The Stark Contrast of Two Suffering Saints

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they flee away; they see no good.
26 They go by like skiffs of reed,
    like an eagle swooping on the prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will put off my sad face, and be of good cheer,’
28 I become afraid of all my suffering,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 I shall be condemned;
    why then do I labor in vain?
30 If I wash myself with snow
    and cleanse my hands with lye,
31 yet you will plunge me into a pit,
    and my own clothes will abhor me.
32 For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,
    that we should come to trial together.
33 There is no arbiter between us,
    who might lay his hand on us both.
34 Let him take his rod away from me,
    and let not dread of him terrify me.
35 Then I would speak without fear of him,
    for I am not so in myself.– Job 9:25-35 ESV

Job has reached the end of his rope. His persistent pain and sorrow have left him in a hopeless state with no sign of relief in sight. He can’t imagine a brighter tomorrow or any hope of a reversal of his misfortunes. The days come and go, “swifter than a runner” (Job 9:25 ESV), and leave Job in an increasingly more depressed and defeated state. To make matters worse, Job has determined that God is behind it all, and he believes there is nothing he can do about it.

“If I decided to forget my complaints,
    to put away my sad face and be cheerful,
I would still dread all the pain,
    for I know you will not find me innocent, O God.
Whatever happens, I will be found guilty. – Job 9:27-29 NLT

Even if Job could force himself to put on a happy face, he doesn’t believe his lot in life will change. A forced smile won’t change anything unless God is willing to pronounce him innocent, and Job doesn’t think that is going to happen. For whatever reason, Job has convinced himself that God is against him. His unresolved circumstances have forced him to conclude that the Creator of the universe has it in for him, and Job feels ill-equipped to defend himself before such an august and powerful judge. The die has been cast, the verdict has been determined, and there is nothing Job can do to alter the pre-ordained outcome of an omnipotent God. But is he right, or is there a chance that Job has misjudged the Judge of the universe?

Job pessimistically states, “Whatever happens, I will be found guilty. So what’s the use of trying?” (Job 9:29 NLT). Even if he could find someone to mediate his case before God, Job doesn’t believe the outcome will be any different. He can try to clean up his act, improve his disposition, and put on a happy face, but he honestly believes that God will not relent or renounce His guilty verdict.

Job’s sorrowful state and gloomy outlook are not unique to him. There are countless others who have reached similar conclusions when faced with comparable circumstances. It was King David who wrote:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
    Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. – Psalm 22:1-2 NLT

In a similar fashion, Heman the Ezrahite declared his dissatisfaction with God.

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    I cry out to you by day.
    I come to you at night.
Now hear my prayer;
    listen to my cry.
For my life is full of troubles,
    and death draws near.
I am as good as dead,
    like a strong man with no strength left.
They have left me among the dead,
    and I lie like a corpse in a grave.
I am forgotten,
    cut off from your care.
You have thrown me into the lowest pit,
    into the darkest depths.
Your anger weighs me down;
    with wave after wave you have engulfed me. – Psalm 88:1-7 NLT

Heman went on to accuse God of driving away all his friends, placing him in an inescapable trap, and repeatedly rejecting him. He found himself in a place of utter darkness and despair and could not understand why God would not respond to his cries for mercy and help. At no point in Heman’s psalm does he acknowledge the goodness and grace of God. But King David is different.

David’s grief is just as palpable and his despair is unrelenting and virtually unresolvable. Yet, he manages to catch glimpses of the goodness of God amid all the sorrow and pain. He is able to look back on his life and remember the many times that God had poured out His undeserved blessings.

Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb
    and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.
I was thrust into your arms at my birth.
    You have been my God from the moment I was born. – Psalm 22:9-10 NLT

David understood his birth to be a gift from God. He had been raised by a godly mother who introduced him to Yahweh at an early age and, for that, David was grateful. His pain was real and his sense of despair and desperation was great, but David remained persistent in his belief that God would hear and deliver him.

O Lord, do not stay far away!
    You are my strength; come quickly to my aid!
Save me from the sword;
    spare my precious life from these dogs.
Snatch me from the lion’s jaws
    and from the horns of these wild oxen. – Psalm 22:19-21 NLT

David doesn’t declare his innocence or accuse God of injustice. He simply appeals to God’s mercy and grace, and he promises to praise God among the assembly when deliverance inevitably comes.

I will praise you in the great assembly.
    I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. – Psalm 22:25 NLT

Though David’s suffering was no less intense than that of Job and Heman, his outlook on God was markedly different. His pain was just as real and his despair was just as intense, but he remained hopeful. He maintained His trust in the goodness of God. Even with all that was going on in his life, he was able to speak in optimistic and hopeful terms regarding God.

Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
    Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!
    Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
    He has not turned his back on them,
    but has listened to their cries for help. – Psalm 22:23-24 NLT

David was down but not defeated. He was suffering but was still willing to find solace in the goodness of God. He was able to maintain a hint of optimism in the midst of all the sorrow because he believed that God would ultimately deliver him. He maintained a strong belief in the faithfulness of God, so he would continue to cry out and wait for God’s deliverance. David had full assurance that God hears the cries of His children and responds, and it was that belief in God’s goodness that prompted David to write: “His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done” (Psalm 22:31 NLT).

Job will end up saying something that gives the impression of faith but it is actually a declaration of resignation.

God might kill me, but I have no other hope.
    I am going to argue my case with him. – Job 13:15 NLT

For Job, God was a last resort. He firmly believed that God might strike him dead, but he was willing to take that risk in order to defend his innocence. There is a stark difference between the theology of Job and that of David. One viewed God as his only source of hope and his ultimate executioner. The other viewed God as honorable, worthy of worship, and the ultimate source of his deliverance. David was down but not out. He was in despair but had not lost his faith in God. He cried out to God for help and promised to shout His praises when deliverance came.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Faith Is Simple, But Never Easy

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. – Hebrews 11:32-38 ESV

The list goes on. The author of Hebrews draws this chapter to a close, but can’t help but add a few more names to his growing list of the faithful. He mentions Gideon, who lived in Israel during a time of spiritual apathy and moral depravity. As a result of their rebellious behavior, God gave the Israelites over to the hands of the Midians as punishment.

For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. – Judges 6:3-4 ESV

But when the people cried out to God, He sent them Gideon as a judge to deliver them. But Gideon was a reluctant deliverer. When God called him, his response was less than enthusiastic.

Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house. – Judges 6:15 ESV

And God’s response to him was simple and direct: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (Judges 6:16 ESV). Gideon would go on to accomplish great things for God, delivering His people from the oppression of the Midianites and, according to the book of Hebrews, he did so by faith. Each step of the way, Gideon had to believe God’s promise that He would be with him.

This is true of each of the individuals listed in the verses above. Barak had to face the overwhelmingly superior armies of Sisera on the words of Deborah, a prophetess. The odds were against him, but He obeyed the word of the Lord and God gave Israel a great victory.

