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LEARNING BIBLE TODAY

From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan


by Michael J. Prival


CHAPTER IV

FREEDOM


 

CONTENTS OF CHAPTER IV: 

IV - 1. Moses – from a Basket to Pharaoh’s House

IV - 2. Moses Burns Himself

IV - 3. Moses Rescues a Hebrew Man and Leaves Egypt

IV - 4. Yahweh Speaks to Moses from a Burning Bush

IV - 5. The Israelites Gain Their Freedom

IV - 6. The Waters Part! The Israelites Escape!

 

 

IV - 1. Moses – from a Basket to Pharaoh’s House

[Exodus 1:1 - 2:10]

 

   Joseph and his brothers had many children and they, in turn, had many more. After several generations, there were so many Israelites that the land of Egypt was full of them.

 

   A new king arose in Egypt who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, “The Israelites in our land are more numerous and powerful than we are. If a war comes, they may join with our enemy.” So they forced the children of Israel to work at heavy labor, in building the cities of Pitome and Raamses for Pharaoh. And the Egyptians made them work hard with bricks and mortar and also work in the fields. But the more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the faster they increased their numbers and spread around the land of Egypt.

 

   Finally, Pharaoh sent out an order that all sons born to the Israelites must be thrown into the river; only the daughters would be allowed to live.

 

   One Israelite mother in the family of Levi hid her newborn son for three months, so he would not be killed. When she could hide him no longer, she put him in a basket made of reeds sealed with asphalt and pitch. She set the basket where the reeds grew near the edge of the Nile River. Her husband’s sister waited nearby to see what would happen.

 

   The daughter of the Pharaoh came along to bathe in the river. She saw the baby boy. She felt sorry for him, saying, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew woman waiting nearby saw what was happening and said to the Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, and the mother of the baby came to nurse him. Pharaoh’s daughter told the woman that she would pay her to take the baby away and care for it. When the baby grew up, his mother brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son and named him Moses.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

1. This is the first of many stories in the Bible about Moses. In many ways, Moses is the most important person in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham and Sarah are very important because they are presented in the Bible as the "father" and "mother" of the Israelite people; it is Abraham who first receives the promise from Yahweh that his and Sarah's descendants will be a great nation on the land of Canaan. But, as we will see in later stories, Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt so that they can claim the land of Canaan as their own, and, more importantly, he provides them with the religious rules and procedures that they will follow for many centuries. Thus Moses is presented in the Bible as both the liberator of the Israelites from slavery and the founder of the religion that plays a very important part in their lives and their history.

 

 

2. In view of the importance of Moses in the Biblical story of Jewish history, it is not surprising that the Bible writers give him an almost miraculous early childhood. The story about his rescue from the Pharaoh’s death sentence allows the Bible writer to show that Moses was a special person whose life was saved for a great purpose. The story also lets the writer describe the terrible conditions of life that the Hebrew slaves suffered.

 

 

3.  Many different groups told stories about how important people in their history were abandoned by their mothers at birth and then rescued. Other groups tell stories about people who were put in the water as babies. For example, there is the story of a Babylonian king who lived about 1000 years before the time of Moses. In this story the king, named Sargon of Agade, says:

 

“My mother...bore me secretly. She put me in a basket of rushes and sealed me in with asphalt. Then she put me into the river.... The river held me up, and carried me to Akki, a man who drew water from the river for the people. As he dipped his jug into the river, Akki carried me out. He raised me as his own son.”

 

This story is, of course, very much like the one of Moses. It is possible that the writer of the Moses story knew the earlier legend of the king Sargon of Agade, and based his writings on it. There is now no way of knowing what the source was for the story of Moses in the basket.

 

 

4.  The Bible story tells of the hard work that the Israelites were forced to perform as slaves in Egypt. Egypt was a very powerful nation at the time of this story. The story may give an accurate idea of what life was like for people from foreign nations that were conquered by Egypt, but there is no reason to believe that Israelites were really among those who built Egyptian cities. The Egyptians of the time left many written records which have survived to this day, but there is no mention of Israelite slaves in these records. The only ancient writings that tell about the Israelites in Egypt are found in the Hebrew Bible itself.

