Abide: Exodus 1-6
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Exodus: a movement of the people. As we move into the second book of the Tanak, or Old Testament, we have more than a movement of people. We have a flurry of new people, ideas, and we see Jehovah’s miraculous work through ancient Israelite eyes. But how can we be moved? How can we learn to see God’s orchestrations and work to become a part of them? We discuss that and much more in today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
Exodus, a movement of the people. As we move into the second book of the Tanakh, or Old Testament, we have more than a movement of people. We have a flurry of new individuals, ideas, and we see God’s miraculous work through ancient Israelites eyes. But how can we be moved? How can we learn to see God’s orchestrations and work and become a part of them? We discuss that and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute’s Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the institute and each week, we discuss the week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.
Joseph Stuart: Today, we are joined by one of our research assistants, Derek Baker, an ancient near eastern studies major emphasizing Greek, at BYU from St. George, Utah. After Derek graduates, he plans to become a high school history teacher. Welcome, Derek.
Derek Baker: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.
Joseph Stuart: It is our pleasure. Kristian, what is going on in Exodus chapters 1-6?
Kristian Heal: Some consider the book of Exodus to be the most important book in the Bible. It’s certainly a book filled with wonders and terrors, but what makes Exodus so important? Is it that it gives us the master narrative of God rescuing His people and leading them to a promised land? This narrative has shaped Jewish identity for millennia and has inspired oppressed and aspiring people in countless other situations. Exodus also contains a compelling narrative of the making of a prophet, introduces us to the importance of law and the divine economy, and gives us a template for temple worship. The book is easily described and outlined. It is the story of enslavement and liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt, chapters 1-15, their journey to Sinai, the end of chapter 15-17, the dispensing of covenant and law giving in Sinai in chapter 18-24, and finally the story of the building of the sanctuary and the making of the golden calf, chapters 25-40, which deal as the Jewish study Bible notes, with the authorized and unauthorized way of securing God’s presence and worshiping Him. As we begin the Book of Exodus, we remember that the purpose of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt was to make them a great nation. This promise has been fulfilled and now that the four hundred years of exile prophesied by Abraham has finally come to an end, the time to return to the land of Israel has arrived. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is once again alert and at work, waiting patiently in the wilderness for someone curious enough to come and investigate a burning bush that doesn’t seem to burn. The book opens with the decline of Israel’s status in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. They move from a favored, or at least a tolerated immigrant community, to one that is feared and marginalized. Their fecundity prompted the extreme measures by Pharaoh to control their population growth. Moses arrives in chapter 2, at exactly the wrong time and his mother is forced to abandon him to save his life. She does, and Moses lives and grows up in Pharaoh’s household, seemingly aware of his double heritage. Like Nephi, Moses’s journey starts with murder and the necessity to flee for his life. Moses spends years in the wilderness of Midian getting married, raising a family and shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks until he is called by God. Moses is reluctant to respond to God’s call. It seems almost comical, but is actually deadly serious. He is caught between God and the seemingly impossible task of leading Israel out of Egypt, and he is terrified by both.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you, Kristian. Derek, in coming to Exodus, how does it connect to the book we have been discussing for several months, the book of Genesis?
Derek Baker: So Exodus being part two of the pentateuch explicitly links itself to the previous book of Genesis. It repeats in Exodus one, in shortened form the story of how — why the Israelites ended up in Egypt in the first place. It lists the posterity of Jacob as they grow in Egypt and it says that Jacob’s posterity numbers seventy, which is a nice, round symbolic number for wholeness. The Israelites reap the blessing from Genesis 1 of multiplying and growing strong. The theme of creation is thus present in Exodus from the very beginning of the story. Pharaoh is scared by the growing numbers of the Israelites, and enslaves them to try to stem the tide of the population growth. But because they have been blessed by God to multiply, even this does not work. It backfires and the Israelites counterintuitively grow in number while enslaved. Exodus 1:9-10, in which Pharaoh has the idea to enslave the Israelites, uses similar language to the Tower of Babel story which essentially goes, come let us do a thing, otherwise another thing will happen which is another instance of humanity going head to head with God and losing. And in using this language of come, let us do this thing, it again links itself to the book of Genesis. Moses’ mother creates him and then sees that he is, as the KJV reads, “goodly” or good, and only then hides him from the Egyptians. THis is a parallel to God seeing creation was good in Genesis 1. Exodus is thus a new creation, the creation of God’s people, primarily through Moses. In Exodus 2:3 it says that Moses was put into a basket which comes from the Hebrew word, tavah which is also a word for ark in the Noah story. The word only appears in these two stories in the Old Testament, and thus the stories are linked as an example of God saving a particular people from primordial chaos represented by water. Moses, like Noah, becomes a new founder of a new people. Moses also meets Sepporah at a well, just as the patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob met their wives. Moses is equated with the patriarchal figures of Genesis. And finally, the plagues fit into the theme of creation in that God is manipulating the natural world to fulfill His purposes. Pharaoh magicians can cause chaos, but they cannot restore order like God can. The plagues don’t harm the Israelites, only the Egyptians, just as the flood did not harm Noah and his family.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that really helpful introduction. There’s also a reintroduction going on here. Kritisan, reintroduction of the idea of God. What do you see going on here?
