Morning Musing: Exodus 3:18-20

“They will listen to what you say. Then you, along with the elders of Israel, must go to the king of Egypt and say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Now please let us go on a three-day trip into the wilderness so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. However, I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go, even under force from a strong hand. But when I stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my miracles that I will perform in it, after that, he will let you go.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Every now and then, a line from a movie will become immortalized into our cultural memory. A particularly popular film might give us several of them. Consider the Star Wars franchise. Its most famous line, of course, is, “May the Force be with you.” Another line that is nearly as common in the various Star Wars properties is, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” That line seems appropriate for this next part of the story. God here is telling Moses what is going to happen next. And while the people of Israel are going to accept him and his mission, the king of Egypt is not. In a bit of ominous foretelling, we are given a glimpse of the great conflict that is coming. This morning, let’s introduce a theme that we are going to come back to several times in the coming weeks.

Let’s recap quickly where we’ve come so far this week. Moses was out, minding his own business, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai Wilderness. When he let the sheep wander to the foothills of Mount Horeb, he suddenly caught sight of a bush with a fire in it that wasn’t actually burning. As he drew near to investigate, God called his name from out of the bush which really got his attention.

God went on to tell him that He was going to send Moses to lead his ancestral people who had been oppressed as slaves by the Egyptians out of the nation and establish them in a new land in order to keep His centuries-old promise to the nation’s patriarchs. Moses questioned this some, but mostly just wondered aloud how it was going to be possible. God gave him assurance and evidence in the form of His name. Here, He goes one step further to give Moses a sneak peek at what was going to happen next.

Think about the weight of what God said to Moses here must have been. First of all, there is this assurance that the people were indeed going to listen to him. That was, after all, his first concern. What makes you think they are going to listen to me? He knew who he was. He knew what kinds of politics would be in play. Even when he revealed his knowledge of the name of the God of Israel, they were still not likely to listen to him. But here God assures him of just the opposite. They will listen to you. And when they have, take them to Pharaoh.

But look at the message that was to be delivered to Pharaoh. It was not to start out with, “Let my people go.” Their initial approach was to ask for a three-day trip into the wilderness to worship their God. This sounds like an odd request on a couple of different fronts. First, why would Pharaoh even consider allowing such a thing? It’s hard to pick up on this in English, but the Hebrew being used here when they were to tell Pharaoh that their God had “met with us” conveyed more than just a casual meeting. The idea here was that their God had appeared to them in a dramatic and powerful way, given them this command to go to the wilderness to worship, and now their failure to do it could carry with it devastating consequences. That still sounds odd to us, but it made sense in the worldview thinking of the times. If a god appeared in some sort of a theophany, you had to do what that god said or else. The people were basically to say, “Listen, you need to give us this three-day vacation or we’re toast.”

The other odd thing here is that this wasn’t at all what the people were really planning to do. They weren’t planning to take a three-day trip into the wilderness and return. They were planning to take a three-day trip into the wilderness and then keep right on going until they got to the land God had promised to give them. So, was God commanding the people to lie here? I don’t know. The text isn’t clear about that and so we don’t actually have an answer. One potential understanding is that this initial request was merely intended to test the waters to see where Pharaoh was on the idea of allowing the people to go anywhere. Once he had denied this request, it would be the signal that they were going to have to aim a little higher and play a little harder.

As for his denial, God assures Moses of it. And how about this. God is essentially guaranteeing Moses here that his initial attempts to convince Pharaoh to play ball were going to end in failure. Look how God phrases this part, though, because it reveals more than you might think at first. He says to Moses that Pharaoh “will not allow you to go, even under force from a strong hand.” In other words, he’s not budging no matter what. An overwhelming army could ride to his gates and demand freedom for the Israelites and he still wouldn’t let them go. He would sooner let go of his kingdom as let them go. Moses and the elders of Israel could be as forceful as they wanted. It wasn’t going to make a difference. Why? God doesn’t use the words here, but the answer that will be revealed in the coming chapters is that Pharaoh’s heart is hard. He is a stubborn man. Reason is not something he is going to heed.

So, what are they to do? Look at the last part. “But when I stretch out my hand…” Pharaoh may not be willing to budge from his position even under the threat of force, but when God applies His force, things are going to be different. God assures Moses that He has something up His sleeve that is going to get the job done. When He does some things that only He can do, “after that, he will let you go.” In other words, Pharaoh may think he’s pretty big stuff, but God is bigger still. What Moses was going to enter into when he went to confront Pharaoh was not some matter of international diplomacy, but an epic clash of worldviews. On one side would be Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt with all their obvious might and grandeur. On the other was the one true God who created the world and everything in it – including Pharaoh and all of Egypt – and who was vastly more powerful than Pharaoh could even imagine himself to be.

There is a bit of a warning here for us. God is bigger than we are. He is more powerful than we are. We can try to resist Him and oppose His plans, but all our efforts will prove utterly fruitless in the end. Now, He never forces Himself on us. But He is going to accomplish His plans in the end whether we are willing to go along with them or not. Furthermore, He knows the end from the beginning. When He gives us a command, it is with the end in mind. When He steers us in a particular direction, it is because He knows what the eventual outcome is going to be. Our best bet is always to trust Him and obey His commands. Anything other than that is, to borrow the phrase Jesus used with Paul, kick against the goads. It is resisting and irresistible force. It is trying to move an immovable object. We can try all we want, but it isn’t going to budge. Even when all of the world around us is pushing with us against it, still it will not move. Our best bet is to surrender our lives to Him and do as He commands. That will always lead to the best outcome both here and forever.

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