A Shepherd Meets God in the Wilderness
The story begins with Moses tending his father-in-law’s flock, but he went by a different name when we last read about his father-in-law. Here in the opening of chapter 3, he’s Jethro (as well as 18:1), but he was Reuel (2:18). As if things aren’t confusing enough, he’s called Hobab in Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11. Now, because our translators don’t want us to be too confused, they refer to him as Jethro in Exodus 4:18, but in Hebrew, his name is Jeter. Oy vey! Since we’re on multiple names, Moses came to Horeb, also referred to as Sinai.
Moses comes upon a burning bush (seneh) in Sinai (sinay). Nice pun, no? Anyway, it’s burning but not consumed. God has previously disclosed Himself as fire (Gen. 15:13–17). As he turns to inspect, God calls out to Moses and stops him. He’s on holy ground. This is unlike anything else, so it can’t be regarded carelessly. We later read that God dwells on seneh (Deut. 33:16). Still, when He later instructs Moses on the tabernacle, it becomes a portable Sinai. Nevertheless, God knows the suffering of His people. He has heard their cry (Exod. 3:7, 9)—the same word used by Sodom and Gomorrah’s inhabitants (Gen. 18:21; 19:13). God wants Moses to do this thing, and the sign will be that they will worship Him at the very mountain where Moses stands (Exod. 3:12). God will “stretch out” His hand (shalahti), and it will cause Pharaoh to “let go” (yeshalach) in Exodus 3:20.
Moses objects several times (Exod. 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10), but God answers him at every turn, even giving him signs. The signs that God gives Moses in Exodus 4:1–9 represent a couple of things. The snake may have been the cobra that Pharaoh typically wore around their headdress. Pharaoh’s power was absolute. He was as good as a god in ancient Egypt, but, later, when his magicians duplicate this miracle, and Aaron’s rod swallows up theirs, it’s a foretaste of the downfall of Pharaoh (Exod. 7:8–12). The second miracle of Moses’ hand turning to leprosy and back to normal foretastes the plagues that are to come. Moses’ final objection is that he just doesn’t want to do it (Exod. 4:13). God becomes angry but offers Aaron as the mouthpiece.
Moses has requested permission from his father-in-law to go to Egypt and see his countrymen. Jethro bid him “Godspeed,” and Moses left. In the meantime, God spoke to Moses’ elder brother, Aaron, and asked him to meet Moses in the wilderness. After they met and talked, they go to the elders of Israel and tell them all that God has told Moses. They bow their heads in trusting what has been said to them, so the showdown begins. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and say that Yahweh has ordered that they go on the three-day journey to worship Him. Still, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Israel’s God. He thinks they have too much time on their hands to contemplate such a thing, so he multiplies their labors by requiring the same daily quota. Instead of the materials being brought to them as previously, they’re to procure them independently. It’s too hard, so they gripe at Moses, and Moses gripes to God. Yahweh reassures Moses about what He’s going to do, and Moses relays the message. Because Israel’s oppression is worse than before, they refuse to listen to Moses. For the first time in the story, God speaks to Moses and Aaron (Exod. 6:13). This is a sign of things to come—the high priesthood—because the genealogy that follows reveals that they are Levites, priests.
The plagues would be an undoing of God’s order, just as He allowed chaos to reign in the deluge, so He’d let chaos temporarily reign in the plagues. Each of God’s creative acts finds its negative counterpart in the plagues. Interestingly, each domain that God plagued also corresponds to the realm of a reigning Egyptian god or gods. We read ten times, “And God said,” in creation (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28–29). We also see a unique plague corresponding to most creative acts.
This particular episode has mixed in it the creation of observance, a memorial that would last through generations.
- Plague 1: “bodies” or “gatherings” of water (Exod. 7:19) correspond to when God created the seas in Gen. 1:10. Hapi was the god of the Nile, and it turning to blood symbolizes the god’s slaying as well as payback for Egypt’s slaying of Israelites children.
- Plagues 2–4: This triad of plagues (frogs, lice, and flies) are associated with the three elements of the earth—water (Gen. 1:20), land (Gen. 1:24), and air (Gen. 1:22). This is all contra Genesis 1:28. The goddess Heket had the head of a frog and controlled fertility. Geb was over the dust of the earth, and Kephri was the god of creation and had the head of a fly.
- Plague 5: Pestilence among livestock reverses Genesis 2:18–20. There was a marked distinction between Israel and Egypt (Exod. 9:6–7; cf. 8:22). Hathor was a goddess depicted with the head of a cow.
- Plague 6: This plague corresponds to the creation of humanity in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). They weren’t made sickly but whole. God’s affliction of the flesh reminds the people that they aren’t superior to others, and Pharaoh isn’t a god. Isis was the goddess of medicine and peace.
- Plagues 7–8: These two demolish the vegetation, which was a reversal of God giving it (Gen. 1:12; cf. Exod. 10:15). Nut was the goddess of the sky, and Seth, the god of storms and disorder.
- Plague 9: When God darkened the earth, He took creation back to the state that existed between Genesis 1:4–5. Ra was the sun god and personally backed Pharaoh, so this was enormous.
