1. This is the defining event in the history of Israel. Through no fault of their own and not due to their sin they are enslaved for 430 years. A new king has no regard for Joseph and the contribution of the Hebrews to Egypt. He is afraid of them and their lack of loyalty to the State religion. It is also the experience that – along with the Babylonian exile – formed their character as a people. In the Exodus we also find some of the literary elements that are present even today. The first several chapters of the book are lasting examples of Jewish humor.
It’s not vaudeville of slapstick. It is irony and subtlety. It is the humor of a minority under oppression that still resists. Saul Bellow said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty” and he is right. If you look for irony in the story of the Exodus and the struggle against Pharaoh, you will find plenty of it.
The Egyptians are fearful of the Hebrews but need them.
Pharaoh’s daughter rescues a child ordered to be killed by her father.
Moses’ mother becomes his nursemaid.
The Hebrews increase in spite of hardship and persecution.
The midwives consistently fool the Egyptians and even belittle Egyptian women.
The spokesman for God stutters.
The Pharaoh keeps negotiating with Moses and loses worse every time.
The Egyptian first-born are killed by Pharaoh’s own pride
The people give the Hebrews presents on their way out.
The most powerful man in the world is made to look like a fool.
This irony about life is the essential Jewish humor. It almost always makes fun of pride and authority and pretense. It delights in seeing people who think highly of themselves reduced to human scale. It always emphasizes the “us and them” with “us” winning by outsmarting “them”. It provides comic relief for hardship and scorn and prejudice.
You probably remember “The Producers” with Mel Brooks. It was a show about Hitler’s Germany. The key to the plot is it was a show designed to fail. In spite of it’s horrible cast and offensive theme and tasteless songs (like “Springtime for Hitler” and “Heil Myself”) it is a wild success – another irony. A German newspaper interviewed Brooks about it and asked:
“How does it feel for a Jew to slip into the skin of his greatest enemy?”
Brooks: It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To posses this power and turn it against him -– it is simply alluring.
Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”
In some ways the first several chapters of Exodus are wonderful examples of how Jewish humor and the absolute fear of a sovereign God fit together. It is like the story of Esther where the villain, Haman, is hung on the very gallows he built for a Jew, Mordecai. It is not just defeat but self-defeat and that is what the pharaohs of the world fear the most – looking foolish and weak. It is finding and exploiting the fatal flaw in human pride that is the highest prize in the Jewish sense of irony. It is a story of how an enslaved people survive by their own wits and then are rescued by a God who remembers them and fights for them against all odds.
2. It is also a study in the progressive nature of sin in a life that becomes sin in a nation. And like most sin it begins with pride that is really fear.
The Egyptians deal shrewdly and ruthlessly with the Hebrews because they dread them. That word means both fear and loathing. They enslaved them and made every attempt to reduce their numbers and the Hebrews grew in spite of it. It seems that every culture has needed Jews but loathes them as well. It’s been their history. They persecute them because they fear them and then their influence grows in spite of it – which brings even more persecution. It’s a fact that a higher percentage of Jews enter the professional fields of business, higher learning, science and medicine than any other people. They make extraordinary contributions which only make others feel threatened. They see them as taking over. There is a story of a Jewish rabbi in Poland before WWII reading a German newspaper. His neighbor, horrified, asks him why he is not reading a Jewish paper. He replies the German newspaper makes him feel so much more powerful and influential than his own. He can only imagine what it would be like to control as much as they claim Jews do.
Pharaoh chooses to be obstinate and unyielding and deceptive. He cannot give in but he is deceived into thinking he can stop the inevitable. He believes he can defeat not only Moses but God himself. Even though he is punished after every refusal he persists and becomes more and more hardened. In the end, even his own people see his foolishness. His officials and his own family see how he is failing but nothing will stop him. The more entrenched he becomes the less influence he has. The harder he presses the less support he has from his best people. He bargains and reneges on his word. He makes deals and every time he is bested by Moses. It reminds me of Hitler’s Germany in the final days. Hitler was delusional and frantic to win even though the outcome was clear to his highest officials and commanders. There were 17 attempts on his life but nothing would stop him. It was the same with Pharaoh and has been the same with every man seeing himself as Pharaoh since. Their sin captivates them. Their sin makes them fools and destroys them.
