God reaffirms his promise—Exodus 6:1-8

Moses complains that the Lord has not kept his promise (5:22-23; note last week’s post); the Lord responds that now Moses will see what the Lord will do to Pharaoh, forcing him to drive God’s people out of Egypt (6:1)! If Moses is already doubting God’s promise, this renewed promise may not sound very encouraging. (Promises! Promises! And now the promise that the Egyptians wouldn’t even want them there anymore.)

But the Lord reaffirms his promise to bring his people out of Egypt not only in 6:1 but also in 6:6-8. In the intervening verses, God explains why Moses can trust this promise. The Lord had not tricked Moses and the people, promising something and then hiding, as it appeared to Moses (5:22-23). He was the God of their ancestors, who appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob just as he had appeared to Moses (6:3). He had covenanted with those ancestors to give Canaan to their descendants (6:4), so he could be trusted to fulfill that promise now (6:8). The Lord had already spoken much about being the God of the patriarchs (3:6, 15-16; 4:5). But although Exodus already tells us that God had remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (2:24), this is the first time that the text tells us that Moses heard that essential detail.

Moreover, the Lord was doing something even greater now than he did in the time of their ancestors. He had revealed himself to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, but only now was he revealing himself by his personal name YHWH (6:3). Theologians are right when they point out that God’s self-revelation in Scripture is progressive. Some might want to complain about new revelation with the coming of Jesus and what we call the New Testament, but new revelations happened periodically through the history of God revealing himself to his people.

More problematic is what precisely this passage means by the Lord not revealing himself by this name to the patriarchs. After all, the Lord does use this name for himself earlier; particularly noteworthy, compare Gen 15:7, where God says to Abram, “I am YHWH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it,” just as now God would bring them out of Egypt to possess the promised land (Exod 6:6-7). Likewise, compare Gen 28:13, where the Lord declares to Jacob, “I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac,” and again promises the land to his people. (Certainly the phrase, “I am YHWH,” does recur much more frequently after this point; see Exod 6:6, 7, 8, 29; 7:5, 17; 10:2; 12:12; 14:4, 18; 16:12; 20:2; 29:46; 31:13; and still more frequently in Leviticus, in 11:44-45 and regularly in 18—26.)

Scholars thus have long debated what Exodus 6 means by YHWH not using this name for himself with the patriarchs. From a narrative perspective (that is, understanding the narrative in its final form), at least two options in particular commend themselves. One is that the stories in Genesis where YHWH identifies himself by this name were updated in light of this new revelation; after all, almost no one argues that the stories were written down before Moses’s day. They use the language of the fuller revelation available to them, the way Christian preachers today might speak of Jesus in the Old Testament.

Another option is that in Moses’s day YHWH is now revealing what it means for him to be YHWH: as “I am” (ehyeh; Exod 3:14), YHWH is eternal, and so does, in his time, fulfill his promises made generations earlier.

Not only had YHWH made a promise to their ancestors, but now was the time that he was revisiting that covenant. He was acting not only because of his covenant with their ancestors, but because he had heard his people’s groaning (6:5). The Lord acts both because of his covenant faithfulness and because he is compassionate and gracious, moved by the needs of his people and their cries. Thus he is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and full of covenant love (chesed) and covenant faithfulness (emeth, 34:6).

The Lord had already told Moses that he had heard his people’s suffering (3:7), but in 6:5 he reiterates this point. Often (thankfully for us), God encourages us with reminders of his faithfulness, even before we get to see the fulfillment of all his promises. (Those of us who get discouraged can hear his reaffirmations as often as we choose, provided we have Bibles and hear its message in context.) The ultimate consummation of his promises await Jesus’s return, but we have enough testimony from the past, and often signs in the present, to keep us going.

Crisis of young faith—Exodus 5:22-23

Moses had anticipated that his people might not believe him (Exod 4:1), so God had provided signs so they would believe him (4:5, 8-9). Yet now, even despite the signs, they certainly were not believing him. Moses had not wanted this mission anyway, and had obeyed only under this God’s duress (4:14-17, 24-26). Now he felt like God had let them all down.

Moses had been there only a little while, but now he complains that things had not gotten any better since he had been there (5:23). He observes that Pharaoh was mistreating God’s people—as if this were a new situation! Sometimes we get discouraged because God does not act on our schedule or because of suffering along the way.

Happily, God does not need to depend on our faith, contrary to what some well-meaning teachers today appear to insist. While God does respond to our cries to him (2:24) and especially to our dependent faith in him, there are also settings in which God initiates and calls and in these cases we may learn faith along the way. (The faith of Abraham in God’s promise seems to have been enough for God to fulfill this promise centuries later.) God will show himself faithful in fulfilling his plan—although not always our imagined version of it.

