Moses and the Exodus
God allowed the Israelites to be oppressed so that they would be willing to leave Egypt. In fact they cried out to God for deliverance, and He responded by calling Moses to lead the nation in an exodus out of Egypt into Canaan (Exodus 3-4). God Himself said He was doing this because of the Abrahamic Covenant (Exodus 2:24-25; 3:6-9; cf. Genesis 15:13-14). The journey from Egypt to Canaan involved crossing the Sinai peninsula. To lead such a large group of people across the wilderness required Moses to have the competence of a military leader as well as that of a capable shepherd familiar with the terrain. God had prepared Moses for this mission even before the Israelites cried out for deliverance (Exodus 1-2)!
Pharaoh's decree to throw the male Israelite infants into the Nile led to Moses being adopted by Pharoah's daughter. So Moses was raised as a prince. This included a privileged education in reading, writing and speaking as well as in military leadership (cf. Walton, Matthews & Chavalas 2000: 78). When Moses killed an Egyptian in defense of an Israelite, he had to flee to Midian and became a shepherd in the Sinai peninsula. When he was ready to lead Israel in the Exodus, God called him to return to Egypt and request Pharoah to let the Israelites go.
Of course Pharoah refused (Exodus 5-6), resulting in a series of power encounters in the form of the famous Ten Plagues (Exodus 6-12). After the tenth plague Pharoah relented and let the Israelites go, only to regret it. The ensuing pursuit resulted in his total defeat when God opened up the “Red Sea” to let His people cross over and closed it back on the pursuing army. God demonstrated His power not just so that they “may know that there is none like Me in all the earth,” but also “to proclaim My name through all the earth” (Exodus 9:14-16). Thus, in line with the Abrahamic Covenant, God had the nations in mind when He redeemed Israel from the tyranny of Pharoah.
Two months after leaving Egypt the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai (Exodus 12-18) and camped there for 11 months. What we read in Exodus 19-40, the whole of Leviticus and Numbers 1:1-10:10 is a record of what happened at Sinai.
The first significant event was God making a covenant with Israel through Moses, known as the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19). God said to the nation that if they would obey His voice and keep this covenant, they would be God's “treasured possession among all peoples,” and would be to Him “a holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests” (verses 5-6). This is a more elaborate way of saying the nation would indeed be God's people and God would indeed be their God (Exodus 6:2-8). Prior to this God had already called Israel “My people” (Exodus 3:7; 5:1). But to experience that relationship they needed to keep the Mosaic Covenant.
To obey God's voice means total submission to Him, not just to His expressed will (cf. Fretheim 1991: 210-12). After the people unanimously agreed to enter into the covenant, God revealed that keeping the Mosaic Covenant involved observing the Ten Commandments and all the laws based on it (Exodus 20-23). The covenant was then formally ratified (Exodus 24). Keeping the covenant would allow Israel to possess and remain in the Promised Land. On God's part, He would not only keep His promise to bless them, but also dwell among them through the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:8).
The second half of the book of Exodus concerns the Tabernacle, its construction and related matters, such as the setting apart of Moses' brother Aaron and his sons as priests (Exodus 25-40). After the Tabernacle was constructed God made His presence felt in a visible manner. Leviticus then records the instructions and laws governing the functioning of the Tabernacle and how Israel should live in light of God's dwelling in their midst. It also narrates the formal consecration of Aaron as high priest and his sons as priests as well as the beginning of the priesthood (Leviticus 8-10).
Israel was then ready to move on to Canaan. A census was taken of all the males twenty years old and above, who were able to go to war (Numbers 1). The Levites were exempted as they were called to take care of the Tabernacle. This implies the need to fight real battles to capture Canaan, as well as to trust in God to ensure victory. This was exemplified in their victory over the Amalekites on their way to Sinai (Exodus 17:8-13). Joshua, Moses' assistant, and his men overcame the Amalekites only when Moses' hands remained lifted up, an expression of faith in God.
Before leaving Sinai they celebrated the first Passover to commemorate how God took them out of Egypt (Numbers 9). The Passover was instituted when they left Egypt so they, and future generations, would remember the Exodus and remain committed to keep the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 12:21-27; Deuteronomy 5:15; 6:20-25).
