When we left our story, a Hebrew child named Moses had just been adopted into Pharaoh’s household. If you could imagine knowing how big of a deal Moses is, but reading Exodus for the first time (or hearing it read to you), you would probably hear a “Dun dun dun” at the naming of Moses in v. 10. Moses it seems, was the original Trojan Horse. The man who would lead Israel out of Egypt and humiliate the nation in the process was growing up right under Pharaoh’s noseless face (this mental reconstruction is based on the Sphinx).
It would take a while for all of that to unfold, so in the meantime, we need an “inciting incident” in the life of Moses to get the ball rolling. Between verse 10 and verse 11 we fast forward approximately 36 years. I know this, because Douglas Stuart did the math and explains why the story jumps like this:
The narrative now jumps ahead approximately thirty-six years, skipping completely over Moses’ later childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. This sort of leap from infancy/childhood to later adulthood is not only efficient for purposes of getting to the heart of the story but apparently was preferred often in ancient times, when the story of an important person’s birth might be recounted if it had special significance but his “biography” in effect began with the first truly prominent actions he undertook. 1
This really shouldn’t seem all that strange. It’s what happens in the Gospels after all. At any rate, just so there are not any skeletons in the closet, here’s the first thing Moses actively does in the book of Exodus:
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (v. 11-12)
Premeditated murder is not usually the best way to open up a life story. There is a long history of debate on whether Moses was justified in what he did. Perhaps surprisingly, Jewish commentators tend to exonerate Moses, and the bulk of Christian commentators up through Luther and Calvin tend to give Moses a get out of jail free card. Augustine is one of the few with some sense and compares Moses’ actions to Peter’s impulsiveness (the whole ear removal incident), and so sees it in the appropriate negative light.
Rather than whitewash the records of biblical heroes, we should take accounts like these for what they are: real events involving real sin. Adam didn’t have a spine. Noah liked wine a bit too much. Abraham was a habitual liar. Moses murdered a guy. David stole a guys wife and then indirectly made sure he was “taken care of.” Just because they are in the Bible and may be considered “heroes of the faith” doesn’t mean they have to be perfect. In fact, it’s probably better if they’re not.
Commenting on this particular incident in the life of Moses, Phil Ryken says:
The more we learn about Moses, the more we realize how tragic his mistake was. For all his admirable qualities – his hatred of injustice, his opposition to slavery, his sympathy with those who suffered, and his deep affection for God’s people – with one rash act Moses threw away forty years of spiritual preparation. Although he had a holy zeal to rescue God’s people, his zeal was not based on knowledge (cf. Rom. 10:2). His failure had nothing to do with his motivation, for his heart was in the right place. Rather, the problem was his method: Moses was trying to save God’s people by his own works rather than letting God save them by his grace. 2
Moses’ methods will get him in trouble again later. For now, we needed an inciting incident to get the story going, and this incident certainly incited Pharaoh. It also, interestingly incited the other Israelites (who you would think would have been grateful for one less slave driver):
When he [Moses] went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together [as in with each other. Technically all the Hebrews were “struggling together” in slavery]. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? [Probably the first recorded use of this line, now a go-to when you want someone off your case] Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well. (v. 13-15, brackets are my comments)
When you read this, you should see it as foreshadowing the story of Israel. They too would end up on the receiving end of Pharaonic death threats and have to book it to the wilderness. This sets Moses up as the representative of the nation as a whole. He came down from an Egyptian palace to identify with their suffering and shame, and in doing so, became identified with them, and had to flee the wrath of Pharaoh. He stood rejected by both the people he was trying to save and the King whose house he had called home.
Moses, now in Midian by a well, is probably wondering what he’s going to do next. He doesn’t get much time to think before injustice rears its ugly head again and gains Moses’ attention:
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. (v. 16-17)
For whatever reason, after being saved from the evil shepherds, these seven daughters didn’t think to bring the single guy from out of town home with them:
When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (v. 18-22)
Moses’ early adventures are now bookended with his birth and the birth of his first son. Zipporah, we can assume, is the fairest of them all since Reuel/Jethro gave her in marriage to the guy who saved them all. Moses, knowing he can’t go back to Egypt, seems perhaps content to settle down. However, he hasn’t lost his identity, and probably hasn’t forgotten his roots so to speak.
This is good because, meanwhile back in Egypt, things are still not going so well. However, two turning points take place, unbeknownst to Moses:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (v. 23-25)
An evil dictator is shuffled off the scene, and God appears. Not only does he appear, he acts, but an undetectable way. Given the four verbs used (heard, remembered, saw, and knew), we can read this as God’s attention being focused on the matter of Israel enslaved in Egypt. There is a bit of humanizing going on since God had not actually forgotten about Israel. By presenting it this way though, it is showing God is about to act in a mighty way. Fretheim comments:
These verbs show that God has a new “point of view” with respect to the situation. The context has changed among both Egyptians and Israelites such that God’s creational intentions for the world can now take a new turn. God can move forward with respect to the divine purposes in new ways. Israel is to be the object of God’s special care; this action is grounded in God’s prior relationship with the ancestors of this people.
This brief narrative ends by putting a question in the reader’s mind: What will God do? What will happen now? 3
Before leaving this part of the narrative though, it is worth noting how it sets up further foreshadowing. The trajectory of the nation of Israel as a whole is seen in Moses’ flight into the wilderness. It also prefigures Christ’s wilderness experience. This could be literally his wilderness experience of temptation, or of the rejection he experienced from his people. Enns helpfully clarifies:
Moses, in other words, foreshadows both the redeemer and the redeemed. He first experienced Israel’s rejection and became and an outcast and alien before he himself became worthy to her redeemer. Christ, too, became like us before he could deliver us (Heb. 2:17). But he did not simply descend from the comfort and prestige of an Egyptian palace, but from heaven itself, becoming not only a man but a despised man – for our sake. As Moses became Israel’s savior by truly embodying her suffering, Christ from highest heaven took onto his own body the sin of humanity. He is the Savior through suffering. 4
His later conclusion fits for us as well:
The Moses of Exodus 2:11-25 must precede the Moses of Exodus 14. The Christ born of lowly circumstances, who was despised and rejected by men, who died with great shame, must precede the Christ of the resurrection. We, too, must be broken before we can be built up again, for his sake. 5
Though no one wants to go out into the wilderness, great things tend to come out of it. But we’ll see that next time.
- Douglas Stuart, Exodus. Vol. 2. NAC. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006, 94-95 ↩
- Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory. Preaching The Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005, 63. Earlier, Ryken also comments, “One way or another, an expert legal team could have come up with a winning strategy for Moses’ defense. Indeed, many Christian commentators from Tertullian to Aquinas have sought to clear Moses from the charge of murder. But that does not change the fact that what he did was wrong. It was wrong because it was unnecessary. Moses could have protected the slave without resorting to killing the slave driver. It was wrong because it was not Moses’ place to do this – it was an abuse of power. He was still a private individual and not an officer of the state administering solemn justice. Rather than appointing himself as judge, jury, and executioner, he should have worked within the system. It was also wrong because it was not God’s will. God had not yet called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. And it was wrong because it was not God’s way. God had not commanded Moses to take up arms against the oppressor, as if somehow he could liberate Israel one Egyptian at a time. Later God would smite the Egyptians himself, but that was his business, and the time had not yet come.” (58) ↩
- Terence Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988, 50) ↩
- Peter Enns, Exodus. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, 88 ↩
- Enns, Exodus, 91 ↩