The title of this chapter comes from an old hymn, ‘I will sing the wondrous story’ by F. H. Rawley. It is a hymn of great realism, spiritual and circumstantial, and its words, even if slightly antique for today’s taste, catch exactly the national and personal plight of the Israelites in Egypt:
Days of darkness still come o’er me;
Sorrow’s path I oft may tread
So indeed it was! After its fashion, the Bible narrative does not itemize the dark sufferings the people endured. We are never told all we might want to know, but only what we need to know, and the narrator apparently considered that the words slave masters … oppressed them with forced labour … worked them ruthlessly (1:11–13) were quite enough to sketch in the picture. Beyond that public oppression, however, lay agonizing depths of private and domestic grief (1:22). ‘Darkness’ and ‘sorrow’ unbounded!
And these were the people of God. That is the point where the mystery deepens. Exodus takes the trouble to assure us of the family tree of these sufferers (1:1–3). Their ancestry to Jacob and doubtless the story of Genesis 46:1–4 had been told down the generations: they were where they were by divine command, under divine promise, awaiting divine intervention. Of these things, however, they saw no outward sign. Heaven above was as silent as earth around was threatening. And before we allow the thought to arise that all this happened long ago, we need to ask why Paul thought it necessary to teach the disciples of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch that ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22), or why Peter addressed the church as ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world’ (1 Pet. 1:1). Experience without explanation, adversity without purpose, hostility without protection—that is how life will always appear for the earthly people of God.
What a tale of suffering these verses actually tell. ‘Days of darkness … Sorrow’s path’ indeed for our ancestors in Egypt! There was general hardship as slave masters were put over them to oppress them (11). The word oppress means ‘to bring them low’, ‘to beat down’. The tale continues in chapters 13 and 14: the Egyptians made Israel into slaves and used them ruthlessly. This is an unusual word which is used only five times in the Bible and signifies the imposition of general hardship and ruthlessness of behaviour.
In addition to all this there came a further frightful and cutting hardship: the murder of the children. Pharaoh told the Hebrew midwives that ‘When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth … if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl let her live’ (16). The NIV translation differs from the Hebrew original by replacing ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. Parents discover this distinction when they have a baby. Immediately after the birth there comes the moving and tender element of relationship when the baby becomes so much more than just a boy or a girl, it is a son or a daughter. So, it was not just boys and girls who were being killed or kept alive, it was sons and daughters, and we get a glimpse of the personal anguish this caused.
The weight of opposition ranged against the people of God was enormous. Pharaoh wanted to bring about a genocide, and therefore he did the logical thing by trying to kill all the male babies. When this failed he mobilized the whole force of the land of Egypt against the Hebrews (22). Pharaoh at the top, his people living cheek by jowl with the people of God, who were spread throughout the land, and finally the river-god itself. All the power of Egypt, all the power of the enemy—royal, popular, supernatural. Days of darkness indeed!
Ranged against the might of Pharaoh and his slave masters was a series of seemingly insignificant women. First of all, there were the two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, whose names have gone down in Scripture because of their heroic faith. Then there was the resolute Jochebed, Moses’ mother, who loved her baby, the third of her children. She seems also to have recognized something special about him, which made it even more unbearable to think of throwing him into the river, or allowing anybody else to do it (2:2). So, at what terrifying risk to herself we are not told, she hid the little one and, when necessity drove, obeyed the letter but not the spirit of Pharaoh’s edict. She did actually commit her child into the devouring mouth of the river-god, the Nile, but only to find that there was, on her side, a power over all the power of the enemy (cf. Luke 10:19; 1 John 4:4).
Then there was Miriam, that resourceful girl! Imagine noticing so acutely how Pharaoh’s daughter’s face changed when she looked at the baby, and realizing so intuitively that behind the royal countenance there was a compassionate heart—and then to have the audacity to bring the baby’s mother into the equation as his nurse. What a turnaround! Far from this Hebrew baby being killed by the will of the royal house, his rescuer emerged from the royal house, and his own mother was actually paid to bring him up as a prince of Egypt! Finally, there was Pharaoh’s daughter herself, who was much more than a ‘minor miracle’. Out of the core of the genocidal royal family came this precious person, a tender-hearted princess. Her father could, apparently without pity, consign ‘sons’ to the Nile and ‘daughters’ to slavery, but his own daughter had not inherited his personality. She had a maternal heart, eyes easily moved to tears, feeling for the feelings of others, and Moses, as we shall discover, grew up to be like his adoptive mother, a tender-hearted, compassionate man.
