Obedience even before much faith—Exodus 4:18-21

God’s signs had put the fear of God in Moses, enough to make him obey. But Moses’s obedience is still half-hearted, and (as will become obvious in the next lesson) incomplete.

After receiving this astonishing commission and these signs from God, Moses returns to his father-in-law and asks permission to go visit his siblings in Egypt (Exod 4:18). Moses owes respect to his father-in-law (e.g., 18:7), and it was respectful not to take leave of one’s family service prematurely (Jethro is a much friendlier in-law to Moses than was Laban the Aramean to Jacob; Gen 31:27-31). Did Jethro by now (vs. Exod 2:19) understand that Moses was an Israelite rather than an Egyptian? It may not have made a difference, but certainly by Exodus 18:1 Jethro knows, so it is not unlikely that he understood this earlier.

While Moses dare not disobey this God who called him, however, he says nothing to Jethro about God’s commission. He is still half-hearted, not knowing what will happen in Egypt. He says he wants to go to see if his relatives are alive (4:18). (His concern as to whether his relatives remain alive may also be legitimate; Moses is about eighty in this narrative, and his brother and sister are even older; 7:7. Many Israelites Moses knew may have by now passed away.)

Possibly a more urgent concern regarding survivors of his generation is whether those who wanted him killed are still alive. Thus, before Moses leaves Midian, the Lord again calls him to return to Egypt, informing him those who had sought his life are now dead (4:19).

Yet the Lord does not make Moses’s calling easier at this point by watering down what Moses will face. In fact, he warns him up front what he is in for. God will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21) and Moses is to warn Pharaoh that God will kill Pharaoh’s son for his disobedience (4:23). One needs little imagination to envision how Pharaoh, who fancied himself divine, would take an ultimatum and threat from the god of his slaves.

What God calls us to do often leads through serious hardships. Our hearts may not even be in his calling at first. That can be true whether we are thinking of God’s calling for all of us to make disciples, or of more specific aspects of our calling. But God has a plan, and one dare not disregard God’s commands—as Moses will soon discover. Confronting Pharaoh may be dangerous, but disobeying God nearly gets Moses killed (4:24).

A commission whether you like it or not—Exodus 4:13-17

As long as Moses is raising logistical problems, God has solutions. But finally Moses is out of objections and simply asks God to get someone else, still more convinced that this is not the job for him than trusting the God who has called him. As Paul later points out, however, if we’re not willing to accept God’s call willingly, as a gift, then we will have to do it anyway, under duress (1 Cor 9:16-17). Life-hardened, old Moses is no young Isaiah, who when touched by God offered, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isa 6:8). Although God has offered to be with him and teach him what to speak (Exod 4:12), Moses responds, “Please, Lord, send just by the agent you will send!” (4:13). In other words, “by someone other than me!”

Honestly, none of us is worthy of God’s service. He doesn’t call us because we’re worthy in ourselves, so we shouldn’t kid ourselves with either pride or despair. We can’t turn down God’s service because we’re unqualified. Referring to the call to proclaim the good news of Christ, Paul asks, “For matters such as this, who indeed is adequate/qualified?” (2 Cor 2:16). He soon answers about his confidence for his calling, “Not that we are adequate/qualified by ourselves so that we should consider anything as coming from ourselves! No, instead our adequacy/qualification is from God, who also has qualified us as ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor 3:5-6). Think, for example, of Gladys Aylward, rejected for service with a major mission to China because her poor academic performance apparently disqualified her from being able to master the Chinese language. Convinced that God was sending her, however, she found a way to China, learned Chinese, and became Chinese, including adopting Chinese citizenship.

Moses’s reluctance had finally crossed the line from reasonable concerns to polite refusal, and God was angry (Exod 4:14). This anger against Moses becomes more evident later when God nearly has to kill him to secure fuller obedience (4:24), apparently because he was more afraid of his wife’s anger than of God’s (4:25-26). Moses’s reluctance will again emerge later when he complains again to the God who called him that Pharaoh will not listen to him because he is such a poor speaker (6:12, 30).

Nevertheless, at this point God simply resolves this final logistical complaint, Moses’s insistence that he should not be the one to speak even if God teaches his lips. The Lord explains that Moses’s brother Aaron, whom God knows to be a good speaker, can speak for him. (God does not make mistakes: he knew exactly who he had called, and knew his family too.) Nor can Moses now try to object that Aaron might not be able to meet with Moses; God had already taken care of that and Aaron was on his way (Exod 4:14)!

