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The life and legacy of Moses: God will lead—but we must follow

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 11-13

Ronald Reagan’s death was a national event, as it should have been. What was it about him which made such an obvious and enduring impact on our country and people? His role in ending the Cold War and Soviet Communism is well known and appreciated, of course. His leadership in simplifying government and standing for moral decency was significant and inspiring.

But his optimistic charisma may be the first impression people recall from his presidency. Remember the eloquence of his words and spirit, the kind and gracious way he comforted the bereaved, and the confidence with which he challenged the nation and her leaders. Commentators and historians speak often of Mr. Reagan’s connection with the American people. He was someone we felt we could trust.

We all need people whose character we trust and whose leadership we can follow. Those who feel they cannot trust anyone are often subject to emotional distress and significant depression. At a formative time in her history, the nation of Israel found such a Person they could trust with their lives, families, and futures.

The Passover event was to them what the crucifixion and resurrection are to us—the pivot-point of God’s history with humanity. Lessons learned from this event would make and mold the Jewish mind and spirit, and the Western worldview through them.

Where in your life do you need someone to trust this week? What decision requires more wisdom than you possess? What problem is larger than your resources? Where do you need to know God’s protection and providence? The One who freed his enslaved people from the mightiest power on earth now stands on your side. Are you on his?

Passover and the people of God

The Passover event culminated nine other judgments brought by the hand of God against Pharaoh and his people. At each point, it teaches God’s people valuable spiritual lessons as we learn to trust this God as our Lord.

Trust the timing and power of God (Exodus 11:1)

As our text opens, the Lord makes clear the fact that what will transpire comes directly from his hand: “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt” (Exodus 11:1a). The Passover plague was no accident of nature or environment—it was the direct work of the Sovereign Lord of the universe.

This event would reveal not only his power but also his providence: “After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely” (v. 1b). God knew exactly what Pharaoh would do, for the future is the present with him. And he was right: “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!'” (Exodus 12:31). We can trust the timing and power of God, for they are always for his glory and our good.

Ask for what you need (Exodus 11:2-3)

When the Lord first called Moses to lead his people from Egypt, he promised that the Egyptians would provide all that the nation would need (Exodus 3:21-22). He kept his side of the arrangement, favorably disposing the Egyptians toward the Hebrews and Pharaoh’s officials and people toward Moses. Now Moses must do his part in leading his followers to ask for all that God meant to provide for them (Exodus 11:2).

These articles would provide economic resource for the nation, but primarily serve as means of worship. (Tragically, they later used some of this plunder to make and worship Aaron’s golden calf; cf. Exodus 32:2). James chastised his readers: “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). John Wesley was convinced that God does nothing except in answer to prayer. So it was that his people were to trust him to provide for them through their Egyptians neighbors. So it is that God still meets all our needs in his own will and way (Philippians 4:19). But we must ask and receive in faith (Matthew 7:7-11).

Follow God as he directs (Exodus 11:4-10)

Next, Moses and Aaron were to go before Pharaoh with the message and warning of this impending judgment. He could not be a God of both justice and mercy unless he gave the Egyptians opportunity to repent of their rebellion. He used Moses to describe precisely what would happen if they refused his will. Only then could he act according to that purpose.

It has been said, “Don’t get ahead of God—he may not follow.” But it is equally true that we must not get behind him. And the latter is more our tendency than the former. So often God must wait on his people to step out by faith, so he can act in power. How many times I have hindered his effectiveness through my life by my own lack of trust in his will. Is there a faith step which God is asking of you this week?

Prepare to see the hand of God (Exodus 12:1-28)

Pharaoh has been warned—now God’s people must be prepared. With some of previous plagues Pharaoh at first relented, then refused to allow the people to leave. He might (and in fact did) do the same with this last plague. So the people must be ready to leave Egypt immediately.

With the Passover, the Lord inaugurated a new calendar for his people. Its first month would be this Passover month. This was the spring time, March-April to us; the Jews would call this month Abib and later, Nisan. Their year would begin with this event, as did their nation.

The people were to find a lamb for the sacrifice, year-old males without defect (Exodus 12:5), then slaughter them at twilight. They next used a hyssop branch to place some of the lamb’s blood on the sides and tops of their doorframes. Absent this preparation, the death angel would take their firstborn as well as the Egyptians’ (v. 13).

They would then prepare a special Passover meal of lamb and bitter herbs (v. 8), and eat it annually to remind their children and grandchildren of this event. As they spent generations in the bitterness of Egyptian bondage, so they would revisit their travails and thank God for their deliverance.

Without these faith preparations, the Hebrews would have experienced the terrors of the Passover deaths, and been marked forever as a disobedient and rebellious nation. But fortunately, “The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron” (v. 28). And their obedience to the word of God positioned them to receive all that his grace intended to give.

What must you do to receive the help and guidance of God? Such faith does not merit his help—it positions us to receive his mercy. You cannot read these words unless you are willing to sit before your computer; your class cannot participate in your presentation this Sunday unless they are present; God cannot give what we will not take. A clenched fist can receive no gifts.

Expect God to keep his promises (Exodus 12:29-31)

Finally the climactic moment came. At midnight the Lord struck down every firstborn in Egypt. Pharaoh’s own son died, proving the mortality and humanity of his family and his weakness before the Hebrew God. The “prisoner who was in the dungeon” (v. 29) represents the other end of Egyptian society; the loss of his son showed that none would be spared but the people of God. Only when the Lord’s power was manifested with such terrible consequence did Pharaoh finally relent and release his people (but note that his stubborn spirit would soon send his armies after them to their doom; cf. Exodus 14:5ff.).

