Skip to content

Chapter 5 – Exodus: God Saves The Israelites

    Through Joseph, God has lead his chosen people away from famine and they are now placed in Egypt and in living in prosperity. Again through Joseph, the Israelites have the pharaoh’s favour. As we read in Exodus 1:1-7 things are good but that comes to an end and the new pharaoh is scared of these prosperous people. The new pharaoh makes slaves of the Israelites and they are now a very oppressed people. “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour.” Verses 13-14.

    The story of Exodus (which mean “Ex” = out, “odos” = way/path, so “the path/way out”) has two major parts. First is a story of how God leads his people from slavery to freedom.  This is a story that many oppressed people in the modern world have identified with and the new Moses is a hero figure not just for the Israelites, but modern people to. Check out book titles like “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom”. Exodus is also is a story of God choosing unlikely people in the God’s action of salvation.

    Confused? God’s chosen people are called Israelites because they are descendants of Jacob who is renamed Israel by God. They are ALSO known by the language they speak – Hebrew.   Both names are used somewhat interchangeably in the bible.

    One of the most famous stories in the bible is the how Pharaoh declares that all newborn Hebrew boys  should be tossed in the Nile to drown (Exodus is also a violent story), but a Hebrew mother saves her boy by making a tar covered bassinet and floats the infant child down the Nile. Notice that it is an Egyptian woman, the Pharaoh’s daughter, who has mercy on the boy and who takes him to be her own son and to live in the palace. Read chapter 2:1-10 and how the baby Moses get his name.

    Moses grows up in the palace as a prince of Egypt, but somehow his “Hebrew DNA” starts to shape who he is becoming as man (Chapter 2:11 – 25). Moses kills an Egyptian slave master who was beating a Hebrew man. Moses runs away to Midian and takes a wife. Next is another monumental story – Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Read in Exodus 3: 1-6 about Moses removing his shoes and turning away so as not to directly face God. There is an extensive dialogue in verses 7-22 between God and Moses. God plans to intercede for the Israelites and save them from their suffering. God gives Moses direction to go to Pharaoh and God also reveals his name I am”, notice that the name is a verb. Moses is sent to Pharaoh and to ask him to let the Israelites go free. But God knows 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 my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.” V19-20.

    Chapters 4 through 10 are a demonstration of God’s power and authority. God keeps “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” (or makes him stubborn) which keeps delaying the freedom march for the Israelites. Why God does this is open for interpretation:

    1. God uses Pharaoh’s stubbornness so that God can show the signs and wonder for both groups to witness; the Egyptian non-believers, and the Israelite believers. This would be to show that God (“I AM”) is the one true god. Read Exodus 7:3-5 and 9:16.
    2. Jewish scholars have debated this for a long time and some suggest that the hardening is a punishment: “where Pharaoh is deprived of three great goods: (a) free will, along with (b) the potential to act rightly, and (c) the chance to repent.” (Note 1)
    3. God knew how Pharaoh would react by not letting the people go free. God used this “hardening” to accomplish his will, or God “hardened” Pharaoh’s natural reaction in spite of the threating and destructive plagues.

    God’s sends 10 successively worsening plagues on the people of Egypt and each time the Israelites are spared from harm. The pattern for each plague is roughly the same:

    Moses: Let God’s people go.
    Pharaoh: No way.
    God: Take this plague upon the Egyptians while the Israelites are spared.
    Pharaoh: Make this stop!
    God: OK.
    Pharaoh: I’m still not letting the people go. (Hardened heart.)

    The tenth plague is the key one (especially for Christians … but that explanation will come in a later chapter). This is the plague where the angel of death comes to Egypt to kill all the first born (kings, officers, slaves, animals, etc.). However, the Israelites are given a new ritual on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan and

    “then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” Exodus 12: 6-8

    This ritual marking was a sign to the angel of death to passover this household and spare the Israelite family within.  Read Exodus 12 about the instructions for this first Passover meal which is still celebrated today by Jewish people and marked in some fashion by most Christians on Maundy Thursday.

    After this 10th plague Pharaoh let the people go (read Exodus 12: 29- 32) and even asked for a blessing. Moses and the people fled in haste and God led them away (read Exodus 13:17-22). But again, with a hardened heart, Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go, and gave chase with horse and chariot. Now the Israelites were trapped by the sea and they cried out in fear.  This is another famous part of God’s saving actions – God instructs Moses to part the sea and the Israelites walk across. As the Egyptians give chase, the sea closes on them and none are saved. (Read Exodus 14).

    This is the start of the second part of the Exodus story – a time of revelation of God’s law and a time of testing. God now leads the people into and through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.  The people start to complain and grumble – “did you bring us here to die?” Through Moses, God miraculously provides water (15:22-27, 17:1-7), meat and bread (chapter 16). The bread is a new substance that appears each morning in the dew – it is called Manna – which in Hebrew means “What is it?” Along with this appearance of bread and meat come specific instructions not to gather more than they need. This is the start of a period of testing the people.

    They journey through the desert wilderness continues and reach Mount Sinai.  “Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, 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. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’” Exodus 19: 2-9

    Moses goes up the mountain and God speaks to him giving the Israelites an extensive set of laws and commands, the first of which we know as the Ten Commandments. Read them in Exodus 20: 1-21.  The laws continue in chapters 20-23 and cover many rules for worship & festivals, how to treat slaves, property, agriculture and justice. Survey these chapters and see what rules stand out as important to you. What would these rules have meant to the recently freed Israelites? In chapter 24 Moses comes down the mountain and writes out the rules and the people respond, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Read 24: 1-8. Then God said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (24:12)

    The number 40 shows up often in the Bible and often is linked to a time of judgment or testing. Forty still has a literal meaning in Scripture.

    The rules continue and tell of how to build the arc (chest) of the covenant, vestments for priests and the Tabernacle – a portable tent that will be the holy place for the people to worship (Exodus 25-31). God handwrites two tablets of stone with the rules on them (Exodus 31:18).

    Moses is on the mountain for 40 days but while he is gone the people make a golden idol of another god. God sees this and responds in anger but Moses intercedes with God and asks for mercy on the people. When Moses comes down from the mountain with two tablets of stone with God’s handwritten rules on them, and sees what the people have done, he smashes the two stone tablets. Read Exodus 32.

    The covenant with God is renewed and Moses goes up the mountain and again brings down two new tablets with words of the covenant and the Ten Commandments written upon them. (34:27-28).  The remainder of Exodus (35:4-40:38), describes in great detail the actual building and dedication of the tabernacle of the Lord under the supervision of two master craftsmen, Bezalel and Oholiab.

    The last book of the Torah (or Law) is the book of Deuteronomy (meaning the second law) which is a reaffirmation of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. These are Moses’ words to the people as given to him by God.  It has the beautiful words that the Israelites would recite daily: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Israelites wander in the desert for forty years worshiping in the tabernacle and they are eventually led to Canaan, the promised land. But Moses never gets to reach Canaan and his death is recorded in Deuteronomy 34.

    “Then and there God said to him, “This is the land I promised to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the words ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I’ve let you see it with your own eyes. There it is. But you’re not going to go in.” Moses died there in the land of Moab, Moses the servant of God, just as God said. God buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor. No one knows his burial site to this very day.” (Deuteronomy 34: 4-6)

    Next month we will move to read about Jesus and his preference for the poor in the Gospel of Luke.

    Note 1: Read this article for more thoughts on hardened hearts.


    Written by Pastor Steve Johnston