What did the Israelites learn from the Exodus?

When the book of Exodus opens, the Israelites are a subjugated people, serving as corvée labor for the Egyptian government’s infrastructure projects. When it closes, they have been saved by the mighty works of God; brought out from Egypt; and promised a land of milk and honey. How do they respond to this overwhelming sequence of events?

Evaluating the response of the Israelites can be tricky for a few reasons. The most, or only, direct evidence for the people’s state of mind comes from a relatively few instances where the people’s words or actions are recorded. For much of Exodus the Israelites are offstage or in non-speaking parts, while the center of attention is on the actions and words of God, or of Moses, Pharaoh, or others such as Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Jethro, Bezalel and Oholiab. Although it may seem that the Israelites must have taken some lesson from these many significant episodes, in many cases their direct reaction is not recorded.

In such cases, if we go beyond the direct evidence of the Israelites’ words and actions, it is a more speculative effort to suggest what the Israelites probably learned; what they might have learned; what they by any reasonable standard ought to have learned; or what there is a good chance that they learned. But this is risky. It becomes apparent that, as exemplars of the human race in general, all too often they do not learn what they should have learned. But sometimes, at long last, an insight dawns, and they learn something about God or themselves; and so (God willing) do we, as we follow along in the book. We can discuss three of these topics:

  1. What it means for God to be holy.
  2. What it means for God to be faithful; and
  3. What it means for the Israelites to be in covenant with God.

1. A God Who is Holy

When God sends the final, most terrible plague upon Egypt—the death of the firstborn—he makes it clear that Israel is not exempt from such judgment in its own right. Rather, to be saved, each Israelite household must offer a sacrificial victim on its behalf—the Passover lamb, its blood on the house’s lintel and doorposts—to receive the penalty of judgment in its place (Ex 12:21ff; cf. 1 Cor 5:7). What is Israel’s reaction to hearing this terrible judgment? Although we know that the people did not hesitate to grumble and complain on all occasions, here that did not happen, and instead “The people bowed down and worshipped” (Ex 12:27). Such a response suggests that they felt the force of God’s holiness and righteous judgment.

Exodus suggests that appropriate responses to God’s holiness include fear and belief, which includes a respect for the people whom God appoints as his servants. After the parting of the Red Sea, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared (yare’) the Lord and believed (aman) in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Ex 14:31). Yare’ implies reverence, honor, awe; while aman can mean to confirm, support or be faithful. It is human nature that if one does not acknowledge God, one will acknowledge something else in God’s place. So here, immediately before God saves them, the people are (wrongly) in fear of their pursuers (Ex 14:10). After being saved, they are (rightly) in fear of God (Ex 14:31).

Immediately after fear and belief, the next logical response is praise. Following the parting of the sea, the very next thing in the book is doxology, in the songs of Moses and Miriam (Ex 15). “The joy of Israel in new freedom spontaneously bursts forth in praise…praise becomes proclamation…community is formed in the act of recital” (Birch 114-116). Moses and Miriam each sing to God, joined by the Israelites, men and women. Singing can express praise in a way that speech can’t do.

The main source of insight into God’s holiness in Exodus is the theophany at Mount Sinai. At the very outset, it is clear that God’s overwhelming goodness and perfection means that he can’t appear directly to Moses or the people, or they would be crushed. So God has to use various means to shield them from his holiness. He tells Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (Ex 19:9).

The people have to prepare for God’s appearance by cleansing, ritually purifying themselves, abstaining from sex and marking off boundaries which they cannot transgress on pain of death (Ex 19:10-15). Then God appears, in spite of being partially hidden, in the form of a sensory overload that the language can only suggest:

Thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled…Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. (Ex 19:16,18-19)

Perhaps a controlled thermonuclear explosion is the best analogy for what the writer suggests happens as God begins to make his presence felt, saying:

Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them. (Ex 19:21-22)

Are Christians as prone, or more prone, than the Israelites to forget about God’s holiness? The author of Hebrews implores his readers not to be neglectful:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’)… See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!…Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:18-21, 25, 28-29)

2. A God Who is Faithful to His Promises

In fact, from the very beginning of the book, God’s saving actions in Exodus are presented as fulfillments of his earlier promises in Genesis. Their very existence as a people is the fulfillment of a divine command: as God had begun creation by telling humanity to “be fruitful and multiply,” so too had God promised Abraham to “make of you a great nation” (Gen 1:28; 12:2). In just such a manner had the Israelites in Egypt become “fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Ex 1:7). To the church, Peter reiterates that it is God’s very call that constitutes his people as a people at all: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Peter 2:10).

