Exodus 1-15 tells the dramatic story of God’s rescue of his people from the oppression of Egypt. This is the fundamental and formational story for Israel in the Old Testament and it sets the framework for understanding who Jesus is and what he’s doing in the New Testament. But for many, this story raises problems, or at least questions about God’s goodness. Can a good and just God really act this way against a whole nation? What about the Passover story where God “strikes” the firstborn of Egypt? If “God is love” (1 John 4:8) how do we make sense of God’s actions in the Exodus story? To put it another way, if Jesus is the perfect representation of God (Hebrews 1:3) how do we square the love and compassion displayed by Jesus in the Gospels with the God of the Exodus?
The Bible is a Unity & The Bible is a Diversity
This question reveals an assumption about the nature of the Bible as a whole from Genesis to Revelation; that it is one coherent story from beginning to end. The claim of most Christians throughout most of history is that God speaks coherently through the witness of the Bible. So it will do no good to claim that the God of the Old Testament is fundamentally different from the God of the New Testament. It is the same God working out His same plan through a long history.
But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is the same kind of literature with the same focus in every part. While we claim that the Bible is one coherent story we also recognize the diversity of authorship across a wide span of time and space. Different parts of the Bible are written with different questions and themes in mind. The writer of the creation story had different themes in mind than the writers of the gospels. And they were trying to answer different questions about God and humanity and their relationship.
Given this, it’s important to recognize that we can’t burden any given biblical story with every question we might have about God, as if each story is trying to answer every question. This is especially important when reading the Exodus story. It is not trying to primarily answer the question: “Is God just?” This doesn’t mean it’s not an important question. It also doesn’t mean that we can sidestep the question for the Exodus. But it does mean we may have to do some extra work as well as recognize what the story of the Exodus is seeking to reveal about who God is.
Asking the Right Question(s) of the Story
So, what are the questions that The Exodus Story is seeking to answer? If we look at just the first bit of the Book of Exodus, Chapters 1-15, a few significant themes begin to emerge that will help us reframe the question of God’s Justice in the light of an oppressed people group living in Egypt a few thousand years ago.
Is God Strong Enough?
The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh and Egypt were powerful and they controlled the Hebrew people without exception. Although their numbers were huge, there was no question of a revolution. The Pharaoh of Moses’ day forced unprecedented harsh labour on the people and even sought to control the population by slaughtering all newborn males. The Hebrews had their traditions, presumably the stories of the patriarchs and the promises of the god of their fathers to one day make them into a great people with their own land, but where was this god? Was this god strong enough to overcome the power of Egypt and the gods of Egypt? The Hebrew people, before the Exodus, had no evidence of this. This is a major theme of the story. Yahweh (the name of the God of the Hebrews) desires to reveal that HE IS Strong enough. And he doesn’t just want to show this to the Hebrews but also the Egyptians AND also all the nations of the earth (Exodus 9:16). If there’s any question to God’s power, God desires to settle this in his dealings with his people who are enslaved in Egypt.
Does God Care Enough?
Tied to the question of God’s power is God’s care. So what if God strong enough, what if he doesn’t care about the plight of the Hebrews? This theme also comes out in Exodus. We see that God DOES see the plight of His people and that He certainly is concerned about them as well. He is moved to action for their sake (Exodus 2:23-25 & 3:7-10).
Is God Faithful?
Finally, as alluded to above, God has already made promises on behalf of this people. He promised back in Genesis to Abraham that his people’s future would be one of blessing and entering into a land of their own. From the enslaved Hebrew’s point of view this question needs to be answered. Is the God of our fathers faithful to keep all those promises He made so long ago? When and how is He going to make good on them?
So we can see that the Exodus story answers all these questions in the affirmative. God reveals his power over the nations in his dealings with Egypt. He also shows his care for and faithfulness to his particular people, Israel. These are important questions to answer for Israel’s (and our) understanding of God.
Going back now to our claim that the Bible is coherent, we can gather information about God’s justice from other biblical texts. Then we can come back to the Exodus Story to see if the claims about God’s justice made elsewhere are in conflict with what we read here.
The Bible is full of testimony to God’s justice and his concern that his creation is to be marked by justice. Psalm 35 declares, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” (Ps 35:5).
Psalm 146 also sings the praises of YHWH for His justic
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The prophets in particular present the call to act in accordance with God’s standard for justice in Israel:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
The Prophet Isaiah connects a concern for social justice with Israel’s religious observance:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
God’s sense of justice is also revealed in the Levitical law code where prejudice against outsiders is forbidden:
You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’”
- Leviticus 24:22
Deuteronomy 10 also reveals God’s concern for justice
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
We could have multiplied these examples further but the unified picture of the Old Testament witness is clear; God is indeed just. In fact, He is far more just than us.
Does the Exodus Story fit with the Just God of the Bible?
