Israel in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-13:16)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Israel’s mistreatment by the Egyptians provides the background and impetus for their redemption. Pharaoh did not allow them to follow Moses into the wilderness to worship the Lord and thus denied a measure of their religious freedom. But their oppression as workers in the Egyptian economic system is what really gets our attention. God hears the cry of his people and does something about it. But we must remember that the people of Israel do not groan because of work in general, but because of the harshness of their work. In response, God does not deliver them into a life of total rest, but a release from oppressive work.

The Harshness of the Israelites’ Slave Labor in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14)

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The work that the Egyptians forced on the Israelites was evil in motive and cruel in nature. The opening scene presents the land as filled with Israelites who had been fruitful and multiplied. This echoes God’s creational intent (Gen. 1:28; 9:1) as well as his promise to Abraham and his chosen descendants (Gen. 17:6; 35:11; 47:27). As a nation, they were destined to bless the world. Under a previous administration, the Israelites had royal permission to live in the land and to work it. But here the new king of Egypt sensed in their numbers a threat to his national security and thus decided to deal “shrewdly” with them (Exod. 1:10). We are not told whether or not the Israelites were a genuine threat. The emphasis falls on Pharaoh’s destructive fear that led him first to degrade their working environment and then to use infanticide to curb the growth of their population.

Work may be physically and mentally taxing, but that does not make it wrong. What made the situation in Egypt unbearable was not only the slavery but also its extreme harshness. The Egyptian masters worked the Israelites “ruthlessly” (befarekh, Exod. 1:13, 14) and made their lives “bitter” (marar, Exod. 1:14) with “hard” (qasheh , in the sense of “cruel,” Exod. 1:14; 6:9) service. As a result, Israel languished in “misery” and “suffering” (Exod. 3:7) and a “broken spirit” (Exod. 6:9). Work, one of the chief purposes and joys of human existence (Gen. 1:27-31; 2:15), was turned into a misery by the harshness of oppression.

The Work of Midwifery and Mothering (Exodus 1:15-2:10)

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In the midst of harsh treatment, the Israelites remained faithful to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). That entailed bearing children, which in turn depended on the work of midwives. In addition to its presence in the Bible, the work of midwifery is well-attested in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Midwives assisted women in childbearing, cut the infant’s umbilical cord, washed the baby, and presented the child to the mother and father.

The midwives in this narrative possess a fear of God that led them to disobey the royal order to kill all of the male children born to the Hebrew women (Exod. 1:15-17). Generally speaking, the “fear of the Lord” (and related expressions) in the Bible refer to a healthy and obedient relationship with the covenant-making God of Israel (Hebrew, YHWH). Their “fear of God” was stronger than any fear that Pharaoh of Egypt could put them under. In addition, perhaps their courage arose from their work. Would those who shepherd new life into birth every day come to value life so highly that murder would become unthinkable, even if commanded by a king?

Moses’ mother, Jochebed (Exod. 6:20), was another woman who faced a seemingly impossible choice and forged a creative solution. One can hardly imagine her relief at secretly and successfully bearing a male child, followed by her pain at having to place him into the river, and to do so in a way that would actually save his life. The parallels to Noah’s ark—the Hebrew word for “basket” is used only one other place in the Bible, namely for Noah’s “ark”—let us know that God was acting not only to save one baby boy, or even one nation, but also to redeem the whole creation through Moses and Israel. Parallel to his reward to the midwives, God showed kindness to Moses’ mother. She recovered her son and nursed him until he was old enough to be adopted as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. The godly work of bearing and raising children is well-known to be complex, demanding, and praiseworthy (Prov. 31:10-31). In Exodus, we read nothing of the inner struggles experienced by Jochebed, the unsung heroine. From a narrative point of view, Moses’ life is the main issue. But the Bible later commended both Jochebed and Amram, Moses' father, for how they put their faith into action (Heb. 11:23).

Too often the work of bearing and raising children is overlooked. Mothers, especially, often get the message that childrearing is not as important or praiseworthy as other work. Yet when Exodus tells the story of how to follow God, the first thing it has to tell us is the incomparable importance of bearing, raising, protecting, and helping children. The first act of courage, in this book filled with courageous deeds, is the courage of a mother, her family, and her midwives in saving her child.

