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The Birth of Moses and His CallingThe book of Exodus picks up where Genesis leaves off, with only a brief summary of the events that have occurred since the previous book. And I mean brief. Essentially, we read that a new king arises in Egypt, one “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). While other places in the Bible will tell us how much time had passed between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, our hypothetical time traveler would not have known just from the text that over 400 years had passed.
We do not know the identity of the Pharaoh referred to in Exodus. Some have speculated that it is Ramses II, and due to movies like The Ten Commandments this is the most popular view in culture. However, this doesn’t fit into the chronology of the events in the book of Exodus and there is no archeological evidence that would show the kind of impact the Exodus had on Egypt had occurred during Ramses II’s reign. Consequently, many ancient scholars speculate that the Pharaoh here is really Ahmose I. But ultimately, we do not have enough information to be sure.
Whoever he was, this new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph is fearful of the multitude of Israelites now in the land—the vast numbers of people indicating that God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob about innumerable descendents is coming to pass. Pharaoh decides to enslave the Israelites. The plan did not work, for we read: “But the more [the Israelites] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12). In the face of this threat of a large non-Egyptian population, Pharaoh decides to kill off all the Hebrew newborn males, but will leave the daughters so the Egyptians can marry them later.
In the midst of this policy, Exodus 2 tells us that a Levite man took a Levite woman as his wife, and they gave birth to a son. After three months, they could hide him no longer, so the woman made a waterproof basket and set her baby into it while his sister watched over the basket to ensure its safety while it floated in the Nile River. The Pharaoh’s daughter, however, bathed in the Nile and discovered the baby. Realizing it was a Hebrew baby, she took pity and rescued the child, raising him in the Pharaoh’s household, and giving the boy the name Moses.
Although being raised in Pharaoh’s court, it is clear that Moses knew he was a Hebrew, for we read the following encounter:
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian (Exodus 2:11-15).Even if the text had not said Moses knew the Hebrew was “one of his people”, the fact that Moses would risk being expelled from Pharaoh’s court over the fate of a Hebrew slave indicates that he was fully aware of his birthright. This also begins his ministry of intercession on behalf of the Hebrews, although at first glance it does seem like a disaster as he is chased out of Egypt.
Moses ends up in Midian, which as I mentioned earlier is the same general area where Job had lived. In fact, during this time it is very likely that Moses found the book of Job, recognized its value, and published it among his people, using the skills he had learned in Pharaoh’s court. Of less speculative note, Exodus 2 informs us that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian called Reuel, and had a son named Gershom. Furthermore, we read the following at the end of the chapter:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.In a way similar to when God remembered Rachel and opened her womb to have children, God remembers Israel now. Thus, we understand it not to mean that God has forgotten what was going on, but rather that the fullness of time has come to pass, and therefore God is ready to enact the next aspect of His plan.
When we get to the next chapter, it starts with a bit of confusion. We read: “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian…” (Exodus 3:1), but we have just seen that the priest of Midian was called Reuel in chapter 2. There are a couple of ways that this can be harmonized without contradiction. First, the Hebrew concept of “father” did not just include the immediate father of a person, but also any of the males back up the line, in the same manner by which we use the term “forefathers” today. Because the Bible almost exclusively calls Moses’s father-in-law by the name Jethro, then if this is the case, it is most likely that Reuel was the grandfather of Zipporah (Zipporah being the daughter of Jethro). Both Jethro and Reuel could have been priests of Midian at the same time.
Another explanation for this would be that it’s possible that Jethro had two names, similar to how Jacob and Israel were the same person. Reuel is similar to the Hebrew word meaning “friend of God”, while Jethro means “his excellence”. Because of this, some have speculated that Jethro is actually the title the man Reuel took as the priest of Midian, similar to the way our presidents can be referred to as Mr. President instead of their proper name.