- Plague 10: Osiris was the god of death, but Pharaoh was considered the god of Egypt. The taking of life was the reversal of God breathing life into humanity (Gen. 2:7).
God instructed Moses on the Passover. A male lamb without blemish was to be taken and sacrificed for each household according to its number. The blood was to be applied to the doorposts and lintels of the houses. This meal was to be eaten in haste, and they were protected by the lamb’s blood. Egypt, however, suffered the loss of its firstborns. Keep in mind, a firstborn isn’t always an infant or toddler. I’m a firstborn, and many of us, regardless of age, are too. This doesn’t specify children but firstborn. On that note, God gives the law regarding the firstborn. Every firstborn of their livestock and children are God’s. Children may be redeemed by a sacrifice as well as donkeys, but the firstborn belongs to God. We later see this when descendants of Levi are substituted as the firstborn child (Num. 3:11–13). Descendants of Levi were sacrificed to serve the Lord all the days of their lives. This sort of reminds us of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac: luckily, God provided the substitute for Isaac’s redemption.
Israel now leaves Egypt, but a detail emerges that we’d do well to notice. Moses procures the bones of Joseph (Exod. 13:19; cf. Gen. 50:25). This oath made by the children of Israel looked ahead to a day when Israel would leave Egypt. When they arrived, they did so in good standing with the Egyptians and were welcomed because of who Joseph was to Egypt. Similarly, you and I will be accepted by God because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our attachment to Him, the lamb of God, causes God to stay His hand and pass us over when judgment comes.
Shortly after leaving Egypt, Israel is once more faced with the dilemma of liberty. It isn’t always cheap, and it often means self-reliance more than anything. So, they complained (Exod. 14:11–12). Pharaoh and his army close in on Israel, but luckily, it wouldn’t be long after this complaint that they’d walk through the Sea of Reeds. One might think their mood would have vastly improved after that miracle, not to mention the fact that God placed Himself as a cloud between them, giving Egypt cloudy darkness while giving Israel light. Their mood wouldn’t improve much after that. They’d left on the 10th of the first month, and now on the 15th of the second month, just a little over a month since they departed Egypt, they grumble once more (Exod. 16:3). God provides for them and gives them instructions about the Sabbath. These complainers: do you think they followed His words to the T? Nope (Exod. 16:20). Now, God isn’t too pleased (Exod. 16:28–30). It’s not too long before they complain again (Exod. 17:3). Wouldn’t we think that having seen what they saw and having lived through what they endured would be a good enough reason to rejoice like they had in chapter 15?
Similarly, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians something similar (Rom. 6:16–23). The Roman Christians still behaved as if they had before. No transformation. No change. But they had heard the good news, obeyed the gospel, and kept on living as they had. God no more expected Israel to live as slaves as He does. We are Christians to live as slaves. We are either slaves to sin, the taskmaster that oppresses us and kills us, or to righteousness. The latter is life-giving through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The former is life-taking. As Christians, when we live after the precepts of our God and follow His path, we demonstrate that we have truly been redeemed. Many of us acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, but do we live as if Jesus is our Lord? In the ancient world, one’s lord was their master. They couldn’t do anything to shame their lord, and if their lord gave an order, they were obliged to follow it. We have a good Lord who loves us, and rather than barking orders, He tells us what to do because it’s what’s best for us. Shall we be slaves to Egypt and sin, or righteousness and God?
In our first lesson on Exodus, I pointed out how Moses used language akin to the creation narrative in Genesis as well as the flood. In the previous study, I pointed out how the plagues were demonstrative of God removing His order from certain creation elements to punish the Egyptians. Keeping with this theme of creation, when the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, we note a recreation theme, just as it was post-flood. Notice in Exodus 14:21 how a “wind” drives the water back to create “dry land.” The word translated wind is the same word that can be translated as “spirit”—ruach. We remember how the Spirit of God, His ruach, hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). On Day 2 of creation, God divided the waters, and some were below, and others were above. On Day 3, God further separated the waters below to reveal the dry ground. Notice the theme?
Crossing the Sea of Reeds is a replay of creation. In Genesis, the earth came out of the water, but in Exodus, waters are split to reveal dry ground. As the distinction between land and water was created, the earth was made habitable to humans. This dry ground is life-giving to the Israelites. Then, in a replay of the flood, the waters crash down on the unrighteous Egyptians, just as God flooded the earth. Waters are tamed to bring life and released to bring death (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:5–6). Notice how Paul ties the Christian initiatory rite of baptism to Israel (1 Cor. 10:1–2). As water saved Noah and his family, and Israel and their family, the waters of baptism save us too (Rom. 6:3–6). We are, therefore, a new creation just as the earth was recreated after the flood, and Israel was created anew by passing through the waters. This is why we live as slaves to righteousness and God rather than to sin.
 I must give credit to Peter Enns and his book, Exodus for Normal People (Perkiomenville, PA: The Bible for Normal People, 2021). A lot of the information in these lessons that I’ve preached have come from him and his book.