God’s Call to Moses (Exodus 2:11-3:22)

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Although Moses was a Hebrew, he was raised in Egypt’s royal family as the grandson of Pharaoh. His revulsion to injustice erupted into a lethal attack on an Egyptian man he found beating a Hebrew worker. This act came to Pharaoh’s attention, so Moses fled for safety and became a shepherd in Midian, a region several hundred miles east of Egypt on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula. We do not know exactly how long he lived there, but during that time he married and had a son. In addition, two important things happened. The king in Egypt died, and the Lord heard the cry of his oppressed people and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 2:23-25). This act of remembering did not mean that God had forgotten about his people. It signaled that he was about to act on their behalf.[1] For that, he would call Moses.

God’s call to Moses came while Moses was at work. The account of how this happened comprises six elements that form a pattern evident in the lives of other leaders and prophets in the Bible. It is therefore instructive for us to examine this call narrative and to consider its implications for us today, especially in the context of our work.

Calling and Giftedness (Click to Listen)

In this interview, Bill Hendricks discusses the significance of giftedness for vocation.

First, God confronted Moses and arrested his attention at the scene of the burning bush (Exod. 3:2-5). A brush fire in the semi-desert is nothing exceptional, but Moses was intrigued by the nature of this particular one. Moses heard his name called and responded, “Here I am (Exod. 3:4). This is a statement of availability, not location. Second, the Lord introduced himself as the God of the patriarchs and communicated his intent to rescue his people from Egypt and to bring them into the land he had promised to Abraham (Exod. 3:6-9). Third, God commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh to bring God’s people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:10). Fourth, Moses objected (Exod. 3:11). Although he had just heard a powerful revelation of who was speaking to him in this moment, his immediate concern was, “Who am I?” In response to this, God reassured Moses with a promise of God’s own presence (Exod. 3:12a). Finally, God spoke of a confirming sign (Exod. 3:12b).

These same elements are present in a number of other call narratives in Scripture—for example in the callings of Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and some of Jesus’ disciples. This is not a rigid formula, for many other call narratives in Scripture follow a different pattern. But it does suggest that God’s call often comes via an extended series of encounters that guide a person in God’s way over time.





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Notice that these callings are not primarily to priestly or religious work in a congregation. Gideon was a military leader; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel social critics; and Jesus a king (although not in the traditional sense). In many churches today, the term “call” is limited to religious occupations, but this is not so in Scripture, and certainly not in Exodus. Moses himself was not a priest or religious leader (those were Aaron’s and Miriam’s roles), but a shepherd, statesman, and governor. The Lord's question to Moses, "What is that in your hand?" (Exod. 4:2) repurposes Moses' ordinary tool of sheep-keeping for uses he would never have imagined possible (Exod. 4:3-5).

God’s Work of Redemption for Israel (Exodus 5:1-6:28)

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In the book of Exodus, God is the essential worker. The nature and intent of that divine work set the agenda for Moses’ work and through him, the work of God’s people. God’s initial call to Moses included an explanation of God’s work. This drove Moses to speak in the name of the Lord to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go” (Exod. 5:1). Pharaoh’s rebuttal was not merely verbal; he oppressed the Israelites more harshly than before. By the end of this episode, even the Israelites themselves had turned against Moses (Exod. 5:20-21). It is at this crucial point that in response to Moses’ questioning God about the entire enterprise, God clarified the design of his work. What we read here in Exodus 6:2-8 pertains not only to the immediate context of Israel’s oppression in Egypt. It frames an agenda that embraces all of God’s work in the Bible.[1] It is important for all Christians to be clear about the scope of God’s work, because it helps us to understand what it means to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). The fulfillment of these intentions is God’s business. To accomplish them, he will involve the full range of his people, not merely those who do “religious” work. Coming to a clearer understanding of God’s work equips us to consider better not only the nature of our work but the manner in which God intends for us to do it.

