Exodus 4:18-23 ~ 20100801 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
8/1 Exodus 4:18-23 My Firstborn Son
God is sending Moses to be his instrument to deliver his people Israel from Egypt. Moses is a reluctant prophet. He doesn't want to go. He is full of excuses. Five times now he has raised various objections or excuses to God's call. Moses asked 'who am I that I should deliver your people?' And God answered Moses that it's not about who you are. This is all about who I am. Who you are is irrelevant to the task at hand. The exodus of Israel from Egypt is not about Moses. It's all about God displaying who he is and how awesome and glorious and powerful he is. Moses, it's not about who you are, it's who I AM that matters. Let's get that straight right from the start. So Moses responds, 'then who are you? If the people ask your name, who should I say sent me? God says 'I am YHWH, the I AM, the self existent uncaused cause of all things. I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Tell them I AM has sent you, and tell them what I am about to do. Tell them I have been watching and I promise to bring them up out of the land of affliction into a good land. Moses, tell them and they will listen to you.' Moses' next question is a direct contradiction to this. 'No, they will not believe me or listen to my voice. They will say 'the Lord did not appear to you.''. So God gave Moses three signs to display that the power of God was at work with him, signs of God's authority over the enemy, over disease, and over the gods of Egypt. Moses is amazed by the signs, but complains that he is not eloquent and blames God for not equipping him with the necessary skills to complete the task. God answers that he designs even disabilities for his good purposes to display his glory by using weak things to shame the strong. 'I made you exactly the way you are for a good purpose.' Moses' final complaint gets down underneath all the excuses. He simply doesn't want to go. O Lord, please send someone else. The anger of the Lord is aroused by his unbelief and disobedience, but even in this he supports the weakness of his servant. He offers Moses' brother Aaron as a mouthpiece for Moses. This is the end of God's encounter with Moses. He sends him away with the staff in his hand.
Moses, remember, is on the back side of the desert tending his father-in-law's sheep. The back side, or the west side of the desert is in the direction of Egypt. But Moses doesn't abandon the sheep and head for Egypt saying 'God called me to go - I must obey God rather than man'. Instead, he responsibly returns the flocks to his father-in-law in Midian and honors him by asking his leave to go to Egypt.
Now Moses had his call from God. He didn't need Jethro's permission. He needed to go because God had called him. But God doesn't call a person to ditch their responsibilities. Maybe Moses had been recalling the history of his people and remembered how Jacob left his uncle Laban. Jacob took the women and the kids and the sheep and ran. Laban pursued him and confronted him over his shady departure. Moses showed maturity by honoring his father-in-law and keeping family relationships good.
But I wonder what is between the lines in the narrative. God tells Moses to go, and Moses comes up with all kinds of excuses because he doesn't want to go. Moses goes to his father-in-law to ask his permission. Was Moses hoping that he would say no? Jethro gives Moses his blessing. He says 'go in peace.' The next thing the text says is God shows up to Moses who is still in Midian and again tells him to go back to Egypt. Was Moses stalling again? For how long? I could hear Jethro saying 'Moses, didn't you ask my permission to go back to Egypt? Did you change your mind? Are you still planning to go?' Moses might answer 'yes, but, uh, Egypt is a long way. I've got to make preparations for the journey. Maybe we'll leave next week. Or next month. Next year...'
Moses left Egypt as a wanted fugitive because he had killed an Egyptian. This sounds like a confirmation to Moses that the coast is clear. It is that, but it is more. God is not saying that Moses will have a warm reception in the courts of Egypt. The new Pharaoh will also want to kill Moses. God did not have to wait until the Pharaoh was dead. God could have protected Moses from the previous Pharaoh just as he will protect him from this Pharaoh as things heat up. God is not saying 'go, because now it is safe.' What God is saying to Moses is 'It has already begun. I have already begun to execute judgment on Egypt. The Pharaoh that ordered the male children thrown in the river is dead. The men who wanted to kill you are dead. I have already begun to punish the Egyptians for their crimes. Go, because I have already begun to act.'
Moses is finally obeying. Moses packs up his sons and his wife and heads to Egypt. Notice it says 'sons'. We have heard about Gershom, because his name means 'stranger' or 'sojourner'. We won't hear about Eliezer until chapter 18:4. The biblical narrative is focused on a point, so often details that we are curious about are left out because they don't contribute to the theological message. What is important is that Moses took the staff of God in his hand. The shepherd's staff that was in his hand when he met God in the wilderness has now become God's staff. God told Moses to throw it on the ground, and the power of God performed a mighty sign with it. Moses is now going with the authority of another. If the Pharaoh of Egypt asked you to deliver a message and gave you his staff, you carry his authority on your errand. Moses is carrying a shepherd's staff, which has become a symbol of God's authority. He now carries God's divine signature and acts as his representative. We too, carry God's authority and represent him to the world we live in.
God gives Moses some final instructions and prepares him in advance for what is going to happen.
God had already told Moses that the Israelites would listen to him, but the Pharaoh would not listen.
