Dying to Live (vv. 1-4)
As Exodus tells the story of God’s mighty deliverance of his people from slavery, it is the gospel in miniature, a type of the great redemption obtained through the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. As the gospel, we find that God’s extraordinary ways of deliverances are in full operation – and those ways are completely opposed to man’s fallen reason and expectations. His kingdom is of another order altogether (John 18:36); it comes down from heaven and does not come by man’s observation and measurement and machinations. Thus, as Moses sits down to write Exodus sometime during those long years of wilderness wandering, he was led by the Spirit of Christ speaking through him to record God’s remarkable redemption of his people.
Arriving at his own place in the story, what stands out is that Moses is something of another Noah. Noah entered an ark in order to be delivered, but that ark was more like a floating casket. Moses uses the same word, tevah, for his own floating grave. Each had to die in order to live and to bring life to God’s people, an order that pointed to the coming Messiah and even becomes our model as his disciples (1 Cor. 15:51; Gal. 2:20). God never saves by man’s power. It is almost as if he wishes to bring his people down into the grave, down into the lowest weakness in which there is no hope, then from there he brings great deliverances. He will have no flesh glory before him (1 Cor. 1:32), for this would be dishonoring to him and miserable for us. Our joy and life are bound to his being exalted and our soul boasting in him as our God and Savior. He will be known as the God who raises the dead, the God who hears and answers the prayers of his almost dead people, and the God whose instruments of deliverance are normally prepared in obscurity, poverty, or weakness.
A little before the birth of Moses is the likely timing of the decree to kill all the Hebrew male babies. Aaron was about three years older than Moses, and there was no need to hide him. This would have been about the year 1,530 B.C., and the Pharaoh Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV, of the 13th Dynasty. Two Levites, whose tribe is likely emphasized in order to show God’s working in that line of Jacob in order to bring forth his priestly and prophetic leadership, gave birth to a more than usual beautiful baby. Whether “goodly” refers to appearance or demeanor or both is uncertain, but the recent edict loomed over Moses’ parents – their names will be given later (6:20). They determined to hide Moses as long as possible. Hiding a three-month old baby, however, was dangerous. Rather than risk a death they foresaw as certain, they chose a watery future that was less certain.
Pharaoh’s edict and its execution must have been horrible. Archeological finds in the area of Goshen and nearby Avaris indicate numerous pits in which slain babies were commonly and hastily buried, so that the decree was mercilessly observed. Some find fault with Moses’ parents for basically throwing him in the river, but they must have seen their actions as giving him into the hand of God rather than leaving their baby in the hands of man or even in their own hands. They undertook these actions by faith and with great courage (Heb. 11:23). Jochebed’s heart was undoubtedly breaking as she laid her baby in the basket, which she made as waterproof as possible, and undoubtedly launched with the most fervent prayers for his protection. Miriam, Moses’ sister, watched from the riverside to see what might happen.
Three Women (vv. 5-10)
Pharaoh’s daughter may have been one of any number of children that the Pharaoh had by his many wives. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, a more ancient Jewish writer, Artapanus, records that the daughter’s name was Merris. She adopted a Hebrew child and named him Moses. While bathing in the river, she saw the basket, perhaps because her attention was drawn by his crying (v. 6). She had a servant fetch the basket – wading through the rushes was not to her liking! Opening the basket, she immediately knew that this was a Hebrew child and the reason that he was floating down the river in a basket. Her position in Pharaoh’s house was sufficiently secure for her to take matters into her own hands, but she did not want to draw unnecessary attention to the event at this point. Miriam was close by and with great presence of mind, came forward and asked Merris, for so we shall call Moses’ second mother, if she wanted her to locate a Hebrew wet nurse. Does this ancient interaction indicate that the women – Egyptian and Hebrew – were all shocked by Pharaoh’s edict and willing to circumvent it when possible? Miriam of course brought Jochebed, which I suspect Merris must have anticipated. For the next few years, Jochebed was supported from the royal treasury to nurse and care for her own child! Did Merris or Jochebed name Moses? I suspect it was Merris, for his naming is mentioned after his official coming into Pharaoh’s household.
