As we saw, the Hebrews, Sarah’s and Abraham’s extended family, were enslaved in Egypt. The creator G-d, the G-d of the Hebrews, chose Moses to lead them out of bondage. But there was one small problem...
Pharaoh -- the king of Egypt.
From the beginning, G-d told Moses that Pharaoh would be trouble; that he wouldn’t let the people of G-d just walk away. He would be stubborn and there would be a confrontation. But, in the end, G-d would rescue the Hebrews through Moses.
Again, G-d’s primary interaction with creation is through people. As we saw from the promise to Abraham and Sarah, G-d would work through humanity to restore creation.
And that is just what happened. Moses confronts Pharaoh and requests that his people be released so they can go on a three days journey to worship their G-d. Pharoah’s like, “No stinkin’ way! I don't know this G-d of yours and I’m not letting all of the slaves go!” And just to prove that he’s not messing around, Pharaoh make the Hebrews work so much harder.
Of course, the Hebrews complained to Moses. “This is your fault! You’ve given Pharaoh even more reason to kill us all!” Moses, in turn, complained to G-d. “This is your fault! The Egyptians are beating your people even more than before and you’ve done nothing to rescue them!”1
And then something interesting happens. G-d says something that most people haven’t really noticed. G-d tells Moses that his ancestors only knew one aspect of G-d. “They knew me as ‘El-Shaddia (G-d almighty).’ But you and the rest of Israel will know me by my name YHWH (or “Yahweh” pronounced yaw-way).”2
What’s important here, and this is what I was getting at above, is that the understanding of G-d changed. That is, the people before this point only understood G-d in certain ways. After this point, the people knew G-d in different ways in addition to what they previously knew about G-d. This shows us that our understanding of who G-d is and how G-d is and (even) what G-d is changes and evolves. It should. With each new understanding, the “old ways” have to be re-examined in the light of these new realizations. Before the Exodus, perhaps the people wouldn’t have understood this side of G-d; this new understanding might not have made any sense to them. Perhaps they wouldn’t know how to handle it or what to do with this knowledge.3 This is another flag, another marker, another signpost that leads us to other things later on. We’ll come back to this.
Back to Moses, Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and the Hebrews.
When Moses puts his foot down and tells G-d he won’t return to confront Pharaoh, G-d starts to do some really strange and bizarre things -- the dreaded “miracles” that so many today dismiss out-of-hand. G-d tells Moses that Moses will be “like G-d” to Pharaoh. Aaron, the brother of Moses who’s been helping him, will be like the prophet for the “G-d” Moses.
Once more we see that G-d is not working independently of people to rescue the Hebrews. G-d is working through Moses to such an extent that Pharaoh will come to see Moses as G-d.
And thus begins the several “plagues” that G-d unleashes upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.
After all the water in the Nile -- and the water in pitchers, cups, wells, etc. -- turns to blood and an infestation of frogs, Pharaoh pleads with Moses and Aaron to rescue Egypt from these disasters. If they do, he will let the Hebrews go. Moses prays to G-d and relief comes to Egypt. When Pharaoh sees this, however, he decides not to let the Hebrews leave, just like G-d told Moses would happen.
So other plagues ravage Egypt. And Pharaoh repeats his behavior. And each time, the cost to the land and the people of Egypt is greater.
Death of all the livestock of Egypt.
Through this series of “plagues,” Pharaoh “repents” over and over again and begs Moses to rescue Egypt. If Moses does, Pharaoh promises to release the Hebrews. And each time Pharaoh reneges on his promise and refuses to release the Hebrews when Egypt has been rescued.
Finally, the last “plague” is released -- the death of all the oldest children, the first born, throughout the land of Egypt.
What is interesting about this “plague” is that it could have killed the Hebrews, too. The way the story goes -- and this leads to one of the greatest feast days, holy days, in all Judaism -- the Hebrews were told to kill a lamb and spread it’s blood over the door frame of their home (if a family doesn’t have a lamb, they can share with their neighbor). When the plague comes, it will pass by or “passover” the homes that have blood on the door frame.
In all of the others “plagues,” the Hebrews were not affected. But this “plague,” this one was not so selective. It killed every first born creature, human or animal, Egyptian or Hebrew. If there wasn’t blood on the door frame of a Hebrew families house, the eldest child in that household would die, too.
