The Story of God and Us Week Three: God Keeps His Promises (Exodus-Deuteronomy)
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Our story begins with the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt. After all of Israel’s sons had died, the people were fruitful and multiplied in Egypt, so much so that new Pharaohs, who didn’t know of Joseph’s benefit to their national prosperity, began to look at this minority with suspicion and even hatred. And so they enslaved them, oppressing them and making them suffer greatly, even trying to force them into infanticide.
In the midst of this oppression, one baby is saved from murder and sent down the Nile in a basket. This baby is plucked out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter (even though she knows he is a Hebrew) and eventually is given the name Moses (which sounds like “draw out” in Hebrew). Moses lives in Pharaoh’s court, aware of his heritage but nonetheless part of the upper levels of Egyptian society.
This tension comes to a head when he sees and Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and his anger consumes him, and he murders the Egyptian. This act makes Moses a fugitive, and he flees to the land of Midian, settling there and taking a wife. After many years of being a shepherd in Midian, Moses finds himself at mount Horeb, and there he encounters the most amazing thing (Exodus 3:1-22).
After this encounter, Moses heads back to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from their oppressors. As he told Moses, Pharaoh is none too pleased by the prospect of letting the Israelites go, and refuses. And so, God proves his power by sending plagues on the Egyptians, to demonstrate his power against the pagan deities of the Egyptians. At first, the Egyptian priests and magicians are able to keep up, but as the plagues get worse, it is revealed that only Yahweh has true power. Finally, in a raw display of authority, Yahweh strikes Pharaoh himself (who was thought of as a god), killing not only his firstborn but the firstborn of all of Egypt. All the while the people of Israel are saved from the plagues, and their firstborn sons are saved by God passing over them (by the substitute of a lamb, Exod. 12:24-27).
After the smoke cleared, Pharaoh finally allowed the people of Israel to leave, and so God redeemed them from their slavery and brought them to mount Horeb yet again (also called Mount Sinai), all the while showing his power by great miraculous signs of protection against all their enemies (both natural and human). Yahweh instructs them to trust him (Exod. 15:22-27), and sends Moses up Mount Sinai to establish God’s covenant with the people of Israel, where God gives to Moses the Ten Commandments as a guide for how they are to live as his redeemed people. The people agree to the terms, and God promises to dwell among them through the tabernacle, an emblem of his presence.
If our story were left there, all would be well. But Moses heads back up the mountain and is there for forty days. While he’s atop Sinai, the people are tempted to forsake the covenant that Yahweh made with them through Moses, instead creating a golden calf to represent whatever power led them out of Egypt (Exod. 32). They forsake Yahweh’s commands and instead offer sacrifices to their new idol and break God’s law. When Yahweh tells Moses what they have done, Moses pleads with him on their behalf not to forsake them. God relents, but his punishment is severe:
The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. God up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments.
In other words, God describes to Moses his holiness, his inability to be near sin, and refuses to draw near to the people without atonement for their sins.
This answer is unacceptable for Moses, and he begs God to reconsider. God has grace on Moses and reaffirms the covenant on Sinai (Exod. 34). But the people still remain in this tenuous relationship with him, seemingly unable to trust that his way for them is for their good. He reveals to Moses that he is a God of hesed, “covenant-faithfulness,” and he asks for hesed from his people. He provides sacrificial systems of atonement by which their sins can be covered, and he can dwell among them (the book of Leviticus). He seems to do everything possible to assure these people that he will take care of them, and all they need to do is trust him, even in the midst of testing. God sends them into the wilderness for forty years to drive this point home (Deuteronomy 8).
While the people often repent of their evil actions, they nonetheless continually fail to live according to Yahweh’s commands, a clear sign that they do not trust him to make good on his promises. Though God had brought them out as a great nation, and even cared for their individual family lines and genealogies, as well as kept them from countless spiritual and physical dangers (the book of Numbers), they ultimately reject Yahweh when they reach the border of Canaan, doubting that they’d ever be able to drive out the nations already living there (Numbers 13-14). Because of their faithlessness, none of the generation that left Egypt are allowed into Canaan (save Joshua and Caleb), and they are all destined to die in the wilderness. Because of Moses’ unbelief (Numbers 20:12), he too is barred from entry to the land that he so desperately desires.
But God isn’t done with the people of Israel. On the border of Canaan, a new generation, born in the wilderness, prepares to enter. God re-affirms his covenant with this new generation (the book of Deuteronomy), and he lays out blessings for their faithfulness to the covenant, and curses for their disobedience (Duet. 27-30). His promise is secure, that as they act in faith, he will continue to be with them, giving them the land, he swore to their fathers, and dwelling among them. He even promised that as they repent, he will forgive them and atone for their sins, transforming them from the inside out and giving them a new heart. As they look to the future, he promises to lead them by Moses’ successor, Joshua, and to be with them all the way (Deut. 31:1-6).
The first five books of the Bible end with a note of strong hope for this new generation, but also with a deep danger. The people needed to live lives that reflected that they were God’s redeemed people, and there was no guarantee that they would do so. Moses, laying his head down to die atop Mount Nebo, has his doubts.
Now the question is, how will this new generation, and the generations that follow, respond to God’s promise and faithfulness? Will they act in faith?