Striking the striker—Exodus 3:20

God enacts justice, though mercifully tempered by his restraint. God had not punished the oppressors’ injustice immediately, but now his impatience was coming to an end. Harsh taskmasters struck God’s people (Exod 2:11; 5:14, 16); Moses had struck an oppressor in retaliation (2:12), but in an act of virtual futility against the greater might of Pharaoh. Now, however, the Lord himself will strike his people’s oppressors (3:20).

Through Moses’s staff, God “strikes” the Nile (7:17, 20, 25) and the earth (to produce an insect plague, 8:16-17). God sends hail to “strike” whatever is in the field (9:25, 31-2), and ultimately will strike down the firstborn of people and animals, striking the land (12:12-13, 29). But for his mercy, however, God could have struck them much harder than he did, destroying all the people from the face of the earth (9:15).

God will strike the oppressors with “wonders” (3:20), the sort of language in Hebrew that applies also to Sarah bearing a child (Gen 18:14), drowning Pharaoh’s army (Exod 15:11 in context), and other works to come (34:10).

But God was not just about striking. God will also give the people favor (Exod 3:21; 11:3; 12:36) with the Egyptians, just as he did for Joseph (Gen 39:4, 21; 50:4). Thus they would not leave Egypt “empty-handed” (Exod 3:21), just as God did not let Laban send away Jacob “empty-handed” after his years of toil (Gen 31:42), and just as Israel’s law later prohibited sending away former servants “empty-handed” (Deut 15:13).

Instead, they would “plunder” the Egyptians (Exod 3:22; 12:36)! (The term more often means “deliver,” but it also can often mean “snatch away”; here they are relieving their former oppressors from some of their possessions.) Egypt had achieved much of its wealth on the backs of slaves; now the slaves were about to get remuneration.

The Israelites plunder Egypt without fighting; they have the “favor” of the Egyptian people, who voluntarily recognize that the Israelites have been unjustly exploited but are now defended by their God. Nevertheless, “plundering” or “snatching” goods is what one normally does after battle. The oppression began because Pharaoh falsely assumed that the Israelites might war against him (1:10). Pharaoh’s unjust action, however, ultimately precipitates the very judgment it sought to evade!

God is patient, but he is also just. Some people today charge the God portrayed in these narratives as impatient and brutal; sometimes the same people deny that a God could exist in this world of injustice. God has been patient with their own unjust characterizations of him. But for them, and for other wrongdoers who refuse to change, a day of justice will come.

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

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/.)

The God who sees—Exodus 3:7

In Genesis 16:13, Hagar called the Lord, “the God who sees.” The same God continued to see, watching over his people.

Verbs of seeing and hearing are common in the Bible, but the emphatic exchange of sight in Exodus 2:24—3:7 might be significant:

  • God hears and sees his people’s suffering (2:24-25)
  • Moses turns to see God’s glory in the thorny bush (3:2-3)
  • God sees Moses turn aside (3:4)
  • Moses fears to behold God (3:6)
  • God notes that he has seen and heard his people’s need (3:7)

God seeing and hearing his people’s need (3:7, 9) frames God’s promise of what he will do, bringing them to a good land (3:8).

Because the Lord knows his people’s sufferings, he has come down to deliver them from their oppressors (3:8). Israelite hearers were familiar with the Lord “coming down” to see and therefore overthrow human arrogance (Gen 11:5). Those who heard the exodus stories repeatedly also knew of the glory when God would come down on Sinai (Exod 19:20). God “coming down” was therefore no small matter—at least to those who believed that this God, who seemed to have done little against the mighty Egyptian empire so far, was really stronger than the might of that empire and its apparently powerful gods. Oppressing other people made in God’s image is always a bad idea, but it’s especially a bad idea when those people are in a covenant relationship with the God who watches over them.

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

Is God or an angel speaking in Exodus 3:2-6?

The angel of the LORD appears to Jacob in a dream (Gen 31:11), calls to Abraham from heaven (22:11, 15), and appears directly to Hagar (16:7-11; though calling to her from heaven in 21:17). Here he appears to Moses in a flaming bush (Exod 3:2), yet Moses apparently sees only the bush burning, not an angel, until God speaks to him from the bush (3:3-4).

This is not the last occasion on which the angel of the Lord will act. The angel of God acts to protect Israel, moving the cloud to obstruct the pursuing army, in 14:19. In some passages, the angel speaks as if God, as apparently here (3:2-4; cf. Gen 16:10; 21:17-18; 22:11-12, 15-17; 31:11-13; Judg 2:1), whether as God’s agent (cf. Gen 22:16?) or because God’s name was in him (Exod 23:20-21). Some who saw the Lord’s angel also feared that they had seen God (Judg 6:22; 13:21-22; cf. Gen 32:30).