Kristian Heal: It feels like a great deal of the book of Exodus is dedicated to this reintroduction of Israel to their God. So we have to remember that hundreds of years, four hundred years as described, has passed since Jacob has arrived with his entire household to the land of Egypt. And we know nothing about Israel’s religious condition at this point. We don’t know how they worshiped. Do they still know the God of their fathers? Have they maintained their cultural and religious identity? It’s not clear because we’re not told. But even though we’re not told explicitly any answers to these questions, there are hints and tips throughout the book of Exodus that suggest that this book is about the reintroduction of the Lord to His people, and the children of Israel to their God. It’s a difficult reunion though.
Joseph Stuart: That seems sort of counter intuitive to me. It seems that coming to God after this absence, of finding Him in a moment of great alarm as the prophet Joseph Smith might say, would be natural, so why do you think it’s difficult? What’s going on?
Kristian Heal: Well, we have some sense of this process of introduction from Exodus 3:13-18. At this point in the call of this new prophet, Moses asks God, “when I come to the Israelites and I say to them, the God of your fathers has sent me, and they ask what is his name? What shall I say to them?” So at this point, they don’t know the name of God, but it feels like Moses is reintroducing them and having to convince them that this is the God that we worship. That they’re in a land filled with other gods— filled with Egyptian gods all with their own names, all with their own attributes. And it seems that Moses fears that Israel’s response to his prophetic mandate might be similar to Pharaoh’s who said, who is the Lord? And when we read the Lord there in the KJV and in other versions, what we’re reading the tetragrammaton— the four letters that are unvocalized in Hebrew, this sacred name of God, which in some versions have rendered Jehovah, others Yaweh. So who is Yaweh? This God is named. Who is Yaweh that I should heed him? We do not know Yaweh, so this isn’t one of our Gods. Pharaoh does respond that way, but I feel like Moses is concerned that maybe the Israelites respond that way. So God gives Moses his name. ‘ehye ‘ăšer ‘ehye and as the Jewish study Bible notes, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. It could be I am that I am, I am who I am, I will be what I will be, but it has something to do with the self existence of God. God is introducing himself, not as a God of this or a God of that, but a God of being itself, a God who itself existed and exists in the world. I will be what I will be. So God continues, so thus shall you say to the Israelites ‘ehye sent me to you. So as if this were not enough, God then says, thus shall you speak to the Israelites. The Lord, so Yaweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent you to me. This shall be my name forever, this my appalachian for all eternity. So God has this name which suggests self existence, but then He gives Himself a name which links Him to the house of Israel and links Him to the forefathers of the house of Israel so that they know precisely who He is. Who is this God, who is the Lord? The Lord is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When you hear their stories, when you hear their covenants, that’s what is going on.
Joseph Stuart: So how is Moses received in this context? Because I can only put myself in the shoes of an ancient Israelite and think if you’re the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob why are we enslaved when they had plenty and they had all these wonderful things and experiences, where have you been? Not to be blasphemous, but is that one of the questions that’s going on for ancient Israelites?
