Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, James Whitmore, Val Kilmer, Ben Kingsley and Jim Varney. Five of those men played Moses in a movie, and one of them was denied the opportunity by an ungrateful world that wasn’t ready for his genius. And now it’s too late. We have to live with ourselves. Anyway, welcome to BOOK.
Hello, and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Last time we wrapped up our look at the biblical book of Genesis, which is really the Hebrew scroll of “Bereshit”, the first of five-parts of the Torah. Now we turn our puzzled gaze unto the second scroll, called “Shemot” or “Names” in Hebrew, but you may know it as EXODUS. The driving themes of the Torah continue to be OFFSPRING and LAND. Here in Exodus, we’ve got the OFFSPRING – a growing people group descended from the family of Jacob and his twelve sons, but as the story begins they are in the wrong LAND, namely Egypt. Remember that Egypt, as far back as Abraham, has represented a fertile alternative to the land of Canaan which turns out to be a trap. Exodus is the story of how the people of Israel made their dramatic escape.
Historically speaking, the events of the Exodus scroll are THE foundational, identity-shaping cataclysm for the people of Israel (and for modern Jews by inheritance). Remember what we observed earlier – this is not history being written down frantically as it is witnessed. This is literature, this is art. These are the oral traditions, songs, laws, and genealogies of Israel, skillfully woven together to paint a vivid portrait of a nation being born. It’s all about identity, answering the basic human questions about origin and destiny.
We’ll look at Exodus in two parts. Today will be a little easier, as we read the story of Moses and the amazing titular Exodus, the rescue. Next time we’ll deal with the second half of the scroll, the stuff about commandments and laws and tabernacles and such. That one promises to be challenging and provocative. But for now, here are the opening words of Exodus, chapter one:
[1:1] These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,  Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin,  Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.  All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons, Joseph already being in Egypt.  Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.  But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”  So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.
The brief genealogy at the beginning is our tether to the previous scroll, at which point we jump generations (apparently many generations) into the future. Jacob and his sons are dead, but their descendents still live in and around Egypt. The current Pharaoh has no special relationship with the Hebrew sojourners, and fosters suspicion and discrimination against them. Eventually they become slaves, and the rest of the chapter details the harsh conditions under which they live, and the attempts by Pharaoh to curb their numbers.
Then in chapter two we have the birth of Moses, our main character for rest of the scroll. Here’s the text:
[2:1] A certain man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.  And his sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.  The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave woman to get it.  When she opened it, she saw the child, a boy crying. She took pity on him and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.”  Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”  And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.  And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”
Moses’ origin story is a little different from the “significant birth” narratives we encountered in Genesis. Instead of a “closed” womb being “opened” by God, we have a baby in a basket. More on that in a moment. Verse 1 tells us Moses’ parents are “Levites.” This means they are part of the tribe – the family group within the Israel family group – which identifies itself with Jacob’s son Levi. There are twelve tribes, one for each of Jacob’s sons, and Levi is a special kind of tribe for reasons we will observe later on. Moses must be hidden, because of a decree from Pharaoh in the previous chapter that all male Hebrew babies must be killed.
If you’re learning to pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Bible often recycles its own imagery and motifs, you may have noticed something vaguely familiar about the description of Moses’ basket, covered with “pitch,” set afloat on the water. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the flood story. Like Noah’s ark, the basket floats aimlessly toward a destiny that only God can determine. This is not the last time that the flood narrative – and its themes of creation and un-creation – will be invoked. Not only does this Hebrew child survive, but he ends up being raised in the house of Pharaoh with his own mother as a caretaker. Not a bad deal.
This arrangement gives grown-up Moses a unique perspective. He is raised a member of both Egypt’s most powerful household AND his own Hebrew family. This tension comes to a head when he defends a Hebrew slave from an abusive Egyptian overseer, whom he fights and kills. Moses flees to a nearby region called Midian, where he settles down and marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a priest (of which religion is not entirely clear).
