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Let My People Go

Our Lord stretches out His hand to strike Egypt with His wonders. Come with us as we study Moses, Pharaoh, and God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.  Learn about Egyptian religion in conflict with the one true faith. Hear of the historic miracles and signs the Lord God performs. We discuss why the Passover happened, why it matters, and how it is fulfilled.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Episode: 57

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Sixth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 20:1-17

The importance of Exodus 20 simply cannot be understated. God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Sinai forms one of the most basic foundation stones of the Bible. Even the parallel giving of the Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 is not used as much to discuss the Law of God. While this study will not focus in depth on the commandments themselves, it is helpful to consider the context.

God bringing Israel out of Egypt forms the immediate background of the giving of the Law, as Exodus 20:2 makes plain. The Lord performed a mighty miracle by bringing His people out of the “iron furnace, out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 4:20). “He sent Moses, his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them and miracles in the land of Ham” (Psalm 105:26-27). Israel has also passed through the Red Sea on dry ground just two months before (Exodus 14). He gave them water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25) and manna in the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16). He gave them water again at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7) and delivered Amalek into their hands (Exodus 17:8-16). Again and again, the Lord proves Himself to be faithful and true toward His people, their Savior and Deliverer who gives them all that they need.

Israel, unfortunately, already shows signs of her unfaithfulness. They imagined that they would die at the hands of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:11). They grumbled for water at Marah, Massah, and Meribah (Exodus 15:24; 17:2) and for bread at Sin (Exodus 16:3). They did not listen to the Lord regarding the manna, treating it as common and not as holy (Exodus 16:27-30). The contrast between the Lord’s faithfulness and His people’s faithlessness could not be greater.

This is why it is helpful to speak of the “uses” of the Law as a kind of shorthand. The people recognize their own sinfulness when they hear the voice of God. “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). God declares His will to those who have broken His Law, and the depth of that sin is revealed in that moment. “When [Josiah] heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11).

But this revelation of sin does not exhaust the whole purpose of God in giving the Law. Moses says as a reply: “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20). Israel should not be afraid, because God has not come in wrath to reveal His Law. There is a real sense in which we may say that God’s giving of the Law is a sign of His mercy. God prefaces His Law with a declaration of what He has done for His people. He does not choose them because they are faithful; they have shown again and again just how stiff their necks are (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8). He does not reveal His Law as something which is unknown; after all, Paul makes abundantly clear that all men know the Law of God in their conscience (Romans 1:18-32). Nor is the Lord somehow obligated to act in this way. Job tried to make God answerable, and it proved to be his sin (Job 40:1-5; also Romans 11:33-36).

Rather, God reveals His holy Law to His holy people as a sign of the love and favor He has toward them. “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8). It is a show of His love and not of His wrath that He reveals His will for His people, because it shows His love for them. Yes, Israel sins and falls away. Yes, Israel does not keep the Law, nor can any sinner keep it perfectly. But those whom Christ has purchased for Himself strive to keep the Law because of what He has done for them. “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:35).

The Jealousy of the Lord

“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). While these words found in the Ten Commandments are familiar enough, what does it mean for God to be a jealous God? Jealousy, at least in English usage, tends to be a generally negative word. It is a word which tends to be associated with possessiveness, but in a negative, controlling sense.

In Hebrew (and to a lesser extent in English), jealousy is not primarily negative. It is a broader word used in a wide variety of contexts, and certainly some of them are sinful. In those contexts, the word translated here in Exodus as jealous is also translated as envy or envious. Where coveting is frequently a desire to have something which properly belongs to someone else, envy is often the desire that another person would not have something which they have. Rachel envies the fertility of Leah (Genesis 30:1). Joseph’s brothers envy his favor and his dreams (Genesis 37:11). The Scriptures frequently warn the godly to not be envious of the seeming prosperity of the wicked, because it is empty and fleeting (Psalm 37:1; 73:3; Proverbs 3:31; 23:17; 24:1; 24:19; et al). Sinful jealousy is also corrosive and tends toward even more sin (Job 5:2; Proverbs 6:34; 14:30; 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). It can even seem to be good, even godly, but be directed toward evil ends, like Saul slaying the Gibeonites in his false zeal (2 Samuel 21:2).

But jealousy is not necessarily evil. In Numbers 5, the Lord gives to Moses a ceremony designed to test whether a wife has been unfaithful. Her husband, in a “spirit of jealousy,” turns to the Lord to know whether she is adulterous. However, here the jealousy is legitimate: adultery is interacting with another man or woman in a way which is only appropriate to marriage. In Numbers 5, the jealousy may still be misplaced, and it provides for a way to prove innocence. But the motive is right: she has been set apart for him in marriage, and vice versa. It differs from a sinful possessiveness, because the latter is interested only in the self rather than in the other.