In any case, there should not be too much surprise at this point that the one speaking to Moses is the God of his ancestors (Exod 3:6) whose stories occupy much of our current Book of Genesis. Yet Moses hides his face lest he gaze on the LORD (3:6); he knows that no one can see God’s face (besides references above, see Exod 33:20). Moses’s fear here is quite different from his eagerness to see God’s glory in Exod 33:18, a request that the Lord grants albeit without showing Moses his face (33:20, 23; despite the idiom in Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10).

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

Meeting the holy God—Exodus 3:1-5

God sometimes meets us in the ordinary events of our lives, but calls us into his extraordinary plan for our lives. God met Moses in something as mundane as a bush, but quickly revealed to him that God himself is not mundane. God is holy, and wholly other.

In Exodus 3, God draws Moses’s intense curiosity with a burning bush that is not consumed. Moses turns aside to see “this great sight” (Exod 3:3)—this Hebrew term for the “sight” next appears in Exodus at 24:17, where the Israelites see the LORD’s glory “like a devouring fire” on the top of this mountain. God could reveal himself to his people as a devouring fire (Deut 4:24; 9:3). As Exod 3:3 describes what Moses saw, the beginning of verse 4 describes what God saw: when YHWH saw that Moses turned aside to see, then God called to him from inside the bush.

“Moses! Moses!” the Lord calls (Exod 3:4). The doubling of Moses’s name evoking God’s earlier poignant revelations to Abraham and Jacob (Gen 22:11; 46:2). Moses answers the same way his ancestors had: “Behold, I,” usually translated, “Here I am” (3:4). The response might be equivalent today to something like, “Yes, Sir. I’m here, listening up!”

“Don’t come closer,” God warned. Instead, Moses was told, “Take your shoes off your feet, because you’re standing on holy ground” (Exod 3:5). Later, God’s people could not come near God’s presence on the mountain (19:12-13, 21-25); likewise, only priests could enter the sanctuary and almost no one could enter the holiest place in the tabernacle (Lev 16:2; Heb 9:7). (God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden after they sinned; likewise, he would expel Israel from the land holy to him when they sinned, Lev 18:8; 20:22.)

God is holy and must be approached with reverence. There were appropriate times to have one’s shoes on (Exod 12:11), but not on holy ground (Josh 5:15), just as God’s people should not profane an altar by using tools on it (Exod 20:25). (Removing sandals could also be used for mourning, Ezek 24:17, 23, just as hiding one’s face [Exod 3:6] could, 2 Sam 15:30; Esth 6:12.) This was a conventional, cultural way of revealing respect. Christians in other cultures today may reveal our respect in other ways than taking off our shoes in church (especially if we have not washed our feet in awhile). The principle, however, remains. God is holy, and must be approached with our best signs of respect.

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

God has not forgotten them—Exodus 2:23-25

When our lives become more comfortable, it’s easy to forget the hardship faced by others, whether through persecution, hunger, injustice or other needs. But God does not forget.

Moses’s life became peaceful in Midian (2:16-22), despite the scars his heart undoubtedly carried from the past. His people, however, continued to suffer in Egypt, a matter that the author’s inspired perspective directs us to in Exod 2:23-25. Just as Joseph’s exaltation in Genesis 41 did not relieve him of God’s plan to protect Joseph’s entire family (Gen 42—50), Moses’s new life has not caused God to forget God’s plan for Moses’s people.

Moses adopted his new way of life, but back in Egypt, even Pharaoh’s death did not relieve the Israelites. Pharaoh’s policy of repression remained in place for his successor. After all, oppressors who profit economically from oppression do not like to give it up. Probably the policy of directly killing male infants did not endure for many years, but if it did it may have raised a generation with less strength than ever to seek freedom by means of revolt. (Still, Israel has many men in Num 11:21. Because Israelite men could marry multiple wives and could continue to procreate into old age, children would continue being born. Since Pharaoh found the free work force profitable, and such a force required continuing free labor, Pharaoh presumably would have lifted the ban on male babies once the fear of Israel’s strength subsided.)

In any case, the Israelites’ suffering was deep. We are not told how much they had been crying to God before; it seems unlikely that their worship of other deities or deity images started only after they left Egypt (cf. Exod 32:4). The narrator does not even specify here that it was to God that their cry arose (cf. similar language of the Philistines in 1 Sam 5:10, 12; cf. Israelites in 1 Sam 4:13), although presumably many of them did (cf. Judg 3:9, 15; 6:6-7; 10:10). Samuel, however, later explains that the Lord heard when Israel cried out to him (1 Sam 12:8), just as they did in the time of Deborah (12:10).

God did not ignore his people’s suffering. He “heard” their groaning (2:24; 6:5) and “saw” them (2:25), and “remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (2:24). Here we are invited back to the narratives of God’s dealings with the patriarchs in Gen 12—35; God had not forgotten his people, and the promised time to liberate them from bondage, with many possessions (Gen 15:13-14), had come. May we have the wisdom to cry out to the Lord in times of hardship—and even in times when we are not suffering. We need the Lord, and the sooner that we recognize that, the sooner our cries will reach his ears.