There’s a short bit at the end of chapter two which provides an important preface to the events in the rest of the scroll. Starting in verse 23:
 A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under bondage and cried out for help. Their outcry rose up to God.  God heard their moaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
The rest of this book is going to be rather grim for the Egyptians. Lest the reader misunderstand and think Israel’s God cruel or impetuous, unleashing his wrath upon Egypt out of spite or on a whim, the authors of Exodus remind us that the Hebrew slaves have been oppressed and mistreated. The picture of their “outcry” rising up and catching God’s attention is a common biblical image of injustice. It’s like Abel’s blood “crying out from the ground” in Genesis 4. Biblical literature may be vague about the origins of evil, but it insists that God pays close attention to it, particularly when the innocent are made to suffer. The Bible’s sense of justice is not – as is often imagined by modern readers – God zapping sinners who break his arbitrary laws. It has much more to do with the plight of the oppressed and helpless.
Back to the story. One day in Midian, Moses has a rather extraordinary encounter with some flammable foliage. Exodus chapter three:
[3:1] Now Moses, keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, led his flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He looked, and the bush was burning, but it was not consumed.  Moses said, “I must turn aside to see this incredible sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  And he said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”  He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
 And the LORD continued, “I have noted well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters. Yes, I am aware of their sufferings.  I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
Like Abraham and Jacob before him, Moses has a run-in with “the God of his fathers,” who personally instructs him to return to Egypt and lead the oppressed Hebrews to freedom. The format of his vision is a “burning bush,” which may sound random and weird but is actually a fairly common sight in the deserts of the Near East and Northern Africa. Dead, brittle foliage will occasionally spontaneously ignite in the dry, hot sun. The “miracle” here, if there is one, isn’t that a bush is on fire, but that it burns without being consumed. Something modern readers tend to overlook about biblical “miracles” or “signs and wonders” as they’re called, is that they are usually grounded in some sort of natural phenomenon. We’ll come back to that idea in a minute.
God (or is it an angel? the identity is intentionally obscured by the text) gives Moses a message, basically the same one he gave to Abraham and Jacob, updated to reflect current events: I’m going to give the LAND (“a land flowing with milk and honey”) to the OFFSPRING (which he now calls “my people”). That bit about the land “flowing with milk and honey” is typically assumed by modern readers to refer to an abundant, fertile land with a surplus of good stuff to eat. That’s not the reality of the phrase OR the land. The promised land itself is arid and unpredictable. “Milk and honey” refers to a land that can potentially support both herders and farmers (“honey” here referring not to bees’ honey, but date syrup, an agricultural product). This means that descendents of both Cain AND Abel can coexist in Canaan.
Moses is reluctant, assuring God that he isn’t the right guy for the job. God insists, and goes so far as to reveal his personal name in confidence to Moses. (This is “Yahweh,” or “Adonai,” the unpronounceable name that is rendered “LORD” in the English text.) This is symbolic of the whole story of Exodus, wherein God lends his identity to Israel to unite and then rescue them from their slavemasters. That sounds a little weird, but we’ll unpack it later. To equip Moses for the task ahead, God gives him three “signs” to perform in front of Pharaoh: 1) Moses’ staff will turn into a serpent and then back again, 2) Moses’ hand will become diseased and then healthy again, and 3) water taken from the Nile River will turn to blood.
Again, these “signs” are all based in natural phenomena, they’re not random supernatural miracles for their own sake. The “magic” is not the point – in fact, Pharaoh’s own sorcerers are able to replicate all three tricks. The point is the message they send. All three are deeply “Egyptian” in meaning. One of the many symbols for Pharaoh and his godlike power was the serpent, and a Hebrew shepherd turning his staff (another ancient symbol of power) into a snake and back again is a jab at Pharaoh’s claim to deity and authority, and a reminder that his power could and would be taken from him at any moment. The hand is another well-known ancient symbol for power, but it may also be that God is sending a message to Egypt about their pride in their world-renowned physical beauty. And the Nile was the spine of Egypt’s fertility and thus its economy. Blood in the Nile (already an Egyptian description of a recurring problem with pollution) means the money will dry up. In the world of ancient polytheism and regional gods, the implication of these “wonders” is startling: the god of the Hebrews knows everything about the Egyptians and holds them to account, even though they don’t acknowledge him.