Should we not stand in awe at the workings of God’s providence? You could not write this in a play, but even if you could, it would only be because we live in a world governed by providence from a loving, wise, all-seeing and all-directing God . Otherwise, these are simply random happenings that cannot be explained. Even to say “coincidence” assumes an otherwise orderly train of events in which these kinds of things do not normally occur. Let us leave the ravings of the blind and worship. God wanted to save his people, and he made sure that the instrument of his deliverance would be raised, taught, and supported by the very butchers who were trying to kill him. The Egyptians thus nurtured their own destroyer. And when we see that all of this occurred through three women – Miriam, Merris, and Jochebed – we must bow in reverence before God who brought down the mighty empire of men through the quiet plans of three compassionate women on the banks of the Nile. Never, never despise the small workings of God. Never doubt that he is working in all things and places, high and low, notable and obscure, to effect great deliverances for his people and salvation for the world. This is his world, and though we see but the beginning of his ways, what we see is sufficient to leave us amazed and worshipping him for his great wisdom, sovereignty, and power.
By Exposing His Pride and Self-Reliance (vv. 11-15)
11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. 12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. 13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? 14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. 15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.
Choosing to Suffer Affliction (vv. 11-12)
Moses spent nearly forty years in Pharaoh’s household. He was not idle. Jewish historians say that as the Prince of Egypt, he led a military force into Lower Egypt to thwart an Ethiopian or Cushite invasion. He was learned in all the arts and sciences of Egypt (Acts 7:22). And yet, he did not forget his lineage or his heritage. As great and strong as he, likely the next ruler of Egypt, there came a time when he “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Heb. 11:24). He wanted to be identified with God’s people and turned his back upon the world. This likely corresponds to his “going out unto his brothers and looking upon their burdens” (v. 11). He began to feel God’s stirrings in his heart, but Moses did not understand his true calling and the ways of God’s deliverances.
He saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating two of his countrymen. Moses killed the Egyptian. He saw himself as the protector of his people. As strong as he may have been, did Moses think of taking on all of Egypt? Or did his anger momentarily get the best of him, as it later would at Meribah (Num. 11:20)? Calvin believed Moses was justified in killing the Egyptian, for he was an officer of the royal household and armed with the power of the magistrate to right wrongs. His judgment may be correct, but Moses’ zeal was wholly misguided. In fact, the root of Moses’ willful, violent taking matters into his own hands must be utterly crushed if he is to be God’s leader. Israel will not be delivered by man’s might but by the Lord’s power. Egypt will be humbled, but by the breath of God, not the bloody hand of man.
Rejected by His Countrymen (vv. 13-15)
At the same time, this action was a decisive break in Moses’ thinking. Hereafter he identified himself as a Hebrew. He certainly thought that his past training and access to the Egyptian power structure would be the means God would use to fulfill his promises. Moses knew the promises well, but he should have studied Joseph’s history more carefully. We should study it more carefully, especially in our age of power politics as the only standard of truth and justice. Moses had taken matters into his own hands, something Joseph never did or could do. But that is the point. God will deliver his people by his own strength and through means that defy our control or expectation. All the great deliverances and men and times have had to learn this lesson – “Not by might, nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6).