 

 

5.  If there really had been Israelite slaves in Egypt, then the Bible story would simply be telling us the historical facts. In some ways, it is more interesting to think that the story is made up. After all, if the Israelites were never really slaves, then why did their descendants say that they were? Many different groups tell stories about how their ancestors were great heroes, warriors, or even gods. The Israelites tell the story of how their ancestors were slaves. Can you think of any reasons why they might have done this? Do you think that people who believe that they are descended from slaves might think or behave differently from people who trace their ancestry to heroes and gods?

 

We will see later that the story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, and especially their escape from Egypt, is one of the most important stories ever told. It is a story that had a great effect, not only on the Israelite people (who later became the Jews), but also on others who were inspired by it. In some ways, it is really not important whether or not it is a true story, or even whether or not there ever was a real person named Moses who did the things described in the Bible. The story had a great effect for many, many centuries because people thought it was true.

 

 

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IV - 2. Moses Burns Himself

 

Introduction:

 

     In the last story, Moses was a small baby rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. The Bible goes right from this story directly to the time in which Moses is grown up. There is nothing said in the Bible about Moses’ childhood.

 

     Because of this, Jewish religious leaders developed stories about the early years of Moses’ life. These stories became the legends of the ancient rabbis. Such a legend is called a midrash in Hebrew. The midrash we are going to read here is designed to show what kind of person Moses really was, and how God favored him as a child.

 

     We have already read a midrash about Abraham: “Abraham Smashes the Idols” (chapter II-2). We also discussed the midrash about Abraham’s visit to Ishmael in discussion point #4 after “Ishmael and Hagar are Cast Out of Abraham’s House” (chapter II-6). These stories, like the one below about Moses, are not found in the Bible. They were composed much later than the Bible stories.

 

The Story:

 

   One day, Pharaoh was having dinner with his queen, his children, and all of the princes of Egypt. Pharaoh’s daughter was sitting at the table next to Pharaoh, with Moses on her lap. Now Moses was three years old at this time. He reached up to Pharaoh’s head and took the crown off it. Moses put the crown on his own head.

 

   And Pharaoh said, “Perhaps this Hebrew child means to rule over all of Egypt one day.” So he called the wise men of Egypt to advise him what to do about Moses. The angel Gabriel was among them, disguised as one of the Pharaoh’s advisors. Gabriel said, “We must test this Hebrew child to see if he knew what he was doing when he took the Pharaoh’s crown. The Pharaoh should place a precious jewel and a hot coal in front of the child. If he picks up the jewel, then he must be killed. But if he grabs the hot coal, then we will know that he did not understand what the crown was, and he shall be allowed to live.”

 

   The Pharaoh took this advice, and placed a jewel and a hot coal before Moses. Moses reached out for the jewel, but the angel Gabriel caused his hand to move toward the coal. Moses picked up the hot coal and put it to his mouth, burning his lips and tongue. For the rest of his life, Moses found it difficult to speak, and always spoke slowly. But he was allowed to live because he had shown that he did not know the difference between a jewel and a hot coal.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

1.  One message in this midrash is that God, acting through his angel Gabriel, was protecting Moses. But what does this midrash say about the character of Moses? Why did Moses grab the crown from Pharaoh’s head? Was he just attracted by the shiny crown, as any young child might be? Do you think he was giving a sign that he would, later in life, defeat an Egyptian Pharaoh?

 

 

2.  Were you surprised that Moses burned his mouth so badly that it affected his ability to speak for the rest of his life? If a young child really touched a hot coal, would he pick it up and put it to his mouth or would he drop it right away? Why would the rabbis say that Moses injured himself by putting a hot coal to his mouth? Remember that Moses is the great leader and liberator of his people. You would think that he would be a wonderful speaker as well to help him accomplish his great deeds later in life.

