Preaching the first 15 chapters of Exodus in one sermon, indeed the entire book in 5 sermons, is a monumental task, unless there is a purpose behind it that is bigger than simply not getting bogged down in the details of the book. The book has an overarching theme that we may miss if we don’t intentionally look at it.
The primary burden of the book of Exodus is that the LORD be known. In the exodus event, He makes himself known on 3 fronts: to Israel (6:7); Pharaoh (5:2); and in all the earth (9:16). God is particular about the way he is known and thought about. Exodus is about knowing God for who he is rather than for who we might think he is, imagine him to be, or wish him to be.i The mission of God is God’s commitment to be known for who he is among his people and, through them, among all peoples.
God will be known from the most remote tribe to the most modern city—from NYC to the Matses. The Matses are a great example of God’s will to be known. They were an uncontacted Peruvian jungle tribe who kidnapped women, killed intruders, choked unwanted babies, and ate their dead. They kidnapped a Spanish speaking Peruvian woman who later escaped. Meanwhile Harriet Fields and Hattie Kneeland joined Wycliffe as translators. They began seeking to contact the Matses in 1963. The Peruvian lady who has escaped taught them Matses words, phrases, and the names. In 1967, they were the first people to make peaceful contact with the Matses. They got permission to live among them and lived there more than 30 years. They developed a Matses alphabet, taught the Matses to read, and translated the NT into Matses.ii
Exodus also shows us that ultimately not to know God is not an option for humans. In the details of the text, we will see that people will know him as redeemer or they will know him as the God who judges the ungodly (compare 6:6 and 9:16). This implies that God alone is God, and there is none like him (9:14).
Applying this to Exodus, the book opens with a world that does not know God.
1. A world that does not know God (1-2)
Noticeably absent in chapters 1-2, as compared to the rest of Exodus 1-15, is God. It is easy for us to understand that Pharaoh and the nations did not know God, but it is more difficult for us to understand that Israel did not know God. Yet, a good deal of territory is devoted to God making himself known to Israel (chapters 3,4,6, cf.10:1-2). The only mentions of God are related to the midwives fearing God and God dealing well with them (1:17,20). There is no further mention of God until the end of chapter two when at a time of regime change in Egypt, the Israelites cried out because of their slavery (2:23). We are not told that they cried out to God. We are simply told that their cry came up to God, and he remembered his covenant with Abraham (2:24).
The primary purpose of chapters 1-2 is to give us a view of a world that does not acknowledge God. It is a world that is filled with violence, injustice, infanticide, and oppression. The repetition of the word serve or slave in verses 13 and 14, lets us feel the plight of the Hebrews. A more literal reading of those verses goes like this:
So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel serve as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of service in the field. In all their service they ruthlessly made them serve as slaves.
To be sure we can see God behind the scenes. Even in a world that does not acknowledge God, He is faithful to his covenant with Abraham. Exodus 1:7 shows us God’s behind the scenes faithfulness to his covenant.
But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
This text takes us back not only to the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28) where man in fulfillment of the mission of God was to extend the boarders of Eden to encompass the earth, but also to the call of Abraham where that missionary purpose is being workout in a fallen world.
Genesis 12:1-3: Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your names great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
While God is working toward the fulfillment of his covenant, Pharaoh is directly, albeit unwittingly, undermining God’s purpose not only for Israel but also for the world. His campaign of infanticide and oppression are in the way of God’s purpose of blessing. He has set himself against God. This is a war that Pharaoh will lose, for God is pleased to identify himself as The Lord, the God of the Hebrews (3:18). You do see how the present state of affairs cannot continue and the mission of God go forward?
2. The LORD makes his name known (3-6).
Exodus begins with a universal ignorance of the LORD’s Name. God, however, is at work in the world to make his Name great. He began by making himself known to Moses. God is introduced into the narrative as the God who remembers his covenant with Abraham (2:24), which is the covenantal basis for the Exodus. In fulfillment of that covenant, God reveals himself to Moses who is a fugitive tending his father-in-law’s sheep on Horeb, the mountain of God (3:1).
God in effect says to Moses, The good news is I am the God of your fathers (3:6) and I have come to make good on my promises to deliver them (3:7-8). The further news is, I’m sending you to bring my people out of Egypt (3:10).
Moses then offers a series of 5 questions and misgivings to God.
Who am I (3:11)?
If Israel asks, “What is your Name?” what shall I say to them (3:13)?
What if they don’t believe me (4:1)?
I am slow of speech (4:10).iii
Please send someone else (4:13).
Admittedly, it is a bit odd to hear the voice of God from a burning bush and offer excuses. On the other, hand it may be quite reasonable.
A. I AM is The LORD
We could visit all of these and they are instructive and deal with knowing God, but I want to focus on the hypothetical question that Moses puts in the mouths of the Israelites and God’s reply: If Israel askes, “What is your Name?” what shall I same to them (3:13)?