This, then, is how the two concepts are related in a single word in Hebrew. Sinful jealousy is a burning desire to have what belongs to another or to deprive them of it, although there is no legitimate claim on the thing in question. It is a perceived right to it rather than an actual one. Godly jealousy, on the other hand, is a burning desire for a legitimate claim. A husband is right to be jealous for his wife, because she belongs to him, and vice versa.

Therefore, the word jealousy is most often used of the Lord. God calls Himself a jealous God often in the context of forbidding idolatry (Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; 5:9; 6:15). Because idolatry is taking what properly belongs to God—worship–and applying it to something else, God is right to be jealous. Israel provokes God to jealousy through their sin. He is their Husband; why are they acting like a faithless wife (Deuteronomy 29:20; 32:16, 21; 1 Kings 14:22; Ezekiel 8:3; 16:38, 42; Psalm 78:58)?

Yet even here, the Lord is not jealous only in a negative sense, so to speak. Israel may be adulterous and provoke Him to jealousy, because she is His wife and belongs to no other. But Israel is also His. She may stray, but she belongs to Him. It is not because of her faithfulness, because that is clearly lacking. The Lord is her Husband because of His great mercy, and He will not suffer her to be mistreated. He will bring vengeance on her enemies (Isaiah 26:11; Ezekiel 5:13; 36:5-6; Nahum 1:2). He will have mercy on her and restore her, even after punishing her for her sins (1 Kings 19:31; Isaiah 9:6; 37:32; Ezekiel 39:25; Joel 2:18; Zechariah 1:14; 8:2).

Thus, God is a jealous God, because He has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. God is a jealous God, because He has brought us out by a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. God is a jealous God, because we are His through Christ. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’” (Isaiah 43:1). “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20).

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Exodus 16

The first verse in Exodus 16 is important for establishing the context of the pericope for the Fourth Sunday in Lent and should not be excluded. Israel set out from Egypt on the fifteen day of the first month (Numbers 33:3) and has now arrived in the wilderness of Sin thirty days later (assuming that each month in the calendar in the days of Moses had thirty days, as Moses himself suggests in the flood lasting for 150 days or 5 months in Genesis 7:11, 8:3-4). They have just left Elim and the waters of Marah and are heading generally southward toward Sinai.

In this short period of time, Israel has not only left behind the plagues of Egypt but also passed through the Red Sea. They cannot have forgotten the wonders of God in so short a period, even if their hardness of heart causes them to ignore them. However, forgetting even the sweetening of the waters of Marah not that many days ago (Exodus 15:25), they begin to grumble for food. Israel begins to wonder whether they will have enough to eat in the wilderness. Who could find enough food for a congregation likely numbering in the millions (Exodus 12:37)? They even begin to imagine they had it better in Egypt, even though they had cried out to the Lord in their distress (Exodus 2:23-25).

The Lord in His providence provides them with bread from heaven. Manna, described as bread in Exodus 16:4, defies exact description. It is described as “fine,” a word used to describe the dust in Isaiah 29:5 which is contrasted with chaff. Its appearance is like “hoarfrost,” the crystalline frost which tends to form on objects like branches. It is said to either “crackle” or be “flaky,” though that particular word in Exodus 16:14 occurs only here in the Old Testament. Manna is also “white” and like “coriander seed,” but that comes from the Greek Septuagint.  “Coriander” is used to translate this word which is also unique to manna in Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7.  Small wonder that manna means “what is it” in Hebrew!

Together with a miraculous abundance of quail, manna is meant as a sign to Israel that it is the Lord who has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 16:6). They are given sufficient food in a land which could not normally support millions. Each one measured out an omer of the manna, a unique measurement which only occurs in this passage and is explained in Exodus 16:36. This omer would be enough for every person, literally “a man to the mouth of his eating,” that is, as much as one needs (which occurs in Exodus 12:4; 16:16; 16:18). This corresponds to the Lord’s command that the bread be gathered daily, except on the Sabbath. It is the “matter of a day in that day” and finds a clear parallel in the petition “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). God will provide what we need on the day in which we need it. Why then should we worry? (Matthew 6:25-34).

By following these commands regarding gathering outwardly, Israel would also show an inward trust. When they “measured it with an omer” as the Lord commanded day by day, there would be no lack and no surplus, only exactly what is needed. This is why Paul refers to Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15. The congregations who had much shared with those who had little, and nothing is left over or lacking as a result. This also applies to the multiplication miracles in Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39; Mark 6:32-44; 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-13. Jesus multiplies according to the need so that no one is left hungry. God’s providence is perfect.