In order to better appreciate this key text, we will make some brief observations about it and then suggest how it is relevant to the theology of work. After an initially assuring response to Moses’ accusatory question about God’s mission (Exod. 5:22-6:1), God frames his more extended response with the words “I am the Lord” at the beginning and the end (Exod. 6:2, 8). This key phrase demarcates the paragraph and gives the content especially high priority. English readers must be careful to note that this phrase does not communicate what God is in terms of a title. It reveals God’s own name and therefore speaks to who he is.[2] He is the covenant-making, promise-keeping God who appeared to the patriarchs. The work God is about to do for his people is therefore grounded in the intentions that God has expressed to them. Namely, these are to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to make his name great, and to bless him so that through Abraham, God would bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3).

God’s work then appears in four parts. These four redemptive purposes of God reappear in various ways throughout the Old Testament and even give shape to the pinnacle of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ. First is the work of deliverance. “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” (Exod. 6:6). Inherent in this work of liberation is the frank truth that the world is a place of manifold oppression. Sometimes we use the word salvation to describe this activity of God, but we must be careful to avoid understanding it either in terms of rescue from earth to heaven (and certainly not from matter to spirit) or as merely forgiveness of sin. The God of Israel delivered his people by stepping into their world and effecting a change “on the ground,” so to speak. Exodus not only shows God’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh in Egypt, but it also sets the stage for the messianic king, Jesus, to deliver his people from their sins and conquer the devil, the ultimate evil tyrant (Matt. 1:21; 12:28).

Second, the Lord will form a godly community. “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exod. 6:7a). God did not deliver his people so they could live however they pleased, nor did he deliver them as isolated individuals. He intended to create a qualitatively different kind of community in which his people would live with him and one another in covenantal faithfulness. Every nation in ancient times had their “gods,” but Israel’s identity as God’s people entailed a lifestyle of obedience to all of God’s decrees, commands, and laws (Deut. 26:17-18). As these values and actions would saturate their dealings with God and each other (and even those outside the covenant), Israel would increasingly demonstrate what it genuinely means to be God’s people. Again, this forms the background for Jesus who would build his “church,” not as a physical structure of brick or stone, but as a new community with disciples from all nations (Matt. 16:18; 28:19).

Third, the Lord will create an ongoing relationship between himself and his people. “You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7b). All of the other statements of God’s purpose begin with the word I except this one. Here, the focus is on you. God intends his people to have a certain experience of their relationship with God who graciously rescued them. To us, knowledge seems practically equivalent to information. The biblical concept of knowledge embraces this notion, but it also includes interpersonal experience of knowing others. To say that God did not make himself “known” as “Lord” to Abraham does not mean that Abraham was unaware of the divine name “YHWH” (Gen. 13:4; 21:33). It means that Abraham and family had not yet personally experienced the significance of this name as descriptive of their promise-keeping God who would fight on behalf of his people to deliver them from slavery on a national scale. [3] Ultimately, this is taken up by Jesus, whose name “Emmanuel” means God “with us” in relationship (Matt. 1:23).

Fourth, God intends for his people to experience the good life. “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession” (Exod. 6:8). God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan, but it is not accurate to simply equate this “land” with our concept of a “region.” It is a land of promise and provision. The regular and positive description of it as “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8) highlights its symbolic nature as a place in which to live with God and God’s people in ideal conditions, something we understand as the “abundant life.”[4] Here again we see that God’s work of salvation is a setting to right of his entire creation—physical environment, people, culture, economics, everything. This is also the mission of Jesus as he initiates the kingdom of God coming to earth, where the meek inherit the earth (the land) and experience eternal life (Matt. 5:5; John 17:3).[5] This comes to completion in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22. Exodus thus sets the path for the entirety of the Bible that follows.

Consider how our work today may express these four redemptive purposes. First, God’s will is to deliver people from oppression and the harmful conditions of life. Some of that work rescues people from physical dangers; other work focuses on the alleviation of psychological and emotional trauma. The work of healing touches people one by one; those who forge political solutions to our needs can bless whole societies and classes of people. Workers in law enforcement and in the judicial system should aim to restrain and punish those who do evil, to protect people, and to care for victims. Given the pervasive extent of oppression in the world, there will always be manifold opportunities and means to work for deliverance.

