Wandering Up and Down with God

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 15, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday in Lent we discussed Jesus’ forty day wilderness experience and how it echoed Exodus experiences. As a part of that sermon I noted Jesus quoted some of today’s Lectionary text to the devil. We also discussed how Lent has long been a time to study the faith. So last week we looked at a big picture summary of Abraham and Sarah’s story. Today we are going to use our lesson to springboard into a similar big picture summary of Moses’ and the Exodus.
Genesis ends happily with Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Joseph in Egypt saving both that nation and all the tribes of Israel. But a few hundred years later the book of Exodus tells us the situation in Egypt has become very unhappy for the Hebrews, a growing minority in Egypt. Just like in a number of cultures today, some in the majority felt threatened by the growing minority, so leaders tried to stem the growth. In Egypt they did so viciously piling on oppressions and injustices. Among the worse was that midwives were told to not let newborn Hebrew boys live. When the midwives bravely refused to do that, Pharaoh cruelly commanded that “Every boy born to the Hebrews [be] thrown into the Nile.”
Moses story begins with him as newborn Hebrew boy in this terrible time. His mother hid him for three months When she could no longer safely hide Moses she put him in a basket and set him adrift in the Nile and had Miriam, Moses’ sister, keep an eye on him. Miriam saw Pharaoh’s daughter rescue Moses. Pharaohs’ daughter adopted Moses and hired his mom as his nurse.
That’s the gist of Moses’ infancy narrative and a part not usally emphasized is it is filled exclusively with female heroes. The midwives, the sister, the mom and Pharaoh’s daughter act as God would have all of us act, with courage and compassion. Those acts made all the difference. Without those women there is no Moses, no Judaism, no Christianity. The courage and compassion the adult Moses goes on to display he likely first picked up from these women. Moses is raised in Pharaoh’s palace by at least two of them.
When he grows up Moses witnesses injustices and oppressions including an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses has the courage and compassion to step in to stop the beating. But it goes awry and the Egyptian dies, causing Moses to flee a death warrant and become an alien refugee in Midian.
In Midian Moses again has the courage and compassion to act to stop injustices and oppressions rescuing, it turns out, the daughters of a Midian priest, Jethro. Moses marries Zipporah, one of the daughters, and settles into being a husband, a son in law, and a shepherd. But things are so terrible in Egypt for the Hebrews that God is concerned enough to appear to Moses in a burning bush, which speaks and shares with Moses God’s care for the oppressed and a plan to return the Hebrews to Canaan. The plan requires Moses to go back to Egypt to lead them, but he doubts his worthiness, and doubts he’ll be believed. When Moses asks who to say sent him, God says tell them “I AM WHO I AM” sent you. To allay other doubts God gives Moses a staff to use for miracles. But Moses still doubts his ability to speak so God also promises that Aaron, Moses’ brother, will do the talking.
Having no more excuses, Moses goes to Egypt. On the way he learns Pharaoh’s heart will be hardened. He also meets with Aaron to work on God’s plan. Then they gather the Israelite elders, share what God said and show them signs from God. This works. All the Hebrews, also called Israelites, believe that God is on their side and working through Moses and Aaron.
It is important to note that gods in this era were thought to side with powerful people so it is a big deal that YHWH is siding with oppressed, minority, nobodies-to-powerful-men, slaves. It’s a fundamental reason why the Exodus story is THE primary story of the Hebrew texts. The idea of an Exodus-wise God on the side of well being for everyone is remarkable, it is an assertion of God’s plan for, what the New Testament calls “peace on earth good will to all.”
Next Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and ask him to let God’s people go, and they warn of consequences if he doesn’t. Pharaoh refuses and decides to retaliate making life even more miserable for the Israelites. Which gets them upset at Moses and Aaron and God. Moses and Aaron don’t give up. They go back to Pharaoh. This time they turn Moses staff into a snake and demand that Pharaoh let God’s people go. Pharaoh’s unimpressed, has magicians do the same trick, and he again refuses the demand. Moses and Aaron go back again and make the demand again. This time they turn the Nile to blood. It is the first of ten plagues, that come each time Pharaoh refuses the demand to let God’s people go.
Pharaoh’s heart is hardened– including we are told by God. This has long baffled people, but I have seen hearts hardened over our still speaking God’s declarations to seek justice, love kindness and to care for the well being of others. Sadly God’s commands, and actions by humans following them have hardened hearts for thousands of years.
The ask-Pharaoh-and-be-denied-and-new-plagues-ensue scenario repeats itself for a total of ten plagues. The first is the bloody Nile, then comes plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, animal disease, boils, hail, locust, and darkness. That’s nine. The tenth and final plague is awful. Before it happens the Israelites are told to paint their door posts with lamb’s blood so it will pass over their homes. The tenth plague comes at midnight, it is the death of all the first born Egyptian children. All of Egypt wails, including Pharaoh who summons Moses and Aaron and tells them God’s people and their belongings are to all immediately be taken out of Egypt.