God’s answer to this questions comes in 3 phases each building on the other and together gives an answer to the question. Each part of God’s answer is introduced by some form of And He said.
First, God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14a). The first answer to Israel’s supposed question is for Moses. Alone it is puzzling, but like God’s answer to Moses in 3:12, I will be with you, it is meant to answer his concern about his own ability to succeed—thus pointing to God’s presence and power. God’s Presence will be a huge issue in Exodus, but to know him rightly he must be present. Yet, the ambiguity of the designation points to the unfolding revelation of God. The phrase has been translated as here and as I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHO/WHAT I WILL BE. It points to the fact that there is more to God than what Moses knows.
The next two answers are addressed to Israel and stand in direct parallel to each other.
And he said, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” (3:14b).
God also said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God if Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” (3:15a).
The parallelism between the two statements indicates that the I AM is The LORD, YHWH. I AM is not strictly speaking the divine name, but an interpretation of the divine Name, The LORD. The purpose of this revelation is to assure God’s presence and power in the Egypt mission. This is confirmed in 3:17, I promise I will bring you out of the affliction of Egypt.
B. The LORD will be rightly known
We have a problem. It is hard for us to learn God’s Name. O we can say the word, we can use the label, but to know experientially the Name of God is difficult for us. Thus, God tells Moses to go to Egypt and confront Pharaoh (4:21-23). This will be a lesson in who The LORD is. Moses obeyed in 5:1. He used the divine Name. Thus says, The LORD, the God of Israel, “Let my people go….”
Even though God had told Moses he would hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go (4:21b), Moses is taken back by the result.
Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go (5:2).
Things got worse not better in Egypt as a result, so Moses complained to God that God was not upholding his end of the bargain (5:22-23).
Moses and Israel have still not understood who God is and what he intends to do. Part of their knowing God was to see what God would do with the Egyptians (6:1). Once again God expounds his Name to Moses (6:2-8). Four times the clause is repeated, I am the LORD (6:2,6,8,29, cf. 7). This clause, I am the LORD, is something that Israel and Pharaoh would come to know in the Exodus. God is revealing His Name.
Again we have a puzzling text. God said to Moses, I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them (6:3). While we know that some version of God Almighty is used in Genesis 6 times,iv and God did appear to Abraham and Jacob with that designation (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11), the designation The LORD was not a Name they did not know.v This begs the question, What does Exodus 6 mean?
The best explanation seems to be that Exodus 6:3 is not referring to a Name previously unknown, but to a further understanding of the Name that was already known.vi YHWH is consistently used in covenantal contexts in Scripture. In Exodus 3 and 6, it is couched in covenantal language.vii What is being further revealed is God is going to act powerfully to uphold his promise to Abraham. No god has ever so acted in history as to bring his people out of slavery to another nation.viii To demonstrate his identity, YHWH will override the present order to uphold his promise.ix
God’s purpose is that Israel would know him, and when they know him, the nations will know him. But to know him and for the nations to know him, they must experience the deeper meaning of what it means for God to be the Redeemer of Israel (6:6). This will be a reality that will forever define God in relation to Israel. Again and again the refrain echoes in the OT, I am the LORD you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.x
This brings us to our next point.
3. God makes his name known in salvation and in judgment (7-15)
The question that Moses has put in the mouth of the Israelites is, What is your Name? The question in the mouth of Pharaoh is, Who is the LORD? The burden of the so-called plague narratives, which are also called signs, wonders (7:3), and miracles (7:9), is to answer these questions. Thus throughout the plague narratives the sentence, I am the LORD, is repeated 7 times.xi God will reveal the meaning of His name in salvation and judgment.
The stated aim of the plague narratives is that the Egyptians would know the LORD:
The plague of blood: By this you shall know that I am the LORD (7:17).
The frogs: That you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God (8:10).
The flies: That you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth (8:22b).
The plague of hail: so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth (9:14).
The ceasing of the hail: so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s (9:29b).
The firstborn: that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel (11:7b).
The aim of the signs and wonders of the plagues is that The LORD be known by Pharaoh, all Egypt, and the nations. When Rahab hid the spies she said, fear fell upon Jericho and their hearts melted when they heard what the LORD did at the Red Sea (Josh 2:8-11).
This, however, begs the question, How will the LORD be known by Pharaoh? That the stated purpose of The LORD in delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage is that the LORD be known means we cannot reduce the Exodus to simply the liberation of Israel. More than liberation, the exodus is a revelation of the divine name. God redeems Israel that they and the world may know Him. But How will he be known? Yes, he will be known as sovereign and powerful, as creator and redeemer, but he will be known in his judgment as well.
God instructed Moses:
Tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them (7:2b-5).