Learning obedience through suffering, like the Savior to whom he bore witness and wrote about (Matt. 17:3; John 5:46), Moses was initially rejected by his countrymen. The next day, Moses endeavored to be a peacemaker between two disputing Hebrews. When he questioned the one who did wrong, the man rejected Moses’ intervention and asked if Moses was going to kill him, as he did the Egyptian? Moses thought he had acted secretly, but in less than a day, his action was widely known. His countrymen’s rejection was a harbinger of things to come; it also indicated the hardheartedness of Israel (Acts 7:23-29,35,39,52). God sent Moses, but Israel rejected him. Every true prophet God sent, they rejected, until they finally rejected his Son (Matt. 21:38). But Moses also had to be greatly sifted and learn that man’s ways are not God’s ways. True servants of God will be put in his crucible in order to be emptied of self and made fit for his use (2 Tim. 2:21). None is exempt. No child of God is exempt from partaking of some of Christ’s sufferings, so that his power may rest upon us. Moses’ rejection by the Jews was part of his refining, and it also forced him to flee to Midian to escape Pharaoh’s wrath. Again, so many parts of God’s plan and wisdom – removal from the scene of “action,” time alone with the Lord, the sifting of one’s heart and learning to walk humbly with God, learning that life is not about self and escaping circumstances but about yielding to the Lord and obeying him, which is his chief delight (1 Sam. 15:22). These are lessons that all the learning and wealth and power of Egypt could not teach Moses. He would only learn them in the sand and heat, among sheep, alone but with God in the wilderness.
By Hiding Him in the Wilderness (vv. 16-22)
16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. 17 And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. 18 And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day? 19 And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock. 20 And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread. 21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. 22 And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
In Jethro’s Household (vv. 16-21)
Coming to Midian, Moses, like Eliezer and Jacob before him, found his future family at a watering hole for shepherds – from the palace to the dunghill – a reverse order from Joseph. Moses ran straight into a conflict between Jethro’s daughters/shepherdesses and other local shepherds. Moses helped Jethro’s daughters and was eventually brought home to meet the family. They initially thought him to be an Egyptian, which indicates that Moses had thoroughly adopted its dress and manners. Jethro encouraged Moses to remain in his household, for Jethro had seven daughters and needed all the male help and protection he could get, Moses married his daughter, Zipporah. This marriage was not within the strict confines of race or covenant, and it will cause later strife within Moses’ family. Moses evidently saw in Jethro and Jethro’s father, Reuel, some remnants of a biblical faith, at least monotheism. “Priest” should not be taken as indicative of biblical piety in the fullest sense, but perhaps Jethro was a worshipper of the true God, or at least recognized his existence and authority. The point is that the Lord led Moses to a place of safety, in which he could be shaped to be God’s leader, away from the bright lights and intrigues and temptations of Egypt. Higher yet, in bringing him to Midian, the Lord saved his life (v. 15). Moses pushed God’s hand by taking matters into his own hands, but the Lord had mercy upon him.
Feeling His Exile (v. 22)
Moses felt his exile, however. He named his son Gershom – literally, “A stranger there.” It would have been tempting for Moses to seek what domestic happiness he could and forget about his people. Had they not rejected his efforts? But he could not forget, for they were his people. He remembered God’s promises and had chosen Canaan over Egypt, covenant over riches. He spent forty long years in the wilderness, shepherding and being shepherded by the Lord. He must learn to walk humbly with God. Shepherding is certainly fitted to teach God’s instruments the willful stubbornness and waywardness of their hearts, the filth of their hearts, and their need of a self-denying, sacrificing Shepherd. It must have been hard waiting. It parallels Moses’ later waiting in the wilderness with condemned, stubborn Israel. Much of Moses’ life was spent waiting in the wilderness, with comparatively brief moments of splendor and action. Does this not also teach us that “in quietness and in confidence (trusting) shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15)? Let us not be so quick to rush ahead and take matters into our own hands but learn the strength of patience, simple obedience to God. Then, we can leave the results to him and depend upon his faithfulness to guide our steps in the paths of righteousness. This is our only safety, to live quietly and obediently before him.
By Knowing Our Soul in Adversity (vv. 23-25)
23 And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.
A New Pharaoh, Same Slavery (v. 23)
Our trials will end when God wants them to end. We may find ways to feel better about ourselves or our circumstances, but this does not necessarily mean that the trial is concluded, or that we have learned submission to our Father’s will. It might be better for us if we had not imbibed the manipulation mindset so prevalent today – that a little technology, or money, or power of positive thinking, or more laws can make all our troubles go away. God cannot be manipulated as men are, for “his counsel stands forever, and the thoughts of his hearts to all generations” (Ps. 33:11). Forty more years passed. The Pharaoh of Moses’ early life, Khenephres, died, but this did not signal any change in Egyptian policy toward the Hebrews. Their bondage continued, perhaps worsened, and with it more of their hope died. They cried, but it is not said that they cried to the Lord. He heard their cries, but it is doubtful if more than a bare remnant held fast to God’s promises. In fact, it seems from subsequent events and the utter destruction of the coming generation in the wilderness, that only a few families were faithful to the Lord. But – and here is the important thing – the Lord was faithful to them.
