For four hundred and thirty years, the descendants of Israel lived in the land of Egypt (Ex 12:40). They had been invited to live there during a severe famine by Joseph, the son of Israel, who was second-in-command to Pharaoh.
Joseph had gained the trust and respect of Pharaoh by implementing and overseeing a plan to collect food while the harvest was plenty, to plan for the long famine that would follow.
In those days, the Israelites grew in number and in strength in the land of Egypt. But as they grew stronger, a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph forced the Israelites into labor, for he feared that they would overpower the Egyptians.
The Pharaoh made the Israelites’ lives increasingly bitter by subjecting them to more tasks and by ordering that their newborn sons be killed. But Pharaoh’s plan to crush the Israelites was not successful.
The book of Exodus tells how God saves His people, the Israelites, from their oppressors. However, throughout the account of the misery of the Israelites in the first two chapters, we do not see God’s presence.
It is only briefly mentioned that He provides for the midwives because they feared Him and spared Hebrew baby boys against Pharaoh’s commands. Not until the very end of chapter 2 did God respond:
So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel and God acknowledged them. (Ex 2:24-25)
Although God hears the Israelites, He seems quite distant and passive. He does nothing to stop their increasing burdens. He apparently does not remember His promise with their ancestors until He hears the Israelites crying out, and even then, He takes no action to save them, but merely acknowledges them.
GOD’S PLAN TO HELP HIS PEOPLE
Although God does not intervene right away, this does not mean that God doesn’t care for His people. As humans, we may not always be able to understand God’s purpose.
But we need to believe what God has planned is best, and that He will not forsake us. As we can see, God interacts with the Israelites more and more as the story progresses:
• He chooses Moses to be their leader (3:10), and Aaron to be Moses’ spokesperson (4:14-16).
• He teaches Moses what to say and how to perform signs to prove that He is the Lord and that He has indeed appeared to Moses (3:15; 4:1-9).
• He not only sees the affliction of the Israelites from above (3:7) but also comes down to visit them (3:16) and to free them (3:8, 17).
• He even meets with not only Moses and Aaron but also the elders of Israel (3:18), denoting a sort of equality between God and His people. God does not command the people what to do but discusses plans with them.
All these actions show that God is directly involved in the liberation of His people. Before visiting Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron gather the Israelites together. Aaron tells them everything God has told Moses and performs signs in front of the people.
So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Ex 4:31)
We may not be in physical bondage, but like the Israelites, we may feel burdened, even oppressed, by problems and worries of life. It is comforting to hear Jesus’ invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
We gladly cast our care upon the Lord, for He cares for us (1 Pet 5:7) and sustains us (Ps 55:22). Only He can free us from the darkness of the world (Col 1:13-14).
When we first hear God’s words, we may be drawn to Him—to the peace and joy He gives us. However, the process of liberation is not simple; we may encounter some unexpected setbacks, as the Israelites did.
In comparing chapters 3 and 6 of Exodus, we may notice several parallels and one startling difference. Both chapters begin with God telling Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:6; 6:3), establishing God’s eternity and His faithfulness to all generations.
He knows of the suffering of the Israelites (3:7; 6:5) and has come to deliver them (3:8; 6:6) into a new land (3:8; 6:8). But whereas in 3:18 God says, “Then [the Israelites] will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt;” in chapter 6 it is written, “[the Israelites] would not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” (6:9).
What brought about this complete change from hope to hopelessness, from courage and confidence to anguish and bitterness?
WHERE IS GOD?
In chapter 5, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh bearing God’s message: “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness” (5:1). Pharaoh, in mocking defiance, replies, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (5:2).
As if to punish the Israelites for their impertinence, Pharaoh orders the taskmasters to have the Israelites meet the same quota of bricks as they made before but not to give them any more straw. When this quota was not reached, the Israelites were beaten.
Instead of realizing their dreams of freedom, the meeting with Pharaoh backfires. The Israelites’ hope of deliverance is crushed by an impossible task. The Israelites turn against Moses and Aaron, saying,
Let the LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us abhorrent in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us. (Ex 5:21)
Moses, too, is influenced by this unfortunate turn of events. He blames God for putting him in a difficult situation and accuses Him of doing nothing,
Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all. (Ex 5:22-23)
God had warned Moses that Pharaoh would not listen right away (3:19), but this does not lessen the pain of the Israelites. The disappointment and punishment are too much for the Israelites to bear, and their faith plummets.
The reaction of the Israelites is understandable. Sometimes, right when everything seems to be going our way, challenges arise and hinder our progress. Like Moses, we know that trusting in God does not mean that we will never encounter difficulties. The Bible even tells us that we may suffer for Christ.
Nevertheless, we may lose faith in God and question whether He truly cares for us. If He does, why would He raise our expectations, only to allow them to be dashed? God may not act right away, but this does not mean that He will not act at all.
We need to be confident that God’s plan is better than what we can foresee, for “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).
HIS OUTSTRETCHED ARMS
I am the LORD; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. (Ex 6:6)
God knows what the Israelites have had to endure. Thus when He speaks to Moses in chapter 6, He speaks not to commission, as in chapter 3, but to assure:
• God asserts His power and authority by repeatedly saying, “I am the LORD.”
• God stresses the uniqueness of this people by saying that, although He has been the God of the Hebrews from the time of their forefather Abraham, theirs is the first generation to whom He has made His name known (6:3).
• God reaffirms the covenant He made with their ancestors (6:4, 5), a term that was not used in chapter 3, to show that He remembers His promise (6:5). He does not describe the land of Canaan by its physical characteristics, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:8), but refers to it in more lasting terms as a heritage of the covenant (6:8), to prove that He will keep His word.
By chapter 6, we see that God is no longer the abstract figure He was in the beginning of Exodus, but is a very real, concrete God, who reaches out his powerful hand to strike Egypt and his strong arm to redeem Israel.
Despite the Israelites’ discouragement, God is persistent. He has made up His mind to liberate His people, and no one can disrupt His plan. He proceeds by sending plagues upon the Egyptians.
For the Israelites, Pharaoh’s saying no is a great obstacle. But for God, the stubbornness of Pharaoh is a way to manifest his power and to perform His wonders (3:20; 7:3).
If Pharaoh had allowed the Israelites to be set free from the beginning, they may have credited their liberty to good negotiation skills of their leaders, rather than giving glory to God.
The Egyptians would not have been able to witness the omnipotence of the one true God (7:5). If it were not for Pharaoh hardening his heart, there would not have been any plagues.
If there had not been any plagues, the Egyptians would not have been in such haste to send the Israelites away; the Israelites would not have received articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing from the Egyptians, thus plundering them (12:33-36).
At the institution of the Passover, Moses again tells the Israelites God’s plan for their liberation. They again “[bow] their heads and [worship]” (12:27), as they did in chapter 4, but this time, with a faith that has been tested and remains true (Rom 5:3-4).
The story of the Exodus can be compared to our spiritual journeys today. Just as God freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, He frees us from the burdens of the world.
Liberation does not necessarily lead directly to freedom. Just as the Israelites had to travel through the wilderness before reaching the promised land of Canaan, we may continue to encounter problems in life after we believe in Jesus Christ.
God’s presence may not always be visible. But knowing that God works according to His own time and plan, and seeing God’s outstretched arm deliver the Israelites, we can be confident that, as long as we do not forsake Him, He will carry us through even the most difficult times, that we may receive His promise of eternal life.
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Rom 15:4)