the God of Israel was passionately invested in this covenant. We see here and many other places in scriptures a wounded God nursing broken dreams and beginning the long journey to the place where trust can be rebuilt. It is not only a journey from Mount Sinai/Horeb to the promised land, it is a journey of rebuilding trust between God and God’s people.

At this point the LORD needs some space from the people. Like a couple who needs to live in separate places after an affair because the presence of the other is a continual reminder of the brokenness that exists between them, the LORD needs space and time to deal with these emotions. The Israelites too in their own way go into mourning. Their ornaments were once removed to cast the golden calf and now they are removed as a mourning of the pain and grief they caused for the LORD and for themselves. They are a people who have lost their God’s trust and who exist in the hope that in the future that trust can be rebuilt, and the relationship restored.

God has not completely walked away from the people or from hope. An angel, and emissary continues to lead and go with the people but the LORD’s desire to dwell among the people has been for a time shattered. The previous focus on the tabernacle is temporarily set aside amid the pain of the broken relationship. Moses still stands between the LORD and the people, clung to by both. For now the people and God journey in parallel paths and Moses’ job will be to bring healing to both God and God’s people.

Exodus 33: 7-11 Separate Camp

7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent.11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.

Much as adults going through a strained portion of a relationship often separate because the immediate presence of the other causes too much pain, now the LORD meets with Moses outside the camp. Moses’ role as the mediator between the people and God in now intensified as Moses still has the LORD’s trust. The people who are longing for reconciliation, those who seek the LORD, wait and watch Moses’ departure to the tent of meeting and return hopeful for some sign that the relationship will be renewed. This is not the desired state of things for God. The LORD’s desire was to be in the center of the camp but now God’s place of meeting is beyond the borders of the camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his theological exposition of Genesis 1-3, Creation and Fall, talks about Adam’s original orientation of God placing God in the center of existence. (Bonhoeffer, 1997, p. 88f) In a similar way, the intent for the tabernacle was to echo this place in creation where God is symbolically and theologically in the center of the people of Israel’s life. Both Adam and the people of Israel were to realize their dependence on the LORD’s providence and protection. Yet both would eventually by their disobedience push God to the margins (using Bonhoeffer’s theological metaphor). Yet, God also withdraws to the margins as an act of grace. In the creation narrative it is a grace which overcomes the threat of death to Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Exodus it is a grace which prevents the people from being consumed by the wrath of God over their betrayal with the golden calf. Moses as the mediator will now continue to work to bring the people and their God back together and to move God away from the margins and back to the center.

Exodus 33: 12-23 The Presence of God

love me forever by syntheses on deviantart.com

12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’;1 and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

For a beautiful description and meditation on this scene see Ellen Davis’ chapter ‘A Fool for Love: Exodus 33’ in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. (Davis, 2001, pp. 153-159) Even though I will be coming at the scene from a different perspective she has some beautiful insights into this scene and suggestions about the character of the LORD. Moses is, “disgusted with the Israelites, betrayed by his own brother, and now even God has bailed out, leaving him alone with a job he never wanted in the first place” (154) and yet he is the one who is caught between a people and their God attempting to make peace. Moses asks for a demonstration of the LORD’s favor and trust in this place where Moses feels abandonment. The LORD attempts to reassure Moses that Moses is seen and known and that the relationship between Moses and God remains strong, but Moses is not willing to allow things to remain as they are. God promises to be present and to walk with Moses (the Hebrew is second person singular-Hebrew has a singular and a plural you unlike English). Moses refuses to allow God to only journey with him, if God will not go with the people Moses asks him to return to the original intent of journeying with the people. For Moses sake God consents to journey with the people and to be vulnerable to the pain that they will cause God along this journey.

God grants Moses request based upon the relationship with Moses, not the people. Moses becomes the one whose prayer is heard when the prayers of the people are not. Moses is one who is righteous for the people, who stands in the gap between the people and God and who holds the relationship together.

Moses makes a bold request of God, to see God’s glory. Moses has been the one who seeks after the LORD throughout the Exodus journey and the LORD grants this request as fully as possible. Moses continues to be the one seeking after God and God consents to be seen in a manner that Moses can endure. God is not insulted by Moses’ request and, as Ellen Davis highlights, God seems to be flattered by it. (157) God has been taken for granted by the people but not by Moses and the LORD has stated that the LORD is a jealous God who will not be taken for granted. Yet, God is willing to show Godself to those who seek and to enter into the relationship with those who are willing to be open to God. Moses’ faithfulness to God’s vision for the relationship between the LORD and the people pulls the LORD back to the LORD’s original dream. Moses’ intercession for the people and desire for God becomes instrumental in the process of reconciliation.

Exodus 32: The Golden Calf Threatens the Covenant

 Exodus 32: 1-6 The People Ask for Gods

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

Being the people of God involves learning patience: patience with the LORD and patience with the leaders who mediate between the people and their God. While Moses has been up with the LORD receiving the instructions for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, the people and Aaron go against the covenant they have made and cast the golden calf and prepare to worship it. This is a pivotal scene in the relationship between the people and God. The covenant has been broken by the people and the next couple chapters must reconcile the brokenness of relationship between God and the people.

The people heard the prohibition of creating an idol at the head of the decalogue in Exodus 20 and in Exodus 24 they sealed the covenant ritually as the people when the blood of the sacrificed oxen was dashed on them. The people have heard the LORD’s commandments and agreed to them and yet the absence of Moses creates a crisis of faith for them. Whether the cast image of the calf was meant to represent the LORD the God of Israel whose voice they had heard or whether the calf is not clear, it could be read either way. In either case the people have either, with Aaron the high priest’s assistance, abandoned the LORD their God or attempted to make an image for the God who refuses to be limited to any image on the earth or above the earth or under the earth.

One of the threads in this reading is control. The people and Aaron want an image for god, something they can carry and use as a symbol but there is also a limiting function to having a god in the image of a calf or any other form. Yet, fundamentally the LORD refuses to be limited or controlled by an image. Images of the LORD or any other god were not to be made by the Israelites, even the name of the LORD was only spoken in the greatest of care. From chapters 25-31 we have seen how God has worked with Moses to set aside a space where a little bit of heaven can come down to earth and where the LORD would meet with the people. In contrast the people have attempted to create an earthly god to replace the LORD of heaven and earth.

The golden calf is an incredible resonant image. It can become in any age and time the safe gods we choose instead of the LORD the God of Israel that Exodus presents us with. Even in our time the image continues to hold power. It is perhaps the height of irony that the largest amount paid to a living author for a piece of art was to Damien Hirst for ‘the Golden Calf’ a week before the financial collapse of 2008. (Sacks, 2010, p. 259) During the time while the initial draft of this sat these lines were written by me:

Security may be the golden calf we sacrifice to and worship
We dance in the glow of the images of fertility and strength
Following the masses in the shadow of Sinai as they celebrate
That which they can cast and control, tame gods that don’t speak
Metallic beings of the valley rather than the master of the mountain

There will always be the temptation to worship that which we can see or to model the things we worship upon that which we value. As a religious leader there is the temptation to provide that which the crowd desires rather than to be the prophet in the uncomfortable position of standing between a wounded God and a stiff-necked people. Yet, the golden calves of every age tend to lead to our fragmenting into tribes of like-minded worshippers and sometimes to intertribal warfare like we see at the end of this chapter as Moses and the Levites attempt to bring the people back to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.