 

We will see in later Bible stories that the grown-up Moses often relies on his brother Aaron to speak for him because Moses could not speak well himself. One possible reason for composing the midrash about the hot coal is to explain why Moses had to depend on Aaron in this way.

 

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IV - 3. Moses Rescues a Hebrew Man and Leaves Egypt

[Exodus 2:11 - 2:21]

 

   When Moses was grown up, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Moses saw no one else around and struck the Egyptian, killing him. He buried the Egyptian in the sand.

 

   The next day, Moses found two Israelites fighting with each other. When he tried to get them to stop fighting, one of the men said, “Who made you a ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

 

   Moses was frightened because he now realized that others knew that he had killed the Egyptian. He fled from Egypt. When the Pharaoh heard that Moses had killed an Egyptian, he decided to kill Moses, but Moses had already fled to Midian.

 

   Moses was standing near a well when the seven daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, arrived with their father’s sheep. Some shepherds tried to send the daughters of Jethro away, but Moses helped them and watered their animals for them. When Jethro found out what Moses had done for his daughters, he gave one of them, Tsiporah, to Moses to be his wife.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

This story tells us something about what kind of person Moses was as an adult. What kind of person was he? Very brave? Too violent? Trying to do what was right and just? Getting too involved in other people’s business? What do you think?

 

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IV - 4. Yahweh Speaks to Moses from a Burning Bush

[Exodus 2:23 - 4:31]

 

When Moses had lived in Midian for many years, the Pharaoh in Egypt died. God heard the groaning of the Israelites as they worked at heavy labor in Egypt. Then God remembered his promise to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

 

Moses was at Mount Horev, caring for the sheep of Jethro, his wife’s father. An angel of Yahweh appeared to Moses from a fire inside a bush, although the bush did not burn up. And God called out from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am!” Then the voice from the bush said to Moses, “I am the god of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have come to rescue my people from the Egyptians. I will bring them to the land I promised to your fathers. Go to Pharaoh and set my people free! Go and tell the leaders of the Israelites that I have told you to do this.”

 

And Moses said, “What if the Israelites do not believe me?”

 

Yahweh told Moses to throw his rod onto the ground. Moses did this and the rod became a snake. And Yahweh said, “If the Israelites do not believe you, then show them this sign from me.”

 

But Moses still objected. He said, “I find it difficult to speak, and I speak slowly. Who will listen to me?” And Yahweh became angry, saying, “Tell your brother Aaron what to say, and he will speak for you.”

 

So Moses returned to Egypt. The Pharaoh who wanted him killed was now dead. Moses and Aaron went before the Israelites and Aaron told them what Yahweh had said to Moses. He convinced them to believe him by showing them how the rod became a snake when he threw it to the ground, and with other signs from Yahweh as well. And the people believed him. When the Israelites heard that Yahweh had taken notice of their misery, they bowed down low.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

1.  In this story Yahweh talks to Moses from a burning bush. Moses does not want to do what Yahweh tells him to do. Why is this? Do you think that Moses does not believe that Yahweh is powerful enough to make sure that he succeeds?

 

Perhaps Moses is not sure that it is really Yahweh talking to him. After all, no one in the Bible has talked directly with Yahweh since the time that the children of Israel settled in Egypt, which is supposed to be about 400 years before the time of Moses.

 

When Yahweh talked with Adam and Eve, or Noah, or Abraham, they had no doubt about who they were talking to. Why do you think Yahweh appears as an angel’s voice coming from a burning bush that does not get burned up? Could this be to convince Moses that he is really talking with someone who is “supernatural” (that is, outside the usual laws of nature)? Do you think that the “miracle” of the rod and the snake is designed only to convince the Israelite leaders? Could it be to convince Moses himself that the message of freedom comes from Yahweh?

 

Remember that up until now, Moses has no reason to believe that he is in any way a special person. How would you react if something like this happened to you?