God Remembered His Covenant (v. 24)
He heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is our hope in the world. It is the hope of biblical religion in the world. If God’s promises and covenant with Abraham were of human origin, then it would have died in Egypt. All human religions and movements must eventually die away, some more quickly than others. But God’s covenant was not of man. Therefore, he did not depend upon man to keep his promises alive and thriving. This must always encourage us – when it seems that faith and hope in God’s Son and covenant are at their lowest ebb and even in danger of perishing from the earth, never fear. Our faith is not built upon the wisdom of man but upon the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). He sustains it without any other human helpers, if all turn against his truth, or if man ungratefully forgets his own mercy by turning away from the Lord’s word. This is God’s promise and covenant. Now that he has sealed his everlasting covenant with the blood of his Beloved Son, never should we be terrified by man’s threats or ingratitude or rebellion but remember that he has given all rule and authority into the hand of his Son. We have nothing to fear. No weapon formed against Jesus Christ and his church can prosper for long, or prosper any more than what God permits to refine our faith, chasten our sins, and purify his Bride. God remembers his covenant even while we are suffering. The histories of Joseph and now of Moses powerfully teach this truth. His “men” may sit in dungeons or deserts, but God is hearing and remembering. He has bound himself to his word.
The Lord Knows Our Ways (v. 25)
And he has bound himself to us. Even in those dark days, he was “looking upon the children of Israel,” considering their soul in adversity, and entering into their afflictions. Few knew him very well, but he knew them. He knew their ways, their sufferings, and their tears. “The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous” (Ps. 1:6). Here is the anchor for our soul in seasons of suffering and waiting – God knows my soul and my ways. Although we are poor and needy, he is thinking upon us. His plans for us are good and not evil. He is taking pleasure in our prosperity and delighting in our ways. And this although we are far from what we should or might be, often provoke him to his face and even spit upon his beloved Son by our unbelief and cold hearts. The Lord never loved or delivered us because we loved and served him as we should. There is nothing in Moses’ history that would indicate either he or the Israelites deserved deliverance. They deserved more slavery. It was God’s grace and covenant that made the sole distinction between them and the Egyptians (1 Cor. 4:7).
If our hearts are humbled by this as they should be, we can learn to trust our God and Father in the worst of times. We can even learn to delight in him and his faithfulness when our hearts are breaking and longing for redemption. He is faithful. My God is thinking upon me. He loves me. He will never fail or forsake me. He crucified his Son to secure and vindicate and validate his covenant promises. He has sealed them all with his Spirit. I will go with my Savior into Gethsemane and seek only for his will to be done in my life and for strength to do his will actively, with all that is in me, for all his goodness and faithfulness to me.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Why does God often raise up his deliverers from great weakness, obscurity, almost from the dead?
2. Describe the faith of Amram and Jochebed, Moses’ parents, in their attempt to preserve his life?
3. How were the counsels of the Pharaoh’s brought down by three compassionate women on the banks of the Nile?
4. What does this teach us about the sovereign purposes of God? His working in every obscure detail?
5. Do you see your life as wondrously ruled by the Lord? How will this impact your thinking and outlook?
6. When was Moses’ decisive, Hebrews 11:24, break with Pharaoh’s household?
7. What did Moses not yet understand about God and his servants?
8. Why must Moses spend forty years in the wilderness – the first time?
9. What is so striking about God remembering his covenant?
10. How does this encourage us to pray, labor for, and expect the growth of God’s gospel and church?
11. Since God knows our ways, how should we live? In difficult times? How do we make progress in living with faith and hope when our hearts are breaking and longing for redemption?