The second and third purposes (community and relationship) are closely related to each other. Godly work that promotes peace and true harmony in heaven will enhance mercy and justice on earth. This is the gist of Paul’s address to the Corinthians: through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself and thus given us the message and ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20). Christians have experienced this reconciliation and therefore have motive and means to do this kind of work. The work of evangelism and spiritual development honors one dimension of the area; the work of peace and justice honors the interpersonal dimension. In essence, the two are inseparable and those who work in these fields do well to remember the holistic nature of what God is doing. Jesus taught that because we are the light of the world, we should let our light shine before others (Matt. 5:14–16).

Building community and relationships can be the object of our job, as in the case of community organizers, youth workers, social directors, event planners, social media workers, parents and family members, and many others. But they can also be elements of our job, whatever our occupation. When we welcome and assist new workers, ask and listen as others talk about matters of significance, take the trouble to meet someone in person, send a note of encouragement, share a memorable photo, bring good food to share, include someone in a conversation, or myriad other acts of camaraderie, we are fulfilling these two purposes of work, day by day.

Finally, godly work promotes the good life. God led his people out of Egypt in order to bring them in to the Promised Land where they could settle, live, and develop. Yet, what Israel experienced there was far less than God’s ideal. Likewise, what Christians experience in the world is not ideal either. The promise of entering God’s rest is still open (Heb. 4:1). We still wait for a new heaven and a new earth. But many of the laws of the covenant that God gave through Moses have to do with ethical treatment of one another. It is vital, then, that God’s blessing be worked out in the way we live and work with one another. Seen from the negative side, how can we reasonably expect all families of the earth to experience God’s blessing through us (the people of Abraham through faith in Christ), if we ourselves ignore God’s instructions about how to live and do our work? As Christopher Wright has noted, “The people of God in both testaments are called to be a light to the nations. But there can be no light to the nations that is not shining already in transformed lives of a holy people.”[6] It thus becomes clear that the kind of “good life” in view here has nothing to do with unbridled selfish prosperity or conspicuous consumption, for it embraces the wide spectrum of life as God intends it to be: full of love, justice, and mercy.

Moses and Aaron Announce God’s Judgment to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1-12:51)

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God began the first step—deliverance—by sending Moses and Aaron to tell Pharaoh “to let the Israelites go out of his land” (Exod. 7:2). For this task, God made use of Aaron’s natural skill in public speaking (Exod. 4:14; 7:1). He also equipped Aaron with skill surpassing that of the high officials of Egypt (Exod. 7:10-12). This reminds us that God’s mission requires both word and action.

Pharaoh refused to listen to God’s demand, through Moses, to release Israel from slavery. In turn, Moses announced God’s judgment to Pharaoh through an increasingly severe series of ecological disasters (Exod. 7:17-10:29). These disasters caused personal misery. More significantly, they drastically impaired the productive capacity of Egypt’s land and people. Disease caused livestock to die (Exod. 9:6). Crops failed and forests were ruined (Exod. 9:25). Pests invaded multiple ecosystems (Exod. 8:6, 24; 10:13-15). In Exodus, ecological disaster is the retribution of God against the tyranny and oppression of Pharaoh. In the modern world, political and economic oppression is a major factor in environmental degradation and ecological disaster. We would be fools to think we can assume Moses’ authority and declare God’s judgment in any of these. But we can see that when economics, politics, culture, and society are in need of redemption, so is the environment.

Each of these warnings-in-action convinced Pharaoh to release Israel, but as each passed, he reneged. Finally, God brought on the disaster of slaying every firstborn son among the people and animals of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-30). The appalling effect of slavery is to "harden" the heart against compassion, justice, and even self-preservation, as Pharaoh soon discovered (Exod. 11:10). Pharaoh then accepted God’s demand to let Israel go free. The departing Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians’ jewelry, silver, gold, and clothing (Exod. 12:35-36). This reversed the effects of slavery, which was the legalized plunder of exploited workers. When God liberates people, he restores their right to labor for fruits they themselves can enjoy (Isa. 65:21-22). Work, and the conditions under which it is performed, is a matter of the highest concern to God.