Just as God had offered to be with Moses’s mouth and teach him what to say (4:12), so Moses was to provide words in Aaron’s mouth, and God would now be with both their mouths and teach them what to do (4:15). In other words, Moses had gotten out of nothing. His surprise commission still stands, though he now had an assistant, one that God may have already planned ahead for anyway. Moses would give God’s words to Aaron and Aaron would deliver them to the people (4:16).

The reluctant prophet is caught between a rock and a hard place. Confronting Pharaoh is terrifying. But resisting this God who summons Moses is more dangerous still!

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

You’ve got the wrong person, Lord—Exodus 4:10-12

Moses thus raises another objection: even if signs would persuade the people through someone, Moses is not the right one to speak (4:10). Sometimes we may have faith in principle, affirming that God has power to do something, yet deny that God can do that through us. If God should choose to act through us, however, who are we to question his call? Our belief in our inability may be correct, but it dare not take precedence over belief in God’s ability to perform his will—even if he chooses to do so through us.

Moses objects to God’s call that he is not a good speaker; as one who had been near Pharaoh’s court, he knew the sort of eloquence demanded there. Moses is claiming that his ability does not match God’s call (4:10). (He can hardly assume, however, that God simply picked whoever would stop by this bush, rather than set his flare here to call Moses in particular. There were undoubtedly not many Hebrews out here in the wilderness of Sinai. But would a God strong enough to reveal himself in a bush in the Sinai, a desert place in which Egypt’s gods lacked interest, have much power in Egypt?)

Moses’s objection unfortunately and irrationally implies that the Lord has made a mistake, an implication that the Lord immediately yet patiently corrects. God is not dependent on human ability; God is the one who supplied or withheld that ability to begin with (4:11), and he is capable of enabling one to speak, supplying the right words (4:12). (“Heavy tongue” in 4:10 might be idiomatic for speech difficult to understand; the same Hebrew expression appears in Ezek 3:5-6.)

God often calls us to do what we cannot do in our own strength. Later, when Jeremiah (a youth in contrast to Moses’s age) fears that he does not know how to speak (Jer 1:6), the Lord similarly declares that he is with him, that he will give him the right words (1:7-9). Not surprisingly, many of the people God called in the Bible recognized their inadequacy to fulfill their commission; but God is not limited to our ability.

Unable to dissuade God about Moses’s suitability for the task, Moses is about to refuse it anyway (Exod 4:13). And that will prove to be a very big mistake.

God’s scary promises—Exodus 3:18-19

The Lord was now “visiting” or paying attention to his people (3:16; 4:31), as Joseph had foreseen (13:19; Gen 50:24-25). Scripture also had already used this dramatic language earlier for God enabling Sarah to conceive (21:1). God does not act in equally dramatic ways at all times and in all places, but we must give heed. Sometimes when he has not been acting in a given way in our lives we question whether he has done so anywhere (cf. Judg 6:13; 2 Pet 3:4). Also sometimes when he does act dramatically we are unprepared for this new reality (e.g., Exod 14:12).

Moses himself does not seem particularly enthusiastic about this commission. Asking Pharaoh for a three-day break in the wilderness (3:18) must not sound like a very practical solution, especially when the Lord himself says that Pharaoh will not be readily persuaded (3:19). (That Pharaoh would not let them go [3:19] is fair warning that should prepare them for some difficulties before freedom, but it also would not sound very encouraging.)

A three days’ journey (Exod 3:18; 5:3) would not allow the Israelites to escape Pharaoh’s chariots if Pharaoh pursued. Anyone who knew the story of Jacob’s flight from Laban would recognize that three days was not enough (cf. Gen 30:36) when those fleeing had flocks and small children. Therefore even had Pharaoh granted this request, they could not have escaped his chariots. God thus elaborates his further plans.

For Moses, however, these might sound like merely grandiose plans; Moses has lived through disappointments and might be thinking more of his people’s tribal god at this point than of the universe’s omnipotent creator. That God can take a disillusioned and reluctant servant like Moses and make him a trusting friend of God (33:11) can remind us that there is hope for us. No matter how old or set in our ways or past disappointments we are, the Lord can build us into people of faith with a trusting relationship with him. Happily, God is the initiator; we simply need to respond.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Resisting God’s calling—Exodus 4:1-17

When God calls Moses to confront Pharaoh, God not only promises to be with Moses; he also gives Moses a sign to confirm that God is with him. Unfortunately, this first-offered sign will be obvious only once what God has just commanded is fulfilled! The sign is that, after Moses brings the people out of Egypt, they will worship at the very mountain where Moses has met God (3:12). But that won’t happen until AFTER Moses brings them out of Egypt, and Moses’s worry is the logistics that lay before that event.