 

 

2.  In this story, Yahweh tells Moses that Aaron should speak for him, since Moses is not able to speak well. Is there some lesson here about what kind of person makes a good leader? Suppose that Moses had to be elected rather than being picked by Yahweh to lead the people. Do you think he could have won an election? What if there had been television in those days? Would Moses have been able to lead the people effectively?

 

 

3.  Aaron is a very important person. According to the religious tradition of the Bible, Aaron is the ancestor of the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. Therefore, whatever is said about Aaron in the Bible was very important to these priests. The more power Aaron is given in the Bible, the more power the priests, who were thought to be Aaron’s descendants, could claim for themselves.

 

Scholars who study the Bible have concluded that much of what is written about Aaron was put in for the purpose of increasing the power of those priests who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem. Remember the Bible authors J and E? (See discussion point #7 after "Adam and Eve, the First People," chapter I-2). Now J was from the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was. J was always trying to show that the religious practices at the Jerusalem Temple represented the true religion called for by Yahweh. Thus, it is thought that the sections of the Bible, such as the one above, in which Aaron is given power, were written by the J author. Later on, we will read some sections in which Aaron is said to do things against the laws and wishes of God. These sections are thought to have been written by the E author, who was from the northern kingdom, Israel, which had its own religious centers, such as Beth-El (which has been mentioned in the stories of “Jacob’s Ladder” in chapter II-11, as well as “Jacob Wrestles with an Angel, Gets a New Name, and Meets his Brother Esau,” chapter II-14).

 

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IV - 5. The Israelites Gain Their Freedom

[Exodus 5:1 - 12:41]

 

   Moses and Aaron did what Yahweh had instructed them to do. They went before Pharaoh and told him, “Yahweh, the god of Israel says: Let my people go so they may celebrate with a special feast for me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh replied, “Who is this Yahweh? I do not know Yahweh. I will not let the Israelites go.” And Pharaoh ordered that the amount of hard labor for the Israelites be greatly increased. And the Israelites were very angry at Moses and Aaron for causing the Pharaoh to increase their work.

 

   Moses cried out to Yahweh, “Why have you harmed my people in this way?” And Yahweh said, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Show him how your rod turns into a snake. I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so he will not listen to you. Then I will bring many signs and punish the people of Egypt. They will then know that I am Yahweh and they will let the Israelites go.”

 

   So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and told him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. And Aaron threw the rod onto the ground, and it became a snake. The magicians of Egypt then threw down their rods, and they also became snakes. But the snake of Aaron’s rod swallowed all the other snakes. In spite of this, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not do what Moses and Aaron asked.

 

   Yahweh gave Moses and Aaron new instructions. So the next morning, they met Pharaoh near the Nile River. Again they told Pharaoh that Yahweh wanted him to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship Yahweh. Again Pharaoh refused. So Moses told Aaron, “Strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.” And when Aaron did this, the waters of the Nile turned to blood, and all of the fish in the Nile died. This was the first plague upon Egypt. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to make the water turn to blood. So Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the Israelites leave Egypt.

 

   Moses told Aaron to hold the rod over all the waters of Egypt. When Aaron did this, all the frogs came out of the waters and covered the land of Egypt, going into all the houses and kitchens and bedrooms. This was the second plague. But the Egyptian magicians also brought up frogs out of the waters. Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron that if Yahweh took the frogs off the land, he would let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship. So Yahweh killed all the frogs. But when Pharaoh saw there were no more frogs on the land, his heart was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go.

 

   Moses told Aaron to strike the ground with the rod. When Aaron did this, the dust of the earth turned to gnats all through the land of Egypt. And the people and the animals of Egypt were covered with gnats. This was the third plague. When the Egyptian magicians tried to make gnats from the ground, they could not. They told Pharaoh that the god of the Israelites had made the gnats, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go.