Then there was Samson, a somewhat surprising addition to the list. His story is a sad one and does not end well. He was driven by his desires and eventually defeated by them. But on the final day of his life, having been blinded by the Philistines and chained between two pillars, he called out to God in faith.

O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” – Judges 16:28 ESV

That prayer of faith lifted up in his vulnerable and weak condition was answered by God.

Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. – Judges 16:30 ESV

He died in faith, trusting in His God and giving the last minutes of his life to destroy the enemies of God.

What about Jephthah? He had been born as a result of his father’s immoral affair with a prostitute, and when he became an adult, Jephthah was thrown out of the family by his brothers. He ended up living in exile from his family and found himself in the companionship of “worthless men.” But when the Ammonites began to oppress the Israelites, they sought out Jephthah to deliver them because he was a mighty warrior. In his newfound position as the judge of Israel, Jephthah turned to the Lord, and he made a vow to God.

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV

Jephthah believed that God could and would deliver His people. But he wrongly assumed that God would want something in return, so he bargained with God. I suggest that Jephthah fully believed that God would come through and that he would be required to follow through on his vow. But little did he know that after God had given him the victory over the Ammonites, it would be his own daughter who came out of the house to greet him, and he would go on to keep his rash vow and sacrifice his daughter.

This is a bizarre and disturbing story, and it seems a bit strange to include the “hero” of the story in the great “Hall of Faith.” But while Jephthah’s understanding of God was somewhat flawed, he did believe in the power and deliverance of God. He trusted that Yahweh could and would come through. His problem was that his faith in God was marred by a faulty comprehension of God’s nature.

In the case of David, the stories that exemplify his faith in God are many. The psalms he wrote echo his belief in God and his unwavering faith that God was his savior and sustainer. From the moment David was anointed the next king of Israel, he had to live a life of faith in God, spending years trusting in the promise of God while running for his life from the wrath of King Saul. He had been anointed king by the prophet of God, but Saul was still on the throne. David learned to wait on God, believe in God, trust in God, and rely on God. And his life reflects that faith.

From his earliest days as a young boy serving in the house of the Lord under the watchful eye of Eli the priest, Samuel developed a growing faith in God. He would become a prophet for God, speaking on his behalf and leading the people of Israel to obey the will and word of God. Samuel would eventually be called on by God to anoint Israel’s first king. And while he was reluctant to do so, he obeyed. Throughout his life, Samuel would learn to trust God. He had to believe that God knew what He was doing, even when it seemed to make no sense. His faith is best seen in his unwavering obedience to the will of God. What God said, he would do. What God declared, he would believe. Trusting that God knows what He is doing even when you can’t comprehend it or completely appreciate it is a hallmark of faith.

The author of Hebrews goes on to illustrate that faith is oftentimes accompanied by rousing success, including great military victories. Faith is often illustrated by strength in the midst of weakness, deliverance by the hand of God, and mind-blowing miracles. But just as often, faith can be accompanied by less-than-ideal circumstances. He mentions torture, mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, stoning, destitution, and even death.

Faith doesn’t always result in a happy ending. Samson died under the very rubble that destroyed the Philistines. David died never getting to build the temple he dreamed of constructing for God. Jephthah would see the accolades for the victory over the Ammonites go to a woman.

The focus of our faith should always be God. Faith is trusting Him regardless of what we see happening or not happening around us. The presence of difficulty does not mean the absence of God. The lack of an answer is not proof of God’s lack of power or interest. Faith that is God-focused is willing to wait and comfortable accepting seemingly unacceptable outcomes knowing that God is not yet done.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Holy Convocation

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.

“These are the appointed feasts of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord‘s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. But you shall present a food offering to the Lord for seven days. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work.” Leviticus 23:1-8 ESV

In this chapter, God begins to explain the various feasts or holy festivals the Israelites would be required to celebrate each year. Five times in the first eight verses of this chapter, God refers to these communal events as “holy convocations,” a Hebrew phrase (מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁmiqrā’qōḏeš) that could literally be translated as “a set apart calling together.” It was a “summoning” of the called-out ones – God’s holy people.

Because God was decreeing these events they were, by their very nature, holy or set apart. These were not manmade occasions, but divinely sanctioned holy days that God had established and that He expected to be honored by His people. They were to be considered holy days, a term from which the English term “holiday” is derived. In Old English “holy day” was rendered hāligdæg, and referred to “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done” (The Oxford English Dictionary). Notice now the more modern definition emphasizes recreation and the cessation of work. The holy nature of the occasion has been lost in translation and in practice.

Yet, from the very beginning, God placed the focus on holiness. These special dates on the Hebrew calendar were to be treated with reverence and reserved for the worship of Yahweh. Along with all the various sacrificial ceremonies the Israelites were expected to keep, they were to set apart a series of days and weeks that would be dedicated to remembering and commemorating their good and gracious God. And to set the tone for these holy convocations, God began by reiterating His call to Sabbath rest.

“You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of complete rest, an official day for holy assembly. It is the Lord’s Sabbath day, and it must be observed wherever you live. – Leviticus 23:3 NLT

This was not new information to the Israelites. They were already fully aware of God’s commands concerning the Sabbath. When Moses received God’s law on top of Mount Sinai, it included a regulation concerning the Sabbath.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you.For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 NLT

Now, when preparing to articulate the various holy assemblies the Israelites would be required to keep, God began by restating His call for Sabbath rest. This weekly calling to rest and rely upon Him would form the basis for all the other holy days, and it all pointed back to the creation account.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.– Genesis 2:1-3 NLT

God completed all that He had set out to accomplish. In six days, He created the entire universe and all it contained, and He deemed it all to be “very good.”

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31 NLT

There was no more work to be done because God’s intentions for His creation had been realized – perfectly and completely. So, on the seventh day, God rested; not because He was tired or worn out from the effort He had expended. He reveled in the beauty and perfection of all that He had made. The universe reflected His own glory. Everything He had made honored Him by serving as proof of His power, majesty, creativity, and sovereignty. Centuries later, David would wax eloquent when describing creation’s God-honoring capacity.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.– Psalm 19:1-4 NLT

As God surveyed all that He had made, He rested in the glory of it all. Every facet of His creation pointed back to His greatness and declared His glory. And the Sabbath was meant to be a perpetual day of commemorating the greatness and glory of God. It was to be a day of complete rest – not just cessation from work – but a celebration of all that God has done. It was to be a time for His creation to honor Him by proclaiming His glory. One day a week, the Israelites were to stop everything they were doing and focus all their attention and adoration on the holy, gracious, and generous God. While all the other nations were busy working, the Israelites were to busy themselves with the worship of Yahweh, their creator and sustainer.

And that same attitude of sold-out adulation and adoration was to permeate all the other holy days that God prescribed. He began with the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was not two holy convocations, but one. And when God established the first Passover back in Egypt, He had declared that this event would begin a new calendar year for the people of Israel.