These, then, are the bare bones of a great story. It is a story to delight in, showing how the weak and powerless of the world overcame the strong and mighty; a story to horrify because of the terrible suffering it portrays; and a story to encourage because of the sure, providential care of God. It is, however, more than anything, a story to puzzle, because the people to whom these dreadful things happened were the people of God. We are forced to ask ourselves why those whom God had chosen and to whom he had made his covenant promises should have had to suffer like this.
Whatever else Exodus may say to us, this is where it starts—with the suffering of God’s people. The opening verses, where the people are known by name and individually numbered, point back to the impeccable line of descent of the Israelites in Egypt, leaving us in no doubt that they were God’s chosen people (1:1–5). We also know from Genesis 46:1–4 that they were where they were by divine command, under divine promise and awaiting divine intervention. In the meantime, they had no certificate of immunity to pain and hardship. With first the death of Joseph and then the accession of a king who neither knew about Joseph’s special status nor recognized any obligations to his descendants, they were exposed to the full blast of worldly opposition.
So, Exodus begins to speak to us in our situation. James addressed his letter to ‘the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’ (Jas 1:1) and in doing so parallels Exodus, for we—the church of Jesus Christ—are the tribes of God’s people dispersed in the world. The corollary of this is that the Exodus people are our ancestors. Like them, we find ourselves exposed to days of darkness, and we ask the inevitable question, ‘Why?’ We would like some ‘spelling out’ of the situation which would satisfy our need for logic. Very often, of course, suffering is totally logical—by our sinfulness we bring suffering on our own heads, we ‘ask for it’ and sometimes we get it. In such circumstances we might go on to question whether the actual apportionment of suffering is ‘fair’, but, nevertheless, the nexus between crime and punishment remains plain enough. The Bible never, however, says that Israel was sent to Egypt as a punishment or that their sinfulness cried out to heaven for this, or any, requital. The Egyptian experience belongs to a different league.
It is not God’s way to explain himself other than to record in his Word for our learning that ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ (Isa. 55:8), so the biblical account provides us with no pat answers to our questions, but it does provide us with a framework and context within which we can begin to make sense of the days of darkness which have ever been the lot of God’s people throughout history. If we look at the Genesis record of God’s dealings with his people up to their arrival in Egypt, we will find that it throws light on subsequent events and enables us to see God’s hand at work from beginning to end. We see him working out his own schemes in his own way, on his own scale, to his own time plan and according to his own wisdom, and we find the assurance that, although the days were dark, it was all right, it was all planned and it will all be well.
Genesis 46:1–4 recounts the sensitive moment when Jacob was about to lead his family down into the land of Egypt. At that juncture he needed and received a word from God: ‘I am God, the God of your father … Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you.’ If ever the thought occurred to the Israelites that all their troubles must have meant that they had taken a wrong turning and were outside the will of God, this would have reassured them that it was not the case. Everything was all right. God had led them down into the land of Egypt, in fact he had accompanied them there. Plainly, this does not make anything easy, but it does make it right.
Furthermore, if we turn back to Genesis 15, we find another light that plays on the opening scenes of Exodus—it was all planned. Their experiences may have come as a surprise to the people of God, but if this was the case, then it was because—as we might put it—they were not reading their Bibles! Genesis 15 contains the very clear promise to Abram that God would give him the land in which he was then but a resident alien—but not yet. There would be an intervening period during which ‘your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years’ (Gen. 15:13). The day of darkness was all part of God’s plan to bless the descendants of Abraham—a long day, no doubt, and longer to live through than merely to say or read about.
Verse 14 of Genesis 15 goes on to make plain that not only was everything just as God had planned it, but it would all come out right in the end for, ‘I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions’. The day of deliverance would eventually dawn when the time of darkness would end and the people would emerge from their enslavement with great wealth. Genesis 46:4 also speaks of the certain and sure end to the long period of suffering, ‘I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back.’ In each half of that sentence the pronoun ‘I’ should be emphasized. The people were living under a personal divine undertaking. All would be well.