Yet many do not listen. They go out to gather on the Sabbath anyway, despite the clear prohibition. They do not believe that the Lord will indeed provide for them. They keep it until the morning, because they want an insurance policy that they will have bread tomorrow. Like their descendants in Jesus’ day, they seek God not because of signs, but because they ate bread (John 6:26). They have no faith.

As a final note, Aaron is commanded to keep a jar of manna as a testimony for future generations of what the Lord has done (Exodus 16:32-34). It would call to mind what God had done as a way of reassuring what God would continue to do for His people. Hebrews 9:1-5 notes that this golden urn was placed within the ark together with Aaron’s staff and the tablets. It was certainly a holy object, since it rested within the ark of the testimony. But 1 Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10 state that both this urn and the staff were gone by the time the ark reached the temple. It is not clear where they went, perhaps being lost through the negligence of the priests or during the captivity of the ark in 1 Samuel 4-6. However, the Lord willed for this to happen, for much like the bronze snake in 2 Kings 18:4, physical reminders always carry with them a temptation in the hearts of sinful men toward idolatry.

Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 8

The plagues of Egypt fall into a series of three cycles of three plagues, followed by the tenth plague which stands on its own. Each cycle begins with a command to “go to Pharaoh in the morning” (Exodus 7:15; 8:20; 9:13). The second plague in each cycle begins with a command to “go in and say to Pharaoh” (Exodus 8:1; 9:1; 10:1). Each cycle closes with a command to simply perform the miracle without speaking to Pharaoh (Exodus 8:16; 9:8; 10:21).

Further, those affected by the plagues differs in each cycle. In the first cycle, all of Egypt without distinction suffers, including Israel. Only at the beginning of the second cycle are the Israelites excluded (Exodus 8:22-23). God further distinguishes between Egypt and Pharaoh at the beginning of the third cycle, since now they are directed primarily at Pharaoh (Exodus 9:14). Egypt still suffers with Pharaoh, to be sure, but the focus has been narrowed to Pharaoh specifically.  This is especially fitting, since Pharaoh was regarded as a god-king, or at least a man through whom the false gods of Egypt acted.  To strike at Pharaoh specifically was to strike at the very center of Egyptian religion.  This concept of his own divinity also goes far to explain the hardening of his heart, a topic which will be covered in more detail later.

This text for the Third Sunday in Lent therefore covers the transition between the third plague at the end of the first cycle and the fourth plague at the beginning of the second. While Israel suffers with Egypt in the first half of the reading, God separates them from Egypt’s punishment. The righteous may suffer for a time under the punishment of the wicked, but God will not allow it to continue forever (Matthew 24:6-7 et al).

The type of bug indicated by the word “gnats” here is not entirely certain. This word is used throughout the Old Testament most often in connection with this plague. It does occur in Isaiah 51:6 where the insects dying are set in parallel to smoke vanishing and a garment wearing out. Gnats or lice seem to be a natural conjecture, since Aaron strikes the dust. The miracle of turning dust into these insects suggests that the bugs were small like dust.

This may also explain why the magicians of Egypt were unable to reproduce the miracle as they had done before. These magicians were the lector-priests in ancient Egyptian religion, priests whose purpose was to read aloud particular texts. They were closely associated with magic even in Egypt, because it was believed that by reading the scrolls in their possession, they could evoke certain effects. Magic as it was understood until relatively recently in history was not an act of the will, a contest between two magicians as to who would prevail. Rather, it is a knowledge of hidden things or secret arts, a way of knowing how the machinery of the world works, so that by using particular things in a particular way at a particular time, a specific effect would result. For the modern mind, this is difficult to accept, because society no longer believes in remote causation, that is, in a relationship of cause and effect which is not immediately apparent. But it is worth noting that we reject a specific idea of what magic is, and this view of magic is not the same as the historical understanding or even necessarily a Biblical one, as may be seen in Genesis 30:25-43.

That being said, the miraculous conversion of dust into “gnats” may be something wholly without precedent, which would explain why the magicians are unable to do it. Or it may be simply a recognition that they are out of their league, much like the witch at En-Dor when she got more than she bargained for (1 Samuel 28:7-14). Either way, the lector-priests show up once more at the end of the second cycle where they are likewise powerless to act (Exodus 9:11). In the contest between the false gods of Egypt and the true living God, it is obvious who is going to win.  As the Lord says in anticipation of the tenth and final plague:  “On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments:  I am the LORD” (Exodus 12:12).