When they arrived at Kadesh Barnea, the southern gateway into Canaan, Moses sent out twelve men to spy out the land before going in to capture it (Numbers 14-15). Ten of the twelve came back with the report that though the land was indeed very good, the people there were too strong for them to capture it. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, believed otherwise. Caleb in fact spoke with conviction, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30; Joshua 14:7).
The task was indeed formidable; the Canaanites were not only strong, their cities were large and fortified. What then enabled Caleb to speak with conviction that they could capture the land? Obviously this conviction was based on the belief that if God could perform the ten plagues and open up the Red Sea, nothing is impossible with Him. The ten also witnessed the same miracles; why did they not share Caleb's conviction? God Himself said, Caleb “has a different spirit and has followed Me fully” (Numbers 14:24).
The ten (and most of the Israelites) had not been following God fully. In fact just three days into the wilderness, after crossing the Red Sea and celebrating the miraculous victory, they grumbled when they had no water to drink (Exodus 15). If God could open up the Red Sea, could He not provide water in the wilderness? Their miraculous experiences did not build in them the conviction that with God nothing is impossible, because they did not have an obedient spirit. So they failed to believe in God and to follow Him when circumstances were difficult. For a disobedient spirit is an unbelieving spirit to begin with. This nullified the faith-building experiences that they had.
Not surprisingly the nation as a whole listened to the ten faithless men and feared the Canaanites, and thus rebelled against God. Because they failed to believe in God and refused to “listen to God's voice,” God decided that those twenty years and above, except Joshua and Caleb, would die in the wilderness. God would only bring the next generation into the Promised Land. Israel then spent 38 years of wandering in the wilderness waiting for the older generation to die off.
Relatively few events are recorded in the account of these 38 years, giving the impression that they were not many events worth recording. We will highlight a few of the recorded events that exemplify the three categories of temptations that human beings then and now are prone to fall into: money, power and sex.
Numbers 16 records the rebellion led by Korah, Dathan and Abiram against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Inasmuch as Moses and Aaron were both called by God to lead Israel, the rebellion was against God Himself. They were envious of their God-chosen leaders. Their rebellion was really a power struggle and they were severely punished by God.
People who are envious of those God has given the privilege of leadership need to realize that to those more is given, more is required (Luke 12:48). Moses was a humble man (Numbers 12:3). For instance, just before arriving at Sinai he readily accepted his father-in-law's advice to share his authority with others so that they could share his workload (Exodus 18). But Numbers 20 records the incident where Moses and Aaron were disqualified from entering the Promised Land when they disobeyed God. The people had assembled against them because of the lack of water. Out of frustration Moses struck the rock twice with his staff to bring out water instead of speaking to it. Aaron was implicated because he was co-leading with Moses and God had in fact commanded both of them to speak to the rock (verses 2, 6, 8, 10, 12). Even granted that what Moses did was not just disobedience but an abuse of God’s authority symbolized by the staff (Lim 1997), given the circumstances, the punishment still seems too harsh. God's judgment seems unfair, until we recognize that leaders incur a stricter judgment (cf. James 3:1), especially when they abuse the authority vested on them.
Towards the end of the wandering, on their way to the east of Canaan, the Israelites defeated Sihon king of the Amorites and then Og king of Bashan (Numbers 21:21-35). Thus Israel took over their respective lands, which were east of the Jordan river. Israel fought both battles purely out of self-defense and the lands they possessed as a result, which were eventually occupied by the tribe of Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh, were not part of the original Promised Land (Numbers 32).
Seeing what happened to Sihon and Og, Balak king Moab sent messengers to Balaam, a renowned diviner, wanting to hire him for a fee to curse Israel (Numbers 22). Balaam said he needed to get permission from the God of Israel. Obviously God said “No.” So he turned down the offer. But he reconsidered it when Balak sent a more distinguished group of messengers offering “to honor you richly, and ... do whatever you say” (verse 17), which amounted to a “payment in the form of a blank check” (Olson 1996: 143). He insisted no amount of money could buy his services unless God gave him permission. This time God gave him permission to go with the messengers but he must only do what God tells him to do.
