A Nation in Bondage

The Bible’s first book records God’s great acts and love for humanity and its habitation. Yet with very few exceptions in Genesis, human beings, the pinnacle figures of creation, fail. First they are cast out of Eden, and then they defy their Maker both in the pre-Flood world and in the post-Flood socio-political system typified by the city-state of Babel. A loving God must then open new possibilities if mankind is to fulfill its potential of attaining His character and living forever. And so we are introduced to faithful Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (later known as Israel). Through this family line, God’s plan for humanity will ultimately be fulfilled.

The Bible’s second book, Exodus, picks up where Genesis leaves off, with a reference to the rapidly expanding family of Jacob living in Egypt: “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt; each man and his household came with Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher” (Exodus 1:1–4). With another son, Joseph, already in the land as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, the count of descendants is given as 70. This number, however, includes primarily Jacob’s direct male offspring; some commentators estimate that if his daughters-in-law and granddaughters were counted, and possibly other, unnamed daughters (see Genesis 37:35) and sons-in-law and their offspring, the total might be closer to 300.

After the members of this primary group died, the people of Israel “increased abundantly” (Exodus 1:7; the Hebrew, sharats, means “to teem,” “to swarm”). Such population growth was both a beginning fulfillment of promises made to Abraham’s line and the immediate reason for the Egyptians’ fear for their security. God had said to Abraham, “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2); to Isaac, “I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven” (Genesis 26:4); and to Jacob, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 35:11).

No other biblical book surfaces elsewhere in the New Testament as frequently as the Book of Exodus does; in the Old Testament only the Books of Psalms and Isaiah are cited more.”

John I. Durham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3: Exodus

This dramatic Israelite population increase caused a new pharaoh, who had not known Joseph, to be afraid: “The people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exodus 1:9). His specific concern was that “in the event of war, . . . they [might] also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land” (verse 10). To offset the threat brought about by a booming foreign population, Pharaoh subjected the Israelites to hard labor as they built his storage cities of Pithom and Raamses.

This seemed only to hasten the surge in population. Attempting to further curb such growth, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites in more building projects, in brick-making, and in agricultural labor. Pharaoh even ruled that population control could be achieved by having midwives kill all male Israelite babies. The midwives, likely Egyptian yet fearing God, could not bring themselves to do so. Pharaoh then broadened his command, telling all his people to throw male Hebrew newborns into the River Nile.

Against this backdrop of crazed oppression, God now introduced the person who would become His agent of rescue for the children of Israel. Ironically, Pharaoh’s daughter would soon take a Hebrew infant from the reeds by the Nile and have him raised by his own mother until the day he could become an Egyptian prince. Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses, a word that sounds like the Hebrew for “draw out,” because, she said, “I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10). Moses grew up with all the privileges of court life, becoming learned in Egyptian wisdom and accomplished in “words and deeds” (Acts 7:22).

Moses’ Middle Years

At the age of 40, and well aware of his Israelite origins, Moses came upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Feeling compassion for his enslaved brother, he killed the Egyptian and buried him, thinking that his act had gone unnoticed. But the next day, while trying to separate two feuding Hebrews, it became clear that the murder was known. One said, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14). Soon Pharaoh heard of the Egyptian’s death, causing Moses to flee for his life. He spent the next 40 years in a very different environment (Acts 7:29–30), tending the flocks of Jethro, the priest of Midian, a desert territory to the east of Egypt that was named after a son of Abraham and his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1–4; Exodus 3:1). Thus it was that Moses met up with a distant relative, marrying one of the priest’s daughters, Zipporah, and fathering two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18:2–4).

During these four decades, the children of Israel continued under worsening Egyptian oppression. Their groaning reached God’s ears, and He determined the time had come to free His people.

Out in the desert, the now 80-year-old Moses was tending his father-in-law’s herds. Close to Mount Horeb, he came upon a remarkable sight: a bush that was burning without being consumed. The voice that came from the bush was even more startling: “Moses, Moses!” Instructing him not to come closer but to remove his sandals in respect for the holiness of the place, the voice said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God then instructed Moses to ask the Egyptian leadership to free the Israelites from servitude and to bring them into a land of their own. It was an impossible task from Moses’ point of view: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (verse 11). Yet God assured him that he would succeed and bring the people back to the same mountain where he was now standing.

Moses was still concerned. Whom should he say had sent him when he went to the Israelites? The reply, “I am who I am” or “I am the One Who Always Is,” reveals the continuity of God’s existence. The Hebrew root word is hayah, meaning “to be,” “to exist.” He had been the God of their fathers and was now present for them; He is active in the present. “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (verse 14). But Moses was also to say that “the Lord” (YHVH) had sent him. These two terms are connected, arising as they do from the same verb. YHVH is the Self-Existent One. It is no longer known how YHVH was pronounced, though today the name Yahweh is often used when the term is found in the text. This would be the name by which the children of Israel would now know God: “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (verse 15, English Standard Version).

Moses was to go to the elders of the children of Israel and explain that God had heard the pleas of the people for release from Egyptian bondage. They were to go together to Pharaoh and request that the people be allowed to travel three days into the wilderness to worship God. Foretelling that Pharaoh would not readily agree, God said that it would take a series of miraculous interventions to persuade him to free the Israelites. We know those miracles as the Ten Plagues.

Despite this detailed conversation and God’s commitment to bring the people to the Promised Land (verse 17), Moses was still concerned that he would have no credibility with the Israelites. God then demonstrated that He would miraculously help Moses convince the people by three signs: He would cause his staff to become a serpent and then a staff once more; He would cause the flesh of his hand to become scaly and then be healed; and He would cause some water from the Nile to turn to blood (Exodus 4:1–9). Still Moses protested: “I am not eloquent, . . . please send someone else” (verses 10 and 13, ESV). By this time God was angered at Moses’ reluctance, telling him that Aaron his brother could be his mouthpiece and speak God’s words as Moses received them. Moses would also take the staff by which God’s backing would be evident.