This last “plague” finally does it. Pharaoh releases the Hebrews and even gives them livestock and jewelry and other items just to get rid of them. The Hebrews have been ready and leave Egypt in a hurry. G-d, YHWH, leads the Hebrews in the form of a column of a cloud during the day and a column of light during the night.
Pharaoh changes his mind.
This time, however, the Hebrews were already gone.
So, Pharaoh gathers an army to go after them. He swears to put an end to this in the only way he knows how -- violence. The Hebrews will either be slaughtered or they will return to Egypt as slaves. G-d, however, has other plans.
The Hebrews make it to the Reed Sea (traditionally known as the “Red Sea”) and set up camp. The Presence of G-d moves from the front of the traveling band to the back -- between them and the incoming Egyptian army. During the night, Moses goes to the bank of the sea and, raising his staff, stretches out his hands over the sea.
And something begins to happen.
A great wind begins to blow. There’s so much force in this wind that the sea starts to divide and actually congeles on either side - giant walls of water with nothing but dry ground between them. At this sign, the Hebrews begin crossing to the other side.
Because of the Presence of G-d standing between the Egyptians and the Hebrews, the Egyptian army can’t pursue them until it’s almost too late. Then, when the last of the Hebrews has almost crossed over, the Presence moves again and the Egyptian army thinks they can catch the Hebrews and begin to pursue them.
They’re so set on capturing or destroying the Hebrews, they don’t even pause to comprehend what just took place. The Egyptian army chases the Hebrews in wild abandon, envisioning their lives back to some kind of normalcy.
At first, they’re right. As more and more of the army pours into the dry sea bed, however, things change. The sea bed, which was hard before, now starts to turn moist. Then a little bit muddy. Then a whole lot muddier. Then, like a deep, thick, pit of almost solidified cement, the horses and chariot wheels start getting stuck. The rushing foot soldiers are finding it more and more difficult to move forward. When they realize that their getting too stuck to pursue the Hebrews, they decide to retreat.
And that’s when they hear it.
The sound of a mighty rushing wind.
At the breath of the G-d of the Hebrews, the once solid walls of the Reed Sea start to fall. A huge wave comes rushing toward the trapped Egyptians. As they scream and struggle to free themselves from their plight, the other wall gives way and the water starts rushing toward them from the other direction. There’s nowhere to go.
In a matter of moments, the last gurgling shriek of terror subsides into the foggy past. There is only silence.
The Hebrews erupt with joy. Their G-d has delivered them from the cruel and oppressing Egyptians. The people then begin to sing songs to their G-d for a great show of power and deliverance.
That’s how the story goes, anyway.
And I wish I could say something like, “They all lived happily ever after.” But I can’t. Throughout the next forty years, roughly a generation of people, these same people grumble, complain, deny G-d, and create their own idols. They were so determined to go their own way, that the G-d who delivered them was ready to wipe them all out and start over with Moses and his family!
But Moses interceded.
And this is the pattern we see over and over again. The people of G-d, who were supposed to be the symbol of what a rescued, reconciled, and restored world was to look like, becomes more and more like the rest of the world around them. At one point, they no longer wanted G-d to rule over them but wanted a human king like the rest of the world. And while there were some really great kings -- David and Solomon, being a couple of the best known -- this was a slap in G-d’s “face.”
So, time and time again, the people of G-d would act so badly, were more concerned with themselves than with their vocation of being a light to the world, of the nations being blessed through them, that G-d would send prophets and poets to warn them of the coming consequences for their way of living.
Sometimes they refused to listen. And each time they refused, an invading army would conquer them, take some of them captive into a foreign land, slaughter the rest, and destroy their city and Temple.
But, after some time, the people would recognize their hard hearts, their sins, their falseness, and repent, and G-d would “remember” the people, forgive them, and bring them back to their land.
This exile and return is one of the most common themes throughout the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, the “end” of that story finds the people in a strange predicament -- they returned to their land, rebuilt their city and Temple, but they aren’t free. They’re now occupied by a succession of foreign -- “pagan” -- rulers.
- Wow. That’s some tough talk. Have we ever talked to G-d that way? I may have had thoughts like that but I don’t really remember speaking them out loud. Maybe I should.
- It means ‘I Am Who I Am,’ often translated as LORD. A lot of Jewish people read this word as “The Name” or use Adonai since they believe that G-d’s name is too holy to even pronounce.
- Brian McLaren has written about this evolution of humanity’s understanding of G-d in his book, A New Kind of Christianity.