When Caesar demands what is God’s—Exodus 5:14-21

Pharaoh requires the slaves to meet their daily quota of brick-making although he is no longer supplying some of the raw materials they need to make the bricks. He deliberately sets them up to fail, so he can pretend that their failure is their own fault. When they fail, their overseers get beaten.

In response to the overseers’ reasonable protest, Pharaoh mocks the Israelites’ request (not made by the overseers themselves) to go sacrifice to the Lord (5:17). Clearly the authority of the Lord and the authority of Pharaoh are on collision course; Pharaoh’s service is now conflicting with serving the Lord. Indeed, as a jealous God the Lord allows them to serve no other gods (20:5)—including Pharaoh, who thought he was one. Although Pharaoh did not likely demand that Israelites serve Egyptian gods, his demand for their service was now conflicting with the demand of YHWH.

And between the Lord and Pharaoh, these Israelite overseers are currently caught in the middle. Moses had promised liberation; instead, in the short run, they are beaten. When the abused overseers left Pharaoh they confronted Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them (5:20)—and laid into them (5:21). Moses and Aaron seemed like false prophets with false promises, who had simply made matters worse with Pharaoh, who reigned over them. They blamed not God but Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord judge you” (5:21; cf. Gen 16:5; Judg 11:27; 1 Sam 24:12). “You made us stink to Pharaoh and his servants,” they protested. The term for “stink” usually refers to the aroma of a sacrifice pleasant to God, but here it is a bad smell. Moses’s words had given Pharaoh an excuse to harm them worse, though they were probably too useful to Pharaoh for him to literally “kill” them as they insisted.

Sometimes we give up too quickly on God’s promises or God’s call, the vision he has given us to serve him. Conflict usually precedes victory, and suffering precedes triumph. Rarely do God’s victories come to us cheaply, and what does come cheaply is usually quickly forgotten (cf. Deut 6:10-12; 32:15). Suffering does not mean that God is not faithful; in fact, his path usually leads through hardship at the beginning. God has promised us the world to come, but in the present we still share in that promised world’s birth pangs.

Whom will we serve?—Exodus 5:10-14

After Moses demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery, Pharaoh cracks down with even harsher servitude. Now the Israelite state slaves must gather their own straw to make the bricks. Their taskmasters (the Hebrew texts literally calls them oppressors, or those pressing them to labor) still demand the daily quota.

To subsequent Israelites, who heard this story over and over, the slaves’ daily quota may provide a fitting contrast to what comes after Israel’s deliverance from slavery. When God freed Israel from slavery, they discovered a very different sort of master, a father who cared for them (Exod 4:22). The idiom for their “daily quota” in making bricks could be translated more woodenly, the “matter of a day in its day” (5:13, 19). The next time the same idiom is used, its other use in Exodus, is when God provides the people’s daily needs by manna (16:4). (Elsewhere, the idiom can apply to daily sacrifices in Lev 23:37, 2 Chron 8:13 and Ezra 3:4 daily worship regulations in 1 Chron 16:37, 2 Chron 8:14 and Neh 11:23; and daily provision in Dan 1:5.) The slave-drivers exploit God’s people for labor; God, who delivered his people from slavery, gave them food for which they did not need to labor. The contrast highlights the folly of the Israelites in the wilderness complaining about God’s provision (and in Num 11:5-6 even preferring their food in Egypt!)

When the Israelite slaves cannot meet their quota, the Egyptian slavedrivers beat the Israelite overseers whom they appointed to oversee the other Israelite workers. The beaten overseers protest to Pharaoh, calling themselves Pharaoh’s “servants” (5:15-16). Such a self-designation is a mandatory sign of respect given their situation with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh uses the cognate verb to order them to go “work,” or act as servants, in 5:18. Nevertheless, one should note that God is calling his people to come aside and “serve” or “worship” him (the cognate verb in 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 26). When danger arises and the people forget God’s power, they remain ready to serve Pharaoh’s purposes (14:12).

The God who freed his people from tyranny and fed them in the wilderness is the one master who will look out for us better than we can look out for ourselves. Everybody serves someone or something. The question that leaves us is: whom shall we serve?

Punished for Hope in God—Exodus 5:4-9

Pharaoh insults God (Exod 5:2) and orders his slaves to just get back to work (5:4-5). He treats their request for a religious festival as nothing but an excuse to get off work. Even though most people in antiquity allowed for the existence of other people’s gods, Pharaoh assumes that the Hebrews’ god must be very weak, since powerful Egypt, with its powerful gods, has enslaved the Hebrews.