So how does all of this fit in with what we read in Exodus 1-15? If we are going to be responsible readers of ancient Scripture, taking into account the unity and diversity of the Bible along with paying attention to the particular themes and focus of this particular story, what’s the best way to read Exodus as it was intended?
We can start by giving what is a called a “charitable reading”. A charitable reading gives the text the benefit of the doubt and is necessary when reading any literature when we are attempting to understand what the original author may have intended. A charitable reading asks the question, “how do I read this particular story in the way it was intended to be read and understood?” This only makes sense and can (and should) apply to all forms of communication as well. For example, this is a helpful strategy when you’re in conflict with a coworker, spouse or housemate. It doesn’t automatically mean you come to agreement in the end, but it does mean you’re giving the other the best possible reading in an attempt to seek common ground and understanding. A charitable reading requires humility; the possibility that we don’t know everything and that the other might know something and see something we don’t.
So how does this apply to Exodus 1-15? First of all, we begin with the particular burden of the story explored above. One of the main purpose of the story is to relate God’s care and faithfulness to his covenant people, Israel. Also, God desires to reveal His power to all the nations through his dealings with Egypt. All of these purposes are consistent with the Biblical story’s (Genesis-Revelation) aim for God to make His Name known to all and that “All the nations of the earth would be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
We also pull in the background of what we know about God’s character from the rest of the Scriptures as we did above. We know the witness is clear; God is just. We also know that God’s concern is to reveal himself to the whole world that the world might come to know him and receive blessing as a result.
We could go further. We could pull in the witness of Scripture regarding powerful nations, not to mention our own understanding of powerful nations through history AND our experience of powerful nations today. In all three areas we see a tendency for powerful nations to oppress and do evil. In the Bible, it’s not only other nations that tend to become evil and oppressive when they gain power, it’s also Israel’s story. As a further testimony to God’s justice, God judges Israel and treats them like the other oppressive nations when they act in this way.
This certainly seems to fit with what we know of Egypt from the story. The Hebrew people are enslaved. They are treated harshly and commodified in Egypt (Ex 1:14). Egypt was literally being built up on the backs of this oppressed people group. So insidious and evil was this oppression that Egypt thought nothing of ripping Hebrew newborns from their mothers and tossing them in the Nile (Ex 1:15-22) as a strategy for controlling the Hebrew population against uprising.
Therefore it should not be surprising that God judges Egypt and finds them wanting. We also know that God exercises great patience with evil and unjust nations (Genesis 15:16; Jonah 1-4). Certainly more than any of us would if we were in charge. So when God decides to deal His judgment out to Egypt we should not assume it arbitrary or rash based upon what is so clearly communicated about God’s character and actions through the rest of Scripture. The Bible proclaims repeatedly that God is “long suffering” - He is “slow to anger” giving every opportunity for people and nations to change their course before judgment comes.
A Particular Challenge for Us?
The Exodus Story assumes all of this. So it is not going out of its way to show that God is just in all his dealings with Egypt. On the other hand, it may reveal something about us if we have a hard time with this story. Sympathy for Egypt may be misplaced. Could this reveal an implicit bias in us in favour of oppressive nations and to justify oppressive behaviour? I don’t think many of us would be conscious of such a bias, but our “reading location” and response to the story may betray what’s really happening under the surface. By “reading location” I mean just that, from what kind of vantage point are we reading? What kind of nation are we a part of as we read this text? Do we find ourselves closer to Egypt or Israel? Are we closer to being “oppressed people” or are we closer to being a people who benefit in some way from the oppression of others? Are we benefiting from the hard labour and oppression of others regardless of our direct involvement of said oppression? Are we repulsed by God’s actions against Egypt because we fear deep down that we may also be part of or even complicit in a nation or lifestyle that benefits from the oppression of others?
These are difficult questions for many of us to face. But they are questions an honest and charitable reading of the Exodus Story forces us to engage and attempt to answer. While the God of the Bible is indeed merciful and long suffering, slow to anger and abounding in love, He also judges for the sake of justice. He tends to side with the poor and oppressed because of that perfect justice. In the end, the blood of the Passover lamb spread over the doorposts is our hope as well. It is fascinating that Israel is commanded to do this. It is not based on their goodness that God passes his judgment over them, something we might expect if the nation was truly innocent. Instead, it is the sacrifice of the lamb that God’s judgment passes over. A testimony that no nation (even an oppressed one) is truly innocent but rather in deep need of God’s mercy. In the New Testament it is Jesus who is identified with the lamb of the Passover Sacrifice.
If, in some sense, we are indeed a part of pharaoh’s house in the time and place we find ourselves, may we humble ourselves to not only put ourselves under the protection of “the perfect blood of the lamb” as the New Testament encourages, but also identify with those oppressed ones who’s doors are painted with that same blood in hopeful anticipation of redemption, deliverance and justice. Both in this life and the next.