Kristian Heal: The longer journey suggests some acculturation that the Israelites have sort of become comfortable in the land of Egypt, they keep wanting to go back. They fall into idolatry very easily so there isn’t sort of a clear sense of how to worship this God. How to act before Him as it were, how to behave. So we start to see the giving of commandments as God’s way of loving them. This resistance on one hand and as their condition gets worse, this combined sense of despair which develops into need. So yes, I think one of the purposes of these opening chapters of Exodus seems to be to bring Israel to the point where they want God to rescue them.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s really wise. And I would just encourage listeners to be thinking about this more in the Alma 32 vein where people who are humble and need help will ask for help, will ask for assistance. Rather than thinking about this as people will only turn to God in a moment of crisis. I think that it’s natural for us to think about, oh well it’s really convenient for people who need God to turn to Him, but in reality we all need God and we can all turn to Him. He takes us whenever, wherever we are ready to come to Him.
Derek Baker: It’s also interesting that when Moses returns from his journey to Midian, his initial interaction with Pharaoh actually leads to a worse situation for the Israelites, so their only experiences with Moses, at least as attested in the text, are that he kills an Egyptian overseer. Which does not materially better their situation because there is always another overseer, and then they even get angry at him later on when he tries to interrupt a fight of theirs. And then when he eventually comes back about forty years later, he just makes their situation worse initially anyway.
Joseph Stuart: This was clearly not planned by a PR firm, thankfully Moses had a message from God. What did his message center on?
Kristian Heal: The message seems to be in all of this, that when we are discouraged and filled with self doubt, as Moses is, to have hope. When we are too exhausted to even hear God, as the Israelites were at the end of chapter 6, take courage. The Lord God is at work for our good. The Lord is teaching His prophets, asking them the seemingly impossible and asking it of them again if they fail. So the Lord is faithful to His covenants and will always rescue those who He has taken to be His people. This seems to be a part of the message here in these opening chapters. In all of these actions, God acts in a form of self revelation. He is making Himself known to His people, making Himself known to those who worship other gods, to Pharaoh, and ultimately making Himself known to the entire world. And what He’s making known is that there is none like the Lord their God, none like the God of Israel. So God acts to persuade Israel, that He’s present in the world, that He acts in the midst of the land, and ultimately to persuade them that the Lord is the God of creation and that the earth is the Lord’s. This is part of the message that is coming out of these moments. Even though it’s difficult to hear when things just seem to be getting more problematic.
Joseph Stuart: Now, let’s think about not only the message but the messenger here. Now, there were prophets called in the Book of Genesis, but Moses’ calling seems to be quite different then Adam’s or Enoch’s or Noah’s. What’s going on with Moses?
Kristian Heal: We too seem to be introduced to a different kind of prophet here. So the opening of the epistle to the Hebrews reads that long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. And we see this in Genesis, the many and various ways. God walked with His prophets, God visited them as strangers, wrestled with them through the night, visited them in dreams. We also have prophetesses, the wives of the patriarchs —the matriarchs, such as Hagar, who is taught the angel of the Lord and receives covenant blessings. And Rebekkah, whose desire is to know the cause of her suffering, resulted in a prophetic revelation. But here, after 400 years of apparent silence, we don’t know if God is speaking to his people at this point, God once again calls a prophet, and the call is unique and once called, Moses becomes like Joseph Smith— a rough stone rolling, continually taught and refined by God through his successes as much as through his mistakes. At the end of this story, right at the end of the pentateuch, we get some sense of the Moses that we often imagine. It says, “Since the death of Moses, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all these signs and wonders since the Lord sent him to do in Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his officials and the whole land, for no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” And we often view Moses from that perspective, from the end of the story. But Moses was shaped over the course of his life and that’s what makes the story of Exodus and these opening chapters so interesting. As Derek said, it begins with his failure. We sort of think of— we’ve spoken about Joseph in Egypt and it felt like Joseph was always successful wherever he went. But Moses is this person who doesn’t want to respond, doesn’t want to be called, doesn’t do what God asked him to do, but is continually told and sent and refined in that process.
Joseph Stuart: How does Moses end up being called in the first place? He starts out in Pharaoh’s household, how does he become a prophet to the ancient Israelites?
Kristian Heal: It seems that what catalyzed Moses’ call was an act of social justice. He sees his people suffering and like many of the newly woke, his first action to help doesn’t help at all and he ends up killing an Egyptian to try and make things better and when he returns, as Derek’s said, what he’s met with is suspicion. All he is is another powerful person interfering in the lives of an oppressed people. So his attempts to be an ally, fail. This creates though, a situation in which Moses has to leave and Moses flees and heads out to Midian.