Either way, it does not seem likely that the writer of Exodus would have mistaken an individual in the space of eight verses, so this does not seem a likely candidate for a legitimate contradiction (sorry, atheists). With that potential confusion out of the way, let us examine the calling of Moses fully:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6).Here we see first that it is the “angel of the LORD” who appears in a flame, which should remind us of the visitation of the “angel of the LORD” with Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We know that that angel of the LORD was really a theophony—God in the flesh. And that is also confirmed here when He identifies Himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
We can ask why God identified Himself as the God of those three individuals—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The question does seem to provoke interesting thoughts. God was worshiped by Noah as well, and as we just read He was also with Joseph the entire time Joseph was in Egypt. Why, then, does God call Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Why not the God of Joseph or Noah?
The one thing that each of the three men had in common in Genesis was that God had made and confirmed the covenant with them. The first time was with Abraham, of course, in Genesis 15 and 17. But if you recall, God reaffirmed that covenant with Isaac in Genesis 26 and with Jacob in Genesis 28. Each time, God says He will make the people too innumerable to count. God does not say this with any other patriarch in Genesis, not even Joseph.
So when God calls Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it appears to be referencing the fact that He is the God who has made promises through the covenant.
The covenantal nature of this title seems to be confirmed by the next thing God says:
Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:7-10).God here acknowledges that He has seen the suffering of His people, but of importance to us is that He is going to bring them back to the very same land He promised Abraham in the first covenant. Although God had told Jacob it was okay to go to Egypt, Egypt was never intended to be the place for the Hebrews to stay and live. So God here tells Moses that it is His intention to deliver Israel and return that people to the land of Canaan, and that in doing so, Moses will be the one who will bring the people out.
But Egypt was a mighty kingdom, so Moses was understandably afraid at this point:
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:11-12).It is of some interest that Moses asked “Who am I” even before he asked who God was. This could be because Moses was facing a steep challenge, indeed. He had fled from Egypt years before, a criminal. And while that Pharaoh had died, he would still be a persona non grata in Egypt. How could he, a mere shepherd in Midian with a criminal record, be able to stand up to the might of the Egyptian empire?
“But I will be with you.” With those words, God answers Moses not by telling him who Moses is, but by affirming that Moses is not the one who is going to be doing this task. God will be doing it through Moses.
Despite this, Moses still has qualms:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).This request seems a little odd. After all, God had already identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Perhaps one could argue that those are descriptions of who God is not names for who God is. This request should also make us remember that when God wrestled with Jacob, Jacob asked for His name at that point and God refused to give it. We might, therefore, expect the same result with Moses. Instead, we read:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).This name of God, I AM, is the word we have down as Yahweh or Jehovah. Yahweh and Jehovah are neither actually the name of God, because in order to keep from blaspheming the Holy Name, the ancient Hebrews used the consonants making up God’s name—YHWH—and added the vowels from the word adonai, meaning “lord”. (You may still wonder how we got both Yahweh and Jehovah from that. Just note that if you pronounce Jehovah the way a German would, it comes very close to Yahweh in English.)
Of more import is what the name means. As translated here, we can see that the name is derived from the Hebrew word “to be”, which deals with existence. Something is when it exists. But when we seek to define something, we usually define it in terms of what it can be compared to. For example, we can define a ball as something that is round, or that is made of a certain material (like rubber or plastic), etc. But when God says who He is He can compare Himself to nothing other than Himself. Thus, God is not definable by comparing Himself to other things. He can only be compared to Himself.
One other amazing aspect of this is that we can formalize God’s name in logic. That is, we can use a symbolic notation to examine His name. We can use the variable A to contain the value of “I AM”, and we can use the correct verbal form of “to be” to indicate the relationship: A is A. This is equivalent in form to saying “I AM is I AM” or, more strictly matching the Bible, “I AM WHO I AM.” But the reason that I mention this is because the short-hand “A is A” actually establishes the first law of logic: the law of identity. Whatever something is, is what that something is. From the basis of this law, we can then immediately form the law of non-contradiction: whatever something is not, is not what something is. In other words, when God says “I AM WHO I AM” He is also giving us the first rules for logic, and at a time well before the Greek philosophers discovered it.