Now God gives Moses the explicit instruction that he must do the miracles before unbelieving Pharaoh as well as the believing Israelites. Why? Why do miracles that we already know ahead of time will not be listened to? Why waste the effort? God here tells us how he knows that the king of Egypt will not let the people go. God claims responsibility. God says 'I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.' God is demonstrating his absolute control over this situation. The Pharaoh will resist for as long as I want him to resist, and when the time comes, I will break down his resistance and cause him to let the people go. The mighty king of Egypt is reduced to a plaything in the hands of Almighty God.
God will increase the resistance of this king so that he can increase the display of his might. God will cause the unreasonable stubbornness in the Pharaoh so that he can demonstrate the supremacy of his glory over all the gods of the Egyptians. God, not Pharaoh is in control of every detail of this situation. God is announcing ahead of time that none of this is an afterthought. The ten plagues were not increasing attempts to convince the Pharaoh. It is not as if God is saying 'Well, that didn't work. Why don't we try this? Maybe this will be enough to convince him.' In chapter 3, God said "I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go" [3:20]. In chapter 4, God is telling Moses how he can predict that the Pharaoh won't give in after the first 3 or 4 plagues. He won't give in because I will make him stubborn. I control how long he will resist.
We might at this point be inclined to utter the 'F' word: That's not fair! God shouldn't violate the poor little Pharaoh's will like that! It just doesn't seem fair! Who are you O sinner to cry out to the Almighty for justice? Do you know what you are asking for? This is not a case of God unfairly manipulating a neutral and innocent party. Pharaoh is a sinner who has rebelled against God and his ways. He worships idols and demons in place of the one true God; he even believes himself to be the incarnation of the gods, he expects the worship of his subjects, and he is richly deserving of God's just wrath. The fact that he is still allowed to breathe God's air is evidence of God's patient mercy on him.
19 times in the narrative Pharaoh's heart is described as being hardened. 10 times God takes responsibility and says that he hardened Pharaoh's heart. 3 times it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. 6 times it simply describes Pharaoh's heart as being hardened. Which is true? God claims to be the cause of Pharaoh's hardness of heart. But we do not have an innocent neutral party who is supernaturally strong-armed against his own will to do and be something he would never on his own do or be. Even the language of 'hardening' implies a prior inclination or disposition that is sovereignly made resolute. Pharaoh is morally responsible for his own choices and actions, and he will be held accountable. God is accountable to his own nature and character for his decision to give or withhold mercy from a sinner deserving of wrath.
Paul uses God's hardening of the Pharaoh's heart in Romans 9 as an illustration of his sovereign freedom over his creation to do with it what pleases him. God has every right to exercise his justice on unrepentant sinners and display his wrath and power, so that he can display the riches of his glory in his mercy on sinners.
We asked 'why perform miracles in front of someone who we already know will not believe?' At least part of the answer to this question is in the dual purpose of the gospel message. Paul says:
Part of the effect of the proclamation of truth is to increase the level of accountability of those who have heard and rejected the message. To some the good news brings life; to others it is the fragrance of death.
God is being explicitly up front and clear with Pharaoh where the consequences of his choices will carry him.
This is the first time in the bible that Israel is referred to as God's son. Up front, God is declaring exactly where this contest will climax. The issue in the exodus is to whom does Israel belong. Israel has been serving the Pharaoh. God says 'let my son go that he may serve me'. God is declaring his relationship to Israel. Up to this point, God had promised to bless them, to make them into a great nation, to bless all nations through them, even to have his presence be with them. But now he is saying something more. God is declaring his relationship with his people. He says 'they are my firstborn son.' They have all the rights and privileges and responsibilities that a firstborn son has. This concept carries the idea of intimate relationship, love, nurture, care, commitment, protection, affection, friendship; there would be an expectation of training, of discipline, an expectation of honor and respect, obedience, service. Hosea points us to this intimacy of relationship between God and his people.
Matthew sees Jesus as the perfect fulfillment of this ideal father-son relationship.
This is what God said about Jesus in Matthew 3:
God is saying to Pharaoh, 'you are messing with someone that is very dear to me.' What I find very informative is the justice of the consequence that God declares. He does not say 'if you keep my firstborn as your servant I will take your firstborn as my servant.' Why doesn't he say that? That would seem just. If I take your son, you can take my son. But the nearness of God is the reward. Separation from God is equivalent to death. To prevent Israel from worshiping God is equivalent to taking their life. God is real life. Worship is what we were designed for. To be in the presence of God is genuine fulfillment and joy.
The meaning of the exodus is not the liberation of slaves. Freedom is not the ultimate goal of the exodus. The purpose of the exodus is transfer of a possession to its rightful owner. The question is a question of masters - who does Israel belong to? Whom should Israel serve? God says 'let my son go that he may serve me.' Service or worship of God is the goal. Autonomy is not the goal. I am not set free to be my own god. Christ redeemed us so that we would be included in his relationship to God as obedient sons to a gracious father.