While the Israelites were still in the land of Egypt, the Lord gave the following instructions to Moses and Aaron: From now on, this month will be the first month of the year for you. Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. – Exodus 12:1-3 NLT

With the inauguration of the Passover, the Israelites began a new year. From that point forward, they would live their lives based on a different calendar than all the other nations of the earth. And that calendar would include sacred assemblies and holy days that no other people group on the planet were required to keep. This new holy calendar served as a constant reminder to the Israelites that time belonged to God and so did they. Every day, week, month, and year was a gift from God Almighty. God expected His people to live the entirety of their lives with a constant awareness of His law that permeated every second of their lives. He later emphasized the 24/7 nature of their commitment to Him.

“Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NLT

These holy festivals were intended to serve as signposts throughout the year, directing the Israelites’ attention back to God and reminding them that, without Him, they were hopeless and helpless. The Passover was to serve as a vivid reminder of how God had graciously and miraculously delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. In a sense, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread served as powerful reminders of God’s salvation and sanctification. In the Passover, the Israelites recalled His deliverance. In the Feast of Unleavened Bread, they demonstrated their commitment to live set-apart lives. He had saved them to sanctify them. Getting the Israelites out of Egypt had been easy. Getting Egypt out of Israel was another matter altogether.

As the name of the feast suggests, leaven or yeast was to be avoided at all costs.

“…you must begin celebrating the Festival of Unleavened Bread. This festival to the Lord continues for seven days, and during that time the bread you eat must be made without yeast.” – Leviticus 23:6 NLT

And the apostle Paul provides a clear explanation for why God forbade the eating of yeast during this weeklong festival. In writing to the believers in Corinth, Paul used the Jewish festival of unleavened bread as an illustration of the power of sin among God’s people.

Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 NLT

When God set apart this feast as a holy convocation, He demanded the removal of all yeast from their homes. It was a not-so-subtle reminder to purge their lives of their old ways. They were expected to leave anything associated with Egypt behind. God demanded that they do a clean sweep of their lives and begin anew. God miraculously delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. Now, He was expecting them to free their lives from any residual effects from that previous phase of their lives. They were no longer in Egypt, but the lingering traces of Egypt were still evident in their lives.

Throughout the week of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the people of Israel were to purge their lives of sin and focus their attention on their Savior. Anything and everything that might distract or deter them from their dependence upon God was to be removed – at all costs. Complete rest in and reliance upon God was to become their sole focus.

“For seven days you must present special gifts to the Lord. On the seventh day the people must again stop all their ordinary work to observe an official day for holy assembly.” – Leviticus 23:8 NLT

The same God who saved them was the God who wanted to sanctify them. He longed for His people to live in total dependence upon His will so that their lives might glorify Him. And these holy convocations were intended to declare His greatness as His chosen people demonstrated their reliance upon Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Lord Is My Banner

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, 16 saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” – Exodus 17:8-16 ESV

After miraculously providing water for His disgruntled and dissatisfied people at Rephidim, God followed that gracious act with a much more dangerous and deadly demonstration of His power that also served to validate Moses’ role as His chosen leader. To quench their thirst and assuage their anger, God ordered Moses to use his staff to strike “the rock” so that it gushed forth water. This blatant demonstration of divine authority, accomplished through God’s official spokesman, was intended to bolster Moses’ credibility and credentials among the people.

“Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” – Exodus 17:5-6 ESV

God allowed Moses to play a significant role in meeting the people’s need for water. It would have been just as easy for God to cause water to spring up from the dry ground, but He chose to deliver this miracle through Moses. And one of the lessons God wanted the Israelites to learn was that Moses was His personal representative. Moses spoke and acted on behalf of God. And by questioning the quality of Moses’ leadership, they were actually raising doubts about the reliability of Yahweh Himself. In a sense, their anger-filled rants against Moses were really a vocalization of their lack of faith in God.

the people of Israel argued with Moses and tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord here with us or not?” – Exodus 17:7 NLT

So, with the people’s thirst temporarily satisfied, God brought a new and even more demanding trial for the people to endure. This time, the problem wouldn’t be a lack of water or meat, but it would be an overabundance of enemies.

While the people of Israel were still at Rephidim, the warriors of Amalek attacked them. – Exodus 17:8 NLT

The timing of this attack is impeccable and thoroughly ordained by God. The people had just satisfied their thirst with water from the rock when suddenly and as if out of nowhere, a force of Amalckite warriors descended upon them.

The Amalekites were a nomadic people who had descended from Esau, the son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob.

These are the descendants of Esau who became the leaders of various clans:

The descendants of Esau’s oldest son, Eliphaz, became the leaders of the clans of Teman, Omar, Zepho, Kenaz, Korah, Gatam, and Amalek. – Genesis 36:15-16 NLT

These descendants of Esau were close relatives of Israelites who had settled in the southern region of Canaan, between the border of Egypt and Mount Sinai. During the Israelites’ 400-year sojourn in Egypt, the Amalekites had grown in number and considered the wilderness of Sin as their homeland. The scene of millions of Hebrew refugees setting up camp on their home turf must have alarmed the Amalekites. Water rights and pasture land would have been of great value in that arid part of the world. So, the Amalekites decided to give the Israelites ample reason to move on.  But rather than ordering the Israelites to run, Moses put together a battle plan, formed a makeshift army, and assigned a young man named Joshua to serve as commander. Then he gave this new general his strange-sounding strategy for achieving victory.

“Choose some men to go out and fight the army of Amalek for us. Tomorrow, I will stand at the top of the hill, holding the staff of God in my hand.” – Exodus 17:9 NLT

The Israelites were shepherds, not warriors. None of them had any military training or battle experience. Yet, Moses was ordering them to go up against an Amalekite force comprised of seasoned and well-equipped warriors.

So, the next day, as Joshua led his rag-tag group of citizen soldiers into battle, Moses ascended a nearby hill in the company of Aaron and Hur. There on the mountaintop, Moses took the very same staff he had used to strike the rock and raised it above his head with both arms. The text states that, as long as he held the staff aloft, the Israelites were able to get the upper hand in the battle taking place in the valley below. But as time wore on, Moses’ arms grew weary, and as he lowered them to rest, the battle went in favor of the Amalekites. The key to victory over the Amalekites was directly tied to God’s chosen leader raising his staff over the enemies of Israel.

In the heat of the battle taking place in the valley, Joshua had no way of knowing what was happening on the mountaintop. One minute his forces gained the advantage, only to find themselves retreating in apparent defeat. It was a touch-and-go affair that could go either way.

But Moses’ two companions could see exactly what was going on and knew that they were going to have to intervene or the battle would end in tragedy. Moses was insufficient for the task. He had the heart and possessed the staff through which the power of God was displayed, but he lacked the stamina necessary to stay the course.

Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. – Exodus 17:12 NLT

The power of God was more than sufficient to meet the need. What was lacking was Moses’ ability to serve as the unwavering conduit through whom God’s power could flow unchecked. God’s chosen leader was well into his 80s when this battle took place and the physical demands on his elderly body proved to be too much. He understood that victory hinged on his ability to keep the staff aloft but he lacked the personal strength to do his part. That’s when Aaron and Hur stepped in. These two men immediately understood the role they were there to play.

First, they provided a stone on which Moses could rest. The exhausted octogenarian was completely worn out from the physical exertion and the emotional toll he suffered every time he lowered his arms and watched the battle turn against Joshua and his troops.

Next, they each stood alongside Moses, lifting his arms into the air and using their combined strength to serve as conduits of the power of God. The staff remained aloft, the power of God flowed, and the army of Israel won the day.

Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle. – Exodus 17:13 NLT

In the aftermath of this great victory, God ordered Moses to make a permanent record of this victory, along with a promise regarding the eventual destruction of the Amalekites.

“Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” – Exodus 17:14 NLT

God specifically told Moses to deliver this divine promise to Joshua. It was as if God was letting Joshua know that this battle was far from over. They had not destroyed the Amalekites but had simply defeated them in battle. That meant they would live to fight another day. But God wanted Joshua to know that he would lead one more battle against these enemies of Israel and, when that day came, Joshua would have the pleasure of wiping them off the face of the earth.

This promise would not take place until long after the Israelites had entered the land of Canaan and made it their own. Some forty years later, Moses would pull out his written record of God’s promise and read it to Joshua again.

Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies in the land he is giving you as a special possession, you must destroy the Amalekites and erase their memory from under heaven. Never forget this! – Deuteronomy 25:19 NLT

And at the scene of the battle, Moses erected another record of their decisive victory. He erected an altar and named it Yahweh-Nissi (which means “the Lord is my banner”). This memorial or tribute to God’s faithfulness celebrated His sovereign role in Israel’s victory. Moses, Aaron, and Hur were simply instruments in God’s hands. Joshua and the men who fought alongside him, each served under the banner of the King of kings. They were the army of God Almighty. But the victory was God’s alone.

And Moses recognized that the Amalekites would pay dearly for their decision to stand against the God of the universe. Their assault on the Israelites was a direct attack on the sovereignty of Yahweh, the ruler of heaven and earth. And God would hold the Amalekites accountable for their actions.

“They have raised their fist against the Lord’s throne, so now the Lord will be at war with Amalek generation after generation.” – Exodus 17:16 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Doubting God’s Presence

1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” – Exodus 17:1-7 ESV

Since leaving Egypt, the Israelites have displayed a clear pattern of behavior when encountering what they believe to be unexpected and undesirable difficulties. As soon as things take a perceived turn for the worse, they express their disapproval to Moses and Aaron. At Marah, they discovered that the water was undrinkable, so they took their dissatisfaction with the situation to the two brothers.

So the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What can we drink?”Exodus 15:24 NLT

Rather than reprimand them for their mistreatment of His appointed leaders, God miraculously transformed the bitter water of Marah into fresh drinking water. But He also gave them a warning about their ongoing behavior. He demanded that they begin to do what is right and obey His commands or they could find themselves suffering some of the same plagues that befell the Egyptians. His constant care for them came with conditions.

Not long after that event, as the people made their way through the desolate wilderness of Sin, their supply of unleavened bread ran out, and their growing hunger caused them to lash out in frustration yet again.

The entire company of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” – Exodus 16:2-3 NLT

Once again, God intervened and performed yet another miracle. He provided them with quail each evening and a bread-like substance every morning that would supply all their nutritional requirements for the rest of their journey. But just days later, when the people arrived at a place called Rephidim, they found another reason to complain. There was no water. It seems that the water they had gathered at Marah had run out and now Moses and Aaron had led them to yet another desolate and dry spot that provided no hope of quenching their thirst. So…

…the people were very thirsty there for water, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Why in the world did you bring us up from Egypt—to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” – Exodus 17:3 NLT

In each successive encounter, their complaints become increasingly darker and more desperate. Their inflammatory rhetoric reflects their growing disillusionment with the entire enterprise. They expressed their regret of having ever left Egypt and accused Moses and Aaron of leading them on a virtual death march into the God-forsaken wilderness.

The further they got from Egypt and the closer they got to Canaan, they began to second-guess the leadership of Moses and the reliability of Yahweh. Despite all that God had done for them, they questioned the very nature of His “deliverance” by declaring it to be headed to certain failure. In their minds, each difficulty they faced provided further evidence that this problem-plagued trip to the promised land had been a huge mistake.

Driven by thirst and fear, they accused Moses of trying to kill them. Their deliverer had become their executioner. But what they failed to understand was that Moses was simply following directions. He was being guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. These manifestations of God’s presence were always with them and had been guiding them all along the way. Their arrival in Marah had not been a mistake. God had led them to a place where the water was undrinkable. He had known all along that their bread would eventually run out and their hunger would cause them to question His goodness.

God was not lost. He had not become disoriented in the trackless wilderness of Sin. He knew exactly where He was going and what He was doing. He was testing His people to see if they would trust Him. He was placing them in situations that were designed to expose their doubts and fears. And here at Rephidim, He provided them with yet another test of their confidence in Him. There was no water. But the pillar of cloud remained at the head of their column. As they made camp, the divine presence of God was visible for all to see. He had not left them or forsaken them.

But the people had their doubts. They could not understand why this God of Moses and Aaron would allow them to suffer. If this Yahweh was so powerful and great and if He truly was with them, why did they keep ending up in less-than-satisfactory situations? Did He not know that Rephadim had no water source? But rather than take their questions and concerns to God, they turned on Moses and Aaron, and their anger was so intense that Moses feared for his life.

“What will I do with this people?—a little more and they will stone me!” – Exodus 17:4 NLT

But, once again, God intervened. He gave Moses the following instructions:

“Go over before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” – Exodus 17:5-6 NLT

God could have acted on His own, but He chose to use His servant Moses as the means of addressing their perceived problem. As the elders looked on, the pillar of cloud moved from the camp and repositioned itself above a particular rock. In a desert filled with rocks, this relocation of God’s divine presence provided Moses with a clear indication as to which rock he was to strike. Not just any rock would do. In fact, God clearly indicates that His presence will reside over “the rock” in Horeb.

This rock had already been set apart by God as the source of their sustenance. He had known all along that Rephidim would be an arid region devoid of water. But “the rock” was already in place and ready to deliver what the people needed. So, when Moses obeyed the command of the Lord and struck the rock, water poured from it in a steady stream. That ordinary-looking rock became a source of life-giving refreshment in the midst of a barren wilderness. And it became a symbol of God’s salvation that, centuries later, the apostle Paul would use as a foreshadowing of Jesus

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 NLT

This divine deliverance would be repeated multiple times during the peoples’ wilderness journey. God delivering water from a rock would become a symbol of His providential care and life-sustaining power. Even in the midst of a waterless desert, God could provide salvation from the most unlikely of sources. But would the people trust Him? Would they stop judging His character based on the nature of their surroundings?