 

    The fourth plague was swarms of flies that covered all the people and the houses of Egypt. But Yahweh said that the region called Goshen would be free from this plague because the Israelites lived in Goshen. Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron that if Yahweh took away the swarms of flies, he would let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship. So Yahweh removed all of the flies. When Pharaoh saw there were no more flies, his heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

 

   The fifth plague was a disease that killed the animals of the Egyptians – the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep. The animals of the Israelites were not touched by this plague. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

 

   Then Moses and Aaron threw soot into the air, and when the dust settled, all of the people and animals of Egypt had boils and blisters on their skin. This was the sixth plague. But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.

 

   Moses told Pharaoh that Yahweh would cause a terribly heavy hail to fall upon the land of Egypt. This was the seventh plague. The hail, with fire mixed in it, fell everywhere in Egypt except in the region of Goshen, where the Israelites lived. And where it fell, it killed all the people and animals that were out in the open, and the trees and growing grain as well. Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron that if Yahweh stopped the hail from falling, he would let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship. So Yahweh stopped the hail. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

 

   And Yahweh said to Moses, “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that I can show you the signs of my power over the Egyptians. I do this so that you may tell your children about what I did to Egypt and the people will know that I am Yahweh.”

 

   The eighth plague was locusts. The locusts ate all of the grain in the fields and the fruit and leaves on the trees – all that were left after the hail. So Pharaoh begged Moses and Aaron to ask Yahweh to forgive him and to take away the locusts. But when the locusts were gone, Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go.

 

   Then Yahweh brought a terrible darkness upon Egypt – the ninth plague. For three days the darkness was so thick that people could not see each other. Only in the houses of the Israelites was there light. But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.

 

   And Yahweh said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Egypt, and then Pharaoh will let you go. First I want every Israelite to go to their Egyptian neighbors and borrow their silver and gold.” Yahweh caused the people of Egypt to like the Israelites, so they lent the Israelites much of their silver and gold.

 

   Then Yahweh told Moses, “This month you will have a special celebration. On the fourteenth day of the month, you will kill a lamb. You will smear the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and over the door of the houses of every Israelite. You will roast the lamb and eat it, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in your houses that night. You will have this special celebration every year, forever, to remember that Yahweh led you out of Egypt. For seven days you will eat no bread except for unleavened bread.”

 

   And Moses and the Israelites did as Yahweh had commanded. And at midnight on that night, while the Israelites were in their houses eating the lamb, Yahweh brought the tenth and last plague upon the Egyptians – the killing of the first-born. The first-born children of all of the Egyptians, from the Pharaoh to the poorest slave, died that night. But when Yahweh saw blood smeared on the doorposts of a house, he passed over it without killing anyone. Thus, the Israelites were saved from the plague.

 

   And there was a loud cry coming from all of the people of Egypt. Pharaoh woke up and found that in every Egyptian house the oldest child had died. He called for Moses and Aaron and told them, “Take your animals and leave. Go and worship Yahweh as you desire.”

 

   The Egyptians wanted the Israelites to leave immediately. They rushed them out, so that the Israelites did not have time to wait for their dough to rise. And they took all the gold and the silver and the clothes that the Egyptians had lent to them.

 

   So the Israelites left Egypt along with their animals and with a great mixture of people. The Israelite men alone numbered six hundred thousand. And they baked unleavened bread because there had been no time to allow the dough to rise. And on the day that they left, it was exactly four hundred thirty years to the day since the Israelites had arrived in Egypt.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

1.  This long and complicated story is one of the most important in the whole Bible. It is the story of freedom! It has been told over and over again throughout the ages as an example of how a group of slaves became a free people. It has been a great inspiration to many different people who lost their own freedom. Jewish people have discussed this story at least once every year for hundreds of years during the festival of “Passover.” Since Jews have often in history suffered greatly under the rule of others, remembering this story of the escape from slavery in Egypt has helped them to keep alive the belief that they would eventually be freed from their oppression.

