His name looms large in the history of the world, certainly in the history of Israel and Judaism. He is Moses, the great lawgiver. Israel might trace her roots to Father Abraham, but it’s Moses whose indelible stamp shaped the nation of old and the Jewish faith through the centuries. And not just Judaism, Moses dominates the history of Islam as well. He’s mentioned more in the Quran than any other individual, where his life is narrated and recounted more than any of prophets of Islam.
Even in Christianity, Moses’ influence is keenly felt. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the heart and soul of our faith. But to follow Jesus, as He calls us to do, means that we must come to grips with Moses. Some do so by erasing Moses altogether from the Christian faith. Others do so by turning Jesus into a new Moses, a new lawgiver. In the coming weeks we will hear what Jesus Himself and the apostles say about Moses.
And we shall meet him as a man of flesh and blood, not so much that larger-than-life portrayal by Charleton Heston in the movie. Moses in the Bible is a sinner and a saint, whom God called to fill an impossible role. Impossible because no man is sufficient for what Moses was called to…until The Man, Jesus, appears on the scene.
I call today’s sermon, “Moses—the Early Years.” That’s a bit ironic, because the early years add up to 80! Moses’ life can be neatly divided into three sets of 40 years. 40 years in the house of Pharaoh. 40 years tending sheep in the wilderness of Sinai.
Then at age 80, God calls Moses from that burning bush for the defining role of his life. So the last 40 years are spent leading Israel out of slavery to the shores of the Promised Land. There Moses dies at the ripe old age of 120. Yet, as Deuteronomy records, “His eye was not dimmed and his vigor unabated.” Quite a man! And today, we fly through those first 80 years.
Exodus, chapter 1, sets the stage for our story and, as OT narrative always does, we are given several defining clues of things to come. 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt.”
The kings, the pharaohs, are never named in the Bible, so there’s some debate over which ones are involved. In the Cecil B. DeMille classic it’s Seti and Ramses, but history suggests that these two pharaohs come too late. The pharaoh here is likely one named Tutmoses, for obvious reasons; a pharaoh “who did not know Joseph.”
That doesn’t mean he skipped class the day they covered that piece of Egyptian history. It means he didn’t take to heart, he didn’t “know” the significance of Joseph, that great-grandson of Abraham, who, 430 years before Moses, was sold into slavery by his own brothers, and raised by God to Pharaoh’s right hand, consolidating Pharaoh’s power and fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham: “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.”
So, heedless of that history and the God of that history (who also declared to Abraham, “whoever curses you I will curse”), this pharaoh says, v9, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them…”
Come…the oppression. V11, they set taskmasters over them to afflict them. V13, they ruthlessly make the people of Israel work as slaves. Soon genocide sets in. In v16, the Hebrew midwives are ordered to kill any newborn male child, but let the female babies live. But the midwives are too shrewd for Pharaoh. So, v22, “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.’”
So our story begins with bondage and death. Ironically, in the New Testament those are still the words associated with Moses—bondage and death. Yet already, right here, there are echoes of things to come. There is redemption from bondage and death.
In chapter 2 Moses is born, but he isn’t called Moses yet. He is only called a son, a son doomed to die. Another doomed Adam until a final Adam, a final Son, doomed to die, appears, who by His death will bring life and immortality to light. A very significant story lies ahead, but it’s roots are growing here.
Moses’ mother, v2, sees that her newly born child is fine, beautiful. Well, yes, every mother thinks that. But this is the same word as in Genesis at the creation, when God looks upon everything He has given birth to. He calls it good, fine, beautiful.
So the story is implying that God’s hand is in all of this; and that this woman recognizes that hand! She hides her son for three months, trying to escape the murderous eyes of the Egyptians.
Sadly, all too soon she can hide him no longer. V3, she answer the deadly decree to cast her son into the Nile. Ah…but having seen God’s hand in this, she, like Noah of old, first builds a little ark of reeds, daubs it with pitch, and sets her son adrift in the flood, praying that he will live.
Well, if you’ve seen the Cecil B. DeMille classic, you know that Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to the Nile that day to bathe. Baby and basket are soon discovered. V6, “When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’”
Now Moses’ big sister, who we learn much later is named Miriam, has been following her baby brother on his voyage down the Nile. She emerges from hiding and offers to find a wet nurse for the baby. In fact, it’s Moses’ own mother.
Then at last, v10, “When the child grew up, she [his mother] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses.” Pharaoh’s daughter gave him that name. Yes, in Hebrew the name Moses sounds like what she says, “I drew him out of the water.” But it’s also an Egyptian name, perhaps after her father, Tutmoses…a regal name, similar to the later, greater pharaoh, Ra-Moses, which we contract as Ramses.
So our story of bondage and death witnesses life drawn out of the water. A baptism. A new birth. Life coming out of death. A man, a royal son, lifted up. Echoes of things yet to come!
So now…with this sort of beginning, what great things is Moses going to do as he enters his youthful prime? Like his predecessor Joseph, 430 years earlier in Egypt, Moses is near the pinnacle of power. What great things will he be able to do for his people with all those advantages of power and wealth? And isn’t that what we always seem to think…what if we Christians had more power…in society, in government. What if we Christians had more money…oh, the things we could do for God!
But God’s ways are not our ways. Having saved Moses in that little ark, having lifted him up to the right hand of Egyptian power…like Jesus, Moses first must be brought down…a long way down…to a kind of death…before he is lifted up again. Not by power, not by wealth…but in weakness God does His work!
Still…like Abraham of old, Moses is not above giving God a nudge. V11, Grown up Moses rides out one day to ponder his people and their lot under the Egyptians. Unlike the movie, here in Exodus Moses’ Israelite identity is no secret.
He sees what was likely a common occurrence: an Egyptian beating an Israelite. V12, “[Moses] looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” A mighty blow for his people! Solidarity! Death to the overlords! Israelites of Egypt rise up! Yeah…well…not quite…
V13 “When he went out the next day [likely intent on striking another blow for his people], behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your companion?’”
But if Moses expected gratitude and the dawn of a new day of justice for his people, he was sadly mistaken. V14, “[The man] answered, ‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’”
It’s the first of many, many, many recorded insults hurled at Moses. “Who made you judge?” At this point Moses had appointed himself. Therefore he failed. No surprise! The things of God never come to pass on the basis of our choosing. They come to pass at God’s choosing in God’s time.
So to finish up…v15, soon Pharaoh hears about the crime and Moses, age 40, runs for his life. In vv16ff he finds refuge with a priest of Midian on Sinai, first as his sheep herder and then as his son-in-law. For the next 40 years this former prince of Egypt would live the life of an escaped murderer in obscurity.
Meanwhile back in Egypt, one pharaoh dies and another reigns, and the Israelites go from bad to worse. Yet under the grinding of time and circumstance in that land of bondage and death, good things are in the works.
V24, “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.” God knew. He knew their cries. He knew their slavery. He knew His promise. He knew what He was going to do. It was awaiting God’s time to act.
Next week an appointment with destiny at a burning bush.