Exodus 32: 7-14 Moses Between God and the People

7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD and he is the one unbroken strand in the covenant. For the LORD this is a betrayal that threatens not only the relationship of the people and their God, but a betrayal that threatens to overcome the people with God’s anger. The LORD takes this relationship seriously! There are many things that can be said about the portrayal of the LORD the God of Israel depending on one’s perspective but this God is never the enlightenment’s unmoved mover. The LORD is engaged in the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and is invested in this people and the people’s actions can wound God emotionally. Yet, the LORD’s tie to Moses also remains strong and the LORD considers starting over with Moses and even presents this offer to Moses, the same offer that Abraham received.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD, that is where the prophet stands. In the coming verses we will see Moses’ anger but in this time before God Moses is the logical one calling to mind not only God’s honor but also God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Moses calls upon God, even in God’s anger and grief, to honor the promises that have been made. Moses calls God back to the covenant, even though the covenant has been broken in a spectacular way by the people. Prophets stand between God and the people and God listens even when God wants to be left alone. When the LORD desires silence, for the sake of the people the prophet speak so that they might change God’s mind and avert disaster for the people.

Image from Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, Bible History Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compenduim of Church History (1904)

Exodus 32: 15-24 Broken Covenant, Broken Relationships

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant1 in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Moses risked entering the furnace of the LORD’s anger for the people but now his own anger burns hot. Moses knows the danger the people have put themselves into, he knows the consequence of the broken covenant with the LORD. He has seen not only the LORD’s hopes but his own hopes dashed in this sudden act of rebellion. The tablets, the work of God, have been made worthless by the work of the people. A broken dream and a shattered covenant. The object which Moses had waited to bring to the people now lies shattered at the base of the mountain.

The tablets are broken, the calf is destroyed and scattered on the waters for the Israelites to drink in the bitter taste of their betrayal. Yet, it is Aaron who in this moment receives Moses’ first attention. Aaron who will be the high priest of the people, whose role will be to atone for the people has been active in their betrayal. In a manner like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, Aaron immediately attempts to deflect Moses’ anger onto the people. Yet, Moses and Aaron here are in strong contrast: Moses interceded for the people while Aaron blamed them. In one way this is oversimplified since Aaron is down the mountain with the people and feels pressured by them, yet the role of leaders is to restrain the people from a path that would lead to their destruction. Aaron minimizes his role within the creation of the golden calf (I threw the gold into the fire and out popped the calf). Atonement will need to be made for Aaron before he can make atonement for the people. The only one able to make the needed atonement is Moses.

Exodus 32: 25-35 Sin, Brokenness and Consequences

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.'” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves1 for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf — the one that Aaron made.

Moses and the sons of Levi violently restore order to the camp. I struggle with the violence unleashed in this scene even though I can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. For Moses this is a struggle of life or death. If order cannot be restored he knows the consequences of the LORD’s wrath continuing to burn and break out against the people. The Levites here are set aside for their future ministry in the service of the LORD. The cost of the earlier celebrations has been high indeed. This is nothing short of intertribal warfare and its conclusion determines the direction of the people of Israel.

In what, to me, is one of the most courageous scenes in the book of Exodus and perhaps in all of scriptures, Moses returns to the LORD and still stands with the people. He dares to ask God to forgive the people, but if God cannot forgive the people then Moses stands with them and asks for his own name to be removed. Moses refuses to give the LORD the option of starting over with him. There is consequence to this sin and brokenness but it is not immediate. God has turned aside from the threat of letting God’s anger consume the people, even though there is the plague which comes at the end of the chapter. There is judgment but not annihilation. The relationship and the promise of the land continue but trust has been broken and the relationship is not the same.

Exodus 31: The Artisans, The Sabbath and the Tablets

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Exodus 31:1-11 The Divinely Gifted Artisans

The LORD spoke to Moses: 2 See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 and I have filled him with divine spirit,1 with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze,5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 6 Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant,1 and the mercy seat2 that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, 8 the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, 9 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, 10 and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The appointment of Bezalel and Oholiab along with the rest of the divinely inspired artisans presents an opportunity to expand the role of the called people of God beyond prophets and priests. Bezalel coming out of the tribe of Judah and Oholiab coming out of the tribe of Dan expands the group of people upon which the divine spirit rests. The work of constructing a tabernacle or a church is the work of the people, not just the work of the priests and pastors. There is within the calling of these artisans a recognition that the accomplishment of the divine vision involves the various gifts of the priest, the prophet, the artisan and the worker. Each person has a part to play in the unfolding of God’s purpose for God’s people.

Martin Luther expanded upon this in his belief that every Christian had a vocation or multiple vocations, areas where their skills were used to serve God. Each person, whether a mother, a farmer, a shoemaker, a pastor, or a prince all had a role to play and gifts to serve God’s kingdom. St. Paul could refer to many gifts coming from the one Spirit of God (both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12) and that all the gifts of the community of faith where for the work of God in the church. God has spread the gifts among God’s people and not solely in the hands of the ordained ministers of the church. One of the peculiarities of the next chapter is that when Aaron the priest becomes the artisan everything comes out wrong.

I’ve mentioned a couple times in this section that my congregation is going through a building expansion as I write this and I’ve gotten to see firsthand the skilled work of the artisans who are working on the building. I have some skill with my hands, but it is not my primary gift. Yet, the crew who is working in concrete, steel, sheetrock and paint (not to mention plumbing, electrical wires and the like) have gifts and skills I do not. I could learn those skills given time, but that is not my vocation or my position. I am able to delight in the work that God is able to do through these artisans and at the same time celebrate the work that God has equipped me to do.

Exodus 31: 12-17 The Seriousness of Sabbath

12 The LORD said to Moses: 13 You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

I had the opportunity over the weekend to travel with my wife to see some of the areas she grew up, and one of the gifts of the weekend was sitting on a deck in some cooler weather than we are currently experiencing in Texas and just to look out over the terrain and be. My wife and I both work jobs that can consume a lot of our life and time and it was good to have some time to just be together and to rest. This is what sabbath is about. It is about resting and it is a deadly serious proposition for the people. The sabbath gets its own commandment in Exodus 20, is mentioned again Exodus 23: 12-13 and then again is brought up here. Even prior to the construction of the tabernacle after the incident of the golden calf the sabbath will again be highlighted at the beginning of Exodus 35. The sabbath for the covenant people is highlighted as a matter of life and death.

In my time and context we have a difficult time with sabbath. I fought for years having a smartphone, and while I enjoy its capability it also ensures that I am continually connected to the demands of work. In the United States we live in a society of acquisition where we place a monetary value on things and while the logo ‘In God we trust’ may be placed on our bills and coins I sometimes wonder if the bills and coins are the god we truly trust. As Rabbi Sacks can wisely state, “When money rules, we remember the price of things and forget the value of things.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 260)

Sabbath is a day where there is no buying or selling, where work is prohibited and people are forced to rest and sit. In our frenetic society this may be the most difficult commandment to live into. In a society where the blue laws that forced businesses to be closed on Sundays it may have been easier since there were few options on Sundays. Yet, that is not our time and there is no easy going back to a past that may or may not have existed like we imagine. For now, the wisdom of sabbath may be learning that it is a matter of life and death in our culture to stop and reflect on the value of things we have rather than the price of the things we can accumulate.

Within the Hebrew Scriptures there is a call to learn patience that moves against our own sense of immediate need. The people in the wilderness would call upon Moses every time there didn’t seem to be enough food or water immediately and threaten to return to Egypt. While Moses is up on the mountain the people will come to Aaron and ask him to craft their gods for them. The LORD expects the people to stop and wait at times and lingers with them in the wilderness while the details are handed on. The sabbath also expect the people to learn the value of waiting, or resting and of valuing the things that have been provided rather than straining towards the things they can acquire.

