We looked, off and on this summer, at the stories of God and a multi-generation family in the book of Genesis: God with Abraham and Sarah; with Isaac and Rebekah; with Jacob, Leah, and Rachel; with Joseph. And we learned, among other things, that out of that history came a name for God that recurs throughout the rest of the Bible: “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Two Sundays ago, we heard an Old Testament story that comes only a couple pages after Joseph, but 400 years later: God calling to a man named Moses, from a burning bush, to give him a mission of leading the descendants of Abraham and Isaac out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, and God, carry out a series of plagues on the Egyptians, which convinces them to let their Hebrew slaves go. We see God in these stories as “God the Liberator,” freeing the people of God.
Today we return to the Exodus story, and ask what does this next part of the story tell us about who God is? About who God was for the Hebrew people, then, and who god still is for us today. Who is God, in addition to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”; and to “liberator”?
The movie “The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Charlton Heston as Moses, takes quite a few liberties with the story told in the book of Exodus. It adds, for example, a girlfriend of Moses, who talks like this: “Moses, Moses, Moses”; and a new enemy for him among the Jewish people, since in the Hollywood of the 1950’s you had to have a love interest and a bad guy in every movie. But there is one scene in the movie I particularly enjoy: the departure from Egypt into the wilderness. Because I think it captures the excitement and joy and mass confusion that must have accompanied the onset of that journey. It’s hard enough to move one household, isn’t it? Imagine what it was like to start up a few thousand people, on foot, with children and oxen and camels and so on.
But off they went, finally, taking with them their understanding of who God was. Before, all they had known about God was that God was the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the God who had kept promises to four generations of their ancestors 400 years ago. And now they had added a second understanding, a second role, a second “face” of God: the Liberator, who set them free from bondage. God’s promise to them, to set them free, had triumphed over Pharaoh’s evil intent to keep them in Egypt. And it was the Hebrew people, like World Series or Super Bowl champions, who were now enjoying a victory parade.
Unfortunately, unlike the World Series or Super Bowl, you don’t always have a whole year to savor your victory, in real-life struggles with a tyrant like Pharaoh. It wasn’t long before . . . he changed his mind! “What was I thinking,” he said, “when I let them go? Well this is foolish; we’ll just bring them back.” And off he went in his chariot, personally leading all his troops in a charge to bring the Hebrew people back into slavery.
Horse-drawn chariots move much faster than people on foot carrying furniture, so it wasn’t long before the Hebrew people saw the Egyptians bearing down on them. And they saw a large body of water right in front of them, blocking them from even trying to run away. And they saw very little hope. “That’s it. We’re dead. It’s over.” Only Moses talked back and said “No, it’s not. Stand firm. God the Liberator is still on our side.”
And Moses was right. Almost immediately God spoke to them and said, “I will make a way through the water which will not only let the people continue, but defeat the Egyptians once and for all.” And next came probably the most famous scene from the movie “The Ten Commandments”: Moses stretched his special staff out over the water, and the waters divided, leaving a strip of dry land, not even mucky, on which the people could cross, the waters piled up on either side of them like walls. The Hebrew people crossed, the Egyptians tried to follow, and Moses, from the far side now, stretched out his staff again, causing the waters to pour back down into their usual place, drowning the Egyptian forces. The Egyptian defeat was now complete.
Once again, there had been a conflict between God’s divine plan and Pharaoh’s mortal plan, and once again, as in the plagues, God acted, through nature and through Moses, to resolve the conflict in favor of the divine plan, saving the Hebrew people. Now that their journey had begun, they required an escape from the pursuing Egyptians, and God provided that escape. The people, led by Moses’ sister Miriam, danced and sang a song of relief and victory.
It wasn’t long, however, before they weren’t singing anymore. A large group of people, moving on foot, having left home in a hurry, can only carry so much food with them, and before too long they were running out of that food. It is at this point that we see what will become a familiar pattern on this trip: the grumbling of the Hebrew people – or, as commentaries describe it, the “murmuring motif.” “Why didn’t we stay in Egypt, where there was lots of food? In fact, I would rather have died in Egypt; at least my belly would have been full. Why did you drag us out here?”
The book of Exodus makes it clear that these murmurings are not just the casual griping you often hear in large groups, whatever their circumstances are—at the factory, in the office, in the stand at football games, in the churches . Yes! Believe it nor not, sometimes people grumble in churches! This is not just boredom or getting attention or relieving tension or general crankiness. The author takes this murmuring as a serious sign of unbelief in the promises of God: “your murmurings are not against us,” Moses says, but against the Lord.” What they were doing was saying “We don’t trust your plan, God; we don’t believe in what you’re doing.” Or perhaps “we don’t believe you can do it, can carry it off.” The people had decided they were going to die; they didn’t believe in God’s promise.
So the Lord spoke again: “you will have bread, and you will have meat. You shall have your fill. Then you shall know I am the Lord. I can make this work.” And in the evening, quails came up and, the texts says, “covered the camp” – plenty of quails, a good-eatin’ bird. The next morning, a find frostlike substance was on the ground, also good for eating, a kind of wafer – the bread the Lord had promised. Now that their journey had continued for a while, the people required food to travel on, and God provided that food. The people gathered it and were satisfied.
