December 28, 2006

Exodus 4-6: To believe, or not to believe

Today's reading is Exodus 4-6 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the end of the burning bush story; Moses' and Aaron's first encounter with the Israelites; their first encounter with Pharaoh; Pharaoh's command that the Israelites shall not receive straw for bricks; the Israelites' rejection of Moses and Aaron; and a genealogy of the houses of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi.

In today's readings, we begin Moses' and Aaron's actual dealings with the children of Israel. And, in a pattern that will repeat itself many times throughout Exodus and Numbers, the Israelites vary between extremes of trust and rejection. It might be beneficial, therefore, to take a few hundred words to consider their attitudes and how they might relate to us.

We read in Ex. 4:29-31 that Moses and Aaron meet the elders of the Israelites. He does not meet all the Israelites: they are far too numerous and, as we recall, enslaved. The elders presumably took the words and deeds performed by Aaron and Moses and related them to the rest of the Hebrews. We read in verse 31, "the people believed." This refers to all the Israelites, not merely the elders.

What did Moses and Aaron do to convince the people? They did exactly as God told Moses, almost verbatim. In Ex. 4:1-9, God gives Moses three signs to perform for the Israelites: he could transform his rod into a serpent and back again, he could turn his hand leprous and back, and he could spill water from the Nile onto the land and have it turn into blood. These feats are miracles. It is important to note, however, that later in Exodus we learn that Pharaoh's magicians could do the same feats. (Ex. 7:10-12) It is not merely the miracles that convinced them, therefore. It was also the words Moses spoke, that the God of their ancestors had heard their suffering and came to save them from their bondage.

This assertion, that God had returned to save them, was extremely comforting to the Israelites. It is likely that they wanted to believe Moses' message. They wanted to hear that they would be saved, and soon. We read in Ex. 4:31 that the people "bowed their heads and worshipped." Of course they would. Here was a glimmer of hope that they would soon be on the way to living a better life, free of servitude. I can imagine that Moses and Aaron didn't need to do much convincing, as the Israelites wanted to believe them.

Of course, good things cannot last. When Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh, they ask him to allow the Israelites to go to the desert for three days to perform a sacrifice to God. (Ex. 5:1-3) Pharaoh refuses. Moreover, he commands that the Israelites must continue to make the same amount of bricks as previously, but they will not be given the straw to do so. (Ex. 5:5-9) This greatly increases the work of the already-overworked Israelites, and they complain to Pharaoh. But, yet again, Pharaoh refuses to diminish the work. (Ex. 5:15-19)

Now the people turn away from Moses and Aaron. They say, "May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us." (Ex. 5:21, NIV) Even after Moses brings their complaints to God and reasserts his promise that he will free them from bondage, the people don't listen to him. (Ex. 6:9)

How fickle, we might say. How fair-weathered is the Israelites' trust in Moses and Aaron. Didn't they know that Moses and Aaron were sent to save them? Didn't they understand that God would reduce their suffering?

The answer is, of course, "no." We in the twenty-first century have the benefit of a fully completed text before us, that informs us exactly what happens later in the story. It is incredibly difficult to look at the beginning of the story without thought to its ending, how Moses brings about the plagues upon the Egyptians, parts the Red Sea, calls down manna from the sky, and brings the Hebrews to Mount Sinai and then to Caanan. Because we know the ending, it is hard for us to look objectively at the beginning and understand how the Israelites were feeling as today's passage unfolds.

The children of Israel had absolutely no idea that Moses and Aaron were genuine. Yes, they spoke comforting words. Yes, they performed wondrous signs. But signs and words are not the same as concrete deeds. Moses and Aaron were not the only people performing signs and speaking words. Pharaoh's magicians could perform similar signs to Moses'. Furthermore, Moses and Aaron may not have been the first people to claim that they had been sent by God to free the Hebrews. False prophets abound later in the Bible, and it is certainly possible that self-proclaimed saviours existed, unrecorded, in the four hundred years before Aaron and Moses appeared on the scene. As far as the Israelites were concerned, these were just another two self-aggrandizing men bent on making a name for themselves.

Yet, at the first hint of true action, their first encounter with Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron fail to bring about any positive changes. Not only that, they actually make matters worse for the Israelites. Far from being the saviours they promised, Moses and Aaron hardened their lives. We can imagine the Israelites thinking, "you know, we thought you were on to something. We thought you were sincere. But you're not God's prophets, are you? If you were, we'd be free, not further enslaved!"

Yes, three thousand years after the fact, we can chide the Israelites for this behaviour. But they did not know the future, nor did they know the will of God. They did what was reasonable in the circumstances. It is a rare person who can believe without proof. Today, we call such believers either deeply spiritual or crazy. There is a fine line between the two. The Israelites, enslaved and grounded, were neither. Imagine yourself in their situation, and you may find yourself acting the exact same way.

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