Stephen claimed at his trial that Moses ‘received living words to pass on to us’ (Acts 7:38), and his words apply just as much to us as to his first-century audience. The gap of thousands of years between the Lord’s word to Moses and Stephen and on to our possession of Holy Scripture means nothing. There is a contemporary reality about the word of God, so that when we read Exodus we are not just learning of the past, we are learning for the present. This is a living word for us. The people of God—we—are still the twelve-tribe-unity scattered in the world, subject to the world’s pressures, enduring the world’s hardships, suffering the world’s sorrows. We would like an answer to our question, ‘Why?’, but God does not come down to explain himself. Experiences without explanations—that is what the first chapter of Exodus is all about. Our only comfort is that God comes to us in the day of darkness and lovingly reassures us that, ‘It is all right, it is all planned and it will all be well.’
The next two lines of the ‘Days of darkness’ hymn,
But my Saviour still is with me;
By his guiding hand I’m led
are important and relevant. In the middle of the day of darkness there is this as well: secret and ceaseless care. The people of God are never ‘merely’ gripped in life’s circumstances, they are always gripped in the hand of God (John 10:28–29). We can trace the evidence for this in the supernatural preservation of the Israelites during their suffering in Egypt.
The facts are quite illogical given the circumstances. Pharaoh had set his sights on totally destroying the people of God, and, as a totalitarian ruler, he set the whole machinery of government and the weight of popular feeling in motion against the Hebrews. But far from being crushed by all this we read that the more they [the Hebrews] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread (12). This is so much against what ‘should’ have happened that we can only account for it by saying that there must be some other factor at work that ensured that the people were not at the mercy of circumstances. Here we can see evidence of a secret and ceaseless care whereby the Israelites were not only preserved in life but, against all the opposition that was heaped upon them, they went on increasing, flourishing and expanding. When the midwives refused to kill the babies, God was there watching and working with them (20). In the midst of the darkness is this indication that God was ‘in it’ with his people, caring for them and blessing them through the actions of these brave and faithful women.
There is a deliberate contrast between chapters 10 and 12 which says it all. Pharaoh’s actions were all taken (lit.) ‘lest they multiply’, but the resulting reality was ‘so they multiplied’. The same verb expresses the mind of the would-be destroyer and the mind of God, so that in the outcome the measure of oppression became the measure of multiplication. All through the days of darkness, there is just that one gleam of light, but behind that one gleam of light stood the God of secret and ceaseless care.
In chapter 2 we discover that it was not just the people as a whole who were in the hand of God, but that his providence covered the individual as well. chapter 1 ends by saying, Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy [lit. son] that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl [lit. daughter] live.’ chapter 2 opens with just such a son, born under the edict of death: Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. With the help of hindsight, we know that Moses was special, but at this stage in the story he was just a case in point, an example of the fact that everywhere among the Hebrews little boys were being born, and that all the weight of the Egyptian power ranged against them was being frustrated by the Lord’s care for the individuals of his people. Not, we would suppose, in every case, but in more cases than that of Moses, the Lord’s gracious power was proving itself against all the power of the enemy.
The whole of 1:22–2:22 is typical of the thoughtful, artistic way that much of Exodus is written. Embedded within the structure we see the pervasive hand of God turning events to his purposes. We see also the irony of the situation—Pharaoh’s plan of genocide include the preservation of daughters but, as things turned out, it was daughters who were its downfall.
We can see Moses, therefore, as an example of the fact that in Egypt individuals were just as surely in God’s hand and under his secret and ceaseless care as were the whole people. Moses was threatened by the king, the people and the river, but what happened? Moses’ mother took her son, put him in a little boat and set it down in the shallows of the Nile, and the river was foiled of its prey, and in the process a great god of Egypt was defeated.
It was not just the river but also the royal house that was subordinated to God’s overruling providence. The very same royal house which had decreed death was made the instrument of life when Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe (2:5). She came from a savage and heartless royal family, capable of an edict of genocide, of commanding that babies should be thrown into the river, and yet she was a girl with a tender, maternal heart. As she was walking along the river bank she saw the little basket among the reeds and when it was opened, there was the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him (6). She did not react as her father would have done by saying, ‘A Hebrew boy, throw it in the river!’ No, she felt sorry. How God in his providence cares for his people. He subjects all the power of the enemy to his own power.