 

Up until about 150 years ago, Black people from Africa were kept as slaves in the United States. These African slaves were taught to be Christians after they were brought here. Since the books of the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) are part of the Christian Bible (as discussed in the Introduction of this book) these slaves knew about the story of Moses and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. They looked upon this story as a sign that they, too, would one day be free. One of the best known songs that black African slaves in America used to sing is, in fact, called “Go Down Moses”:

 

     When Israel was in Egypt land,

               Let my people go!

          Oppressed so hard they could not stand,

               Let my people go!

 

          (Chorus:)

          Go down, Moses,

               Way down in Egypt land,

          Tell old Pharaoh

               To let my people go!

 

          Thus spake the Lord, bold Moses said,

               Let my people go!

          If not I’ll strike your first-born dead,

               Let my people go!

 

          (Repeat chorus)

 

 

When the Black slaves in the United States sang this song, they often thought of their own leaders who were trying to bring about freedom for their people as Moses did for the Israelites. Harriet Tubman, one of the most important and courageous of these leaders, and who was born a slave herself, spent much of her life helping slaves escape from the South to freedom in the North. Because of this, she was often called “Moses.” This shows how powerful the effect of the story of Moses has been through the many centuries that it has been told and retold.

 

 

2.  Why did Yahweh bring the ten plagues down upon the Egyptians? Why did Pharaoh wait for ten plagues before he let the Israelites go? Couldn’t he have prevented a lot of destruction if he had changed his mind sooner? What prevented Pharaoh from doing this? Why? The story gives the answers to these questions. What do you think about this? Was it a good thing? – a necessary thing?

 

 

3.  Just before the tenth and final plague, Yahweh gives Moses some special instructions. The Israelites must smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts and have a special feast of lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The smearing of the lamb’s blood is so that Yahweh will know which houses to pass over when he brings the tenth plague – the killing of the first born. The name of this special celebration in English is “Passover,” which Jews around the world still celebrate every year with special foods including unleavened bread (matsah) and bitter herbs – although you won’t find anyone smearing blood on their doorposts any more.

 

This Bible story tells us the religious meaning of the holiday of Passover (Pay-sah in Hebrew). Like most Jewish holidays, Passover began as a nature festival or agricultural celebration long before it was given a religious meaning. Pay-sah began with a celebration of the time of the birth of the lambs in the spring and the harvest of the barley at the same time of year. To celebrate the birth of the lambs, the shepherds would eat one lamb at the time of the full moon during the month in which they were born (Passover is always at the time of the full moon). The farmers would throw out all their old “sour” dough as the harvest season began with the harvest of the barley. As a result, newly baked bread at this time of year would not rise since there was no yeasty old dough to add to it. This unrisen (unleavened) bread (matsah) later became the basis for the story of how the Israelites had to leave Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. This is just one example of how a nature festival was given a religious meaning. There are many such examples among the holidays of Judaism and of other religions as well.

 

 

4.  One interesting thing about this story is mentioned in its last paragraph. It says that the Israelites and “a great mixture of people” left Egypt together. If there really was such a “great mixture of people” (often called the “mixed multitude”), then the people who left included many who were not descendants of Jacob and his sons. The Egyptians were a powerful nation at that time, and had numerous slaves from many areas of Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps many non-Israelite slaves saw an opportunity to escape from slavery in Egypt along with Moses and the Israelites. How could the Israelites have been kept separate from all other people for 430 years in Egypt so that they still knew who was and who was not a descendant of Jacob?

 

The process of mixing of the Jewish people with others as they have moved around the world has been going on for centuries and is still going on today as Jews and non-Jews get married and have children. Do you think it is a good thing for people in one “group” to marry those of another “group”? Why or why not? Some people say that the Jewish people will disappear if they keep on marrying non-Jews. Others say that when Jews marry non-Jews, another person may be brought into the Jewish community. Still others say that it doesn’t matter who is Jewish and who is not – the important thing is to marry the person who is right for you. What do you think about this?