Exodus 31: 18 The Tablets of the Covenant

18 When God1 finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant,2 tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

The infamous stone tablets are finally given to Moses as the scene transitions from Moses’ time with God on Mount Sinai to Aaron’s struggles with the people in the valley. Moses listens, the people demand. God departs the plan for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, Aaron crafts golden calves as poor substitution for an imageless God of Israel. God’s vision is one of order in contrast to the disorder Moses will find when he descends the mountain. The covenant will be broken and remade but it remains the word of God that is to be brought to God’s people.

Exodus 12: Passover, Departure and a New Identity

Exodus 12: 1-20 Time, Ritual and Eating as Acts of Identity

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. 18 In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. 19 For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.

The taking of an enslaved people and transforming them into a chosen people, a nation of priests and agents of blessing for the entire world is a daring act of identity reconstruction. There will always be the temptation to revert to the former identity, to return to the land of Egypt and resubmit to the yoke of slavery when the call and covenant of the LORD becomes heavy or the passage of the wilderness or the people already occupying the promised land become a real and present danger. Identity is not something that is stated once and naturally becomes a part of one’s character, identity is formed through action, hearing, ritual and practice. If the Exodus is the narrative of Israel’s creation as a nation then Passover could be the ritual of renewal of that identity as it is handed on from generation to generation.

There are many ways in which identity is reinforced. We can trace the calendar most of Americans use back to the Julian calendar in 46 BCE so we may not consider the calendar as an important way of stating identity but you don’t have to spend much time studying ancient documents to realize how important the organizing of time is. For example, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (A collection of documents from the centuries around the birth of Jesus which didn’t get included as a part of the bible) spends a great deal of time arguing about how to structure the calendar. Festival days which occupy the calendar shape the year and say when and how the year is ordered. For liturgical Christians, as another example, the year begins with the beginning of the season of Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas) and this is held in tension with the Julian calendar which begins on January 1. Here time begins in the springtime in a time that celebrates the setting free of the people from their captivity in Egypt. Their year, like their new identity, begins and is centered around this act of liberation. The calendar is structured so that time becomes an active participant in the re-narrating this foundational story of the people of Israel.

Eating and practices also becomes an act of identity and remembrance. A couple of secular examples: when I served with 2d Cavalry in the U.S. Army there was a practice of always wearing our sleeves down (long sleeved battle dress uniforms can have their sleeves rolled up in garrison in warm weather for comfort) which while hot, especially serving in Louisiana, was the manner in which they would be worn in combat. It was a way in which the unit’s motto ‘Toujour Pret-Always Ready’ was reinforced through a practice. In the United States the practice of Thanksgiving, where certain foods are shared and eaten as an act of celebration but also a, perhaps unconscious, remembrance of the story told in elementary school of the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in the new world of 1621. Eating becomes an act of remembrance and storytelling in the Passover. The food that is eaten remembers the events of the Passover where a lamb is slaughtered and the people eat unleavened bread. The festival and the food that is eaten also becomes a boundary marker for the people who are gathered. As I mentioned, in connection with Deuteronomy 14, if we understand the prohibitions legalistically we miss the point. The action of not eating leavened bread over the week of the Passover becomes a boundary marker which defines those who are a part of the community and those who are not. They are both expressions of devotion, reminders of a shared identity and bearers of the story. The lamb and the unleavened bread become visual words to pass on the story in a visual form across the generations.

Exodus 12: 21-28 The First Passover

 21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25 When you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowed down and worshiped.

 28 The Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.

The meal within the home, or within the community of faith as it may be practiced today has a teaching purpose and here that purpose is located in the first Passover. The identification with future Passovers with the first Passover goes with one of the basic question of children, ‘what does this mean?’ The act and the ritual becomes an opportunity to tell again the story of God’s action of liberation, of the constitution of the people of Israel as they were taken out of the land of Egypt, and the beginning of the people’s journey to becoming the people of God. In the ancient world the slaughter of an animal was often reserved for a special celebration. In a world before refrigeration the meat would have to be eaten in a short period of time and therefore it was often only at festivals where a large animal like a lamb, goat or bull would be slaughtered and used as a part of the family’s or community’s celebration. It would be a feast looked forward to.

The plant here is probably Origanum Syriacum (Syrian Oregano) pictured above rather than what we call hyssop today

This first Passover has an element that was unique to that celebration: the painting of the lintel and doorposts with blood with hyssop. Here the blood serves as a marker to keep the ‘destroyer’ traveling with the LORD away from the Israelite houses. The ‘destroyer’ may have been thought of as ‘night demon’ which was a part of the folklore of all ancient Near Eastern cultures or, more likely in a biblical context, an angelic being that was dispatched as a means of destruction (see for example 2 Samuel 24: 16f. and 2 Kings 19: 35). (Myers, 2005, p. 99) Hyssop, which was used to apply the blood, is used elsewhere in the scriptures as a means of purification of lepers (see Leviticus 14 and Numbers 19) and that also serves as a metaphorical purpose of purification of sins in Psalm 51:9.

Lamentations over the Death of the First Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)

Exodus 12: 29-36: The Final Sign and the Departure of Israel

 29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD, as you said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

 33 The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35 The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, 36 and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.

In the previous chapter the death of the firstborns in the land of Egypt and the people asking for gold and silver from the Egyptians is foretold, now the final sign comes and the cry goes up from Egypt. The loss of the children of Israel and their enslavement which brought about their cry to the LORD now has its echo in the cry of their oppressor. The portrayal of the LORD in the book of Exodus is that of a passionately engaged and involved God taking sides with the people of Israel against the leaders and people of Egypt. Egypt has been devastated, it’s crops, livestock and future have been compromised in seeking to hold on to a reliance upon the enslaved people of Israel. Change is hard and rarely comes without resistance but here, finally, the pain of the signs and wonders is enough to allow Pharaoh and the people to relent. No further conditions or restrictions are placed on the people’s departure to go into the wilderness and worship the LORD. Yet, now Pharaoh is put in the position of the petitioner asking Moses to intercede and bring a blessing for him as well.

The people do receive jewelry and clothing as they prepare for their departure. There is an urgency to the scene as the people of an Egypt, wishing for an end to this drama, open up their wealth and resources to send the former slaves on the way. Perhaps for the Egyptians this is a time of repentance or paying for years of servitude. Perhaps for the Hebrew people this is a recompense for lifetimes of servitude and the beginning of establishing themselves as a new people who are independent and free. The jewelry and clothing may not be the most important things for a long journey but for the departure of the people to worship they are gifts that can be dedicated to the worship of the LORD their God.

David Roberts, The Israelites Leaving Egypt (1830)

Exodus 12: 37-42: Beginning the Journey and Time Renarrated

 37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. 38 A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. 39 They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

 40 The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. 41 At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. 42 That was for the LORD a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the LORD by all the Israelites throughout their generations.

The journey of a mixed crowd of six hundred thousand men (not counting women, children) would lead to a departing people of over a million people, probably larger than two million. This is probably hyperbole, populations in the ancient world were much lower than today and even a million people would have been a very large portion of the population of ancient Egypt. Even at the beginning of the Exodus the people are not purely one ethnicity, they are a mixed group. The mixed group may refer to Egyptians and others who either chose to depart Pharaoh’s empire or who were linked to the community through marriage or other relationships. The narrative of a large group of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, and large herds making the initial stage leaving for the wilderness would have been a chaotic scene and yet an urgent one for the Hebrews and the Egyptians. The Egyptians want the people to depart prior to any additional punishment (or changes of heart within Pharaoh) and the Hebrews also now are finally having the opportunity to depart but are also driven out of Egypt.

