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The life and legacy of Moses: God know who you are—wherever you are

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 1-2

The Book of Exodus stands in stark rejection of such spirituality. In Exodus, it’s all about God. He is the sovereign ruler of the world, not Pharaoh. His people are the chosen race, not the Egyptians. He is to be worshiped, not the pantheon of Egyptian deities.

Here’s the surprising paradox Exodus makes clear: the more we exalt God, the more we position ourselves to receive his help. The more we honor him, the more we are able to gain his blessing. To live for God is to experience his provident protection. If our religion serves God, we gain. If it serves us, we lose.

The book’s name comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and is a fitting description of the narrative’s central event. The exodus from Egypt was the defining moment of Jewish history, and indeed, created the Jewish nation. Without the exodus, the Bible would end in Egyptian slavery. What the atonement is to Christians, the exodus is to Jews.

It is an astounding story: after 200 years of life in Egypt and another 230 years of enslavement there, the Jewish people are led out of their land of bondage. They defeat the mightiest army the world has ever known. They benefit from the greatest miracles the world has ever seen. Through the exodus the world learns that God is indeed on the throne of the universe.

The two themes of Exodus, and indeed of all that will follow in Scripture, are set in the book’s first two chapters. One: God’s people can expect oppression and suffering. Two: God will act according to his sovereign purpose to preserve his purpose and people.

As we open Exodus, we must open ourselves to its message. Where are you in Egypt today? What chains have bound your class members to lives of frustration and discouragement? Where do you need liberation from sin and freedom to experience the abundant life of Jesus?

Let’s learn that it’s about God. And that those who live for God receive all that God gives his obedient children.

Expect oppression (Exodus 1)

Exodus opens with the children of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-5). God had used this foreign nation to preserve his people during a time of severe famine, as Joseph led them to live under his protection and provision (Genesis 45-47).

So the Jewish people “went to Egypt with Jacob” (v. 1), listed here in order of seniority; the sons of Rachel and Leah are named before the sons of their handmaids Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah (Gad and Asher).

Now “Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died” (v. 6), and 200 years have passed. But God’s plan to prosper his people continued, as the nation “multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (v. 7a).

The people grew to 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37) with their families, thus a total population of around two million. And so “the land was filled with them” (v. 7)—not the entire nation, as no evidence exists that the Jews lived outside the land of Goshen, but their particular region of Egypt.

Now a new king has come to the throne (v. 8). On this event, the narrative of Exodus and all of Scripture turns. Historians date Exodus in two primary ways. 1 Kings 6:1 describes the exodus as occurring 480 years before “the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel”; since that year was 966 B.C., the traditional approach places the exodus at 1446 B.C. By this approach, Thutmose III was pharaoh of the oppression, and Amunhotep II the pharaoh of the exodus.

However, the presence of the city Rameses in Exodus 1:11 has caused others to date the exodus with the 19th dynasty, making Seti I and Rameses II the pharaohs of the oppression and exodus, respectively. By this scheme, the exodus is dated at 1290 B.C.

The traditional approach is more credible in my view, given its biblical foundation (cf. 1 Kings 6:1); the city called “Rameses” by Exodus could have been given that name by a later editor who used the title as existed was in his day.

Whatever the new king’s identity, his role in Exodus was crucial. The phrase “a new king” is not found elsewhere in the Bible. Its syntax seems to imply that he did not ascend to the throne in the normal order of succession or inheritance.

The phrase “came to power in Egypt” can also be translated, “arose to power over Egypt.” And so many scholars believe that this pharaoh conquered the land and its throne.

The fact that he “did not know about Joseph” does not mean merely that he had no personal knowledge of Joseph (note that 200 years have passed since Joseph’s life and work), but that he separated himself from earlier Egyptian traditions.

His title was “pharaoh,” meaning “great house.” The description refers to an office rather than a proper name. As the new occupant of that office, his fear for his throne and kingdom was clear and understandable (vs. 9-10).

Why were the Hebrews such a threat to him? “Hebrew” is derived from “Eber,” the descendant of Shem (Genesis 10:21, 24), first used for Abram (Abraham, Genesis 14:13).

Josephus explains the pharaoh’s action against these people thus: an Egyptian scribe predicted that “there would be a child born to the Israelites who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” (Antiquities 2.9.2).

During this period of her history, Egypt found herself in constant warfare with nations from western Asia. It may be that the Hebrews resembled these enemies in language, customs, and appearance. If they were to ally themselves with the invaders, the Egyptians would be destroyed. Given that they now numbered some two million, this was a very real threat.