Sometimes we have to carry out our mission based on the best faith we have. Afterward, though, we can look back and recognize that what God has promised us has been fulfilled. Life is sometimes hard, but the hardships we face for God have their rewards!

Yet Moses’s first objection (“Who am I?” in 3:11) is not the end; he ultimately voices three objections (two more after this first one), each of which God answers. Finally Moses, out of objections, tries to reject the call outright (4:13), at which point God gets angry but appoints someone to help Moses anyway (4:14). God finally has to nearly kill Moses for still resisting (4:24). Others in the Bible, such as Gideon (Judg 6:13-17) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:6), feared their calls; still others, such as Isaiah, recognized their own unworthiness in the face of God’s holiness (Isa 6:5; cf. Luke 5:8). In each case, however, God reminded them that whatever their own inadequacy, God was more than adequate to make up for it (Judg 6:12, 14, 16; Isa 6:6-7; Jer 1:7-10; cf. Luke 5:10; 2 Cor 2:16; 3:5-6). Of those afraid of their calling, Moses—who a generation earlier had tried heroism in his own strength—was perhaps most reluctant of all.

Moses thus objects that he does not have a proper name for this God to give to the Israelites (Exod 3:13); “God” was hardly sufficient, since the Egyptians had lots of those. This is the only true God, the only God worthy of the title, but he answers Moses anyway. This God with no image worthy of him also has no normal name worthy of him, but he is the self-existent one, “I am who I am” (3:14). YHWH, the God of the patriarchs whom they remembered in their stories, was now active among them again (3:15).

If this revelation was difficult for Moses, who was experiencing it, it was surely going to be much more difficult for Moses’s people to accept (4:1). We hear about God’s works in the past and often say we believe them, but many of us are far less ready to expect God’s work among us today. After all, if God really cares about his people, where has he been in all the times of suffering beforehand? God doesn’t always give us an answer about the past, but that doesn’t make his present revelation or demands on our faith any less compelling.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Faith and God’s calling—Exodus 3:7-14

God’s promises are good, but sometimes these promises are difficult because they demand that we obey God in faith. Faith can be like a sense that recognizes God’s faithfulness; yet, like a muscle, faith typically also requires some exercise to grow stronger.

The Lord promises that he will come down to bring Israel up into a good land large enough to hold them, a land providing milk and honey (3:8). But God also notes explicitly what they can expect there: the land currently belongs to somebody else, namely Canaanites and other peoples (3:8). That is, what lies ahead will be wonderful, but it will not be easy. Even when God has something good for us, sometimes he requires us to do something. He guarantees our success, but we still have to step out and take his gift by faith.

The first act of obedient faith here, however, must be Moses’s. God is going to send Moses to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (3:9). Moses, who has already failed abjectly as a deliverer once, rescuing at most a single Israelite (2:11-12), has different ideas. Who is he to stand up against the might of Pharaoh? Who is he even to go to Pharaoh, given that a recent Pharaoh wanted Moses dead (2:15; 4:19). But as Moses is soon to learn, defying the living God is far more serious and dangerous than defying Pharaoh. And God has more faith, or confidence, in what God will do through Moses than Moses does.

“Who am I,” a frightened Moses demands, “that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (3:11). Moses is asking, in effect, Who am I to do the very matters you have just commanded me? God does not answer Moses’s rhetorical protest regarding who Moses is, because that is irrelevant; what matters is that God will be with him (3:12). Moses asks, “Who am I?” (3:11), but God’s ultimate answer is “I am who I am” (3:14).

Someone once introduced Hudson Taylor, nineteenth-century founder of an effective ministry to China, as a very great man. When Hudson got up to speak, he countered that he was a very small man with a very great God. He understood the ministry principle that is also revealed in this passage.

God rarely calls us to do what we’re able to do in our own strength; we don’t need a calling for that. God instead often challenges us to go beyond our own resources. Doing that without God’s bidding can be presumption (cf. 2 Sam 2:18-23); indeed, even with his permission we sometimes have less faith than we think on our own initiative (cf. Matt 14:28-31). But when God truly summons us to faith, he is not asking us to imagine ourselves adequate for the task. Supposing that would be missing the point entirely. The point of Godward faith is not that we are adequate in ourselves. It is that God is more than adequate. He is truly worthy of our trust.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)