God knew that the real problem with the people was not a lack of water, but a lack of trust. Despite the pillar of cloud, the manna and quail, and the miracle at Marah, the Israelites continued to doubt the presence of God.

they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” – Exodus 17:7 ESV

And to commemorate this place of testing, Moses gave it two different names: Massah and Meribah. Massah means “place of testing” and Meribah means “place of murmuring or discontentment.” It was a place of testing because the people tested the patience of God. But it was also a place where God tested the faith of His people and, sadly, they failed. Rather than recalling God’s past provision in times of difficulty, they murmured and complained. Instead of trusting in God’s proven ability to provide for all their needs, they allowed present circumstances to raise doubts about His power and presence.

Reluctantly and rather slowly, they were learning to trust in God. He was sufficient to supply all their needs. There was no circumstance too dire, no enemy too great, or difficulty too large that God could not overcome. But that lesson would take years for the Israelites to learn.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The First Stanza in the Song of Victory

1 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
    the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
    and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a man of war;
    the Lord is his name.

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
    and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
    they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
    your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;
    the floods stood up in a heap;
    the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
    I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
    I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
10 You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
    they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

11 “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
12 You stretched out your right hand;
    the earth swallowed them.

13 “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
    you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
14 The peoples have heard; they tremble;
    pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
15 Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
    trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
    all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
16 Terror and dread fall upon them;
    because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O Lord, pass by,
    till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
17 You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
    the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode,
    the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
18 The Lord will reign forever and ever.”

19 For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. 20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” – Exodus 15:1-21 ESV

Chapter 14 ends with the uplifting statement: “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31 ESV).

God had kept His word. He had promised Abraham that Pharaoh”s 600 chariots would not be a problem. In fact, God had confidently asserted that His handling of Pharaoh’s army would end up bringing glory to His name.

“I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” – Exodus 14:17-18 ESV

God’s lopsided victory over the Egyptian forces proved to be a wake-up call to Pharaoh and any of the troops that he had held in reserve. It seems unlikely that he committed all his chariots to the pursuit of the Israelites. The defenseless Israelites would have been no match for the faster and more mobile Egyptian chariots. Armed with swords, spears, bows, and arrows, a relatively small contingent of Egyptians could have made short order of the fleeing mass of Hebrew peasants as they made their way to the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

But as Pharaoh watched on in horror, he witnessed the complete annihilation of his crack troops. Weighted down by the chariots to which they were tethered, the horses drowned. In the days ahead, the lifeless bodies of the Egyptian soldiers would wash up on both shores, presenting a grisly scene of catastrophic loss. Pharaoh had been humiliated by the all-powerful God of Israel. And this glorious event caused Moses and the people to break out in a song of victory.

It seems likely that Moses was the one who penned the words to this celebratory song and taught it to the people of Israel. In it, he recounts the mighty acts of Yahweh that brought about the Egyptians’ defeat and the Israelites’ salvation.

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
    the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. – Exodus 15:1 ESV

Moses appears to use terminology that echoes an earlier edict decreed by Pharaoh that had ordered the deaths of all male babies born among the Hebrews.

Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile…” – Exodus 1:22 ESV

God was giving Pharaoh a taste of his own medicine. He “cast” Pharaoh’s elite troops into the sea, where they drowned like helpless infants. Moses even repeated this refrain, emphasizing the overwhelming nature of God’s victory.

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
    and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
    they went down into the depths like a stone.” – Exodus 15:5 ESV

Throughout this song, Moses stresses God’s glory, greatness, power, strength, and fury. But, at the same time, he celebrates God’s love.

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
    you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. – Exodus 15:13 ESV

The Egyptians were the recipients of God’s righteous indignation, while the Israelites were the undeserving beneficiaries of His steadfast and unfailing love. That love was manifested through God’s decisive display of power over the Israelites’ enemy and His glorious demonstration of providential protection for His people. And Moses adds a line that reflects God’s ultimate promise to safely deliver them into the land of their inheritance.

“You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
    the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode,
    the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.” – Exodus 15:17 ESV

Moses knew that this victory was just the first of many the people of Israel would experience. The eastern shore of the Red Sea was not their final destination. And His defeat of the Egyptians would not be the last victory the Israelites celebrated. This led Moses to add several lines to the lyrics of his song that reflect the impact this event would have on their future enemies.

“The peoples have heard; they tremble;
    pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
    trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
    all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
    because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O Lord, pass by,
    till the people pass by whom you have purchased…” – Exodus 15:14-16 ESV

Word was going to get out. The news of this miraculous victory over the Egyptians would quickly spread and even reach the nations that occupied the land of Canaan. Upon hearing of Yahweh’s devastating defeat of the Egyptian army, these future enemies of Israel would be terror-stricken. God’s reputation for greatness, glory, and power would be permanently associated with the people of Israel. This ragtag, but rather large and relatively unknown people group was protected by a formidable deity who had deftly handled one of the most powerful armies on earth. And this wandering horde of homeless Hebrews was headed their way.

Somehow, Moses knew that God was using the Red Sea victory to prepare the way for the Israelites’ arrival in the land of Canaan. With each passing day and each display of God’s providential care for His people, the rumors concerning Israel’s God would make their way to the nations occupying the land of Canaan. It became readily apparent that this great host of people, protected by a great and powerful God, were slowly crossing the wilderness and had their sights set on making Canaan their own.

This victory song, prophetically penned by Moses, is referred to in the book of Revelation. In one of his visions, the apostle John reported hearing a song emanating from the throne room of heaven. It was sung by “all the people who had been victorious over the beast and his statue and the number representing his name” (Revelation 15:2 NLT). Accompanied by harps, they were singing what John describes as “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:2-3 NLT). And while the lyrics they sang are different from those penned by Moses, they reflect a continuation of the same theme.

“Great and marvelous are your works,
    O Lord God, the Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
    O King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
    and glorify your name?
    For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you,
    for your righteous deeds have been revealed.” Revelation 15:3-4 NLT

God’s victory at the Red Sea was just a foreshadowing of a greater victory to come. He is not done rescuing His covenant people. While He would eventually deliver the people of Israel to the land of Canaan and assist them in conquering and capturing all the territory He had promised as their inheritance, their stay would be impermanent. Eventually, their own rebellion against God would result in their defeat at the hands of their enemies and their eviction from the land. But as John heard in his vision, another great deliverance is coming. God will one day glorify His name again by providing one final victory over His enemies and restoring His covenant people to their former status as His prized possession.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Against All Odds

15 The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. 16 Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. 17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

19 Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24 And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, 25 clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.”

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. 29 But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. – Exodus 14:15-31 ESV

The victory parade that Moses led out of Egypt had quickly turned into a nasty mob scene when the Israelites realized that Pharaoh and his army were bearing down on them. All hope of leaving Egypt had faded as soon as they caught sight of 600 chariots headed their way. Now all they could think about was certain death at the hands of their former captors.