Moses and Aaron do not yet offer signs—perhaps they were ushered from Pharaoh’s presence before they could do so (or perhaps we just do not receive enough details to understand that the instructions are for later; cf. 7:20, “as the Lord commanded”). But Pharaoh in any case offers a response much more massive than signs such as turning a rod into a snake or making one’s hand look leprous. He punishes all the Israelites because they have put forward leaders asking for a holiday. Egypt had festivals for its gods, but Israel could have none for theirs. It seems highly unlikely that Pharaoh was giving them their weekly sabbath either. Pharaoh acts with a firm hand to quell any thought of asking for concessions.

After all, “the people of the land are many” (5:5), a problem that generated their enslavement to begin with (1:9-11). Their being “many” also meant that asking for a holiday would interrupt the productivity of a great work force. To teach them not to look for time off, Pharaoh shows them that even requesting such concessions will only result in further punishment, a heavier yoke. Now they had to gather their own straw for the bricks without reducing their brick quota. Although Pharaoh was not doing the work himself, he was ready to demand a humanly impossible output from those he oppressed.

Pharaoh complains that the Israelites are “crying out” to him for relief (5:8); soon they will instead “cry out” to him because of the very order he now gives (5:15). (Ironically, when Egyptians cried to an earlier Pharaoh, he sent them to Joseph for relief, Gen 41:55.) Yet it is the Lord who has truly heard his people’s “cries” (Exod 3:7, 9), because he hears the cries of the oppressed (22:23, 27; cf. Gen 4:10). Likewise, it is to the Lord that Moses will continue to cry (Exod 8:12; 15:25).

And because the Lord hears the oppressed, soon there will be a “cry” of agony in Egypt as the roles of suffering are reversed (11:6; 12:30).

So Pharaoh increases their “work” (Exod 5:9; already harsh in 1:14; 2:23), undoubtedly assuming that he is ensuring that they will not ask for relief again. Pharaoh undoubtedly congratulates himself on making his point to the slaves, and probably is congratulated with hearty laughter from his courtiers.

The slave-drivers employ a formula not unusual for decrees: “Thus says [the king],” in this case, “Thus says Pharaoh” (5:10). This formula highlights, however, the extent to which Pharaoh is defying and challenging the authority of YHWH, for it evokes YHWH’s own command in 5:1. When Moses and Aaron had come to Pharaoh, they had declared, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go …’” (cf. also 4:22).

To the Israelites themselves, it must appear as if the flesh-and-blood Pharaoh holds the real power that their invisible God does not. But the Lord will soon surprise everybody with his works for which no one yet had much faith. His chosen time to act had come.

When People Belittle God—Exodus 5:1-5

Presumably presented by the elders as representatives of Israel or Israel’s God, Moses and Aaron obtain entrance before Pharaoh (cf. 5:15). The Israelites were a significant work force, and their leaders, even if not favored, would be able to bring petitions before Pharaoh on behalf of the people. Moses and Aaron deliver the word of the Lord, but it is no minor request (5:1). They ask only for a festival in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as far as Pharaoh is concerned, this could be a pretext for escape or (cf. 1:10) even revolt. Though Pharaoh could quickly overtake them and quash any rebellion, he has the complete upper hand and lacks reason to cooperate to begin with.

So Pharaoh responds with disdain (5:2). Had Pharaoh heard that Israel had a god? Probably. Did he know that this God’s name was YHWH? Probably not. But the issue here is not so much this God’s name as his power. Pharaoh believes that he has many gods, powerful gods that made Egypt a mighty empire, and Israel’s God had not protected them from slavery. “Who is …?” and “I do not know …” were both sometimes ways of denigrating someone, treating them as unworthy of respect or knowledge (cf. 1 Sam 25:11; Matt 7:23; 25:12; Luke 13:25, 27).

Moses and Aaron elaborate: if they disobey the command of their God who appeared to them, God might be angry with them and punish them with plague (davar) or sword (charev). Perhaps they are too timid at this point to speak of judgment against Pharaoh, but surely he could recognize that judgment on the slaves would hurt Egypt’s economy. Egyptians offered massive sacrifices in official temples; they would understand that people had to supply what their gods demanded. Yet Pharaoh is unwilling to negotiate with slaves or even with the gods of slaves; he acts as if Israel’s God is nothing, and so begins his open defiance of Israel’s God.