So, the river cannot capture its prey, and even Pharaoh’s house is changed from destroyer to saviour, but what about the people who were so hostile to their Hebrew neighbours, the third strand in the hierarchy of power in 1:22? They too were prevented from carrying out the death sentence on the baby Moses. When Miriam secured Moses’ mother as his nurse, the baby came under a powerful royal protection that no-one could challenge (7–9). We can well imagine Moses’ mother carrying the baby out and about and being met in the street with, ‘That’s a lovely little girl you have there, Mrs Amram’ (because, of course, sons would not be out on public view) and being able to reply, ‘Oh, no, this is my son, Moses.’ ‘Well then, hadn’t you better keep him hidden?’ would have been the obvious response. ‘Certainly not!’ she could say with confidence, ‘He’s the adopted son of Pharaoh’ daughter. They can’t touch him.’
Pharaoh left the God of the Hebrews out of his reckoning; that was his big mistake, and it can be ours too. There is something very basic in us that needs life to be logical and is restless and resentful when we cannot see adversity fulfilling some purpose. Our faith needs to mature if it is to survive the days of darkness that will inevitably come upon us. The first two chapters of Exodus teach us three qualities of such a faith.
First, it is a trustful faith and rests in the knowledge that underpinning everything that happens to us there is a secret, undeclared providence always at work, always providing, always purposeful, always on the side of the people of God (cf. Rom. 8:28). With such a faith our experience will be, one way or another, like that of our Hebrew ancestors who the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied.
Secondly, it is an expectant faith. In the Bible angels do not grow wings nor glow with supernatural light. That is reserved for Christmas cards! They often come in very ordinary guises (cf. Heb. 13:2)—God’s agents in God’s place at God’s time. Like the midwives to whom Pharaoh turned to support his programme of ethnic cleansing, only to find that they were pre-committed to a very different policy for which they were prepared to ‘stand up and be counted’! Four hundred years before, Abraham’s expectancy of faith had affirmed ‘The Lord Will Provide’ (Gen. 22:13), and so he does.
Thirdly, it is a patient faith. Four hundred years is easier to look back on—and to say quickly—than to live through. Nevertheless, the Lord had promised, ‘I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again’ (Gen. 46:3), and the divine promise-keeper works out his moral government of the world with perfect justice (Gen. 15:16), endless patience (2 Pet. 3:9, 15) and according to his own timetable. Hebrews 6:12 sums up the lessons of the Egyptian sojourn—and indeed the experience of many more in the Bible than those to whom it directly refers—when it insists that it is ‘through faith and patience’ that we inherit the promises of God.
We have now taken the story of the days of darkness to the time of the birth of Moses. Hindsight tells us that this was a decisive event in the fortunes of God’s people in Egypt, but those suffering under that harsh regime did not recognize it as such, and indeed, were not to know it for many a long day yet.
How many years are covered by the words after Moses had grown up (11)? The Bible tells us that this was a period of forty years but reveals virtually nothing of their content. Indeed, all we do know comes from the brief New Testament comment that Moses was educated in all the wisdom of Egypt (Acts 7:21–22). Beyond that, we know that he went on to spend forty years in the land of Midian. But forty years take a long time in passing, and it was forty further years of darkness for his fellow-Israelites in Egypt. A whole new generation grew from the expectancy of youth to the disappointment of old age while Moses was in Midian, and God seemed to do nothing. They were born into slavery, they grew up in slavery, they moved towards death in slavery, and the days of darkness still continued.
There is no way in which we can read this story and say there is a quick or easy way out of, or even through, the sufferings and difficulties of this life. Indeed, even when Moses came back from Midian, the way was still hard. There was a contest with Pharaoh (chs. 5–11), which for the most part meant defeat and delay, and even though the Lord finally triumphed over the Egyptians, the immediate outcome of one divine visitation after another was that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and the bondage became if anything worse than it had been before (5:7–8).
As for the people themselves, when Moses first intervened on their behalf, they did not at all appreciate that God was doing anything for them (14; cf. Acts 7:24–25), nor could they see any sign of a dawning light in the years of his absence. Even, indeed, when Moses returned from Midian, it seemed only to be a false dawn without any realistic hope of the full light of day (cf. 4:31 with 5:21).
Hymn writers sometimes allow themselves to exercise poetic licence and to over-simplify the realities of life and in doing so step beyond what Scripture permits. Take for example the words,
Not a shadow can rise,
not a cloud in the skies,
but his smile quickly drives it away.