“…it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. – Exodus 14:12 ESV

The people were in full-blown panic, and Moses put up an impressive show of confidence in the face of a very difficult situation. He encouraged the people to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13 ESV). But he must have had reservations about exactly how God was going to get them out of this precarious situation. While the people screamed their questions at Moses, he must have issued a quick call for help to the Lord, because Yahweh responded to Moses with a question of His own.

“Why do you cry to me? – Exodus 14:15 ESV

This inquiry was directed at Moses and was accompanied by a set of instructions that the beleaguered spokesman was to carry out. Rather than stand around waiting for God to do something, Moses was to get busy and do his part in bringing about the very salvation he had assured the Israelites was coming.

Tell the people to get moving! Pick up your staff and raise your hand over the sea. Divide the water so the Israelites can walk through the middle of the sea on dry ground. – Exodus 14:15-16 ESV

These instructions must have hit Moses like a brick to the forehead. While he and Aaron had been a part of some spectacular signs in Egypt, this was taking things to another level. God was demanding that Moses use his staff to divide the Red Sea so that the people could pass through it on dry ground. And all the while, the people continued to voice their disapproval of his leadership.

But before Moses could play his part in God’s divine drama of deliverance, the Egyptians had to be stopped. So, God had His guiding angel move to the rear of the Israelite camp, closest to the Egyptian forces. Then the pillar of cloud, the symbol of God’s presence, repositioned itself between the Israelites and their enemy.

Then the angel of God, who had been leading the people of Israel, moved to the rear of the camp. The pillar of cloud also moved from the front and stood behind them. The cloud settled between the Egyptian and Israelite camps. As darkness fell, the cloud turned to fire, lighting up the night. But the Egyptians and Israelites did not approach each other all night.  Exodus 14:19-20 NLT

At the sight of this cosmic apparition, the Egyptians were stopped in their tracks. They could see the Israelite camp but were afraid to advance against them. Their most recent encounters with the power of the Israelites’ God had left them reluctant to take any chances. So, as dusk turned to dark, the pillar of cloud transformed into a pillar of fire that lit up the night sky.

And as God held off the Egyptians, Moses “raised his hand over the sea, and the Lord opened up a path through the water with a strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21 NLT). Yahweh, the God of creation, sent a powerful wind that caused the waters of the sea to stand up like transparent walls, exposing the sea bed underneath. And this wind blew throughout the night, simultaneously holding back the walls of water and drying out the sea bed so that it would provide firm footing for the Israelites. Then at just the right moment, God ordered Moses to lead the people across.

So the people of Israel walked through the middle of the sea on dry ground, with walls of water on each side! – Exodus 14:22 NLT

Stunned by what they witnessed, but motivated by a strong desire to distance themselves from the Egyptians, the Israelites formed into ranks and began their journey across the perfectly dry sea floor. And while they made their way through this divine detour, the angel of God and the pillar of fire kept the Egyptians at bay. Pharoah and his soldiers could only stand back and watch in stupefied wonder as the Israelites escaped across this massive causeway that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the sea.

But when the last Israelite’s sandal had cleared the path and was standing firm on the eastern bank of the sea, the barrier provided by the angel and the pillar of fire was removed. And within minutes, Pharaoh ordered his troops to pursue the fleeing Israelites. But God was not yet done.

…just before dawn the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw their forces into total confusion. – Exodus 14:24 NLT

As Pharoah’s troops entered the pathway the Israelites had just vacated, the Lord of Hosts got in on the action. Somehow, these seasoned charioteers became confused and unable to make their way to the other shore. Perhaps their horses became frightened by the sound of the wind and the sight of the walls of water standing up on either side of them. It seems that the dry sea bed was suddenly transformed into a muddy morass in which the chariot wheels became stuck. Before long the entire Egyptian force found itself logjammed between the walls of water. Sensing the hand of Yahweh, they cried out, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:25 ESV).

But they never made it out. As the sun began to rise in the eastern sky, “Moses raised his hand over the sea, and the water rushed back into its usual place” (Exodus 14:27 NLT). Within minutes, every single Egyptian who had entered the pathway had been drowned by the sudden deluge as the walls of water collapsed.

And the Israelites, standing high and dry on the eastern shore, watched the whole thing take place right before their eyes. Not a single chariot made it across and the only Egyptians the Israelites saw on the eastern shore were lifeless and powerless to do them any harm. And Moses chronicles the impact this spectacular event had on the people of God.

When the people of Israel saw the mighty power that the Lord had unleashed against the Egyptians, they were filled with awe before him. They put their faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses. – Exodus 14:31 NLT

When the odds were stacked against them and all seemed lost, the Israelites were delivered by their all-powerful, promise-keeping God. He had stepped into their reality and provided a one-of-a-kind miracle. And as the water of the Red Sea slowly settled back into its normal state, it was as if God had closed a door behind His people. There would be no turning back. That pathway was closed forever and the only way left for them to go was forward. With the enemy defeated, the angel of the Lord and the pillar of cloud took their places at the head of the column once again, and the people set out for their final destination: the land of promise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Will You Trust Me?

17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” 18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. 19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” 20 And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. 

1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. – Exodus 13:17-14:4 ESV

The day of deliverance had finally arrived. After a series of divinely-ordained plagues had devastated the Egyptian economy and taken the lives of thousands of its citizens, Pharaoh finally relented and gave his permission for the Israelites to go into the adjacent wilderness to worship their God. His understanding of the agreement was that Moses would lead his people on a three-day journey outside the borders of Egypt, where they would conduct their worship service, and then return.

…Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” – Exodus 5:2 ESV

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” – Exodus 5:3 ESV

Pharaoh never agreed to a permanent departure that would free the Israelites from their role as his virtual slaves. These people had become his unpaid workforce and he could not afford to give them up. They had become a vital source of labor and were critical to building the Egyptian infrastructure.

they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:13-14 ESV

Yet, God had other plans for His people. They would not be returning to Egypt but instead, would be traveling all the way to the land of Canaan. The most logical and shortest route for this journey would have taken the Israelites along the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Moses refers to it as the “way of the land of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17 ESV). This region of western Canaan was occupied by a variety of warring nations collectively referred to as Philistines. Some of these people groups were of Semitic lineage, while others had migrated from Crete and Greece.

Had the Israelites taken this much shorter and easier route, they would have encountered stiff resistance upon their arrival in the land of Canaan. And it is likely that this well-traveled northern trade route was fortified and protected by an Egyptian military presence. God knew that the people of Israel would become disheartened at the first sign of conflict, so He instructed Moses to lead the Israelites in a different direction.

So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle. – Exodus 13:18 NLT

The English Standard Version states that the people of Israel “went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:18 ESV). The Hebrew word is חָמַשׁ (ḥāmaš) and it can be translated as “in battle array.” It is not suggesting that the Israelites were a well-armed militia but that they were leaving in an orderly manner. It is estimated that the Israelites may have numbered in the millions by the time they left Egypt, so Moses would have needed to arrange them in an orderly fashion just to maintain crowd control.