Four hundred and thirty years of the Hebrew people in Egypt comes to an end. Their new calendar points to a new identity and the beginning of a new epoch. Time now becomes measured by their departure from Egypt and is reinforced by the vigil they are to keep. The move as a host, and military language begins to be used for their people, as they depart by companies.

Exodus 12: 43-51: The Ordinance Restated and Boundaries

43 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; 45 no bound or hired servant may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 The whole congregation of Israel shall celebrate it. 48 If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the LORD, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; 49 there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

 50 All the Israelites did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 That very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.

Defining group boundaries is an important function in any society. With the Passover being the constituting ritual for the people it is important to address who is to eat of the Passover. What does it mean to be a part of the community that takes part in this rite. Circumcision becomes the marker that a person chooses to identify with the Israelite community. Slaves become joined to the household and are circumcised and an alien in the land may choose to have their household circumcised and join in the Passover celebration and by extension the community.

 

Exodus 10: Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart and the Eclipse of Ra

Exodus 10: 1-2- The Hardening of the Heart

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, 2 and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them — so that you may know that I am the LORD.”

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of the officials of Pharaoh within this story is a place where the hearer has to make a choice based upon their own theological leanings how to take the story. I discuss this initially back in chapter seven, but since we now hear for the first time, “for I have hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his officials” it is worth revisiting this discussion. As Walter Brueggemann can say when we search for an Old Testament theology and way of discussing the LORD, the God of Israel:

Old Testament theology, when it pays attention to Israel’s venturesome rhetoric, refuses any reductionism to a single or simple articulation; it offers a witness that is enormously open, inviting, and suggestive, rather than one that yields settlement, closure, or precision. (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 149)

The people of Israel, and the book of Exodus in particular, do their theology in narrative, prose, proclamation and song. They never construct a systematic way of talking about God nor do they have any struggle with paradox. Modern questions of ‘divine determinism’ verses ‘free will’ do not find a single answer even within the same book and often within the same story seeming contradictory views inhabit the same space. With this suggestive language of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened by the LORD here there are a number of ways to use this narrative. One reading of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened would be centered around the power of the LORD being uncontested. This conflict between the gods of Egypt and the LORD the God of Israel, which occurs around the meetings of Moses and Pharaoh, the LORD’s dominance is demonstrated by the leader of the empire of the day not even being in control of his own will power. In this case Pharaoh becomes a tragic and sympathetic figure who is merely a pawn in a much larger game. It also suggests a side of the LORD that demands to be taken seriously and who will have his actions told for generations to come. The signs may serve a teaching function for both the people of Israel and for Egypt. In the increasing pressure put upon the Egyptians there has always been a restraint where the damage to the Egyptian people was recoverable. Yet, here at the point where the consequences are becoming lethal the LORD seems determined, in the narrative at least, to see these signs go to their end.

Others will resist this type of reading preferring to have Pharaoh retain his free will and thus his culpability in resisting the LORD and the freedom of the people of Israel. We may want to have Pharaoh be the scapegoat, and there will be plenty in what follows where I call attention to an abusive dynamic in Pharaoh’s words, and yet the Hebrew scriptures always seem to resist easy answers to a complex world. Coming from a Christian perspective we often want to blame evil of sin and yet even within the New Testament there is always a place reserved for some external force of evil, whether in the form of Satan, demons or principalities and powers, that resists God. Here again, Brueggemann’s words are illuminating:

We may say that all such evil is the result of sin, but Israel resists such a conclusion, if by sin is meant human failure. Evil is simply there, sometimes as a result of human sin, sometimes as a given, and occasionally blamed on God. (Brueggemann, 1997, p. 159)

At least in chapter ten of Exodus the narrative resists an easy tying of Pharaoh’s actions to the consequences for his will has been hardened. The empire of the Egyptians has been made foolish, it has not acted foolish on its own. It is perhaps an uncomfortable ambiguity that the text invites us into. Yet, perhaps in its suggestive nature it may also enable us to see ourselves in the picture of the oppressor. Whether the power over the people of Israel and the economic benefit at their expense is an addiction for Pharaoh or whether he is unable to see another way or whether he is simply one more example of a leader made foolish we will never know. Yet, as we continue with this narrative I think it is important to not try to force the text to fit a theology we would impose upon it. I believe there is wisdom in its uncomfortable but suggestive way that evades simple answers.

Exodus 10: 3-11- Abusive Dynamics

 3 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 4 For if you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country. 5 They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the last remnant left you after the hail, and they shall devour every tree of yours that grows in the field. 6 They shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your officials and of all the Egyptians — something that neither your parents nor your grandparents have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day.'” Then he turned and went out from Pharaoh.

 7 Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” 8 So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, worship the LORD your God! But which ones are to go?” 9 Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, because we have the LORD’s festival to celebrate.” 10 He said to them, “The LORD indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind. 11 No, never! Your men may go and worship the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.

One of the insights I had in looking at this passage this time was the way in which Pharaoh attempts to maintain control of Israel in a dynamic that is similar to what may happen with an abuser. Previously, at the end of chapter nine, Pharaoh has acknowledged that he has sinned, that he has done wrong but refused to let the people go. Here the officials of Pharaoh, who previously the chapter mentioned had their hearts hardened, appeal to Pharaoh and implore him to let the people go. Pharaoh reluctantly is willing to make provision for the men only to go but wants to maintain control of the women, children and flocks of the Hebrews. He attempts to maintain control of the people and property that will force the men (and people as a whole) to return and submit to slavery and servitude.

As Pharaoh’s power becomes less his desperation is becoming greater in dealing with Moses and Aaron. Previously Moses and Aaron have left on their own terms but here they are driven from Pharaoh’s presence. Yet Pharaoh’s words here speak an unintended truth: “The LORD indeed will be with you, if I ever let your little ones go with you!” The presence of the LORD and the action of the LORD on the behalf of the people of Israel will be a major theme of Exodus. The LORD is with Moses and is active in a way that the forces of Pharaoh, the secret acts of the magicians and wise men, and ultimately the gods of Egypt cannot match.

The coming eighth sign once again will use the insignificant to humble a Pharaoh who refuses to be humbled. Previously frogs, gnats (or lice), and flies showed how the smallest of things could bring an empire to its knees. Pharaoh’s officials have seen before that these things are ‘the finger of the LORD’ and that at this point Egypt is ruined. Yet, Moses and Aaron and the people of Israel continue to be a snare that the king of Egypt is trapped within. Whether through his own stubbornness or divine hardening he is trapped within his role as the oppressor and refuses (or is unable) to imagine a world where his empire is not built upon the servitude of an enslaved people.

The Plague of Locusts, Illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

Exodus 10: 12-20- Locusts and the Loss of Agriculture

 12 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt, so that the locusts may come upon it and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.” 13 So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. 14 The locusts came upon all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again. 15 They covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt. 16 Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. 17 Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the LORD your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” 18 So he went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 19 The LORD changed the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea;1 not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt. 20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.

Previous signs have impacted the prosperity of Egypt in significant ways: the livestock were diseased and died, the hail destroyed the flax and barley harvest (as well as any remaining animals in the field and servants), but now the remaining harvest for the year is wiped out. Yet, even with the loss of a complete harvest Egypt probably had the means to survive agriculturally because of the provisions set in place to deal with a famine. Genesis 41 narrates Joseph’s rise to power but also the consolidation of harvesting in centralized granaries to prepare for famine. If these granaries are in place, which the narrative seems to indicate, the people could still survive even the loss of a complete harvest. Yet, this is not to minimize the harshness of a farmer losing the production of their land for an entire year or the impact the individual people of Egypt would have felt in the midst of these signs. Yet, there is also a restraint even here as the pressure has been applied to force Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. The picture of agricultural and environmental devastation is intense as the signs have progressed, and yet the LORD has continually provided a way for both the people of Israel and Egypt to continue.