Conversely, if they were to leave the country they would take the labor force which was so essential to the Egyptian economy (cf. Confederate fears regarding slavery). Josephus recorded that “the Egyptians grew delicate and lazy, as to painstaking; and gave themselves up to other pleasures, and in particular to the love of gain” (Antiquities 2:9:1).

And so fear caused the Egyptians to oppress Israel. It still leads to oppression today. Fear of physical threat, economic downturns, or behind-the-scenes intrigue drive many political decisions and leaders today. One of the most frequent causes of criminal violence is fear of the person who is harmed. Fear of the future can cause anyone to turn from faith to sin.

In this case, the pharaoh put “slave masters” over the Hebrews (v. 11). These were men of rank—we would call them superintendents of public works today. It was their job to supervise, motivate, and oppress the Hebrews.

These taskmasters were not the last oppressors of God’s people. Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). However, he then promised, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33b). Paul’s warning to new believers in Galatia is God’s word to us as well: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

The Jews were in God’s will by living in Egypt. But they faced oppression, slavery, and suffering nonetheless. Jesus did not pray for his people to be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected from the evil one (John 17:15). And the Father always answers the prayers of his Son.

If you will serve the Lord by living in his will, you should expect to face oppression. Satan is still a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8); note that lions roar only when they are about to attack. Don’t be surprised by the hardships of life and faith. Rather, welcome them as indication that your life is a threat to the enemy.

The story is told of a believer and a non-Christian who were walking down a trail together. Suddenly the devil jumped out from a bush and stood before them. The non-Christian cried to his Christian friend, “Save me from him!” To which the believer replied, “No, he’s already got you—it’s me he’s after.”

You and I live in Egypt. We should expect the Egyptians to oppress their spiritual enemies. Be encouraged—you are worthy of the pharaoh’s attention.

Expect deliverance (1:22—2:10)

In the midst of their oppression, the children of Israel found allies in the unlikeliest of places. Note the role of women in the narrative which follows: the two Hebrew midwives (1:15-21), a Hebrew mother and her daughter (2:1-4), and Pharaoh’s daughter (2:5-10).

The two midwives (vs. 15-21) possessed Egyptian names, and thus were probably Egyptians. Pharaoh charged them with killing every baby boy born to the Hebrews.

The Egyptian king insisted that these Egyptian midwives destroy the Jewish boys as they were born on their mothers’ “delivery stool” (v. 16). The phrase refers to the two stones on which women sat while giving birth; they are still used by Egyptian midwives today. (A less likely explanation is that the phrase refers to the distinguishing organs of male children.)

The midwives refused the king’s command. So he summoned them before him, on trial for their lives. But because they feared God, they were given families of their own (v. 20). And so they married Hebrew men and became part of the Hebrew race.

Now comes the birth of Moses. His parents were named Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20). Aaron had been born three years earlier (cf. Exodus 7:7), and Miriam was older still. But Moses’ parents “saw that he was no ordinary child” (Hebrews 11:23). And so they chose to defy the king’s edict. They hid their son in a “papyrus basket” (Exodus2:3).

Papyrus was a reed which grew in abundance along the Nile river, climbing to 10 to 15 feet in height, the thickness of a man’s finger. It was cut, unwrapped, and stretched to dry in the sun as “paper” (the word comes from “papyrus”). It was also used to make reed sailing vessels, as here. Moses’ mother created such a “basket” (the word is used only here and with Noah’s “ark”), and placed her three-month-old son inside.

Now, as God preserved mankind through Noah’s Ark, so he preserved his people through Moses’ ark. As Moses would come through the Red Sea, so he was first rescued from the Nile. His name, “draw out,” was first proven here, then later in the exodus which Moses would lead.

Moses’ mother likely knew where pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe in the Nile with her attendants. She may even have known something of her character.

Josephus names her Thermuthis; the Apocrypha calls her Tharmuth (Jubilees 47:5); some think she may be the person who became Queen Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh.

Her adoption of Moses was of crucial significance to his future in the nation’s history, as Luke would make clear: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).

Josephus states: “He was…educated with great care. So the Hebrews depended on him, and were of good hopes that great things would be done by him; but the Egyptians were suspicious of what would follow such his education” (Antiquities 2.9.7).

God allows his enemies to oppress his people, but he promises always to give us what we need as we need it. His deliverance may not come in the way or from the source you expect.

No one could have predicted that Moses would be saved from pharaoh by his own daughter. But God will always accomplish his purpose for his people.