Moses provides a parenthetical statement that reveals his knowledge of his own people’s rich heritage. He somehow knew that the patriarch, Joseph, who had died more than four centuries earlier, had made his brothers swear an oath that they would bring his bones back to Canaan when the eventually returned.

Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:25-26 ESV

So, Moses arranged to have Joseph’s body exhumed and prepared for transport to Canaan.

As this mass of people made their way south toward the wilderness, the Egyptians must have watched with a mixture of relief and awe. They were glad to see the Israelites go because they had been the reason for all the disasters that had overtaken their land. But they must have been shocked at the sheer size of the multitude that was making its way out of Egypt; a group that included some of their own people. And they would have been dumbfounded at the sight of the pillar of cloud that seemed to be leading the procession.

Little did the Egyptians know that this atmospheric apparition was a sign of Yahweh’s presence and power. The God of Israel was leading His people as they made their way out of Egypt. There would be no doubt as to which direction they should go because God was directing their path. During the daylight hours, He would appear as a pillar of cloud, and during the dark of night, He would manifest His presence as a pillar of fire. At no point along the way would the people of Israel run the risk of taking a wrong turn or losing their way because “The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:22 ESV).

So, when God instructed Moses to have the people backtrack and reverse their course, the pillar of cloud would have led the way.

“Order the Israelites to turn back and camp by Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea. Camp there along the shore, across from Baal-zephon. – Exodus 14:2 NLT

This abrupt change in direction was God-ordered and God-led. He wanted Moses to lead the people back toward Egypt, knowing full well that the Egyptians would interpret their actions as a sign of confusion. It was all intentional and part of God’s overall strategy for assuring Israel’s full and final release from Egyptian domination.

Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness!’ And once again I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after you.” – Exodus 14:3-4 NLT

God had one last judgment He was going to pour out on Pharaoh. Yahweh was not yet done displaying His power and authority over this self-consumed and overly confident sovereign of the Egyptian people. To his own people, Pharaoh was more than a king who wielded great power; he was a god who was worshiped and revered. They believed that he possessed divine power and god-like attributes that made him invincible and worthy of their adoration and complete allegiance. And while the ten plagues had shaken their faith in the reliability of their gods, they still had Pharaoh at the helm of the national ship of state. But God was about to expose Pharaoh for the fraud he really was.

“I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. After this the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!” – Exodus 14:4 NLT

The sudden change of course must have left the Israelites a bit confused. It would have left them wondering what Moses was thinking. But they couldn’t argue with the fact that the pillar of cloud was still out front, leading them to their next destination. God was with them, so they obeyed. But as they made camp for the night, they had no way of knowing what was about to happen next. Their little excursion into the wilderness was going to become a living nightmare and a test of their faith in Yahweh.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Redemption Comes With a Price

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.

11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” – Exodus 13:1-16 ESV

As the people of Israel prepared to make their long-awaited exit from Egypt, God reminded them that their escape from death during the tenth plague was going to come with a cost. When the death angel had passed over their homes on that fateful night, their firstborn sons had been spared. They had obeyed His command and sprinkled the blood of the unblemished lambs on the doorpost and lintels of their homes and, as a result, God redeemed the firstborn males “both of man and of beast” (Exodus 13:1 ESV). But the Egyptians experienced no such deliverance from the hand of God.

…that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. – Exodus 12:29 NLT

Now, God reminded the Israelites that His sparing of their firstborns would have long-term implications.

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.” – Exodus 13:1 NLT

Like the newly inaugurated Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the dedication of the firstborn was to be a perpetual rite among the Israelites. Every spring, when God’s people found themselves surrounded by the signs of new life, they were to remember His deliverance of the firstborn and dedicate all those born into their homes over the last year.

Evidently, this dedication ceremony would not go into effect until the people of Israel reached the promised land and took possession of it. It was to be implemented once God fulfilled His end of the covenant commitment and had them safely ensconced in their new homeland.

“This is what you must do when the Lord fulfills the promise he swore to you and to your ancestors. When he gives you the land where the Canaanites now live, you must present all firstborn sons and firstborn male animals to the Lord, for they belong to him. – Exodus 13:11-12 NLT

God had redeemed them. The Hebrew word for redeem is פָּדָה (pāḏâ) and it carries the idea of paying a ransom for something or someone. This redemption came with a cost – a life for a life. God had spared the lives of the firstborn, so they now belonged to Him. But the Israelites could redeem them back – for a price.

“A firstborn donkey may be bought back from the Lord by presenting a lamb or young goat in its place. But if you do not buy it back, you must break its neck. However, you must buy back every firstborn son.” – Exodus 13:13 NLT

The firstborn among their flocks and herds were no longer theirs to use at their discretion. They belonged to God. But He provided a way for the Israelites to redeem back their firstborn animals by allowing them to offer a substitute. To redeem back a donkey, the price was a lamb or young goat. An offering was required to buy back a firstborn male animal. Until this sacrifice was made, the animal was off-limits to the Israelites and unavailable for their use. And God would later reiterate His command regarding the dedication of the firstborn.

“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. – Exodus 22:29-30 ESV

But the terms of this agreement would later change. When the people of Israel reached Mount Sinai, Moses went to the top of the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments from God. But meanwhile, down in the valley, the people had coerced Aaron to make for them an idol in the form of a golden calf. They had grown impatient waiting on Moses to return and decided to return to their worship of the false gods of Egypt.

…they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

Aaron caved into their demands and crafted a calf out of the gold that the Egyptians had given them before they left Egypt.

When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32:4 NLT

But this blatant abandonment of Yahweh would cost them dearly. When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he “saw the calf and the dancing, and he burned with anger. He threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf they had made and burned it. Then he ground it into powder, threw it into the water, and forced the people to drink it” (Exodus 32:19-20 NLT). Then Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and called for any who remained committed to Yahweh and “all the Levites gathered around him” (Exodus 32:26 NLT).

Moses ordered the men of the tribe of Levi to take their swords and join him in cleansing the camp of all those who had joined in the decadent display of debauchery and apostasy.

“Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:27-28 NLT

As a result of their efforts, the Levites were rewarded for their service and faithfulness.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

God would eventually reward the Levites with the honor of serving Him as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle. Their role at Sinai earned them the right to become substitutes for all the firstborn males born to the rest of the tribes.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

But because there were not enough Levites to serve as substitutes for every male son among the rest of the tribes, God came up with another form of redemption.

“Take the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. And take the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me; I am the Lord. There are 273 more firstborn sons of Israel than there are Levites. To redeem these extra firstborn sons, collect five pieces of silver for each of them (each piece weighing the same as the sanctuary shekel, which equals twenty gerahs). Give the silver to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for the extra firstborn sons.” – Numbers 3:45-48 NLT

The Israelites would be required to pay five pieces of silver as a redemption price for their sons. So, even when the firstborns were no longer required to serve out their dedication to God, they were expected to pay the redemption price. Their lives belonged to God.