Like Moses, our lives go on. After enduring hardship, we may need a time of recovery before having to face it again. But God does not forget the sufferings of others, and in the end, neither dare we. Remember Proverbs 24:11-12: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?” (NIV).

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

Settling in a new land—Exodus 2:16-22

When I travel to speak in various parts of the world, my hosts show me great hospitality. I miss my wife and kids, but otherwise life is pretty comfortable, apart from long flights. But that’s not always the case with people who relocate to new lands to live. My wife and children came to the United States from Africa so we could be together as a family, but when my wife was first an international student in France, she was sometimes destitute. At times when her scholarship was delayed, she subsisted on bread and water. (Part of her experience as an international student appears in a chapter of our book, Impossible Love.) Shared faith gave her a church family away from home, but life can be hard for immigrants, temporary or long-term, having to find homes in new cultures.

When Moses came to Midian, he rescued some young women from shepherds who were asserting their superior strength over them (Exod 2:16-17). But that left Moses without friends among the shepherds—and apparently without any other local friends either. Moses had nowhere to go and needed to be attached to some household, so he may have been disappointed when the young women he had helped left without inviting him home for a meal. Their failure was a breach of Middle Eastern hospitality, as their father quickly pointed out (2:20). A meal together established a covenant relationship, and Moses remained with Jethro, who gave him his daughter in marriage (2:21) perhaps something like how Jacob received not only a place to stay but eventually also a wife (or two) in Haran. Abram also broke bread with a priest of God Most High (Gen 14:18-20), and Joseph also married a priest’s daughter (her father’s office appears every time that Asenath is mentioned; Gen 41:45, 50; 46:20).

Also like Joseph (Gen 41:52), Moses gives one of his sons (Gershom) a name that signifies being a stranger in a foreign land (Exod 2:22). (One might also suggest that “Gershom” could play on how the shepherds “drove away” the daughters; cf. ygarshum in 2:17 with gershom in 2:22. But there seems no possible connection there except the sound.) Moses had grown up as a third-culture child, fully welcome in neither Hebrew nor Egyptian culture. Now he was again an outsider in Midianite culture. His previous background, however, helped prepare him for this status; those not fully attached to any culture are sometimes those best able to adapt to other cultures. His disadvantage in one setting has become his advantage in adjusting to another setting.

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

Moses as a refugee—Exodus 2:15-17

Moses may have thought that killing an Egyptian oppressor was an act of justice, but the Egyptian overlords have different ideas. Once word about his action leaks, the attempted hero must flee for his life, soon becoming a fugitive in Midian from political repression.

Moses has reason to fear Pharaoh (Exod 2:14; cf. 14:10), though fearing God matters more (1:17, 21; 14:13; cf. 3:6; 9:30). Pharaoh wants to kill Moses just as Moses had killed an Egyptian (2:15). Now Moses has to flee for his life (2:15), abandoning any semblance of privilege and virtually all connections with both Egyptians and Hebrews. Undoubtedly his action shamed his adoptive family, but survival would now be his first concern. Moses’s ancestor Jacob had had to flee both his brother (Gen 27:43; 35:1) and his uncle (31:20-22, 27); but Moses’s flight from Pharaoh especially prefigures the flight of all Israel from Pharaoh a generation later (Exod 14:5). In contrast to Joseph, who went from being a pastoral nomad to being vizier over Egypt, Moses goes from being a high-status member of the Egyptian nobility to being a pastoral nomad.

Moses thus sits by a well in Midian, both a useful place to quench thirst and a normal place for meeting local people. Those who come to the well include the priest of Midian’s daughters. (The priest is apparently called both Reuel, as in 2:18 and some other passages, and Jethro, as at other times in Exodus. Alternatively, the term translated “father-in-law” in these passages might mean simply “male in-law,” allowing for a grandfather or brother-in-law who also held or shared the priestly office at different times.)

That these daughters come to draw water might not be unusual, but Moses might recall the story about himself being drawn from the water, an event commemorated even in his name (2:10). He might also recall stories about his ancestors. The servant whom Abraham sent to find a bride for Isaac found her at a well, where she graciously watered his camels (Gen 24:13-21). Jacob met Rachel at a well, when she was coming to water her father’s flock at the well’s watering troughs (29:9-11). Now Moses also acts gallantly, like his ancestor Jacob. Jacob rolled away a large stone and watered the flock Rachel had brought (Gen 29:10). Moses rescued the women here from bullying shepherds and watered their flock (Exod 2:17).

Moses acts like Jacob here, but also like himself: he had already demonstrated his hatred of oppression by killing the Egyptian in 2:12. That the text does not specify violent action on Moses’s part here might suggest that it proved unnecessary; standing up for the women may have been enough to make the bullying shepherds back down and wait their turn. (Moses did know how to try to resolve matters nonviolently; cf. 2:13.)

Yet like Pharaoh’s cupbearer temporarily forgetting Joseph, the young women leave their benefactor Moses at the well, apparently with no reward for his action—until their father intervenes (see 2:18-20, in the next lesson).

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