 

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IV - 6. The Waters Part! The Israelites Escape!

[Exodus 13:17 - 14:31]

 

   After Pharaoh let the Israelites go, God led them on their journey. During the day, he went before them as a column of a cloud, and at night as a column of fire. Rather than leading them directly to the land of Canaan, which was their final destination, he led them through the wilderness near the Sea of Reeds. God said, “If these people see war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.”

 

   When they reached the sea, Yahweh said, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will follow the Israelites, thinking that they cannot escape from the wilderness. In this way, the Pharaoh and all the Egyptians will come to honor me and to know that I am Yahweh.”

 

   So Pharaoh and his army, with all of their chariots, followed the Israelites into the wilderness. As they grew near, the Israelites cried out to Moses, “Let us go back to Egypt and serve the Pharaoh. It is better for us to go back than to die here in the wilderness.”

 

   And Moses said to them, “Do not be afraid. Yahweh will protect us.” And he lifted his rod up, and raised his hand over the sea, and the waters separated. The sea turned to dry ground before the Israelites. They walked across this dry land with a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left.

 

   And the Egyptian army followed them through the dry sea. But when the Israelites had crossed, Moses held out his arm over the sea again, and the water went back to where it had been. It fell over the Egyptians, and not one of them survived.

 

   When the Israelites saw the power of Yahweh, they once again had faith in him and in his servant, Moses.

 

 

DISCUSSION:

 

1.  At the beginning of this story, we learn that the Israelites will have to make a long journey through the wilderness before reaching the “promised land” of Canaan. God explains this by saying that the people will have to fight a war when they get to Canaan, and when they see how terrible war is, they might decide that they would rather return to Egypt. We will see later that they will have to wander for 40 years around the Sinai wilderness before reaching Canaan. By that time, almost all of the Israelites who left Egypt will be dead, and it will be their children who will have to fight the Canaanites. These children, born to a life of wandering, and not knowing the peaceful, if difficult, life in Egypt, will be willing to fight a war to obtain a homeland of their own.

 

 

2.  We see in this story that God was right in thinking that the Israelites would easily be persuaded that they were better off as slaves in Egypt. When the Egyptians approach, the first thought of the Israelites is to return to Egypt to avoid a conflict with the Egyptian army. What do you think of this attitude? The Israelites couldn’t know that they would be able to escape through the dry sea. Do you think they were right in wanting to go back to a life of slavery and hardship rather than face the Egyptian soldiers in battle?

 

 

3.  Do you think that it is possible for the waters of a great sea to separate as they did in this story? Over they years, scholars have tried to think up possible “natural” explanations for this story. One theory, for example, is that the waters parted as a result of the eruption of a volcano on an island named Thera in the Mediterranean sea. Do you think that it is a good idea for people to try to explain the “miracles” in the Bible by natural events? Why or why not?

 

 

4.  This story is often told as if the Israelites escaped through the parted waters of the Red Sea. However, the Bible only tells us that they escaped through the yahm soof, which is generally thought to mean “Sea of Reeds” in Hebrew. No one is sure where this “Sea of Reeds” was. In fact, no one is really sure what the Hebrew words yahm soof mean. Some scholars say that yahm soof means “Sea of the End.” Generally experts who study the Bible think that the yahm soof was not the Red Sea, but some think it was. How can it be that people today do not know what some of the Hebrew words in the Bible mean? Remember the difficulties that we already learned about in the translation of the Hebrew word pah-seem to describe the piece of clothing that Jacob gave to his son Joseph? (See discussion point #2 for chapter III-1, “Joseph and his Brothers”.) These are just two examples of the many problems that scholars have in trying to understand the words of the Bible.

 

 

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Thanks very much.

Michael Prival

 

Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival

Permission is hereby given for use of any portion or all of this book, with acknowledgment of the source, for educational purposes only. This work cannot be reproduced, in whole or in part, for any commercial purpose without permission of the author.