On the way, God was angry with Balaam and he almost lost his life. Unless we accuse the all-knowing God of being capricious, in light of the money promised, Balaam must have harbored in his heart the thought of cursing Israel (cf. Cole 2000: 388-89). This is supported by the fact that God warned Balaam again that he must only do what God tells him to do (verse 35). Also Balaam did have evil intentions toward Israel (see below). It is hard to believe that Balaam could not be tempted even in his heart by the offer of a “blank check.” After this near-death encounter with God, Balaam was used by God to bless Israel through five God-inspired oracles (Numbers 23-24). Hence “God turned the (intended) curse into a blessing” (Deuteronomy 23:5).
When Israel was camped at Shittim, which was their last station before they crossed the Jordan river into Canaan, “the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to sacrifice to their gods” (Numbers 25:1-2 NIV). The mastermind behind this deadly trap was none other than Balaam (Numbers 31:16). He managed to use sex to trap the Israelite men into worshiping foreign gods. With God on their side, God's people need fear no external intimidation, only internal corruption. Many people died as a consequence. It was a terrifying thing to have the holy God dwell in their midst. We will appreciate this better when we take a closer look at the Ten Commandments and the Tabernacle.
By now all those who were not supposed to enter the Promised Land, except Moses, were dead (Deuteronomy 2:14-16). A second census was taken and Joshua was commissioned to succeed Moses (Numbers 26; 27:12-23). Before Israel was fully ready to enter and capture Canaan, God had one last thing for Moses to do. Through a series of speeches, recorded in Deuteronomy, Moses renewed the Mosaic Covenant with the second generation of Israelites and admonished them to observe it. Then, having seen the Promised Land from afar, Moses died even tough “his eye was not dimmed, nor his vigor abated” (Deuteronomy 34:7).
The Creation Mandate Applied Nationally
To better understand God's purpose for the Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant we need to backtrack and consider the larger context. The Mosaic Covenant, not just the Exodus, is a development and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (see Exodus 6:2-8; cf. Fretheim 1994: 208-9). Israel became God's people because of the covenant God made with Abraham (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). Inasmuch as God chose Abraham by grace (Joshua 24:2-4), Israel became God's people by grace (cf. Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:1-17).
However, because God is holy, God's people must be holy by keeping the Mosaic Covenant (Leviticus 19:2). Israel was called (by grace) to be a “holy nation” so as to be “a kingdom of priests.” This means, “through divine favour, Israel is said to enjoy an affinity, or fitness [being holy] for access [as priests] to the divine dwelling place, the presence of God” (Davies 2004: 238). Since priests function as intermediaries between God and humanity, this calling also means bearing witness to God. Having been set apart as holy (in status), the nation must also be holy (in practice) by observing the Ten Commandments. The nations would then say of God’s people, “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Israel would then have the credibility to declare to the nations, God’s glory, sovereignty and judgment of world, and call them to worship Him (Psalms 96).
This is in line with the Abrahamic Covenant that Israel was to be blessing to the nations. Recall that the Abrahamic Covenant is God's plan to redeem humanity through the nation of Israel. And, as we have seen, redeeming humanity is God's means of redeeming civilization to fulfill the Creation Mandate. Thus the Creation Mandate was reapplied (nationally) through the Mosaic Covenant to build a national civilization that was both consistent with God's will and in fellowship with Him.
Israel was to live out God's idea of nationhood as a model for all nations. This is why Israel was called a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priest.” In other words, God's will must be embodied not just in their personal life, but also in their national life. And God's will must be manifested in the nation in the social, economic and even political realms. As Walter Brueggemann (1994: 835) puts it, “Israel is to be a community in which worldly [secular] power and holy purpose converge.”
It is significant that Israel was oppressed in the social, economic and political realms before God redeemed them out of Egypt. It was a sharp contrast to the national civilization Israel was called to build in Canaan. This should have given them the motivation to not only build such a nation, but also refrain from mistreating the resident aliens in their midst. For they knew what it meant to be mistreated as resident aliens in Egypt. In other words, the remembrance of the Exodus through observing the Passover should motivate them to keep the Mosaic Covenant.
Israel must be holy also because God was dwelling in their midst through the Tabernacle. They were to build a national civilization that was not only consistent with God's will but also in fellowship with God. And we saw how terrifying it could be for the holy God to dwell in the midst of fallen human beings. But it was necessary for Israel to take this risk, for in fulfilling the Creation Mandate nationally, the nation was to be a model for all nations also in terms of being in fellowship with God.
When the nations of the world are eventually blessed, a global civilization that is consistent with God's will and in fellowship with Him shall emerge.