The tenth plague is as disturbing as the Sacrifice of Isaac story we discussed last week which I explained we could understand as YHWH ending the ancient Mideast practice of sacrificing a child to appease the gods in times of crisis. I suspect this final plague is a vestige of that practice and abandonment of it too. I have not read scholars validating this, but it makes sense to me that when the God of the Hebrews, YHWH, stops the practice, those whose stil follow gods calling for child sacrifice suffer from it terribly. The plagues would be a crisis of the type that led to other religions in the area sacrificing children, but those following YHWH abandoned that practice and the terrible plague passed them over. That’s my take. It may seem out there but it squares with a God who does not take the livs of children and loves them unconditionally.
At any rate, after the tenth plague the Bible tells us an estimated 600,000 Israelites left Egypt with Moses after they quickly gathered up their things and made unleavened bread to take with them. As they were leaving they were instructed to commemorate the day forever. So the annual ritual of the Passover Festival begins with unleaven bread and stories relating to the Exodus and the Exodus-wise God.
The freed Israelites start into the wilderness guided by God in a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. Shortly after they get underway Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army to recapture them. The army traps the Israelites from behind as they face a sea in front. The people complain they’ve been led out to die (they complain a lot on the Exodus and usually it is understandable). Thankfully Moses gets instructions from God’s to part the sea. So he waves his staff the sea parts and the Israelites cross to safety on the other side. The army follows but the sea collapses on them ending the pursuit. God’s people celebrate as Miriam, leads all in a grateful worship dance and song for YHWH’s warrior-like rescue and salvation.
The people begin to trust Moses and God, but their trust wanes as they worry (and complain) about food and water. God responds with manna from heaven for food and water (as our lesson recounts) from a rock for drink. And when they run into trouble with local tribes God leads the people to victory. After three months of wandering they arrive at Mount Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain while the people stay below and God gives Moses a set of laws – The Ten Commandments– and God tells Moses if they are followed God will keep the covenant and be with them as they go to the Promised Land. Moses comes off the mountain with the Commandments on stone tablets. The people agree to follow them, so Moses goes back up the mountain for more instructions, including how to worship, and make dwelling places for God and the tablets in a tabernacle and ark.
While he is on the mountain the others slip back to Egyptian ways and make idols to worship. This upsets God. Moses comes off the mountain and angrily breaks the stone tablets before going back up. He is up there for forty days and gets a new set of tablets and laws and a renewal of the covenant. Being in the presence of God so long causes Moses to glow, as Jesus later does in the transfiguration story. When Moses returns the Israelites set up the tent like Tabernacle and worship God. Then God continues to lead by pillars of fire and cloud until they complete forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Moses brings them to the edge of the Promised Land but by then, besides him, only two of those enslaved in Egypt are left, Joshua and Caleb. But from the 600,000 who left Egypt on the Exodus, there are now an estimated 2.5 million Israelites ready, willing and able to go into the Promised Land. Moses dies before they get there. Joshua then leads the people over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land! That is the big picture of Moses and the Exodus narrative.
In it we can hear as we did last week, in the Abraham and Sarah narrative, that it is also full of ups and downs and good and bad and questionable behavior by God’s people and even by the God and gods imagined by humans. And, as I also noted last week, while Bible events are often strange, the pattern of ups and downs and good and questionable behavior are not. Only last week we addressed individuals, this week the narrative includes the life pattern for humans in community. We discover ordinary people are God’s chosen.
Even as God calls and sides with them and chooses them they haves ups and downs and complain and misbehave, as well as adjust and praise God and behave righteously and do courageous and compassionate things, LIKE the Hebrew and Egyptian women in the community who start the story off. Through the Exodus God does not give up on or un-call or un-love people as they live in that communal pattern. So we have heard again a narrative soaking with the Divine for those who listen to God regardless of foibles and follies or sense of worth.
And God can be felt by us in this story calling us to a longing for well being of others. Like God in the story we side with the oppressed and abused. For every badness we want goodness again. For every goodness we cheer again. We want God’s people to have well being. We even want the Egyptians to not be plagued. We want humans to be rescued from harm. We want well being for people. We long for a God who wants that well being too. And in each moment of the Exodus God can be sensed aiming and re-aiming humans who listen. Those who listen are aimed toward well being . . . peace on earth good will to all in the New Testament language.
The overall arc of this narrative is about a God who acts Exodus-wise caring enough to lead all humans and humanity in community toward peace. That is why this story matters still. It teaches that we are loved by an ever present Exodus-wise God to whom humans matter much. Not only that it teaches that the well being of others ought to matter to us not just as individuals, but as a people who listen and follow God. Seeing the big picture again, we can understand this story like last week’s is about . . . love. It’s about our loving God in action and how when we listen to God there will be love in our actions too. We can act with courage and compassion to seek justice and love kindness on a humble walk with God.