Presumably, the words express what must have been true for the writer at the moment of writing, but they are certainly not capable of being generalized over the whole of everyone’s life. To the contrary, however, the book of Exodus makes us face the prevailing and continuing of the darkness which is often a part of our experience, while at the same time lifting the corner of the dark curtain to tell us that there is also another story going on—that the people who walk in darkness are on their way to the great light (cf. Isa. 9:2). The Lord is in the process of bringing his people out of darkness.
We always naturally want simple, quick solutions, the equivalent of instant coffee in spiritual reality! Occasionally the Lord will satisfy that desire, but for the most part he does not, and, like the Exodus people, we face the demand for persevering in faithfulness and patience awaiting the coming day.
Even a cursory glance reveals that this passage is a story of failure and of a chronic loss of self-belief. It is all the more striking when we see it against the background of what we learn about Moses himself. He had so much ‘going for him’.
chapter 11 tells us that Moses went out (i.e. from the palace) in order to go among his own people. He had grown to adult years as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, a prince of Egypt, with the riches of Egypt at his disposal (Heb. 11:26). Who could blame him if he thought that all he had to do was lift his little finger and Egyptians and Hebrews alike would come running? At the same time, who can fail to admire him, in that he set out to exploit his position not for himself but on behalf of his oppressed fellow-Israelites? Furthermore, Moses was no effete palace darling (cf. Matt. 11:8). He was if anything all too resolute, resourceful, brave and effective in action. But position, commitment and courage are not enough.
Acts 7:25 tells us that when Moses killed the Egyptian, he was acting in obedience to a divine vocation as he understood it. He saw himself as God’s appointed deliverer. This New Testament comment in no way contradicts anything in Exodus here, but rather runs along the grain of the narrative. The references in chapter 11 to his own people (lit. ‘brothers’) and in 3:6 to the God of your father, taken at face value, show that Moses was brought up in the wisdom of Israel as well as that of Egypt (cf. Heb. 11:25). He knew who he was, where he had originated and what he believed. This was what prompted him to act—but it was not enough.
There was something in Moses which could not stand idly by and watch the weak being downtrodden. It made his blood boil to see an Egyptian striking a Hebrew (11). Maybe, for all we know, nationalism came into the picture, but this played no part in his intervention on behalf of one Hebrew striking another (13), and even less in his gratuitous intervention on behalf of the girls at the well (16–17). This is all evidence of Moses’ good character, inherited perhaps from a biological mother who could not bear to consign her son to the river and an adoptive mother whose heart was melted by a baby’s tears. Tender-hearted concern was his, both by nature and by nurture, and he could have had no better preparation for the work that still lay ahead when the recalcitrance and ingratitude of the people he led tested his compassion to the limit, yet without breaking it (e.g. 32:32).
Moses was so plainly the right man for what lay ahead in the will of God. The unaided human mind might say that with this inheritance and upbringing, Moses had just the qualifications God was looking for. The scripturally instructed mind sees in Moses a working of grace whereby the Lord brought into being exactly the man he required (cf. Jer. 1:4–5). It is those whom he has trained to be fishermen that he calls to be fishers of men (Mark 1:16–17). Putting the matter personally, whatever the Lord may call any of us to, we may rest assured that his gracious preparation has made us exactly right for the task. But, as we see in the young Moses, not even a wonderfully tender heart was enough.
Humanly speaking, when Moses took the law into his own hands, he put the day of deliverance further back. Of course, from the divine point of view there is no disorder in the Lord’s programme. For one thing, Moses, as we shall see, had himself still so much to learn in the school of divine discipline. Nevertheless, humanly speaking, when Moses bustled onto the scene, he put the divine programme back forty years.
First, his murder of the Egyptian slave master was foolish (12). Getting rid of an individual Egyptian here or there was not going to disturb the smooth waters of the whole regime. It was a totally impractical way to go about liberating the people of God. Secondly, his attempt to settle the dispute between the two Hebrews served only to antagonize them (14). Moses found himself in the dilemma that all through history has beset the would-be liberator: as soon as he tries to free people by force, he begins to antagonize those whom he wants to help. They very rightly and logically round on him and say, ‘We have seen enough of killing, why should we trust another killer? We have far too many people with swords in their hands. We do not need another one.’ Thirdly, Moses’ action was doomed from the start. He thought he could conceal the murder (12), but his crime was discovered, and When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses (15). How could Moses, no matter how ‘great’ he was in Egypt (11:3), single-handedly tackle and overthrow all the power of Pharaoh upon his throne? The thing was a nonsense from the start.