Moses and Aaron are surely disappointed by Pharaoh’s response—even though it is exactly the response that God already warned about. Should we be surprised that only some of those who witnessed Lazarus raised from the dead in John 11 believed? Should we be surprised if some people reject God’s signs today and the most logical arguments for him? I have often struggled with self-doubt when anyone is not persuaded by my arguments (that’s why in my more academic books I work hard to make a strong case).

But over the years I have learned that just because someone isn’t persuaded doesn’t mean that it’s a bad argument. (If that were the case, almost all arguments would be bad, because very rarely is there an argument, at least in the humanities, that persuades everyone!) And just because someone isn’t convinced by something God does—whether in creation or in special divine acts today—doesn’t mean that God has not given them enough evidence to hold them responsible for their choices. The Bible speaks of moral blindness. Pharaoh’s theology keeps him blind; he cannot submit to Israel’s God and yet regard his own gods—and himself as a god—as more powerful than Israel’s God.

In the end, Pharaoh will be proved wrong. But in the meantime, will God’s people, oppressed and abused by Pharaoh, keep the faith? Likewise, when the arrogant browbeat God’s children today, we should continue to trust God, who will in due time vindicate his name as he has done repeatedly through history.

Excitement versus Tested Faith—Exodus 4:30-21

Moses and Aaron gathered the elders of the people, who would have at least heard of Moses, the Hebrew who had been adopted by an Egyptian but ultimately sided with the Hebrews. The elders presumably then gathered the people (4:29-30).

When the people heard the long-for message of liberation and saw the signs, they believed (4:30-31), so grateful to discover that YHWH had seen their suffering and had determined to act (4:31). But this is what many interpreters of John’s Gospel call preliminary “signs-faith.” Certainly they believe now; but when hardship increases and their faith is tested, they will complain against Moses and Aaron for misleading them (5:20-21). And Moses—also not yet a model of great faith—will ask YWHW why he had misled Moses (5:22-23).

It’s often easy to trust God and his plan when initial signs kindle our hopes. But hardship often crushes such hope, and our elementary faith is revealed for what it really is. Sometimes when we are tested we tend to yearn for our pre-tested level of faith. But it is faith that has endured testing that is truly mature faith. Testing offers us opportunities to mature in our relationship with God, uncomfortable as the growing pains are. Sometimes just clinging to God for dear life in the midst of testing is a greater demonstration of faith than our apparent faith when everything is going well!

Aaron’s obedience and God’s call—Exodus 4:27-28

Quite in contrast to Moses’s reticence to return to Egypt, the narrative in 4:27 appears to assume (or at least does not qualify) Aaron’s ready obedience to God’s command. Instead of explaining his divine commission and risking shame if it fails, Moses has told Jethro that he will go to Egypt to see if any of his brothers remained alive (4:18). Here God undermines that excuse, sending Moses’s brother to meet him while Moses is still in the wilderness at the mountain of God. God is well able to communicate with us even very specific information when we need that.

When did Aaron meet Moses at the mountain (4:27)? Perhaps it was before Moses started on the journey (4:18, 24) and surely before he returned to Egypt (4:20). Exodus 4:24, however, suggests that they met after the journey has begun (Aaron does not appear in that account); perhaps Moses and his family had started their journey from the side of Mount Horeb further from Egypt, the mountain lying between Egypt and where Jethro’s tents were currently located. Aaron’s sending was already announced in 4:14, but the meeting is finally mentioned here in 4:27 to prepare for the ministry of Moses and Aaron together in 4:28—5:1. (The awkward chronology of this section might reflect the stitching together of separate sources or stories, but, with many narrative critics, I am suspicious of our ability to reconstruct these very securely.)

Moses recounted to Aaron what the Lord had shown him (4:28). Even when we hear from God, he usually reveals to us only part of the message; God sent Aaron, but Aaron still needed to hear from Moses the details of God’s revelation to Moses. Again we see God’s right to choose as he sees fit. Aaron seems more obedient than Moses here, so why is Moses the main agent? Yet God knows what he will make of Moses, as well as knowing Aaron’s future weakness under distress (32:1-5). We are wise not to despise or be jealous of others’ gifts or callings; we should each do our best with the particular mission God has entrusted to us. (Compare similarly John 21:19-22, climaxing the apparent friendly rivalry between a young Peter and beloved disciple.)

The bloody foreskin—Exodus 4:24-26

In Exod 4:23, God warns that he will kill Pharaoh’s son because Pharaoh has refused to release God’s son, namely his people (4:22). Why then does the text move directly from this threat to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn (4:23) to the Lord seeking to kill Moses (4:24)? And what does the Lord’s plan to kill Moses have to do with Moses’s own son (4:25)?