Note his parting words to Moses: “And also bless me” (v. 32). Pharaoh’s first response to Moses’ message was quite the opposite: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Now this man has seen the Hebrew God in all his power, and finally recognized his own mortality.

In the Passover event, God kept every promise he made to Moses and his people. He had promised that he would use Moses to win the nation’s freedom (Exodus 3:19-20); that he would speak words of power through his lips (Exodus 4:12); that the Egyptians would give them all they might need and more (Exodus 3:21-22); and that his people would “worship God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Now they are on their way to that very place and purpose.

Passover and the love of God

The Passover event presents most readers with a troubling question: how could a God of love command his death angel to kill so many innocent people? Pharaoh and his court knew Moses personally, and made an intentional decision not to surrender to God’s will expressed through his message. However, their first-born sons presumably had no such information or choice. Why would a God of love and justice seek their deaths as the consequence of sins they had not committed?

This problem was not unique to the Egyptians. Remember that the Canaanites had lived in their land for centuries before Joshua and his people came to claim it for themselves. While some in Canaan fought against God’s people and were destroyed as a result (cf. the battle of Ai, Joshua 8:14ff), others mounted no armed aggression against Israel.

The people of Jericho, in fact, retreated inside their city walls and mounted no attack against the Jews. Nonetheless, following divine orders, the Israeli soldiers “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).

The God of Joshua also required a similar kind of wrathful judgment against his own people when they sinned. Following the battle of Jericho, a soldier named Achan took in plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels” (7:21).

This in direct disobedience to the divine command that “All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury” (6.19). For this sin, the Israeli army was defeated in the first battle of Ai. When Achan admitted his disobedience, he and his family were taken to the Valley of Achor where they were stoned to death and then burned (7:25).

Such vengeance sounds very little like the God who is love (1 John 4:8), the One who would send his own Son to die on a cross in place of our disobedient race. How are we to reconcile the God of the Passover with the Father of our Savior? Five facts may help..

First, the tenth plague was less severe for Egypt than Pharaoh’s edicts had been for Israel. While Pharaoh ordered the death of every male child (Exodus 1:22), the Lord’s decision affected only the first-born children. The Passover was of course disastrous for families across Egypt, but it did not decimate their nation completely. Given Pharaoh’s complete refusal to allow the children of Israel to leave their bondage, this measure was the only means left for God to use.

Second, the Egyptians and Canaanites lived in rebellion against the will and purposes of God. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of gods, and made the Pharaoh divine as well. Their idolatry was organized theologically: the Sun God emerged from Nun (the abyss), and created Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), who in turn produced Geb (earth) and Nut (sky); from them came forth Osiris and Isis, and Seth and Nephthys. These and other gods were worshiped through a variety of pagan rituals. Such idolatry was in direct conflict with the Second Commandment and the holiness of the one true God.

Likewise, the Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” reached its “full measure” (Genesis 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest.

Moses warned his people about these sins they would encounter upon entering the Promised Land: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). He stated that anyone who practices such sins is “detestable to the Lord,” and explained that “because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (v. 12).

Those who were conquered by Joshua and his armies were not innocent victims, but sinners who received the judgment their transgressions had warranted.

Third, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Jews left Egypt to claim it or the Canaanites established temporary residency there. It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Genesis 15:16a).

The Lord did not take from Canaanites that which was “theirs”—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes. And he brought his people from Egyptian slavery as part of his larger plan for their lives and ours.

Fourth, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy the sons and soldiers of their enemies. Otherwise, the son was obligated to seek vengeance for the death of his father. This fact pertained more to the Canaanites than the Egyptians, but it related to both cultures. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the typical way wars were prosecuted.

And fifth, in these formative early years of Israel’s history it was imperative that the people be kept from the influence of sinners without or within their nation. The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). This warning came to pass centuries later at the hands of Assyria and then Babylon, and ultimately in the national destruction wrought by Rome in the first century after Christ.

God had to bring severe judgment against Pharaoh and his family and nation, so that he might free his people from their slavery and idolatry.

The Passover not only showed the Egyptians that they must bow to the Hebrew God—it also showed the Hebrews that theirs is the one true Lord. The death of animals sacred to the Egyptian gods as well as sons showed all people that only God is God. Given the Egyptian fixation with death, and the promise of its priests that they alone could guarantee the dead a safe passage to the next life, the tenth plague proclaimed in the strongest possible terms that all must make the Hebrew God their Lord.

Likewise, God had to judge the sin of Achan, lest he and his family spread the cancer of their disobedience within the nation. And he ordered his people to destroy all they found within Canaanite civilization, lest it continue to tempt them to disobedience and eventual destruction. We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

God does not change. But his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history. Justice required retribution against a sinful Pharaoh and his people, and against the sinful Canaanite civilization. And his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind. When Christ came, Moses’ and Joshua’s leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.

Now we are taught to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are “sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.

Conclusion

The Passover lessons we have discussed today would become crucial to the children of Israel in coming years. Again and again they would have to learn to trust God’s timing and power, to ask for all they would need, to prepare to see his hand of might, and to expect him to keep his promises. When they forgot these lessons, they fell into idolatry and sin. When they remembered them, they followed God into his purpose and grace.

It is the same with us. Where do these Passover lessons speak to your problem and need today? What will you do to make God your Lord this week?