When the story opens, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2:24-25). That already-existing relationship is the basis of how God identifies himself to Moses when the latter is first called (Ex 3:6,15-16; 6:3). As God concludes his interview with Moses, he makes Moses a promise that it will itself fulfill God’s earlier promise to the patriarchs: “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” (Ex 6:8).

God tells the Israelites that they can be hopeful because he is not oblivious to their plight: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Ex 3:7). More specifically, God’s awareness is not merely conceptual but somehow empathetic:  “The Hebrew verb used here (yada, to know) indicates something broader than cognitive knowledge. It indicates a participation in and experiencing of that which is known” (Birch 103).

Israel’s status as heir to God’s covenant promise is described as sonship: that is, directly primogeniture inheritance (and indirectly image-bearing). God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22). God’s fatherly faithfulness, in turn, inspires faithfulness in his son (i.e. Israel): “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 worshipped” (Ex 4:31).

In the process of declaring himself to Moses, God makes a series of promises about how he will save the Israelites, which the subsequent narrative of the book will validate. Moses is told to tell the people that God says:

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 judgement. 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. 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. (Ex 6:6-8)

God’s faithfulness is stronger than Israel’s (humanity’s) faithlessness. After Israel hears these magnificent promises from God, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery” (Ex 6:9). But God saves them anyway, and eventually they come around. Even after God’s awesome acts, the plagues, which humbled Pharaoh, defeated the Egyptian Gods, and demonstrated God’s lordship over nature, the Israelites were still prone, like all of us, to grumble and doubt.

As Pharaoh’s army approaches, they complain to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Ex 14:11-12). But again, God saves them anyway, responding to their faithless grumbling by miraculously parting the Red Sea.

Having forged ahead into the desert wilderness, the Israelites feel themselves in danger of starvation: they understandably worry that they will run out of food and water, fearing for themselves instead of trusting God. Perhaps a lesson is that even the most stupendous acts by God don’t in themselves affect the human tendency to forget God and lose trust in him. After the Red Sea, in the wilderness, the people ask, “What shall we drink?” and God gives them water (Ex 15:24). Then they start to feel hunger, which warps their memory of their Egyptian bondage. They outrageously and improbably complain to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16:3).

Again, having learned nothing, and terrified without water in the desert, they complain at Rephidim: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3). Each time, God overrules their faithlessness, and provides. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer includes a reminder not to make this fundamental mistake, and to ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” acknowledging the human tendency to forget one day what God has done only yesterday (Matt 6:11, emphasis added). God’s providence lasted exactly as long as necessary, until God brought them safely into the promised land: “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year” (Josh 5:12).

The memory of God’s faithfulness in Egypt would serve to inspire courage and hope, over and over again in later history. At the ceremony of covenant renewal, Joshua reminds the tribes in the name of God what he had done for them (Josh 24:5-7).

In the eighth century, Micah reminded the people of Judah that God “brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Mic 6:4). During the sixth-century Babylonian captivity, The exiles could take courage in the Isaianic prophecy which cast their eventual return to the promised land as a recapitulation of the exodus: “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people… The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing…” (Isa 35:8,10).

Later the same book emphasized the identification of Israel’s God with the formative event: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick” (Isa 43:16-17). Then, at the very beginning of the very first gospel, Mark framed the story of Jesus in these terms of the “way of the Lord” in the wilderness (Mark 1:2-3, quoting Isa 40:3).

3. What it means to be a people in covenant with God

As part of his covenant with the Israelites, God reveals his personal name to Moses. We should not overlook the significance of this self-revelation: “In the ancient world, the giving of one’s name is an act of intimacy that establishes relationship. It is related to vulnerability as well, for to know God’s name is to have access, communication, and relationship by those who name the name” (Birch 106). Indeed, the commandment not to take God’s name in vain only makes sense if we understand that the name is holy (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11).