Joseph Stuart: Well so, what happens with Moses before this, before this instance with the Egyptian that he murders?
Kristian Heal: So, we have this gap in the story, we have the child Moses and the kind of the rescue, and now we have the adult Moses who’s going to be sent out to rescue the others. We can extrapolate. It seems as though he grew up with his family as well as in an elite household, that he’s a child of both worlds. He seems to have known the language of his people as well as the language of the Egyptians. He seems to have known Aaron and Miriam. What we don’t know is was this something that was building for Moses, this sense of the plight of his people in their suffering that brought about this action? Or was this the first time he’d seen this. As we know in our own world, it’s very easy, if you live among the elite, to not actually see the suffering of the people who provided the things that we enjoy in the world. So what we don’t really know, but we can suggest and imagine what Moses would have experienced and what his backstory would have been. But we have this encounter. Moses is now a fugitive so he moves from this high status into a status of being a man on the run from Pharaoh for murdering this Egyptian overseer. Now, he’s out there in Midian serving as a shepherd for his father-in-law and now we see another attribute of Moses. So first, it’s this desire to help, this desire to throw himself in, recklessly perhaps. But now we see this other attribute which is an attribute of curiosity. I love the fact that Moses’ call begins with an act of curiosity. What’s going on over there? Right? Most of us pass by things which we can perhaps be curious about in the beautiful, natural world around us. We live our lives. But Moses is looking at it and he goes to explore this bush that is on fire, but doesn’t seem burned in this parched desert that he finds himself in and finding feed for his flocks. Being caught by this lure as it were, he’s called by the Lord. So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, that’s the moment in which God called him. It seems like God is looking for someone who is going to take the time to turn and look, instead of being focused on their business. And this person, this wannabe social justice warrior, this fugitive on the run, this is the person who God calls, and who God makes the greatest prophet perhaps in the Bible.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s vital to understand is that God takes us for what we can be, not who we are in the moment when we turn our face toward Him. So how much of Moses’s education or the formation of his personality and leadership style do we see in the first 6 chapters of Genesis?
Kristian Heal: What we see in the opening of Genesis is Moses being self conscious, so conscious of his speech impediment perhaps, not confident going out and speaking, he doesn’t want to take this assignment, he keeps asking God to not send him, finding ways to get out of this. God shows him these wonders, turns his staff into a serpent, puts his hand into his cloak and brings it out and it’s withered and then heals it, but Moses doesn’t seem to get or understand who he’s dealing with in the God of Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham. It’s a curious thing that we have here, at the beginning of the story. He also seems to be reluctant to go back to Israel, having caused problems the last time that he was there and reluctant to go back to Pharaoh. And so this reluctance actually turns out these fears actually turn out to be founded, entirely founded. Pharaoh does not respond and he makes things worse for Israel. So at the end of this story, we actually find ourselves at this point where things couldn’t be worse it feels like. The Israelites are exhausted, Moses is fearful and I think concerned at the failure of his project and God reiterates in that moment, who He is and he’s constantly teaching him about Himself.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s something that is really relatable about Moses actually is that he seems completely terrified of the thing that he’s being asked to do. And it seems that all of us want to do these really great things in our lives, and I count myself among them, but sometimes the enormity of a task, and I’m not going before a sovereign and demanding that he release enslaved people, but it can completely psych me out to think, what is step one in this enormous process of doing what God has asked me to do. It seems like Moses is thinking that way too.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, precisely. And it seems to be that this space in which the impossible is demanded of a people in which the odds are stacked against them, is precisely the space in which the God of Israel likes to perform His wonders. It’s the moments in which everything seems to be hopeless. God seems to want to fight with five people rather than five thousand. He wants the wood to be really wet, before He sends down fire from heaven. He really wants there to be almost no hope before stepping in and showing His marvelous power.
Joseph Stuart: Never tell me the odds, right?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly.
Joseph Stuart: But so, Moses has spoken with Pharaoh and he’s demanded the release and not only does Pharaoh say of course I’m not going to release your people, but I’m actually going to punish them for your impedance. What happens next?
Kristian Heal: At this moment, Moses goes back to God and complains and this is the moment where God says, now you will see, now you will see. It feels like at this moment at the greatest suffering and most desperate despair when all seems lost is in fact the time when God prepares Himself to redeem His people by power.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a great place for us to end this week. Have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)