Moses now asked release from his father-in-law, and, reassured by God that those who sought his life for the murder of the Egyptian were now dead, he returned to Egypt with his wife and sons. There Moses and Aaron met with the elders of Israel and spoke to the people. Convinced that God had indeed begun to intervene to free them, the people “bowed their heads and worshiped” (verse 31).

Facing Pharaoh

At their first audience with Pharaoh (Exodus 5:1–5), Moses and Aaron asked that the people be allowed to make a three-day journey to worship God. Refusing, Pharaoh ordered that the Israelites’ labor be made even more arduous, requiring that they collect the straw for brick-making themselves while maintaining their daily quotas. This produced anguish and complaint in the people, whose foremen now turned against Moses and Aaron. Moses, too, began to doubt God’s purpose: “Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all” (verse 23).

The people’s broken spirit and their harsh treatment prevented them from hearing God’s words of encouragement through Moses. God reminded them of His covenant promises to their forefathers, pertaining to land and to a relationship with Him: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”; “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God”; “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (6:6–8).

The people’s hopeless response only increased the pressure on Moses. Still God pushed him onward: “Go in, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the people of Israel go out of his land” (verse 11). Moses’ reply was less than enthusiastic, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips [a poor speaker], and how shall Pharaoh heed me?” (verse 30).

Reminding Moses that he and Aaron had to deliver His message, God said that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart; that He would perform signs (symbols) and wonders (miracles); and that in the end the Egyptians would know the power of the God of Israel to deliver His people (7:1–5).

The ‘hardening of the heart’ . . . expresses a state of arrogant moral degeneracy, unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion.”

Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus

This “hardening” of the heart has prompted the question as to whether Pharaoh had any option. If God hardened his heart, what happened to his free will? Was he in any way culpable for what happened? Of the Ten Plagues, the effect of the first five is that Pharaoh hardened his heart (7:22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7). But following the rest of the plagues, we read that “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10). His own decision to resist Moses and Aaron’s request to let the people go gave way to God bringing the process to a conclusion through him.

A Show of Power

The first three plagues came by the hand of Aaron. Two of them—water turned to blood for a week, and an overabundance of frogs—were replicated by Pharaoh’s magicians (7:14–25; 8:1–15). The Nile god Khnum and the froglike midwife goddess, Heket, are in the background of these plagues. Pharaoh had ordered midwives to kill Hebrew newborns, and others to throw them into the Nile.

The Egyptians themselves may not have been taken aback by these plagues; they believed that their own gods brought distress at times. At this point Pharaoh saw no reason to view the Israelites’ God as superior to his own. It was the third plague, when “the dust of the earth” became lice, or gnats (8:17), that brought the realization to some that a power greater than Egyptian magic was at work. Unable to replicate this plague, the sorcerers confessed, “This is the finger of God” (verse 19). But Pharaoh was not yet of a mind to admit defeat.

The next three plagues were effected by God. The fourth, of flies, afflicted Egyptian but not Israelite households. Finally Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go three days into the wilderness to worship, if Moses would ask God to call off the flies. Moses complied, the flies ceased, but Pharaoh reneged and hardened his heart once more (verses 20–32). Not even the death of Egyptian livestock in the fifth plague could induce Pharaoh to soften his approach (9:1–7).

With the sixth plague, humans and animals were stricken with boils. The magicians themselves couldn’t even stand before Moses. Now God Himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen to Moses and Aaron’s request (verses 8–12).

With each of these plagues Moses and Aaron had an audience with Pharaoh. There could be no mistaking their connection with the God of the Hebrews, whose power was being demonstrated.

The seventh plague was the beginning of a threefold set at the hand of Moses. It was an unprecedented hailstorm so fierce that it crushed trees and crops and any animal or human that was outdoors. Seeing the terrible destruction, Pharaoh was again ready to release the Israelites, this time on condition that the hail stop. Moses asked God to end the storm, but once again Pharaoh reneged just as God had predicted (verses 13–35).

The eighth plague, locusts, destroyed whatever plant life was left after the hailstorm. Despite the reduction of Egypt to a land with little food and livestock and the begging of Pharaoh’s servants that he let the Israelites go, the implacable ruler continued his stubborn course, turning back again on his stated commitment to free the slaves (10:1–20).

The ninth plague, three days of darkness across the land of Egypt, caused Pharaoh once more to tell Moses that he would release the people. But with his heart hardened, he again reversed his decision when Moses said they would take all their livestock with them. Pharaoh now set his mind to kill Moses if he ever saw him again (verses 21–29).

The stage was set for the final plague, after which Pharaoh would let the children of Israel go free. This time the firstborn of Egypt, both human and animal, would die. As with the other plagues, this would be unprecedented, and the Israelites again would not be affected. They had not suffered the flies, the death of livestock, the boils, the hail, nor the darkness. Now their firstborn would be spared.

When Moses announced this plague to Pharaoh, the ruler was still unwilling to comply. The death of Egyptian firstborn would have to proceed (11:1–10).

In order to be protected from the final plague, the children of Israel were to kill a lamb and smear some of its blood on their doorposts and lintels as a marker to distinguish their homes from those of the Egyptians (12:7, 12–13). During the night the firstborn of Egypt died, including Pharaoh’s own. By morning, he was ready to let Israel begin their journey out of slavery. Over a period of about six months, Egypt’s gods had been brought down. As God said, “against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (12:12).

We’ll pick up the remarkable story of the exodus of 2–3 million people next time.