The major themes of God’s providential care, which we have seen throughout Genesis, return writ large in Exodus. By this stage, the Israelite people have become hugely numerous. They are enslaved by the Egyptians and oppressed to the extent that there is an order to kill newly born male children. Throughout this, God protects his people by working through the midwives, whom he blessed (Ex 1:15-21). When Pharaoh resorts to mass killings, we focus on a single child, and see how God protects Moses and brings him to be raised in Pharaoh’s own household to become God’s instrument for salvation and justice.
It is interesting to note the means of resistance shown by the Israelite people. Moses is the only person recorded as killing an oppressor, and the response from his fellow Israelite is profoundly negative (Ex 2:14). He definitely does not receive any kudos for it. The midwives in Exodus 1 reveal a more underground vision of Israelite resistance – simply refusing to obey their oppressors when ordered called to commit infanticide.
Sheltering in the desert, Moses is called by God:
7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of My people in Egypt, and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors, and I know about their sufferings. 8 I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them from that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey– the territory of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 9 The Israelites’ cry for help has come to Me, and I have also seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 Therefore, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead My people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
19 “However, I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go, unless he is forced by a strong hand. 20 I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles that I will perform in it. After that, he will let you go. 21 And I will give this people such favor in the sight of the Egyptians that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. 22 Each woman will ask her neighbor and any woman staying in her house for silver and gold jewelry, and clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters. So you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex 3:7-10, 19-22 HCSB)
It is clear that the saving action will be God’s, and God’s alone. Moses’ job was to simply stand before Pharaoh and declare “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let My people go” (Ex 5:1 HCSB). Even the words were to be given to him (Ex 7:2), and when Pharaoh refused, each miraculous plague was dictated specifically by God (e.g., Ex 7:9, 19). Indeed, even the fact that Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to release the Israelites was due to God’s plan (Ex 7:3). At every point of this conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, God is showing his sovereign power over even the greatest nation on earth.
The archetypal moment occurs as Israel approaches the Red Sea:
8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out triumphantly. 9 The Egyptians– all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his horsemen, and his army– chased after them and caught up with them as they camped by the sea beside Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. 10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians coming after them.
Then the Israelites were terrified and cried out to the LORD for help. 11 They said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Isn’t this what we told you in Egypt: Leave us alone so that we may serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and see the LORD’s salvation He will provide for you today; 14 The LORD will fight for you; you must be quiet.”
15 The LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to break camp. 16 As for you, lift up your staff, stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” (Gen 14:8-16 HCSB)
Israel’s role in this was entirely passive: As they fled Egypt, God opens the Red Sea for them to pass through. God defeats Pharaoh’s army by first inciting him to pursue the Israelites, and then by bringing the waters of the sea down upon his army. Their role in their salvation was to be quiet and let God fight for them. Indeed, Israel’s great contribution to the whole affair was complaining about God!
This event, celebrated in the Passover, becomes the great identifying moment of the nation of Israel and their relationship with God. When God gives the law to Israel, he identifies himself as “the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery” (Ex 20:2 HCSB). The theme of exodus is one of the strongest through the Old Testament, recapitulated in the theme of exile and restoration, and further recapitulated in the New Testament.
The foundation of this whole theme is that God acts powerfully to achieve his purposes. His people are powerless, and are simply called to obey and trust him. The exodus is the epitome of divine providence and God’s control of the nations.