1. Multiplication and murder

In this opening section we discover that the number of Hebrew slaves must have been around 2.5 million by the time the Exodus narrative starts. This may seem a large number given that they started with just the 12 sons of Jacob, their offspring and wider family. But if each family had four children (not a large number in those days) over 30 generations then this number could be achieved.

But why did they stay in Egypt for 400 years when they only went there for seven originally? They first arrived in the time of Joseph and Jacob following a famine in Canaan. (Egypt was the bread-basket of the Middle East thanks to Joseph’s judicious storing of grain during the seven years of plenty.) They arrive voluntarily, are accepted as guests of the government and are given a fertile piece of the Nile delta called Goshen to live on together. So they remain a nation during the seven years of famine. But at the end of that time why did they not go back to their own land? This is a pertinent question, given that they are eventually forced to become slaves in Egypt.

The human reason is that they were very comfortable. It was much easier to make a living in the Nile delta than it was on the hills of Judea. The land was fertile, the climate was warmer, with no snow in winter as there was in the hills of Judea. The diet was good, they could eat fish from the Nile and look after themselves far better. So they stayed because they were comfortable. It was only when they were forced to become slaves that they remembered God and started crying out to him.

There is also a divine reason. God did not do anything to encourage them to go back to their own land for 400 years. If they had returned as soon as the famine was over, they would have been only a few people, far too small a number to accomplish what God intended. For it was God’s intention to remove the people of Canaan from the land. He explained to Abraham that his descendants would stay in Egypt until the wickedness of the Canaanites was completed. God had to wait until they became so bad that it would be an act of justice and judgement to throw them out of the Promised Land and let the Hebrew slaves in. We read in Deuteronomy that it was not any virtue on the part of the Israelites which made God choose them. Indeed, if they behaved in the land like those they had expelled, they too would have to leave. To be instruments of justice they had to be righteous themselves.

But all that was to come later. As slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel faced three oppressive decrees:

  1. Forced labor: the Pharaoh decided to use the Hebrews as labor for his building programs.
  2. Tougher conditions: they had to make bricks without straw (which meant the bricks were much heavier to carry). Archaeological digs within Egypt have discovered buildings made of three different types of brick: the foundations with straw, the middle with rubbish, as the Hebrews sought to continue making light bricks once denied the straw, and then on the top bricks made entirely of clay. The idea behind this harsh decree was that the extra weight of the bricks would make the Hebrews too tired for sex or mischief and so their population would decrease. It was a crude form of population control and it did not work, so the Egyptians had to introduce a third decree.
  3. Death: all the baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves had to be thrown to the crocodiles in the River Nile.

2. Bulrushes and the burning bush

Most people know this story well. The River Nile was full of crocodiles and this form of genocide was considered necessary by the Egyptians if Israelite numbers were to be effectively reduced. The baby Moses should have died in this way. But we note that under God’s providence Moses, like Joseph, was brought up at court and given the best education at the Egyptian university. This, of course, made him far better educated than any of the Hebrew slaves, and enabled him to write the first five books of the Bible. For the Jews Moses was the second greatest man in Old Testament – after Abraham. His time as an Egyptian prince came to a sudden end, however, when he lost his temper with one of the Egyptian slave drivers and killed him, after which he had to flee for his life.

The statistics of Moses’ life make interesting reading. At the age of 40, he spent 40 years tending sheep in the very wilderness to which he would return to live for 40 years with the people of Israel! This was clearly God’s hand at work.

Moses’ meeting with the Lord through the burning bush is also intriguing, not so much for the bush as for Moses’ excuses. God first told Moses to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground. Then he told Moses that he was going to be the man to draw God’s people out of Egypt. Moses made five excuses as to why he should not do it.

First he said he was insignificant. God said he would be with him – he was the important one. Next he said that he was ignorant and had nothing to say. God told him that he would tell Moses what to say. His third excuse was that he would be impotent to convince the people that God had met with him and told him to lead them. God said that his power was going to be with Moses and he would perform miracles. Then Moses said that he was incompetent at speaking, having a stammer which would prevent him putting words together. So God provided his brother Aaron to be his spokesman. God would tell Moses what to say and he would relay it to Aaron. Finally Moses said that he was irrelevant – please would God send someone else? But God had provided Aaron as a partner: they would work together. Each time Moses’ questioning focuses upon his weakness, and each time God has an answer.

3. Plague and pestilence

Ten plagues are mentioned in this section: the Nile turned to blood, the plague of frogs, the plague of gnats and mosquitoes, the plague of flies, the cattle disease, the boils, the hail storm, the plague of locusts, the darkness over the land and, finally, the death of the first-born.

There are a number of things to notice, and the first is that God is in total control of the insect world. God can tell mosquitoes and locusts what to do and where to go, just as he can tell frogs what to do. The plagues give a tremendous sense of God’s control over what he has created.

It is also interesting to note how the plagues increase in intensity. There is a build-up from discomfort to disease to danger to death. There is also a movement from plagues affecting nature to plagues affecting people. The afflictions gradually get worse as Pharaoh and the Egyptian people refuse to respond to the warnings. Some see the final punishment as unfair – is the killing of the first-born not far too excessive and harsh? But the Egyptians had done worse to the Israelites, killing all their baby boys, so this retribution was thoroughly appropriate.

It is easy, too, to miss the religious contest that takes place during the plagues. Every one of those plagues was an attack on a particular god worshipped by the Egyptians:

Khuum: the guardian of the Nile

Hapi: the spirit of the Nile

Osiris: the Nile was believed to be the bloodstream of Osiris

Heqt: a frog-like god of resurrection

Hathor: a mother goddess who was a cow

Apis: a bull of the god Ptah, a symbol of fertility

Minevis: also a bull, the sacred bull of Heliopolis

Imhotep: the god of medicine

Nut: the sky goddess

Seth: the protector of crops

Re, Aten, Atum and Horus: all sun gods

Pharaoh was also said to be divine

The plagues were specifically directed against these Egyptian gods. The message was very simple: the God of the Hebrew slaves is far more powerful than all your gods put together.

Some see a problem with what we are told in this section of narrative about Pharaoh’s heart. We read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Some have even erected a doctrine of predestination on this passage and verses in Romans 9 where Paul talks about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. They suggest that the passage teaches that it is up to God to choose whether he softens or hardens someone’s heart. Advocates of this view argue that we do not know why God makes these choices, but whatever the reason, in the case of Pharaoh he decided he was going to harden his heart. It is as if God picks names out of a hat and decides to save some and send others to hell, to harden some and soften others.

This is not what the Bible teaches, however. If you study the text carefully you find that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened ten times. On the first seven occasions Pharaoh hardens his own heart, in the next three God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. So God only hardens Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh has deliberately and repeatedly hardened his own heart. He confirms the choice that Pharaoh has made. This is the way God punishes: he helps people along the road they are determined to travel. In Revelation God says, “Let him that is filthy be filthy still.” So there is no arbitrary choice about God’s dealings with Pharaoh – he hardens his own heart first and then God hardens it for him. God responds to our choices. If we persistently choose the wrong way, God will help us along that route. He will demonstrate his judgement if we refuse to be a demonstration of his mercy.