I said on Sunday that these 20 chapters in Exodus provide the foundation of the Jewish faith and, therefore, the Christian faith. The themes in this week’s read help us understand the character and nature of God and how God will relate with God’s people. Companionship (divine and human), obedience and faith, and liberation/deliverance drive this week’s readings. I’ll elaborate on each of those below.
No one can deny that this is an exciting read. We have heard this story hundreds of times—from childhood Sunday School to various movies like the Ten Commandments to Prince of Egypt, but each time I read it, I catch something new that captivates and astonishes me.
As Exodus opens, we learn that life in Egypt has changed from the time of Joseph. There is a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph and is threatened by the sheer numbers of Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh fears them and needs to control them to control his fear. We are introduced to Moses as a baby and then as young man flees Egypt to escape trouble. God finds him and calls him to a new task — confronting Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery.
Moses returns to Egypt and the formation of his partnership with Aaron. The pairing of Aaron and Moses (Ex. 4:27-30) draws attention to the theme of companionship. Aaron’s willingness to share Moses’ message is an answer to Moses’ object found in 4:10-17, that he could not share God’s message because he was a poor speaker. Instead of accepting Moses’ excuse, God provides him with a companion for his journey, one whose gifts and talents compliment Moses. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Aaron we are reminded that no journey worth taking ought to be done in solitude. Instead God provides companions to balance our gifts. This is one of the reasons we send groups of people to do mission work, rather than individuals.
Another portion of the text this week that really stood out to me was the plagues upon the Egyptians. They are set up in groups of three with a climatic tenth, playing out incredible, unbelievable natural disasters. It leaves me wondering what it felt like, not to be the Israelites, but what it must have been like to be the Egyptians. Not the Egyptians that held court with the Pharaoh, but regular, ordinary Egyptians that didn’t have power or the ability to decide the fate of the Israelites, but none the less still suffered the consequences. The story of Israel’s deliverance from captivity is truly a testament of God’s power to liberate those who are stuck, trapped and otherwise oppressed. It has inspired many communities to identify with God in new ways, but I think it may be underestimating the Egyptians, if we do not recognize the ways in which everyone hurts when someone is oppressed. I mean how many times have we been able to identify with the Israelites—feeling trapped or oppressed by a situation? But likewise how often have we felt like the Egyptians—plagued by a decision or consequence?
Although plagues and slavery are the driving force at the center of this week’s readings, as we read further we begin to discover it is the hope we have in God’s promise that ultimately brings joy. In chapter 16 God tells Moses that bread will be provided each day and on the sixth twice as much, so that the people might take Sabbath on the seventh day. Each day the Israelites follow instruction, but on the seventh day they go out to collect bread and are disappointed to find none. In verse 28 God speaks to Moses saying, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.”
This passage reminds me of two things: that God provides and we are stubborn! Even when God provided the Israelites with all that they needed to sustain, they still tried to take matters into their own hands! How often do we do the same—especially when it comes to resting! This story reminds me of a story from the life of author Henri Nouwen. After leaving the competitive life of teaching at Harvard to serve in a community for disabled adults in France he observes, “I have to keep an eye on the difference between urgent things and important things. If I allow the urgent things to dominate my day, I will never do what is truly important and will always feel dissatisfied.” This week I would challenge you to trust that God will provide, so that you may attend to what is important, rather than what appears to be urgent.
Finally, in chapters 19 and 20, God appears to the Israelites and speaks to them words of relationship and law. First, God claims the people of Israel as a holy nation and a people who are set apart from other peoples. Next, as a sign of the relationship God has with the Israelites, the words offered as a way to relate to God and each other are offered. It strikes me as important that God first establishes the relationship with the people, then offers a word of law to them. I wonder if we shouldn’t remember that more often — that relationships come before the law. I also wonder what our lives might look like if we started there instead of expecting consistent adherence of others to ideals we, ourselves, find it hard to achieve.