God had said, “you will have food, and then you shall know I am the Lord. Then you will trust in me,” and the food had come, so the doubting and murmuring were over, right?
Next chapter: The Israelites camped at a place called Rephidim, but there was no water there to drink. So the people said “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” We don’t have water; we’re going to die. So much for trust.
In fact, Moses’ comments to God show that the grumbling has gotten much worse. “These people are ready to stone me,” he reports. The crowd had turned quite ugly.
God said to Moses: “Go on ahead of the people a bit, with your staff, and a few of the elders. Strike with your staff the rock I point out, and water will come out of it which the people can drink.” Moses went ahead, found the rock, struck it with his staff, and water poured out – enough to satisfy the people of Israel. Now that their journey had taken them beyond the known wells and springs, the people required water to live on, and God provided that water. The journey continued.
Not far from the place where the water-rock stood lived a people known as the Amalekites. They were a fierce desert tribe, who claimed control of the areas of the wilderness through which the Hebrew people travelled. They did not appreciate trespassers. So they came and attacked the Hebrew people, as they tried to cross this land.
Moses’ general Joshua now makes his first appearance in the Bible. He led some men of Israel into battle against the Amalekites, while Moses and Aaron climbed a nearby hill overlooking the conflict. Whenever Moses held up his hands, the Hebrew troops prevailed in the struggle; whenever he tired and lowered them, the enemy gained the upper hand. Finally Aaron and a man named Hur held up Moses’ hands, and the tactic worked: the Hebrew armies gain control and drove the Amalekites away.
Joshua had led the troops, and Moses had lifted up powerful hands, and Aaron and Hur had kept them held high – but this was not, the passage makes clear, just a triumph of people.
For in Moses’ uplifted hands was the staff of God- the staff God had given Moses at the meeting at the burning bush, the staff which turned to a snake and back to convince the Hebrew people to believe in Moses, the staff which parted the waters, the staff which brought water from a rock: the staff of God. Moses left no doubt in the peoples’ minds that God had given them this victory: Moses built an altar before them at that place and called it “The Lord is my banner. “ This was Gods’ triumph.
Now that the Journey of the Hebrew people had taken them beyond the boundaries of Egypt into the wilderness, where warring tribes guarded the territory fiercely, they required protection, and God provided that protection. The people moved on, toward a mountain called Sinai.
They had known, some months back, only of a “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – through he stories they had been told by their parents and grandparents of things that happened 400 years before, of a God who made and kept promises to their ancestors. They had learned, a few weeks back, only of God as the Liberator, God who sets people free, God who looks after the captive or oppressed, through their experience of the exodus, being led from slavery to freedom.
Now the Hebrew people have seen, for the first time, a third face of God—God the Provider: God who provided escape from the Egyptians, with the moving of the sea; God who provided food – bread and meat; God who provided water in a place that hand none; God who provided protection from enemies. Time after time, God provided.
For the first time in human history, they see and we see a God who takes a whole people – thousands, not just a family – and provides for their needs. For the first time in the Bible, we catch a glimpse of God the omnipotent Parent, of one who loves the people, all these people, who cares about the everyday struggles of the people, who acts to help them in those everyday struggles, who steps in and provides. We begin to see the figure Jesus will call “God the Father” –the tender, providing parent.
This was not a God like the gods of the surrounding nations – God of the sun, god of the thundercloud, God of the volcano – who were interested in their own power, their own pleasure, getting their own way. This was not one of those gods who used people for their own ends. This was not a god who was capricious, unpredictable – power without discipline, possibly ready to lash out at any time, no matter what you were doing. This was not a god who had to be patronized, appeased, tiptoed around – a god to be avoided if possible. This was God the Caregiver, God the Loving Parent, God the Provider. This was a wonderful new side of God to discover. God is also God the Provider! – as Jesus would try so hard to each us again 1,200 years later.
But Jesus would remind us of something else the wilderness stories first taught as well: God expects a particular response to that care: “I will provide an escape from the pursuing Egyptians by dividing the sea, and then you – you will know that I am the Lord.” “I will provide your fill of meat and of bread and then you will know that I am the Lord.” God expects us to recognize the pattern of caring, to acknowledge its source, and to respond to it with trust in God – not with indifference, or grumbling, or selfishness, or unbelief. There is a response expected from the people God has provided for. God has acted; we respond with trust.
As the final story of this first half of the journey points out in Exodus 19: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, they came to the wilderness of Sinai. Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then the Lord called to Moses, saying ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites; you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’”
God expects a response, after all the providing. God expects trust, and faithfulness, and holiness.
Let us pray: God we thank you for all you have provided in our lives—our food and drink and safety and protection; we thank you for the “God the Provider” face we’ve seen. And we ask that you would help us now be a people who responds as we should to your provision: a people of trust and faithfulness and holiness. Amen.