Digging in Deeper: Exodus 2:15-20

“When Pharaoh heard about this, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then some shepherds arrived and drove them away, but Moses came to their rescue and watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he asked, ‘Why have you come back so quickly today?’ They answered, ‘An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.’ ‘So where is he?’ he asked his daughters? ‘Why then did you leave the man behind? Invite him to eat dinner.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

When you hear something described as putrid, your first instinct is probably not going to be to go over and take a big whiff. Unless you are an adolescent boy, in which case, yes, that may very well be your first instinct. Putrid things don’t tend to smell very good. How ironic it is, then, that the word “potpourri,” which typically is used for a mixture of dried bits of flowers and other odds and ends that have been perfumed to provide a pleasing fragrance to a room is a transliteration of a French word that literally means, ‘the putrid pot.” When I tell you that today’s post is going to be a bit of a potpourri of things, though, I don’t have that in mind at all, and I promise it won’t smell. I’m thinking rather of potpourri in the Jeopardy sense of a mixture of all sorts of different things, a meaning which, interestingly, also comes from the same French word that originally referred to a Spanish stew that could include a whole fridge full of odds and ends. That’s a long introduction to tell you that today we are going to look at a number of different things in these verses that aren’t necessarily connected, but which are all interesting in their own right, and will help you get a better sense of what is happening here in a passage that usually gets overlooked on our way to the more exciting third chapter of Exodus. Let’s dive right in.

Let’s start where this part of the story begins: at a well. Think for just a minute about how many stories in the Scriptures begin at a well. Most of these are in the Hebrew Scriptures. It happened particularly often in the Genesis narrative – a set of stories with which Moses’ audience would have been immediately familiar. From the standpoint of his original audience, noting that the next part of his story in which God started doing the real character growth he needed to experience before he was going to be ready to lead the people began at a well would have put him in the line of the patriarchs. This would have played an important role in establishing his credentials as their leader.

This theme of significant events happening at a well continued into the New Testament. The most important of these, of course, happened at a well on the outskirts of a Samaritan town called Sychar. There Jesus met a woman with a shady and painful past. But rather than judging her, He revealed Himself as Messiah to her, making her one of the very first to hear this directly from Jesus. Jesus revealed there what Moses had to learn: that the things that make you important in the kingdom and which will cause God to mark you out as a leader of His people are not the same things the world looks at. It is the weak and humble who will be vessels of God’s greatest glory. Those who are prideful are too full of themselves to be able to hold God’s glory as well. As the apostle Paul would later write, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.

Wells weren’t just important theologically in the ancient world. They were important for the more significant reason that they provided precious water. In an arid climate like Israel was, access to water was a big deal. This is still true today. There was a Supreme Court case this term that involved four western states and the question of which of them can get water from the Colorado River and how much. Wells like this one would have likely been the source of intense territorial disputes and power struggles among those who knew about them.

We live in a world that is spiritually dry. Places where the water of God’s Spirit is flowing abundantly are the sources of great interest and even disputes among those who want control over them. Such battles for control can get ugly quickly. In a world where might makes right – a law by which these bully shepherds were obviously living – those who are weak and vulnerable will be forgotten, abused, and taken advantage of. This is not how God’s kingdom works. All are welcome to drink from His well of grace. Moses was doing a God-honoring thing here in defending these ladies. That one man could stand against so many by himself is a testament to his strength and courage. This would have been a bit like a scene from an action movie where the hero beats up a whole bunch of bad guys all by himself.

In helping these women, Moses was actually being pretty countercultural. Our modern, chivalrous ideas of guys always letting ladies go first and of defending their honor against those who would seek to deny or steal it is a distinctly and uniquely Christian set of ideas. Outside the Christian worldview such notions have never existed. We see that being played out here. These shepherds’ attacking the girls here was apparently a regular thing. When the girls arrived back home much sooner than they usually did thanks to Moses’ help, their father was shocked and wanted to know why. Now, why he was sending out his daughters apparently alone and without any male escorts or guards in what was obviously a dangerous world for them raises some of its own questions, but we are not given any sort of a clue here as to their answers. The fact that he had seven daughters suggests that he had tried for sons several times and to no avail. He had given his girls the duties that normally would have gone to sons because he didn’t have any sons. The fact that he was willing to buck the trends and expectations of his culture and show his daughters this amount of trust and respect actually raises his modern cultural profile a bit. Still, in spite of our culture’s attempts to brush off genuine, biological differences between men and women, men tend to be physically stronger than women. When a group of guys comes up against a group of gals in a contest of physical prowess, the guys are going to tend to win. These girls were wise enough – or at least appropriately frightened enough – to get out of the way and wait their turn.

They did that, at least, until Moses. Moses seems to have had a unique tuning to matters of justice. Some people are just born with a protective instinct. You can often tell who these people are because they are the ones who run toward trouble rather than away from it. Many of these folks wind up serving in the military or law enforcement. We should be most grateful for these folks. They are willing to do what the rest of us can’t or won’t so that we can continue living our lives in a generally blissful ignorance of the troubles sinners cause by their sinning. Moses seems to have been one of these people who run toward trouble. It seems appropriate that God chose someone like this to be the human deliverer of His people from their bondage. If you know someone who is similarly built, tell them thank you sometime for their sacrifice.

For his part, Reuel seems to have been able to recognize a good thing when he saw it. And he saw a good thing in Moses. Apparently, after Moses had helped them, the girls simply left him sitting at the well. Perhaps he had declined their initial invitation to join them in returning to their father. He obviously hadn’t done what he did in order to gain himself any kind of reward or a credit. When he learned the full story of what had unfolded at the well, Reuel fairly jumped on his daughters to go back and bring Moses home with them. He wanted to know more about this man who came to the rescue of his daughters. As a father with seven daughters, this was likely also about seeing if this man qualified as a potential husband for one of them. It would have also been about his repaying the debt of honor his family had incurred to Moses, which in an honor-shame culture like theirs was would have been a big deal.

Sometimes the point of a particular text in the Scriptures is to inspire us. Sometimes it is to encourage us. Sometimes it is to challenge or convict us. But sometimes it is merely to inform us. These verses are about establishing the kind of character Moses had. They are, as Paul told us, fully inspired by God and useful for all sorts of other things in the hands of a capable preacher, but their primary purpose is to inform. There was a lot of good, raw material for God to work with when it came to Moses, but he still wasn’t ready yet to be put into action. He first had to be trained and pruned. He had strength, but he needed yet more humility. Our strength is only useful to God when it is wrapped in a garment of humility. Without that, we’ll just get in His way like a drowning person fighting against his rescuer by trying to swim back to shore on his own.

Sometimes God’s process of preparing us takes longer than we want or imagine it will. He knows what He is doing, though. If we will learn to wait on Him, He will move us into position to have the kingdom impact He designed us to have at just the right time. That impact may be something that is obviously large and significant, but it may also be something that seems to us (and the rest of the world around us) to be mundane and even meaningless. Fortunately, the worth of our work to the kingdom of God doesn’t run on the same rubric as the world around us. Something that seems terribly small here may be of the greatest possible significance there. When it comes to our being faithful to God’s call and command, there are no small acts.

That’s about it for today. Like I said at the beginning: this was a potpourri of things. Perhaps the real lesson for this morning is that every word of the Scriptures drips with truth. If we are willing to sit with it for a time, it will often be surprising just how much we can wring out of it. Then, when it seems we have wrung it dry, the Spirit will help us squeeze out even more. There’s no end to the things He can reveal to us through His word if we are willing to wait and listen.

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