Into the Wilderness

The dramatic encounter between the visible gods of Egypt and the invisible God of Israel culminated in a tenth and final plague that killed the firstborn of “both man and beast.” Pharaoh’s resulting change of heart led him to call for Moses and Aaron by night and command, “Rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel” (Exodus 12:31). The stage was now set for their departure on a journey that should have taken a few months but lasted 40 years. Why and how that happened is a story of ingratitude, forgetfulness and lack of faith.

Hastily taking their flocks and herds, unleavened dough (to comply with God’s instruction that they eat unleavened bread for seven days; see Exodus 12:17–20), and newly acquired Egyptian gold, silver and clothing, the freed slave nation left their taskmasters and set out for the Promised Land. All of this fulfilled God’s words to Abraham a few centuries earlier: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them. . . . Afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13–14). Moses also fulfilled a promise made by the sons of Israel to their brother Joseph: he took the bones of Joseph with him (Exodus 13:19; Genesis 50:25–26).

Leaving under cover of darkness the night after the Passover (see Numbers 33:3; Deuteronomy 16:1), they were subsequently to commemorate both events gratefully as evidence of God’s protection and deliverance. As regards the first evening (Nisan 14), they were to teach their children: “It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households” (Exodus 12:27). Concerning the next evening, Nisan 15, and the beginning of the festival of unleavened bread, Moses instructed them: “Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place” (Exodus 13:3). When their children would ask about eating unleavened bread in commemoration, they were to say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt” (verse 8).

Miraculous Interventions

While the total number of those departing Egypt is not given, it can be estimated at 2–3 million based on Exodus 12:37: “The children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.”

It is safe to say that no narrative in the Hebrew Bible has played such a central role in the Jewish and Christian interpretative communities, and in sub-groups within these communities, as the exodus story.”

Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible

This journey was never intended to be by the most convenient route: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.’” Instead, “God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” (13:17–18). The route along the Mediterranean was the long-established trade and military route, lined with Egyptian fortresses and way stations. If the children of Israel had met opposition there, they might have preferred to return to Egypt rather than face war. As it was, Pharaoh decided to pursue them into the wilderness, where they were soon hemmed in between the advancing Egyptian chariots and the expanse of water named in Hebrew yam suf (variously translated as “Red Sea” or “Sea of Reeds,” 15:4). Their dramatic rescue is well known. The sea miraculously divided, allowing their escape, only to crash in on the now-wheelless chariots (14:24–25) and their occupants. God’s power over the Egyptians was again confirmed: “So the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses” (verses 30–31).

This confidence in God and His servant was not long-lasting. When they could find no water after only three days of travel in the wilderness, the children of Israel were overcome with fear and regret at having left Egypt. Arriving at Marah (“bitterness”), where water was available but tainted, they began to complain. God showed Moses a kind of wood that when put into water made it sweet. It was an opportunity to make a rule for Israel. If they would be obedient to God’s word, He would prevent them from suffering any of the diseases common in Egypt, “for I am the Lord, your healer” (Exodus 15:26, English Standard Version). With that, they moved on to the oasis of Elim, where they found 12 water springs and 70 palm trees.

The miraculous satisfying of Israel’s thirst did not translate into trust about their food supply, however. A few days later they were complaining to Moses and Aaron about hunger: “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (16:3). The answer was God’s miraculous provision of quail meat in the evening and an unknown sweet breadlike substance called manna (literally “what is it?”) that came with the dew. God said His larger purpose was “that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not” (verse 4). The people would demonstrate their obedience by following the command to gather only enough manna for each day, and a double amount on Friday in preparation for observing the seventh day or Sabbath (verses 5 and 23). Though it took some persuasion, eventually they obeyed precisely and were granted manna for the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (verse 35).

The physical needs of the Israelites continued to loom large, and soon they were back to agitating about the shortage of water. This time at a place named Massah (“testing”) and Meribah (“quarreling”), they argued and put God to the test by doubting that He was really present among them. God had Moses strike a rock with his rod and, miraculously, water flooded out (17:1–7). This occurred in the vicinity of Rephidim, which would become famous in Israel’s history as the place where the Amalekites attacked them without warrant and paid a price for many years to come. Though with God’s intervention the Amalekites were defeated, their aggression would be avenged “from generation to generation” (verses 8–16).

Dealing with the concerns of the vast nation of Israel was straining Moses’ abilities and resilience. His father-in-law, Jethro the Midianite, for whom he had tended flocks for 40 years before the Exodus, came to visit him and gave sound advice about delegation: “Select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you” (18:21–22).

The Ten Words

In the third month after leaving Egypt, the children of Israel arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai. God had told Moses that after delivering the Israelites, He would bring him back to the place of his first encounter with Him at the burning bush, and that he would serve Him on Mount Sinai (3:12).

The arrival at Sinai inaugurates the culminating stage in the process of forging Israel’s national identity and spiritual destiny.”

Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus

As the people assembled, the mountain was wreathed in smoke and fire, with thunder and lightning. Moses was called up and told to warn the people about getting too close. God then spoke the Ten Commandments (literally in Hebrew, “the Ten Words,” or in Greek, “the Decalogue”). Moses would later ascend the mountain and receive the written tablets of the law defining the relationship between God and His people. If the people would agree to the terms, they would become “a special treasure to [God] above all people; . . . a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:5–6). The ten rules were meant to be the basis of their life under God going forward.

The Ten Commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Exodus 20:2–17

Though this is the first evidence of the law’s codified form, the principles were in effect from the beginning. The apostles made this clear. Paul wrote about Adam’s failure in the Garden of Eden: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12), and John defined sin as “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, King James Version).

In effect, Adam and Eve broke several of the Ten Commandments in the first sin against God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They put another being before their Creator, believing Satan’s lie. They disobeyed their Creator’s command and set themselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong. They disrespected their parent. They coveted the forbidden fruit, stealing what was not theirs, and so on.

God told Adam’s son Cain that sin lay at his door, crouching like an animal about to attack, and that he must overcome it (Genesis 4:7). Instead he murdered his brother Abel and lied about his whereabouts (verses 8–9).

The fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath is indicated in the Genesis account of creation, where God rested on the seventh day and made it holy. This is referred to later as the basis of Sabbath observance (Exodus 31:13–17), where the day is specified as a sign identifying the people of God. It is worth noting that the children of Israel were required to acknowledge the Sabbath before the giving of the law at Sinai, when they were commanded to collect a double portion of manna on the sixth day in preparation for the Sabbath (16:4, 23–26, 28–30).

Others demonstrated that they knew the law by keeping it. Abel knew that it was right to honor God in giving offerings (Genesis 4:4). Enoch was a man who followed God’s way (Genesis 5:22). Noah was a righteous man, defined as law-abiding, in contrast to the world around him (Genesis 6:9). God told Isaac that he would be blessed “because [your father] Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). Joseph refused to break the seventh commandment against adultery (with the wife of his master), saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:7–9).

There is ample evidence that the Ten Commandments were in force before their codification in the time of Moses.

A Stiff-Necked People

When Moses returned to God’s presence he received many additional rules that flow from the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:22–23:19). These deal with such diverse subjects as the treatment of indentured workers, restitution, social justice, and weekly and annual Sabbaths. The people agreed to live by these words of God, as written down by Moses (24:4, 7), though they preferred not to hear directly from God (verse 3; 20:19).

Summoned by God and accompanied by 70 elders as well as Aaron and his sons Nadab and Abihu, Moses ascended the mountain. Together these men “saw the God of Israel” (24:10). Moses then went on with his assistant Joshua to receive the law written by God’s hand (verses 12–13). Leaving Aaron and Hur to attend to any questions that might arise, Moses departed for 40 days and nights. During this time, God gave him detailed instructions for the building of a sanctuary where He would dwell among the people. This movable tabernacle of worship with all of its furnishings—ark, lampstand, curtains, altars, etc.—as well as the court, the priestly garments and even the consecration ceremony were described so that a godly pattern could be followed (see chapters 25–30; chapters 35–40 record the eventual building or making of each item according to God’s instructions).

Then God gave Moses “two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (31:18). This should have been the positive culmination of Israel’s first encounter with God. Unfortunately, in Moses’ lengthy absence they had already turned away from the One who had delivered them from slavery. Doubtful and faithless with regard to Moses’ whereabouts, they had asked Aaron to provide a new god in the form of a golden calf, molded in the fire from their own gold earrings (32:1–6).

The Decalogue and its contents are . . . in a class by themselves. The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled.”

Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus

Informing Moses of what had happened, God was about to destroy the people who had so quickly turned aside from Him. Moses’ pleas were heard and the people spared, but his anger at the idolatry he witnessed as he returned to the camp had an unexpected outcome. Coming upon the people who danced around the metal image, he threw the tablets he was carrying down to the ground and broke them. He then destroyed the golden calf, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the people drink it. Three thousand people died that day as a result of punishment from God. This episode caused God to conclude that the people He had rescued were “a stiff-necked people,” whose journey to the Promised Land would be arduous. His temporary decision not to be in the midst of them for fear of the consequences (33:5) meant that His tabernacle was to be set up outside the camp. Joshua was to guard it when Moses wasn’t there. God’s presence in the Tabernacle was evident by a pillar of cloud at the door. There God would speak to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (verse 11).

Soon Moses went back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets of the law once again. While there, God allowed him to see Him more closely, yet only by shielding Moses’ eyes as He passed by (verses 18–23). God was revealed as having very definite characteristics: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (34:6–7).

Once again, for 40 days and nights Moses remained on the mountain, hearing about the law of God before coming back with the newly written rules. Moses then asked God to return to being among His people. He agreed and promised miraculous interventions on their behalf. As Exodus closes we learn that “the cloud of the Lord was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (40:38).