But there is another image of sin in the account. Look at 14:10. “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to The Lord.” Just when we think we are safely out of reach and can relax – or camp out by the sea as the Israelites did – we look up and are surprised that sin still pursues us. We are surprised and discouraged. We have forgotten that we are never over the struggle with this enemy. I’ve mentioned before what Luis Palau said last year in Atlanta. Even at his age he has discovered the necessity of guarding his heart against temptation. The desire of sin to have us is never over and we need to stay alert. How often have we been surprised by sin just when we thought we were finally safe?
3. But the heart of these chapters is not about irony or sin. It is about the revelation of God and His glory. Everything in the account is about his using all of this for His purposes. It is about His mighty acts making His name known.
Look at 10:1-2: “Then The Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am The Lord.”
Earlier in the ninth chapter God says, “I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth…But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
In the fourteenth chapter God says, “But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am The Lord.” This theme is repeated over and over again in Exodus. “Then you will know that I am The Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” (6:7) “By this you will know that I am The Lord:” (7:5)
J.I. Packer years ago wrote a book titled “Knowing God” and that is the main point of the Exodus. It is about God’s desire to be known in a particular way. In a new way that He has never been known before. Everything He does is an act on His part for us to know Him and for Him to receive glory.
That almost makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? When we meet people who want all the glory we pull away from them and think of them as self-centered and proud. They only use others to get the glory themselves. Yet, that is what God is saying. “I created you for my glory.” I love you and will redeem you. You are my people but you are my people to be a blessing to the world for one purpose only. My glory. “I will take you as my own people and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am The Lord your God.”
What does Paul say in Romans? Everything in the account of Pharaoh and Israel is about the glory of God and His name being proclaimed in all the earth. God raised up Pharaoh to “make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it well.
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
We have turned that around and put enjoyment first because we have come to think God’s chief purpose – even in His own mind – is to make our lives satisfied and successful. It’s not. Our chief end is to glorify God and only then will we understand what it means to enjoy him. It runs up against everything we think. We shop for churches that satisfy us. We read Christian books that make us feel better about ourselves. We want to find ways to be good people. We have our own definition about what it means to be the people of God. It does not typically include God’s having the right to do with us whatever He pleases. It more often is defined as our becoming better people and examples of His grace in our lives. Desiring to be a better person is good in a limited way but it soon becomes all about us and not about the glory of God.
Our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and to know Him. Everything in our lives is designed for that one thing. Everything we do is intended to point to Him. That doesn’t mean false humility. It simply means coming to the understanding that He created us for one purpose alone – to glorify Him. The world and all that is in it is His and His alone. And only when we discover that are we able to enjoy the life He intends for us. It does not mean an easy life or a successful life or a life without hardship and suffering. It means a life that has laid down its claim to its own sovereignty. It is the life that discovers the ironic freedom of “you are not your own but you are bought with a price.” We have given up all rights and surrendered unconditionally. We are not volunteers. We do not have voting privileges. We are subjects of a King.
Abraham Kuyper put it this way, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!” There are two kinds of sovereignty in this world: Pharaoh’s which is based on pride, intimidation and fear and God’s which is genuine love.
4. The final revelation of God is in Christ. There is nothing more to be revealed or discovered. All the names and characteristics of God are now wrapped up in one. There are not many ways to God – only one – because God’s nature can only be found in Christ. There is only one way out of Egypt and the power of Pharaoh – not several. There’s no better way to close than reading Colossians 1:15-20:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
And that is the essence of Passover. The wrath of God has passed over our house because of the blood of Christ. It’s distasteful and impossible to explain to a world looking for a nice and bloodless religion but it is, in the end, all we have to offer.