David could pray, “let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you” (Psalm 5:11). With this assurance: “surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield” (v. 12).

Trust God’s timing (2:11-15)

We must do the will of God, but in the ways of God. In our story we find Moses next walking ahead of the Lord’s plan and timing. Someone has cautioned: don’t get ahead of God, because he may not follow.

Moses was now 40 years of age, living in Egypt as the heir to Pharaoh. Josephus describes him as a great warrior already, having led Egypt to defeat the Ethiopians and preserve the nation (Antiquities 2:10).

Now he made a good and pivotal decision: “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Hebrews 11:24-25).

But he carried out that decision in a disastrous way, killing an Egyptian who was oppressing an Israelite. His decision marked his complete severance from Egyptian relationship. But it led to 40 more years of suffering for them, as he fled the nation for his own safety.

Augustine’s explanation of Moses’ actions and motives repays our reading: “though Moses slew the Egyptian, without being commanded by God, the action was divinely permitted, as, from the prophetic character of Moses, it prefigured something in the future….it was wrong for one who had no legal authority to kill the man, even though he was a bad character, besides being the aggressor. But in minds where great virtue is to come, there is often an early crop of vices, in which we may still discern a disposition for some particular virtue, which will come when the mind is duly cultivated. For as farmers, when they see land bringing forth huge crops, though of weeds pronounce it good for corn…so the disposition of mind which led Moses to take the law into his own hands, to prevent the wrong done to his brother, living among strangers, by a wicked citizen of the country from being unrequited, was not unfit for the production of virtue, but from want of culture gave signs of his productiveness in an unjustified manner.”

When two fighting Hebrews the next day said to him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exodus 2:14), they unknowingly predicted the very future Moses would fulfill. But not yet.

Pharaoh sought his life in retribution, forcing Moses to flee the land of his birth and training for the region of Midian (v. 15). This was a dry, barren region in southeastern Sinai, extending from the eastern coast of Red Sea to the borders of Moab. His new surroundings were quite a contrast to the opulence of Pharaoh’s palace.

Even in the wilderness, Moses found God’s provision for him. Reuel (the name means “friend of God”) took Moses into his home and family, and gave him shelter for the next 40 years. If there had been no Reuel, we would likely have never heard of Moses.

God’s ways are not our ways, or his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). To know God’s full provision and protection, we must stay in his will and timing. He seldom delivers as quickly as we would wish, but always in the strategy which is for our best.

Only when we “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” can we “rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). A storm shelter is no good in a tornado unless we get in it. Only in the “shadow” of the Almighty can we rest in his protection. So trust your oppressor and oppression to the will and timing of God. He never fails his people.

Trust God’s compassion (2:23-25)

Finally the Lord acted to deliver his enslaved people. As the Israelites “groaned in their slavery and cried out” (Exodus 2:23), God responded in four ways.

First, he “heard their groaning.” He always hears our prayers, whether we know it or not. He always listens to our cries for help. David’s request that God “consider my sighing” and “listen to my cry for help” is always answered (Psalm 5:2).

Second, he “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Exodus2:24). He had promised Abraham (Genesis 15:17-18; 17:7), Isaac (Genesis 17:19; 26:24) and Jacob (Genesis 35:11-12) that he would bless their nation. And he always keeps his promises.

Third, he “looked on the Israelites” (Exodus 2:25a). He sees our every need. Nothing escapes his attention. The One who watches every bird of the air (Matthew 6:26) sees you as you read these very words. He knows your name, your need, and the answer to your every problem.

Fourth, he “was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:25b). He felt what they felt. He is no Zeus sitting atop Mt. Olympus in apathy, but our Father in heaven. He grieves as we grieve, and rejoices as we rejoice. He is concerned about you where you are, this moment.

As we will see in upcoming studies, God’s compassion would soon become his action. And the Jewish nation would never be the same again.

Conclusion

Where is your Egypt? Where do you face oppression and frustration in your faith? Expect them to come. But also expect deliverance, according to the will of your Father. As a wise pastor once promised me, God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

To answer God’s call to missions, Dr. Baker James Cauthen resigned from his positions as professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and senior pastor at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. He announced that he and his family would be traveling to China. The Second World War had just begun, and many skeptics predicted that Dr. Cauthen would not even arrive in China, much less serve there effectively. But this great man of God, later the president of the Foreign Mission Board, answered each critic with a smile and this claim: “The safest place in all the world to be is the center of the will of God.”

He was right.