Even more mysteriously, God’s name can function as a sign of his presence. When Moses asks God to show him God’s glory, God answers: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord'” (Ex 33:19). God’s goodness, his glory, and his name are all somehow aspects of God that Moses is able to be near, although the holiness of God’s unmediated presence would destroy Moses. And when God gives Moses a priestly benediction with which Aaron and his sons can bless the people, God says “they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Num 6:27).

As God makes his promises of redemption to Moses (and through Moses, to Israel), he characterizes Israel’s posture toward God: “You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7).

As noted above in reference to God’s ‘knowing’ the sufferings of Israel, the same word for know (Hebrew yada) suggests relational intimacy: “The Hebrew verb used here (yada‘, to know) indicates something broader than cognitive knowledge. It indicates a participation in and experiencing of that which is known” (Birch 103). For this reason, John Goldingay prefers to translate the word as “acknowledge” in both instances, in order to imply a more intentional, relational action (Goldingay 33).

Part of what God does for Israel in their covenant is to listen to them. Like a lawyer (i.e. advocate or counselor), a therapist (i.e. counselor), or a doctor, God will hear out the complaints that Israel makes. When Israel “cries out,” that word “implies not only pain but complaint (sometimes even in a legal sense)” (Birch 103). Thus, Israel “cries out” (zaaq) to God about their slavery; they make an “outcry” (tseaqah) over their taskmasters and their sufferings, and their oppression; they groan (neaqah, from naaq), and God hears them, like a patient counselor (Ex 2:23; 3:7,9; 6:5).

The covenant community is defined above all by its obedient response to God’s initiative. Although like every human community (and much more so than in our modern Western world), Israel is structured according to kinship, with units of household, extended family and tribe, nevertheless what counts is the heart, not the blood. One hint of this is that, during the flight from Egypt, we read in passing that “a mixed crowd also went up with them,” implying that non-Israelites were welcome to come too if they followed the covenant conditions (Ex 12:38). The link between obedience and salvation is emphasized when we read that, following the climax of the Passover, “All the Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company” (Ex 12:50-51).

After the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God promises them that “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). This time, they accept. When Moses conveys these words of God to them, “the people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’” (Ex 19:8, emphasis added). John Goldingay writes, “God’s description of them here is the origin of the expression ‘a priesthood of all believers’…God has initiated the process whereby the covenant promise is being fulfilled” (Goldingay 75-76).

There is an inherent, intrinsic link between God’s covenant and his commands, between being loved by God and loving other people. This is shown in the instructions for gathering manna, which the people are to receive as members of a community, “an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents… they gathered as much as each of them needed” (Ex 15:17-18). This is the lesson that Paul draws when citing this episode to the Corinthians: “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Cor 8:13-14).

Later, in giving the law to Israel, immediately after ordering the community to set any Hebrew slaves free after six years of service, and to “provide liberally” for them in their new freedom, Moses reminds them: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deut 15:15).

The author of Hebrews insisted that if only his community would “hold our first confidence firm to the end,” they would finally enter the rest promised by God (Heb 3:14). In a series of rhetorical questions, he draws the lesson of a negative example from the generation of Israelites “who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness” (Heb 3:17). It was “they who heard and yet were rebellious… those who sinned… those who were disobedient” were “unable to enter [the promised land] because of unbelief” (Heb 3:16-18). Thus, just as faithfulness was required of the Israelites in covenant with God during the exodus, so too is it required of Christians who hope in “the promise of entering [God’s eternal] rest” (Heb 4:1).

Paul too insisted on the need to stand firm and remain faithful when confronted with whatever contemporary equivalent of desert starvation comes up. The failure of the first generation of exiles to reach the promised land is a cautionary tale:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. (1 Cor 10:1-6)

John Goldingay states that “any given generation of Israel or the church can forfeit its place within God’s purpose.. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you” (Goldingay 69). But the church should be encouraged by God’s faithfulness:

 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor 10:12-13)

Such testing should result in making the people more faithful, as Moses later reminded them:

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut 8:3)

References

  1. “Bondage, Exodus, Wilderness.” Chapter 4 in Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition (Abingdon Press, 2011).
  2. “Exodus.” Chapter 3 in Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition (Zondervan, 2009).
  3. R. W. L. Moberly, “Exodus.” Chapter 2 in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey (Baker Academic, 2008).
  4. John Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
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