This sign also has several points of resonance with the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea. Both here and in Exodus fourteen the sign begins with a strong east wind which blows all night which allows the locusts to come here and the sea to be parted later. Also the reverse wind, from the west, is used to get rid of the locusts and to return the sea to its banks after the people of Israel have passed. The link is strengthened by the locust being driven into the Red Sea. At a symbolic level there is also the possible poetic linking of Pharaoh and the people of Egypt with the locusts. They, in their oppression of the people of Israel, have been the ones who have consumed the produce of the productive land and who have transformed harvest into desolation. They too, like the locusts, will be thrown into the sea by the hardness in Pharaoh’s heart. Again, the LORD is the one who Exodus lifts up here as the one who is behind this hardening.

The Ninth Plague, Darkness from Gustave Dore’s English Bible

Exodus 10: 21-29- Darkness and the Defeat of Ra

 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the LORD. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the LORD our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the LORD our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the LORD until we arrive there.” 27 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”

The tangible darkness, darkness that can be felt may seem like a strange penultimate sign until you consider that this is not merely a battle between Moses and Pharaoh. At its heart this is a conflict between the gods of Egypt and their emissary, Pharaoh, and the LORD the God of Israel. Ra, the god of the sun in Egyptian mythology, was the central god in the Egyptian pantheon. Earlier chapter seven I mentioned the strange uses of the word tannin for snake (tannin is typically a word for dragon or a chaos monster) and I alluded to the Egyptian myth of Ra entering into a nightly battle with Apep (the snake like evil force of chaos) who attempts to consume Ra and the sun each night in the underworld.  Many of the Pharaoh’s even took the name Ramses (and the traditional Pharaoh viewed behind the narrative of the Exodus was Ramses II- whether the book of Exodus can be traced back to events in his reign ultimately is something that will likely never be proved). Pharaoh, the son of Ra, here would see the chief god of the pantheon and the authorizer of his reign blotted out for three days until the LORD relents. The future commandment that the people shall have no other gods before the LORD goes back to this time where the LORD in bringing the people out of Egypt demonstrated his power over the gods of Egypt.

Egyptian god Ra in his Solar Barque

Pharaoh again attempts to maintain control in his demonstrated weakness. Here men, women and children are free to go but the flocks must remain behind. There is a narrative logic to the Egyptians wanting the Israelites to leave their flocks behind as they depart to worship. Remember the Egyptians flocks were wiped out by disease and the hailstorm and even thought the Egyptians in Genesis and here seem to prefer cattle to sheep and goats in a desperate situation it would make sense to retain the herds. That being said, in the narrative it is also about coercion and power and ensuring the people would return to servitude. Pharaoh is still not willing to let the people go from their slavery or to imagine a new system without the Hebrews enslaved.

Exodus 7: The Conflict Begins

Ancient Egyptian Art Depicting Apep battling a Diety from the tomb of Inher-kha, Thebes

Exodus 7: 1-13 The Initial Challenge

The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the LORD commanded them. 7 Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

 8 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.'” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12 Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

The liberation of the people of Israel from their servitude to the Egyptians in not just a conflict between peoples, at its root it is a conflict between the LORD the God of Israel and the Egyptian gods. Moses becomes the vessel of the LORD’s work against the Egyptians and Pharaoh and the ‘wise men, the sorcerers and the magicians of Egypt’ line up on the other side. The central two characters, Moses and Pharaoh, both become representative or avatars of the divine power behind them. Moses here will be ‘like a God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.’ Pharaoh derives his authority from a divine claim that the Pharaoh is a ‘son of Ra’ the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Two conflicting views of creation (Ra is the chief god of not only the sun but creation for Egypt) and two conflicting views of the way that world should be structured are in play. Within Egypt, the superpower of that era, Pharaoh is all powerful and yet in this narrative Pharaoh plays a tragic character. Pharaoh will not listen to Aaron and Moses initially, but the conflict between competing sources of divine power will be seen not only by the individual players but also by both peoples (the Egyptians and the Hebrews). The end is that even the Egyptians will ‘know that I am the LORD,’ as the coming ecological disasters will testify to the power of the LORD over creation and the inability of Ra and those loyal to him to prevent this upheaval.

One of the places where translations don’t quite do justice to the original language is here with the language about the snakes that come from Aaron’s and what comes out of the Egyptians staffs. The word here in Hebrew is Tannin which is not the typical word for snake but rather for the serpent like chaos monster or dragon. Both sets of Tannin, from Aaron’s staff and the Egyptian magicians, are forces of war and destruction and chaos. Here chaos is unleashed symbolically in a struggle between the LORD of Israel and the lords of Egypt. Interestingly, to me at least, in Egyptian mythology the nightly struggle of Ra is against Apep (or Apophis) the snake like force of evil and chaos but now in matching the display of power by the LORD unleashing the forces of chaos even the emissaries of Pharaoh, son of Ra, must unleash their own forces of chaos. Ultimately it is the tannin released by Aaron which swallows the tannin released by the wise men of Egypt and this initial conflict foreshadows the chaos unleashed on creation that is to come. One of the things that begins here is the inability of the Egyptian wise men, sorcerers and magicians to undo what has been unleashed through Moses and Aaron. They may initially replicate what Moses and Aaron do but they cannot undo it. They can only add to the chaos which threatens to consume all of Egypt.

One of the aspects of this and the following passage to consider is the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.’ There are certain passages where Pharaoh himself is the one who hardens his heart and others where the heart of Pharaoh is hardened by God. For those looking for a definitive answer to the tricky question of divine determinism I am afraid you are likely to be disappointed. Many interpreters see within this, and each interpreter makes theological choices based on their understanding of God, for Pharaoh’s free will remaining intact and the responsibility for the choices remaining entirely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. Others take serious this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by the LORD and see the enslaver losing his own free will and becoming the tool that once the enslaved Hebrew people were. The truth is probably subtler as the ancient writers of the Bible were not dogmatically rigid. Divine determinism and free will could coexist without any perceived conflict. Perhaps, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can state:

Pharaoh is in fact…a tragic figure like Lady Macbeth, or like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, trapped in an obsession which may have had rational beginnings, right or wrong, but which has taken hold of him, bringing not only him but those around him to ruin. (Sacks, 2010, p. 49)

Perhaps Pharaoh is merely trapped within a worldview that cannot imagine letting the Hebrew slaves go. Perhaps Pharaoh’s heart and mind receive some divine nudge to harden his resolve and will as the chaos unfolds around him and his people. Perhaps Pharaoh, who views himself as the king on the chess board is merely a pawn being played. Regardless Pharaoh, the son of Ra, will be unable to avoid being swallowed up by the chaos unleashed as he struggles against the LORD. The gauntlet has been thrown, the challenge has begun for the lives of both peoples. Warnings are unheeded, hearts are hardened and next the heart of Egypt will bleed.

The Roman Kiosk of Trajan (left) on Agilkia island in the Nile River, near Aswān, Egypt

Exodus 7: 14-25 The Bleeding Heart of Egypt

 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. 16 Say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened.’ 17 Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD.” See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.'” 19 The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt– over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water– so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'”

20 Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.