Pharaoh is not moved by Moses’ magic tricks, in fact he “hardens his heart” (according to the text) and refuses to let the Israel family go. So ultimately, God sends ten “plagues” against Egypt in a famous episode beginning in chapter seven. The first nine plagues are, in order: The water of the Nile turned to blood, swarming frogs, swarming gnats, swarming flies, death of livestock, painful boils, destructive hail, swarming locusts, and complete darkness.
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the Egyptian plagues are all grounded in natural phenomena familiar to the Egyptian population. And, in fact, it’s in the description of the plagues that we discover the underlying point of all the nature-imagery swirling around in this book. The language of the plagues account draws heavily upon motifs from CREATION. There are ten plagues, corresponding to the ten words of God in the creation song. Each plague is introduced “in the morning,” reminiscent of the days of creation. And the “media” of the plagues are the elements of creation: water, darkness, and “creeping” animals. Israel’s God is exerting his power over the order of nature, threatening Egypt with “uncreation” unless they release the family of Jacob.
The tenth plague is the darkest and most dramatic, and brings this story to its climax. While the first nine plagues involved climate and animals, the last involves a true “plague” that will sweep through Egypt and take the lives of the firstborn sons, the most honored of offspring in Egypt and most of the ancient world. The Hebrew slaves are given instructions from Moses: sacrifice a lamb for a meal, and spread the blood on your doorpost. This gesture will cause the household to be “passed over,” and the plague will not strike. At the same time, the slaves are told to make a quick, unleavened bread called matzah to take with them in case they need to leave Egypt in a hurry. These two practices, the lamb feast and the matzah, come together into one observance, the feast called pesach or “Passover,” which is celebrated by Jews to this day. Then, in the midst of all this action and baking, God tells Moses to institute the weekly observance of a Sabbath, a “rest” on the seventh day of the week.
It strikes us as very odd that amid the dramatic escape of the Hebrews – now called Israelites – from Egypt, there are all these ceremonial and ritual instructions. It feels counterintuitive to the way we read stories, but in truth it’s the key to understanding the whole thing. In the intense heat of the cauldron of Egyptian captivity, God is forging Israel’s identity. Or rather Israel, in writing this story centuries later, recognizes that this was more than a dramatic rescue – it was the singular event which made them a people. The Passover holiday combines the meat of a lamb and bread baked from grain, another “milk and honey” scenario bringing shepherds and farmers together. And “sabbath,” and with it the seven-day week, distinguishes Israel from Egypt and its ten-day cycle, while also establishing a celebration of the order of creation in the very rhythm of daily life. All of it comes down to IDENTITY. This is who we are, these are the signs of who we are, and this is the amazing story of how it all came together.
You probably know the rest of the story. If you don’t, it’s there starting in Exodus 14. Pharaoh releases the Israelite slaves, only to change his mind at the last moment and pursue them with his army of chariots. God, through Moses, parts the waters of the Red Sea so the people can pass through on dry land, after which the waters come crashing back together around Pharaoh and his army. This is yet more CREATION and FLOOD imagery, as God once again tamps back the chaos of the ocean to provide land for his people, but allows the waters to crash back upon the wicked in an act of UNCREATION.
That’s a pretty climactic resolution, but of course there’s much more to be done. There’s land to be settled, and a nation to build. And, well, don’t hold your breath. Next time we’ll examine what exactly happened to Israel after its dramatic escape, and why it took so long to get anywhere. We’ll also do our best to make sense of all that boring (and often creepy) “Law” material. We’ll see how it fits in with the history and literature of the Torah, and we’ll even tackle the difficult question: is any of it still relevant today?
But that is plenty for today! This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.