God finishes speaking through the end of the chapter thus:
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:15-22).There is quite a bit to unpack in this remaining paragraph. Of first note, we should remind ourselves that when English translations use the word LORD in all caps (or small-caps), this is an English rendering of the Hebrew word YHWH. So in verse 15, God links His newly reveled name with the fact that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, lest there be any confusion about His identity.
God then tells Moses that when he speaks to the Israelites in the way God proscribed, “they will listen to your voice” (verse 18). In contrast to that, God also says in verse 19: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.”
This must give us a little bit of pause. What God is claiming is not just information about the future, which we have seen Him do before. This, however, is more commonly described as counterfactual information. That is, this is hypothetical information. It takes the form of, “If some event were to happen, then this would be the result.” For example, we can say, “If Hitler had not been born, World War II would never have happened.” Now, that statement is not necessarily true—we have no way of testing what would have happened if Hitler had not been born, because in the only world that exists (our world), Hitler had been born and World War II did happen. For all we know, if Hitler had not been born, someone else would have started World War II anyway.
But when God says, “The king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand”, God is saying “If I do not compel the king of Egypt, he will not let you go.” Thus, God is claiming certain knowledge, not just over what will happen, but also over what may have happened or what would have happened otherwise. So God knows not just what will happen, but all possibilities of what could happen, which makes Him far superior to any mere oracle.
Because God knows that barring His action, the Hebrews will not be freed, He promises: “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt” (verse 20). He also promises that when the Israelites leave the country, they will plunder the Egyptians—in essence, taking payment for the years of slavery.
At this point, our Bibles have an unfortunate chapter break, because the conversation is still going on between God and Moses, for after this promise Moses responds in fear:
Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’” (Exodus 4:1).Even though God had promised that they would listen to him, Moses doubts that possibility. From our perspective, it’s a reasonable doubt. After all, many crazy people these days show up claiming to have a word from God, and the ancient people were not as gullible as many believe them to have been. The default mode would have been one of skepticism. But since God had promised that they would listen to Moses, the doubt Moses displays is actually more serious. He is, in essence, calling God a liar by asserting that they will not listen even though God has said they will.
God responds mercifully, however:
The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand—“that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, 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” (Exodus 4:2-9).He provides not just one, but three signs that Moses can do to prove it was God who had spoken to him. It is probably no accident that two of these signs are related to the gods that the Egyptians worshiped (the snake and the Nile), although in their polytheistic culture it might perhaps be even more difficult to find something they did not worship! Since God had determined to bring down Egypt, He was going to destroy their gods in the process to prove His supremacy.
Even despite these signs, Moses still balks:
But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:10-12).Here we see an answer similar to how God spoke with Job. Moses complains that he cannot do what God is asking of him, and God asks, “Who created you?” God knows full well what people can do. God made them! We also see that God says He makes certain people mute, deaf, and blind. Contrary to what some people think, those debilitations are not sinful, and God has specific reasons for having some people born with such handicaps.
Even with all that, however, Moses remains fearful:
But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. 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 both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs” (Exodus 4:13-17).It is interesting to note that even in His anger toward this disbelief of Moses, God is merciful. Instead of forcing Moses to do the job anyway, God points to Moses’s brother Aaron. Aaron becomes the substitute for Moses.
But even this substitute serves a higher picture for us. Moses becomes an analogy of God to Aaron. Just as God tells Moses what to say, Moses will tell Aaron what to say. In the midst of Moses’s timidity, we are blessed to find a picture of how God inspires Scripture.
So Moses collects his family and returns to Egypt. On the way, God tells him:
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:21-23).As we read this passage, it’s important to note the structure:
1) God orders Moses to do all the miracles God has put into Moses’s power.
2) God says He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so the miracles will do no good.
3) God says Moses ought to threaten Pharaoh’s firstborn son because Pharaoh doesn’t listen to the miracles.
Isn’t that a little peculiar though? God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let His people go, and then using the fact that Pharaoh will not let His people go to have Moses deliver God’s threat toward Pharaoh’s firstborn son. It’s almost like God has determined to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son, and is now working to ensure that Pharaoh’s heart stays hardened so that it must come to pass that way....