 25 Seven days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile.

The Nile River, or to the ancient Egyptians simply the river, is the heart of the Egyptian empire. Egypt was shielded from other early civilizations by deserts on both sides and the Nile river delta provided for an agricultural abundance that allowed the people to focus on the construction of large public projects like the pyramids. The river is a source of food, transportation, and ultimately life. Without the Nile River, there is no Egyptian empire and even though the Nile never becomes a significant source of worship for the Egyptians, it is simply an assumed part of life. Yet, it is here that the LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to strike first. The heart of the Egyptian empire bleeds, life begins to end and an ecological disaster begins to unfold.

This begins a highly-structured telling of the signs and wonders that bring the people out of Egypt. In the three sets of three where the first in each set Moses speaks to Pharaoh outside in the morning, the second Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside in the palace and the third comes abruptly without a warning. Some would argue ecologically that one plague would naturally follow the others because of the ecological devastation, and while that may be true the narrative moves where the LORD is in control of each sign and wonder unfolding.

In Genesis 3, the end of the story of Adam and Eve, the disobedience by Adam and Eve which is supposed to result in their own deaths is ultimately born by the earth (see Genesis 3: 17). Here also it is the earth which bears the consequences of the disobedience of Pharaoh. Of the first nine signs, only the hail is fatal to humans and even then, Pharaoh and his people are warned to bring their people and animals into a secure place with a twenty-four-hour warning. Each sign seems designed to make the Egyptians aware that it is the LORD who is the God who has power over the creation and here the waters of Egypt are the first to bear the consequence of the refusal of Pharaoh to let the people go to worship the LORD.

Again, the magicians of Egypt, by their secret arts, are able to replicate this chaos with some of the uncontaminated water and yet they are unable to reverse or limit the effects. They can only contribute to the chaos. The river turns to blood, the fish die and the waters stink and are unable to drink. The lifeblood of Egypt is now biological waste and yet the people continue to find a way. Even though the river will be contaminated people are still able to dig for freshwater along the banks of the river. The ecological disaster forces the people to change their patterns and yet the Egyptians continue to find the water they need for life to continue. Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened and his will is resolved since his priests can apparently in some way replicate what the LORD is doing through Moses and Aaron. Perhaps, he is also shielded from the immediate effects since he would not dig for his own water, ultimately slaves or servants would do that for him. He retreats to his house without taking to heart the bleeding heart of his empire. He closes his eyes and his doors to the disaster beginning to unfold around him.

Exodus 6: God’s Response and Moses’ Heritage

Exodus 6: 1-13 A God Who Speaks and A People Unable to Hear

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

2 God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” 9 Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

 10 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the LORD, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” 13 Thus the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them orders regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, charging them to free the Israelites from the land of Egypt.

The same message may be heard very differently in different circumstances. When Moses and Aaron relay a very similar message at the end of chapter four the people receive in hope, they bow down and they worship. After the abuse received in chapter five the supervisors have called for the LORD to judge between Moses and them. Oppression changes our ability to hope and believe that a change can happen. One of the dynamics of abuse is that the abused person often feels they have no choice because all their energy is expended on survival. Slavery continues to breed hopelessness among the people and as daily survival becomes harder imagining a change becomes both more essential and increasingly difficult. It will not be words or promises that will move the people of Israel or Pharaoh away from the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.

The upcoming plagues upon the land of Egypt will be harsh and there will be much to wrestle with in these sections as they come up, but here we are at the end of what words can do. Ultimately words, without some type of recognized power and authority behind them, short of their power to convince do not sometimes break through the hardened worldviews of opposing parties. Moses may not be a person who is confident in his speaking ability but we have seen previously he is a man who acts when he sees oppression. Yet, here, where his previous words seem only to have increased the suffering and oppression of the people he again appeals to his poor speaking ability. He is unable to engender with these words of the LORD hope within the people of Israel or fear within the person of Pharaoh.

We as people who hear these words in relative comfort can also hear something new in this moment of revelation, something perhaps Moses and the people could not hear in their oppression engendered deafness. The name of the LORD, revealed to Moses on the mountain in chapter three, we now learn has not been previously revealed. Others have known the LORD and called the LORD by other names (typically describing an attribute of God: God almighty, God who sees, etc.) but now Moses hears again the unique name of the LORD. Again, there are the promises of the land of Canaan, the promise to deliver, the covenant promise that the LORD will be their God and they will be the people of the LORD, these things will unfold as we journey through the Exodus narrative, and yet all these promises are unable to heard at this time. Ultimately it will be in retrospect that the people will be able to look back and in light of the commandments remember “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

We are moving from the time where the time of actions in the future will become the present of the narrative. If this were our story we would move directly into the confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh, between the LORD the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. Yet, there is one more pause before we move into this conflict. The LORD has revealed something of Godself in both name, heritage and promise and we have seen something of who Moses is in his actions. But for the people of Israel there is something else we need to know before we can move forward.

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Exodus 6:14-30 Who are Moses and Aaron

 14 The following are the heads of their ancestral houses: the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi; these are the families of Reuben. 15 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the families of Simeon. 16 The following are the names of the sons of Levi according to their genealogies: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 17 The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, by their families. 18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred thirty-three years. 19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their genealogies. 20 Amram married Jochebed his father’s sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 21 The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. 22 The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Sithri. 23 Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 24 The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph; these are the families of the Korahites. 25 Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas. These are the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites by their families.

 26 It was this same Aaron and Moses to whom the LORD said, “Bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” 27 It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, the same Moses and Aaron.

 28 On the day when the LORD spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29 he said to him, “I am the LORD; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you.” 30 But Moses said in the LORD’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”

This is not how we tell a story because we see the world differently than people in the ancient world. We live in a world where we construct our identities, we are who we are because of our choices and actions is the narrative we try to live our lives within. Yet, in the ancient world you inherited your identity: you are who you are because of your parents, grandparents, etc. This is why the Bible and most ancient texts take extended sections for genealogies. Often an ancient person’s telling of who they are would be a narrative of not only their name but their name within a list of the ancestors. You still see this in the Middle East where names, Osama bin Laden for a famous example, revolve around this pattern (Osama son of (bin) Laden). Here what is interesting to me about this genealogy is its incompleteness. It begins with a telling of the ancestry of the tribe (Reuben, Simeon and Levi) but before it can get to the remaining tribes it holds up within the tribe of Levi focusing both on the upcoming divisions of labor among the descendants of Levi as well as the priestly heritage of both Aaron and Moses. Here for the first time the parents of Moses and Aaron are named: Amram and Jochebed and presumably Aaron is the older son based upon how they are listed. There is a long series of exceptions where the LORD chooses the younger rather than the older son (Jacob and Joseph for example in Genesis) and here is one more of those incidents.

Another unusual piece of this genealogy is that Amram and Jochebed are related more closely than would be allowed in Leviticus (see Leviticus 18:12) and yet here they are a man and his aunt who are lifted up as the ancestors of Moses and Aaron: the great leader of Israel and its first high priest. Again, this is one of those places where a close reading of a genealogy often renders a few surprises in the family tree.

I have done enough work with Family Systems theory and have spent enough time observing families as a part of my ministry within a congregation to know that we are never truly the crafters of our own story. We inherit a lot of our identity, knowingly and unknowingly, from our parent and their parents. Many of our opportunities are opened by the position and standing of those who came before us. In our world, we may simply attempt to judge Moses and Aaron based upon their position and actions but perhaps there is some wisdom in these ancient stories that pause and remind us who are the ancestors of the people in our stories and where are the roots of their family trees. Now that we know where Moses and Aaron came from we are ready to follow them into the rest of the story.