Stubborn Moses’s encounter with the Lord here contrasts starkly with the Lord’s benevolent appearance to faithful Abraham in Gen 18. Likewise, Jacob struggled at night with the angel of the Lord and came out with a limp, but he at least persevered until he got a blessing. Moses’s confrontation with God here nearly precipitates his death. This account in Exod 4 is so concise that its meaning seems ambiguous, perhaps clearer to earlier hearers who had heard fuller versions of the story. But the connections between Pharaoh’s son and Moses’s son may suggest a meaning.

Apparently Moses’s offense is not circumcising his firstborn son (4:25); such circumcision would mark Moses’s son as a member of the covenant people that are God’s own son (4:22). God would slay Egypt’s firstborn to redeem God’s own firstborn (4:23), but Moses has not surrendered his own son to God. Moreover, Moses’s resistance is apparently because of his wife’s refusal to allow the circumcision (although she surrenders, she seems quite unhappy about the Lord’s demand in 4:25). (Even in Egypt, Israelites practiced circumcision, as Josh 5:5 testifies; Egyptians also used flint knives when they circumcised, although for them it was not a sign of the covenant. Although Gen 25:2 lists Midian as a child of Moses and Moses presumably circumcised all his children [17:12-13, 26-27], Midianites, or at least Zipporah, did not want to follow the practice.)

If Zipporah has been the one resisting circumcision, why is Moses the one to face punishment? Moses is the Israelite and the one to whom the Lord has spoken, so he is responsible to act on God’s will; the Lord is going to punish him, not his wife, if he refuses to obey. So Zipporah has to sacrifice her son’s foreskin to save Moses’s life. We don’t know the son’s age at this point, but it is not clear that he is merely a baby. He may well have been old enough to voice his own concerns. Of course, even a baby can communicate his displeasure with pain vocally even if he cannot do so verbally.

Zipporah touches the bloody foreskin to Moses’s feet, by this blood from her firstborn apparently atoning for Moses. This act may resemble the way that God later accepted the Passover lamb’s blood in the place of the death of Israel’s firstborn when God struck the firstborn of Egypt. (God later required Israel to redeem every human firstborn with the firstborn of a donkey or a lamb; Exod 13:13; 34:20.) Why she touches Moses’s feet is hard for us to understand at this remove. Perhaps it was because feet were considered one of the dirtier and more disgusting parts of the body; or because they were traveling (though it is not clear that YHWH’s attack on Moses involved this); or as a sign of submission (given the association of the soles of feet with conquest; also cf. 1 Sam 25:41); or an accusation of violence (1 Kgs 2:5); or, perhaps likelier, because of an association with marital duties (cf. Deut 25:9; Ruth 3:4, 7-8) connected with her complaint about him being a “bridegroom involving blood.”

God would defend God’s son by killing Pharaoh’s son. Moses needed to circumcise his own son, identifying fully with God’s covenant, or God could kill him as God could kill Pharaoh’s son. Whatever else this may mean, it offers us a warning. The servant of God with a mission remains responsible to obey God’s covenant at home as well as in public.

God’s son versus Pharaoh’s son—Exodus 4:22-23

The Lord continues to reaffirm his commission to Moses to perform the wonders God had commanded, but also warns that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21). The Lord also gives Moses a difficult message to give to Pharaoh when he refuses to release Israel. Israel is like a firstborn son, precious and special to God (4:22). YHWH says to Pharaoh: I told you to send away my son that he might serve me (4:23a). Pharaoh had been making Israel serve Pharaoh (1:13-14; 6:5), and planned to continue to do so (5:18). Now, however, YHWH demanded that Pharaoh let them serve YHWH (7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 26). The LORD alone is God, and his people must serve and worship him alone (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9; 6:13).

In some ancient Near Eastern legal customs, whatever one did to another’s child could be done to one’s own child; but certainly one dare not do harm to anyone precious to a powerful deity. Because Pharaoh (whose predecessor had drowned Israel’s babies) refused to release God’s firstborn, God would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn (4:23). In God’s mercy, he provided various warning plagues first; but the final plague, the one that would break Pharaoh’s resolve enough to let the Israelites leave the land, would be the death of the firstborn, both Pharaoh’s and his people’s (11:5; 12:29).

The Bible is very realistic: in this world, people do wicked things to other people. But those who do such things had better watch out. And especially when they do it to God’s own children, to those special to God because of their special trust in him, they had really better watch out. God does things different ways every time, so this is no prediction that God will always slay the sons of Pharaohs. It does remind us, however, that justice will ultimately come about (cf. also Rev 18:20-24).