This dedication of the firstborn was to be an annual rite among the Hebrews. Performed alongside Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it was intended to serve as a perpetual reminder of God’s gracious deliverance. He had provided a way of salvation so that the firstborn among the Israelites might be spared from death. And the apostle Peter would remind Christ-followers that God sent His Son as the ultimate form of redemption for rebellious mankind.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 NLT

God had redeemed the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. The sacrifice of the innocent lambs was a foreshadowing of the consummate sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. He would be the ultimate ransom paid so that men might be set free from slavery to sin and death. Like the Levites who remained unstained by the sins of their brothers and were able to appease the wrath of God, so Christ became the sinless one who defeated sin and death by offering Himself as the sacrificial substitute.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Set Apart to Be Set Free

43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

50 All the people of Israel did just as the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And on that very day the Lord brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. – Exodus 12:43-51 ESV

Verses 1-13 of this chapter contain God’s instructions concerning the establishment of the Feast of Passover, one of the first of seven annual feasts that God would institute for the people of Israel. Verses 14-20 contain His instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. These two annual feasts are closely linked in terms of their place on the Hebrew calendar but also in their association with God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt.

God commanded that Passover be celebrated on the tenth day of the first month of Abib, which would put the exodus as taking place somewhere around March or April. The Passover meal was followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted seven days. Together, these two God-ordained rites were to form a single memorial commemorating the day that God delivered His people from their captivity and oppression in Egypt. Sometime after Moses led the people out of Egypt, he reiterated God’s command concerning these two national feasts.

“Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 16:1-3 ESV

On the very day that God had ordained for Israel’s deliverance from captivity, every Israelite household was to sacrifice the unblemished one-year-old male lamb that they had set aside four days earlier. These young lambs would have served as fitting symbols of Israel’s fruitfulness in the land. Not only had the Israelites multiplied greatly during their four-century sojourn in the land of Egypt, but also their flocks and herds flourished and expanded in number. These young lambs would have been prime breeding stock and, therefore, their use as sacrifices would have been costly to those who made their living from tending sheep.

“Freedom from blemish and injury not only befitted the sacredness of the purpose to which they were devoted, but was a symbol of the moral integrity of the person represented by the sacrifice. It was to be a male, as taking the place of the male first-born of Israel; and a year old, because it was not till then that it reached the full, fresh vigour of its life.” – C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch

On the 14th day of the month Abib, the Israelites sacrificed their lambs and spread the blood on the doorpost and lintels of their homes. God told them that the blood was to be a sign for them so that, when the death angel passed through the land of Egypt, he would pass over every home marked with the blood of an innocent lamb.

This event held powerful prophetic meaning, standing as a “sign” for a greater sacrifice to come. The New Testament contains numerous insights into the foreshadowing contained in both the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In John’s gospel, he records the words spoken by John the Baptist concerning Jesus.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! – John 1:29 ESV

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul wrote:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 ESV

The apostle Peter gave the recipients of his first letter the following instructions:

…conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. – 1 Peter 1:17-19 ESV

The sacrifice of the innocent lambs was to serve as a preview of coming events. And each year after their miraculous exit from Egypt, the Israelites were to reenact the ordinances given to them that fateful night in the month of Abib. More lambs would be sacrificed and more unleavened bread would be eaten as a way of commemorating and celebrating what God had done. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the greater sacrifice of Jesus was a one-time event that was never to be repeated.

…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 10:26-28 ESV

The Israelites would go on to celebrate countless Passovers after they arrived in Canaan. But they would also go on to sin against God’s commands and enslave themselves to the worship of false gods, which would end up with their subsequent captivity in foreign lands yet again. The northern kingdom of Israel would end up defeated and enslaved by the Assyrians. Years later, the southern kingdom of Judah would be destroyed and exiled by the Babylonians. All ten tribes of Israel would one day find themselves returned to their former roles as virtual slaves in a land far away from Canaan.

Before the Israelites could be delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had to obey God’s command to remove all leaven from their homes. Leaven was used in baking bread and it caused the dough to rise. In the Old Testament, it is often used as a symbol for sin, which can permeate and influence every area of an individual’s life. God demanded that all leaven (sin) be removed. This meant that the bread they made to take with them on their journey into the wilderness was free from leaven. God’s deliverance was going to happen so quickly that they would have no time to wait for their dough to rise. Baking this leavenless dough produced a cracker-like bread that was less likely to spoil and perfect for sustaining life on the journey that lie ahead.

Once again, this unleavened bread was a foreshadowing of the better bread to some. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35 ESV). He went on to explain the superior, life-sustaining nature of this “bread.”

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 1:48-51 ESV

The Israelites would take their unleavened dough with them when they left, and it would sustain them along the way. But, in time, it ran out and God provided them with manna from heaven. He continued to miraculously meet their needs all along the way.

This brings us to the closing verses of chapter 12, where God provides some final, detailed instructions regarding the Passover. It was to be restricted to Israelites. No foreigner was to take part in the Passover meal. We know that when the Israelites left Egypt they were accompanied by a large contingent of non-Hebrews. Verse 38 states that a “mixed multitude also went up with them.” This could have represented a mixture of Egyptians and people from other nations who wanted to escape the ravages of the plagues that had devastated the land of Egypt.

But God had not delivered them. His miraculous intervention in Egypt had been on behalf of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, God made it clear that the Passover was off-limits to all non-Hebrews.

“…no foreigner shall eat of it.” – Exodus 12:43 ESV

But God also provided a gracious exemption to this restriction.

“…but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him.” – Exodus 12:44 ESV

God made provisions for any foreign-born individuals who shared Israel’s fate as slaves. If those individuals wanted to take part in Israel’s celebration of their deliverance and join in the worship of Israel’s God, they would have to undergo the rite of circumcision. All non-Hebrew males who would willingly succumb to this requirement, demonstrating their faith in Israel’s God, would be allowed to take part in the Passover meal. But they would be expected to follow every requirement God had stipulated concerning the meal.

From that day forward, circumcision became the key determiner for any “stranger” or foreigner who wished to become a part of the covenant community known as the people of Israel. Their association with the nation required a sacrifice that would serve as a sign of their commitment.

“If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.” – Exodus 12:48 ESV

God’s deliverance had been for the descendants of Abraham, and circumcision was the covenant sign of His relationship with them.

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 ESV

God had promised to produce from Abraham a great nation. He had also promised to provide for that future great nation a land of their own – the land of Canaan. But God had also told Abraham that his descendants would spend more than four hundred years as captives in a foreign land before any of those promises could be fulfilled.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

And now, the time had come for God to fulfill that promise to His covenant people.

And on that very day the Lord brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. – Exodus 12:51 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.