Exodus 5: The Oppression of the Israelites Increases

Benjamin West (1738-1820), Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh

Benjamin West (1738-1820), Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh

Exodus 5: 1-9: The Initial Audience with Pharaoh

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” 5 Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” 6 That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”

The initial audience for Moses and Aaron with the Pharaoh makes matters worse instead of better for the Hebrew people. The authority that they can claim from the LORD is immediately met with the question from Pharaoh, “Who is the LORD?” I find it intriguing that the initial threat is on the Israelites, that if they do not go into the wilderness to sacrifice then pestilence and sword will fall on them, rather than the Egyptians. While the LORD has revealed Godself to Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh has not received any type of revelation yet. Pharaoh’s gods are very different from the LORD the God of Israel. Egypt’s gods are the gods that authorize the reign of Pharaoh and the enslavement of the people. Yet, the God of Israel has heard their cry and has called Moses and Aaron to carry to Pharaoh this initial plea to let the people go.

Pharaoh resorts to victim blaming. Although there is perhaps some vulnerability in the statement that, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land” and the fear of what a day without their immigrants would look like, the Hebrew people are immediately scapegoated as lazy. Pharaoh uses the bureaucracy to separate himself from the suffering of the Hebrew people and to increase it mercilessly. Unlike the LORD, Pharaoh refuses to hear and see. There is no Sabbath rest for the people of Israel, only the iron hand of oppression. In laying before the people the impossible task of making bricks without straw and charging them to gather straw from the remnants of the field Pharaoh insures that they will continue to be less productive and ‘lazy’ in the eyes of the oppressor.

Exodus 5: 10-21: The Oppression Increases

 10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. 11 Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.'” 12 So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.” 14 And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, “Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?”

15 Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.” 17 He said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ 18 Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, “You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.” 20 As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. 21 They said to them, “The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

It is the supervisors, those from among the people who are placed in a position of

The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah, Pharaoh Adds to the Work of the Israelites

The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah, Pharaoh Adds to the Work of the Israelites

authority who will become those most directly impacted by Pharaoh’s words.  The people will fail at their impossible task, Pharaoh will continue to blame the supervisors and the people for being lazy and supervisors now find themselves beaten by the taskmasters. Even though the supervisors go and appeal to Pharaoh they have the request of Aaron and Moses thrown in their faces as evidence of their laziness. Their past loyalty to the king of Egypt does not count when they now find themselves bearing the people’s punishment. Perhaps this drives the supervisors back to being a part of the people rather than primarily aligning with the empire but in Pharaoh’s response they see that their positions of favor have changed to disfavor.

Egypt, as it is portrayed in Exodus, was an empire build upon the enslavement of an immigrant people. The Hebrew people are viewed as other, somehow lesser than the people of the land. Their forced labor allowed for the consolidation of wealth and power among the elite rulers and priestly members of their society. Systems of oppression to not change easily or willingly. There are often elaborate beliefs that are invisibly woven around one group’s privilege and another’s oppression. Even in modern times we are not free from systems where we blame the victim or where one group of people has an often unseen, perhaps obscured by systems of bureaucracy like in our narrative, set of privileges or benefits. In the United States, a country founded on a stated creed that ‘all men are created equal’ it took, for example, a civil war and then one hundred years of struggle (often overlooked) until the voting rights act could make it legal for African Americans to be able to vote and that struggle for voice and vote continues for people of color, women and many other groups.

One of the rhetorical moves of the Civil Rights movement was to take the Exodus narrative, which was so important in the founding of the United States, and recast it where now instead of white Americans being able to claim the mantle of the Hebrews entering the promised land, now it is the African Americans who are the chosen people and whites are recast in the role of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Within the Civil Rights movement, like in the Exodus story, the oppression of the captive people became harsher before they earned a greater equality than what they had before. The Civil Rights leaders probably had several of their own people accuse them like the supervisors did to Moses and Aaron, for the struggle was not to be over in one day or one set of words. In Egypt, it will take an act of God for the people to leave their oppression. In our day, may our hearts not be so hardened as Pharaohs would be.

Exodus 5: 22-23: Moses’ Accusation of God

 22 Then Moses turned again to the LORD and said, “O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

Moses has some chutzpah. This will not be the last time Moses speaks boldly to God, nor will Moses be the only exemplar of this. The prophet Jeremiah’s words to God were often very direct and accusing, see for example Jeremiah 15 and Jeremiah 20. Many of the Psalms of lament, for example Psalm 10 or Psalm 22 accuse God of either hiding Godself in times of trouble or forsaking the Psalmist. One of the gifts of our scriptures is the direct way that the people of faith could appeal to God. Here Moses, the one who feared using his voice, can now lift his voice to God in protest God’s mistreatment of the people and sending him as a bearer of sorrow to them. God has not yet fulfilled his promise to deliver the people and as Moses can boldly state he has done nothing to deliver them yet. God will hear the cries of the people and will hear the words of Moses. I stated in an earlier chapter that perhaps one of the characteristics of Moses that God saw and chose was his inability to remain inactive in the fact of oppression. Now Moses lifts up to God the cries and accusations of the people. Unlike Pharaoh, the LORD will not remain unmoved.

Exodus 4: Divine Magic, Anger and The Return to Egypt

Burning Bush by Quirill at deviantart.com

Burning Bush by Quirill at deviantart.com

Exodus 4: 1-9- So That They May Believe

Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.'” 2 The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3 And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail”– so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand– 5 “so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

 6 Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 Then God said, “Put your hand back into your cloak”– so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body– 8 “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. 9 If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

Moses’ second objection or clarification leads us to the first demonstrations of divine power in the form of magic. In our modern disenchanted world, we may have trouble trusting a narrative where God acts in concrete physical and magical ways within the world but to remove the magic from Exodus, or the Bible in general, is to remove from the story the active engagement of God in the liberation of the people of Israel. Personally, I have little interest in the enlightenment era portrayal of God as ‘the divine clockmaker’ or ‘the prime mover’ who stands unengaged and uninvolved in the world. The bible does speak to a world where ‘good magic,’ the magic which kept the forces of death and darkness at bay was the purview of the temples and churches. While many of the more fundamentalist churches have been troubled by the popularity of books like the Harry Potter series, The Magicians, and many other fantasy series involving magicians, witches, and a world that is somehow still enchanted I personally enjoy these books and believe in a world that is still more magical than our scientific disenchantment would encourage. To limit faith to that which is seen, observed and controlled is to transform faith into some sort of disenchanted dogmatism. There was wisdom when the council of Nicaea included in the Nicene Creed’s first article “We believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible.” (Emphasis mine)

These three magical signs are in response to Moses’ fear that they will not believe him or listen. Here with each of these signs the emphasis on believing is placed. The staff becomes a snake and then again, a staff so that they may believe. The hand becomes diseased and then healed and whole again in case they do not believe the first sign, they may believe the second.  This skin disease, probably not Hansen’s disease or what we know today as leprosy, was still a fearful thing in the ancient world and particularly for the purity concerns of the ancient Jewish people. Leviticus chapters thirteen and fourteen are entirely dedicated for how the people are to deal with those who have a skin disease like this, this type of disease would prevent a descendant of Aaron from participating in or receiving the benefits of the offerings and the temple (Leviticus 22:4) the book of Numbers will remind the people again that people with a skin disease are to be put outside of the camp (Numbers 5:2) and later Miriam, Moses’ sister, when she and Aaron challenge Moses’ leadership will also be afflicted with this or a similar skin disease. (Numbers 12) This type of skin disease must have occupied a central place of fear or disgust for the Hebrew people and here the LORD uses this disease as a demonstration of the God of Israel’s power over this feared ailment. Finally, a third sign is given but not demonstrated but it foreshadows one of the coming signs in the conflict between the God of Israel and the leaders (and by extension gods) of Egypt.