Moses left himself with no option but to take to his heels. His fellow-Israelites did not want another killer-prince, and Pharaoh would brook no rival, so Egypt was no longer Moses’ safe haven. Anywhere beyond the long reach of the arm of Pharaoh’s law would do, and Moses chose Midian (15).
Traumatic though it must have been, the experience did not, to begin with, change Moses. Still unable to see the oppression of the weak and do nothing about it, Moses impetuously put himself at considerable risk over a dispute about water rights (16–17). (Since pretty girls were involved, we might ask ourselves if this too is a window into Moses’ character!) This time, however, unlike the previous episode, forceful intervention won him friends, indeed a home and family of his own (20–21). No comment is offered about this, but we cannot be wrong to discern the hidden hand of God.
Maybe the most important initial lesson for Moses (and us) from his flight to Midian was that the Lord still loved and cared for him in the midst of his mistakes and failures (cf. 1 Kgs 19:3–8). Moses, who humanly speaking, had ‘messed the whole thing up’, found safety, home and family awaiting him, made ready by a gracious but yet undeclared providence.
Moses was not forgotten, but he did change. He was content to stay where he was, and when his son was born he chose a name that represented how he felt about his situation—I have become an alien in a foreign land (21–22). He had obviously buried the ambitions that had previously motivated him and seems to have ‘come to the end of himself’ and accepted the nonentity and proper obscurity of a failure. God, of course, had different intentions.
If we look at 2:11–3:10 we find four obvious sections: Moses’ life in Egypt (2:11–15a); his settlement in Midian (2:15b–22); God’s ‘sudden remembrance’ (2:23–25); and God’s self revelation to Moses (3:1–10). The first two sections are all about Moses—in chapters 11–15a there are sixteen verbs, and Moses is the grammatical subject of fourteen of them. In the second two sections, however, the action passes into the hands of God: it is he who ‘intervenes’ (24–25), and it is he who intrudes so abruptly, so disruptively, into the even tenor of Moses’ adopted role of shepherd (3:1–10). Thereby hangs a tale indeed!
It is not common for biblical narrative to draw lessons or stop to make moral comments. Yet the point to be made here and the conclusion to be drawn is obvious: in the work of God mere human effort, however well-intentioned, committed or influential, results in failure. The only way forward is (speaking reverently) to ‘mobilize God’ on our side. Seen in this light, 2:11–22 may be called ‘the way of failure’, and, by contrast, 2:23–25 bring us into ‘the place of effectiveness’.
The concluding verses of the sections are worth noting. At the end of the first, Moses’ naming of his son in line with his sense of alien status is a sad comment on the mission that failed (2:22). The Moses who burst with such triumphalism on to the scene of oppression as would-be deliverer is now a self-exiled resident alien. At the end of the second we have hints of a new beginning (2:25). There is here a balanced contrast with 2:11. Previously, Moses went out and watched (lit. ‘looked upon’) the needs of Israel but achieved only a disaster; now God looked on the Israelites. What had taken place to bring about this shift from failure to effectiveness?
There is a place of effectiveness in the work of God. We have seen that Moses, by depending solely on his own strength, made a hash of things and even postponed the hour of deliverance. By contrast, we can now learn that there is a factor which brings about the real hour of deliverance.
It is often said that time is a ‘great healer’, but time proved to be no healer for the people of God in Egypt. During that long period (lit. ‘those many days’) while Moses was in Midian the plight of the children of Israel remained the same and they still groaned in their slavery (23). Sometimes when leadership passes into new hands many changes come in its wake, but such political upheaval was no solution for the Israelites; their oppression continued despite the death of the king who had initiated it. We might ask if the movement of thought from ‘died’ to ‘groaned’ suggests that perhaps they had hoped the new reign might bring relief? But if so, they were doomed to disappointment. They had a new king, but still the old sorrows.