The gospel of John will later share a similar view of the signs that Jesus did so that his followers may believe. While that gospel can state that many other signs other than those recorded were done: “But these were written so that you may come to believe” (John 20:31). Yet, these demonstrations of power tend not to create a robust and long lasting faith. One of the continual struggles throughout the book of Exodus will be the people’s continual inability to trust in either Moses or the LORD despite the incredible actions that God will do to bring the people out of Egypt, to bring them across the Red Sea and to sustain them in the wilderness. Yet, these signs and the conflict with Moses and the magicians of Egypt will be an essential part of the way the LORD will triumph and bring about the liberation of the people.

Exodus 4: 10-17- Prophetic Resistance and Divine Anger

 10 But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” 11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” 13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. 16 He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17 Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”

Isaiah could proclaim he was a person of unclean lips, Jeremiah was only a boy too young to take up the calling God placed upon him, Gideon, Zechariah and countless others would wonder about their sufficiency for the task that God had entrusted to them. Moses has already asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (see 3:10) Now Moses claims he is slow of speech and slow of tongue (literally heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue). There is a parallel with the Apostle Paul who, particularly in his correspondence with the Corinthian churches, where his eloquence in person may not compare to the words of his letters. Yet he, like Moses,

“did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” 1 Corinthians 2: 1, 4

Moses’ proclamation of the message to the people of Israel and to Pharaoh will not depend upon his words but as demonstrated with the magical signs immediately before will predominantly be a display of God’s power working through Moses.  Yet, God also wants Moses to know that these words will come from God and that God can empower his mouth and tongue. Yet Moses persists in asking God to send someone else.

The anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses. This is a pregnant statement which may be connected to the strange interlude in verses 24-26, but the LORD’s anger about Moses’ unease at accepting this mantle does not prevent God from attempting to find an accommodation. Here Aaron enters the story as Moses’ previously unknown brother. Moses will not find a way out of the calling that the LORD has placed upon him but now there is the sharing of the mantle between the two brothers. Aaron will become the mouthpiece for Moses and Moses the mouthpiece for God. The words of God will now be doubly mediated but still effective. Aaron’s partnership with Moses will perhaps make the beginning of the process easier on Moses but there will come a time where Aaron and his sister Miriam will also become a challenge to Moses’ leadership of the community. (Numbers 12)

Exodus 4: 18-26- A Strange Interlude

 18 Moses went back to his father-in-law Jethro and said to him, “Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.

 21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. 23 I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.'”

 24 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”

Moses returns to Jethro and requests his leave for the task the LORD has set before him and begins his journey back to Egypt with his wife and sons. The LORD is now speaking to Moses separate from the theophany at Mount Horeb giving him insight to both the situation back in Egypt and charging him to perform the acts of power he has been given. The dynamic of hardening Pharaoh’s heart will be a theme for much of the coming conflict between Moses and the LORD with Pharaoh. The charge to identify before Pharaoh that ‘Israel is my firstborn son’ serves multiple purposes. First, it demonstrated the close and intimate bond that the LORD has with the people of Israel and the vulnerability that the LORD experiences not only their suffering and oppression but also later the feeling of betrayal. Second, the phrase is connected in parallel to the foreshadowing of the final plague, the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Finally, it may be one of the textual insights into the strange interlude that comes immediately afterwards.

Detail of Ziporah from Boticelli's the Trials of Moses (1481-82)

Detail of Ziporah from Boticelli’s the Trials of Moses (1481-82)

Exodus 4: 24-26 is one of the strangest and most cryptic passages in all the bible. Generations of scholars have come at this passage and come away puzzled. Many scholars of a previous generation would have pointed to multiple sources that preceded the final composition of the book of Exodus and this portion being an inclusion from an ancient telling of this story but regardless of how we arrived at the canonical form of Exodus this story has survived any attempts at editing away the uncomfortable image of the LORD coming to kill the messenger. The Hebrew is ambiguous about whether the LORD is coming for one of Moses’ sons or for Moses himself and either argument can be made textually. If the LORD is coming for Moses it is due to the divine anger being kindled in 4: 14. If the LORD is coming for the first-born son of Moses it may be linked textually to the parallel Israel is my firstborn son/killing the firstborn son of Egypt, which may sound like a more stretched link but considering some of the discussion below about foreshadowing the Passover it at least needs to be considered. Regardless of the ambiguity the aggressor is clearly the LORD and the savior is clearly a woman.

One of the themes of the first portion of Exodus is the ways that women’s actions, often foreign women, led to the preservation of the children of the Israelites and particularly Moses. The midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, the daughter of Pharaoh and now Zipporah (the first one to receive a name) all have a part in the preservation of life and making possible the future liberation of the people. Perhaps due to her position as a daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian, she is aware of what is required in this type of encounter with the presence of the LORD. Even though the Israelites did not have women priestesses many Near Eastern cultures did use women in priestly roles. The quick circumcision of her son and then the touching of Moses’ feet (or genitals- feet is often a euphemism in the bible) combined with the unique proclamation of Moses being ‘a bridegroom of blood’ is enough to thwart the LORD’s attempt on Moses’ (or his son’s) life.

Some interesting things, at least to me, to reflect on: the LORD only tried to kill Moses. We have already seen that the LORD can make healthy skin instantly become diseased or turn water to blood and a staff into a snake and we are approaching a phenomenal display of divine power to bring the people out of Egypt, yet here the LORD is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to follow through on the threat to Moses’ life. Perhaps this is a place where Moses is learning that he will be called upon at times to stand up to the LORD, as he will both later in the book of Exodus and throughout the journey of the people of Israel to the promised land. Perhaps it has something to do with perception of uncleanness for Moses’ uncircumcised son (and perhaps self). Literarily the passage has a unique connection with the Passover as Carol Meyers can demonstrate when she says,

It foreshadows the way blood will save the firstborn Israelites from the final plague that God will visit upon the Egyptians (12: 7, 13, 22-23), and it anticipates the role of circumcision in defining the legitimate participants in the Passover (12: 43-49). (Myers, 2005, p. 66f.)

There are some similarities between this story and Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis 32: 22-32 and yet this story is unique in the LORD attempting to kill in this way. Perhaps the closest I can come to a resolution on this strange interlude begins in the description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia by Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good. He’s the king, I tell you.” The LORD is many things, but safe is not among them. Walter Brueggemann can speak of the passages witness to, “the deep, untamed holiness of God.” (Actemeir, 1997, p. 2:718) Moses’ entry into the role of mediating God’s presence is one that can be threatening to his very life, and not only by Pharaoh. It is an uncomfortable passage but one that resonates with many of the prophets who found their lives surrendered to God’s message. The God who can turn healthy skin into diseased or a staff into a snake or who will unleash the plagues that will bring the empire of the day to its knees is many things, but safe is not one of them. We can only believe that God in God’s deep untamed holiness is indeed good, the king, and that God’s entry into the ordinary space of our world will ultimately be a force for setting the captives free.

Exodus 4: 27-31 Moses, Aaron and the Israelites

 27 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. 31 The people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

At this point in the narrative Aaron is the primary mouthpiece and actor before the people of Israel. Moses’ taking the central role will come soon enough, but for now Aaron acts as the LORD allowed to Moses in 4:14. The words and the signs produce within the people a hopeful faith and they are able to worship knowing their misery and oppression has been seen and heard. Moses has survived his experience with God on the mountaintop and in the wilderness and together he and Aaron and Zipporah have returned to Egypt and the struggle for the people of Israel’s freedom is about to begin. The struggle between the God of the Israelites and Pharaoh of Egypt will unleash a power previously unknown by the people and will allow a captive people to emerge from the superpower of the age.