What was it then that made all the difference for the people of God? The wording of chapter 23b is important—they (lit.) ‘moaned … shrieked … their call for help’ (NIV, groaned … cried out … cry for help). All three are well-used words, and the first two may be synonymous and simply there for emphasis. If, however, a difference is intended, the first suggests the burdensomeness of their lives and the second its hurtfulness. It is the third word ‘their cry for help’ that marks the change. They ‘moaned’ (a natural, spontaneous reaction to trouble), they ‘shrieked’ (a natural, spontaneous reaction to affliction), and God, sensitively aware of their distress, heard their inarticulate groans (24). The decisive moment came, however, when the inarticulate moaning and crying-out became a prayer and their cry for help … went up to God (cf. 3:7).
Where time brought no relief and political change brought no improvement, prayer made the difference. If, as we said, when considered from a human standpoint, Moses’ precipitate action put back the moment of deliverance, then we must equally also say that when prayer was made, deliverance dawned (cf. Dan. 9:23). The prayer of the people of God is the beginning of their deliverance because prayer brings God into the situation. The chapter ends with the highly significant declaration of God’s response to his people’s prayer: God heard … God looked on [saw] … and was concerned [knew] (24–25).
So God heard (i.e. the people had caught his undivided attention), he saw (i.e. he reviewed the situation in which his people found themselves) and, having reviewed it, he knew. The verb ‘to know’ is, of course, first of all, the registering of the facts (cf. Gen. 18:21), but it often goes beyond this. In the Old Testament, ‘knowing’ someone also implies actively entering into an intimate relationship with them, just as, in another setting, the Hebrew says that Adam ‘knew’ his wife: in other words, he entered into the deepest, most personal intimacy of mutual knowledge two humans can experience (Gen. 4:1). Similarly, when Psalm 1:6 says (lit.), ‘God knows the way of the righteous’, it means he registers how they are and then maintains an intimate and knowledgeable relationship with them as they go through life (NIV ‘watches over [them]’). His knowledge of how we are placed, how we feel, what it is like to be us, is not a remote or merely objective acquaintance with the facts. It involves a ‘coming down’, a knowing companionship—indeed a transforming intention. This is made apparent in Exodus 3:7–8, where God says, ‘I am concerned about [know] their suffering. So I have come down.’ It was prayer that made all the difference, even though there was no immediate change. That horrible dark curtain of suffering still hung over the people of God, Moses was still in Midian, and there was no gleam of heavenly light or discernible declaration from God that their prayer had been heard. The Israelites in Egypt had no public declaration from God that their prayer had been heard, they were still walking in darkness and seeing no light (cf. Isa. 50:10). We, however, see a different picture because the Lord uses his Word to lift the corner of the curtain for us. We are able to see what they could not, that when the prayer was made, the prayer was heard; the grim realities of the situation were registered, and God entered into fellowship with his people in their need and came down to deliver them. This is a straightforward demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer as echoed in Daniel 9:23, ‘As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given’ (cf. Jer. 33:1–3). It was prayer that made all the difference.
The prayer that the people made gave voice to their needs. It was not wordless groaning, nor some non-specific petition. They groaned in [lit. because of] their slavery, and their ‘call for help’ came up to God because of their slavery (23). The repetition of the phrase because of their slavery is important—their need gave rise to their prayer, and their need commended their prayer.
Prayer is our opportunity to bring our needs to God, and we should feel free to do so. The grounds on which we can approach God in prayer are multifaceted. We can come to him, for example, and say, ‘Lord, I make this request because you have made a promise.’ An example of this is when parents plead on behalf of their children on the basis of Genesis 17:7 or Acts 2:39. Since he has promised, we may ask. Or, again, we can come to him and ask for something in the ‘name of Jesus’ (cf. John 14:13–14; 15:16), that is to say, we pray to the Father as those who are united by faith with his son. The greatness of God’s love for us as individuals is, however, perhaps most strikingly seen in this, that we can appeal to him simply because we are in need. In Egypt the people’s ‘cry for help’ was heard because of their need, because of their slavery. The need of the people of God is in itself an appeal and a ground of prayer. The need prompts the prayer, and the need also commends the prayer to our loving heavenly father. Such is God’s love for us.
There is another truth here about prayer. Prayer reflects our needs, but it also promotes the purposes of God. This is a great mystery because, as the Bible teaches, God’s purposes are fixed and indeed inflexible. He, as we say, knows the end from the beginning—and, we might add, all points in between. Where is there room, then, for our prayers to operate and ‘make a difference’? Nowhere is this problem highlighted more than in Exodus 2:24, where the point at issue is God’s faithfulness to his covenant, for his covenant is his solemn pledge to be God perpetually to his people (e.g. Gen. 17:1–7). Surely, he can be left, without our help, to attend to this on his own. Surely, in this matter of his central providential care and saving plans for his people he needs no prompting. Yet the Bible says that we must pray. Jesus commands us to pray, not only about things that might seem to be within our province, but also about matters fixed within the purposes of God (e.g. Matt. 24:20). We are to pray for no other reason than that God hears and answers prayer.
Here in Exodus, in that delightfully human way that the Bible speaks to us about God, we have a perfect example of this truth. It says in chapter 24 that God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant. This is the way in which he is represented to us but, of course, we know that it is impossible for God to forget: he never forgets his people nor the word that he has pledged, his covenant (Deut. 4:31; Isa. 49:15). Yet here he is represented as though he woke up one morning, the phone rang, and when he lifted the receiver he heard the voice of his people in Egypt saying, ‘We’re in such a pickle,’ and the Lord said to himself, ‘By George, I’d quite forgotten about them’. Of course it did not happen like that, but God is represented as though his elbow needed jogging and our prayer did the trick. Thus we learn what a marvellous and potent thing his people’s prayer is.
The prayers of the people of God have such a key role to play that the Bible can make it clear only by speaking of it in terms we can understand. It, therefore, depicts the unforgetting God as though he were capable of forgetting and depicts our prayers as having the marvellous effect of causing him to remember. Our prayers are so effective and so delightful in his ears, that God condescends to accommodate his eternal, sovereign, providential working to what we can understand, as though to say, ‘Oh, thank you for reminding me.’
Effective and potent though prayer is, events are still held within the framework of God’s timetable. This is why it says that he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob (24). The example of the long-dead patriarchs is a call to patience and to waiting. God works to his own time-scale, and he expects his people to wait for him and to wait with him. We who know the end of the Exodus story could well ask why it was forty years before Moses came back. To this perfectly natural and understandable question no answer is given (cf. Acts 1:6–7). The Lord expects his believing people to wait for him with patience.
Once again here, the Bible lifts the curtain just a little bit, and we have an indication that the apparent delay in the Israelites’ deliverance had something to do with God’s moral providence at work in the wider arena of world events.
When the people of God were finally brought out of Egypt, two other nations were going to suffer dreadful divine judgment: the Egyptians at the start of the journey as the Israelites went out of slavery, and the Canaanites at the end as they entered the promised land (12:30; Josh. 6:21; 10:40). The former suffered the judgment of God as his people went out of the land; the latter suffered the judgment of God as his people came into the land. Both nations were given a time of probation: that of the Canaanites is foretold in Genesis 15:16 and that of the Egyptians is recounted in Exodus 7–12. We cannot but cower back from these records of divine visitation. We rightly say, how dreadful are the judgments of God! But he is ‘the Judge of all the earth’, and he does what is ‘right’ (Gen. 18:25), never inflicting what is not due and blending his central care of his people into his total management of the world in righteousness. So why was Moses forty years in returning to Egypt? Because Egypt was not yet ripe for its final time of probation and the Amorites were not yet ripe for their appointed judgment. More than that, however, Moses was not yet ripe to be a leader. Those years in Midian were to be important years of training for him.
The framework of Moses’ life is drawn from a variety of Scripture passages. Acts 7:23 says he was forty years old when he left Egypt for Midian (Exod. 2:11), and Acts 7:30 records he spent forty years in Midian, making him eighty when he returned to Egypt (Exod. 7:7), and he then led Israel in the wilderness for another forty years (Num. 14:34; Deut. 8:2). This fits with Deuteronomy, which says he was 120 years old when he died (Deut. 34:7). The neat parcelling of Moses’ life into three blocks of forty years suggests deliberate patterning, and Currid (vol. 1, p. 75) notes that forty is frequently a period of testing in the Bible (e.g. Gen. 7:17; 1 Sam. 17:16). This is not, of course, to question the Bible’s veracity but to take into account an allowable symbolic use of numbers and to suggest that Scripture may be more interested here in the quality of Moses’ life than its chronological span—certainly every part of his life was a time of testing par excellence. The comment in Deut. 34:7 on Moses’ exceptional vitality despite his great age suggests that the numbers are likely to be correct.