God will harden Pharaoh’s heart to show his righteous judgment. This is a sobering thought. It is true that the text at times says, Pharaoh hardened his heart,xii The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart,xiii or simply Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.xiv
However it is worded in the text, standing behind Pharaoh’s hardening is The LORD, who told Moses before he ever returned to Egypt,
When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus say The LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son” (4:21-23).
God raised Pharaoh up for the purpose of displaying his justice is the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth (9:16).
When Israel left Egypt and was in the wilderness before the Red Sea event, The LORD said:
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 will know that I am the LORD (14:4).
The LORD hardened the heart of the Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he would pursue the people of Israel (14:8).
At the Red Sea, The LORD said:
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. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh (14:17-18).
God has made himself known as a just and holy God righteous in all his ways. He raised Pharaoh up to display his justice. Pharaoh’s end is the end of everyone who opposes God’s redeeming work.
There is no extent to which God will not go to save his people. God could have wiped Pharaoh out in a second. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth (9:15-16).
However, because of his saving interests The LORD moves through a litany of signs that show that there is none like him in all the earth (9:14b cf. 8:10), that He is the LORD in the midst of the earth (8:22b), that the earth is the LORD’s (9:29b), and that he draws a distinction between his people and everybody else (11:7b).xv In so doing, He executed his judgement on all the gods of Egypt (12:12). He showed them to be powerless to save. Slowly and deliberately, The LORD demonstrated that there is salvation in no other.
God’s saving interest extends beyond Israel to the nations. At the plague of the gnats, the magicians of Egypt said to Pharaoh, This is the finger of God (8:19b). God is working in Egypt. At the plague of hail, whoever feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into houses (9:20); God was working in Egypt. At the plague of locusts, Pharaoh’s servants said, Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God (10:7). God was working in Egypt. When Israel left Egypt a mixed multitude went up with them (12:38). God was at work in Egypt. God chose Israel to save the world. Isaiah saw prophetically what would be the ultimate end of God redeeming Israel.
In that day Israel will be third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance (Is.19:24).
After experiencing deliverance from Egypt, Moses answered Israel’s question, What is your Name? (3:13), in 15:3—The LORD is his name. Who is like you, O LORD (15:11). The LORD will reign forever and ever (15:18).
Probably, our favorite part of this story is the Passover. The LORD told Israel, When I see the blood, I will pass over you (12:13b). That Passover was memorialized. It became the beginning of months for Israel (12:2). The Feast of Unleavened Bread came out of that Passover event and the consecration of the firstborn. All firstborn belonged to the LORD. Even the first born of a donkey had to be redeemed with a lamb, or its neck had to be broken (13:13).
One day the Firstborn of all creation sat at a Passover table as its fulfillment. The last supper, in a real sense, was the last Passover and the first communion of the Christian church. He took the unleavened bread symbolizing his sinless life to be offered up and the cup symbolizing his shed blood, and it gave it to his disciples. Then he died in their place that they might live—the Lamb redeemed the donkey, the Son of God redeemed the sinner. Everybody in Egypt that Passover night deserved death. But the blood, when The LORD saw the blood, He passed over them.
If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ and are a member in good standing with an evangelical church, we invited you to come to the Table with us. If you have not believed, the blood of the Son God must first be applied to your life and heart. In the day of the righteous wrath of God, when He sees the blood, he will pass-over you. You show the blood has been applied to you by being baptized. After that you can come to table with us.
Christ as our Passover is memorialized in the Lord’s Table. Just as the Passover was memorialized so future generations experience the event in a ceremony (12:25-27), when your children ask, What does this mean? You answer the sinless Son gave his body and shed his blood to redeem us.
i Blackburn, NSBT, The God who Makes Himself Known, 22-23.
ii The Baltimore Sun, “Missionaries Serve as Tribe’s Guides to 20th Century,” by Ginger Thompson, August 16, 1997.
iii God responds with questions. Who has made man’s mouth? And then answers the question, Is it not I, the LORD? The is the interrogative form of I am the Lord. We could write it like this, I am the LORD?, but that is nonsensical in English. (See Blackburn, NSBT, The God Who Makes Himself Known, 41)
iv See Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25.
v For example, see Genesis 15:2 where Abraham says, O Lord GOD (Adonai YHWH), and 15:7 where God identifies himself: I am the LORD who brought you out from the Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.
vi Blackburn, 26-28.
vii 3:6,8,15,16,17; 6:3,5,7,8)
viii Deuteronomy 4:32-35 looks back on the exodus: For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; There is no other besides him.
ix Brueggmann, NIBC, 306.
x Some version of this phrase is used more than 80 times in the OT.
xi The sentence, I am the LORD, is used 13 times throughout Exodus 4-14: 4:11 is an interrogative form; 6:2,6,7,8,29; 7:5,17; 8:22; 10:2; 12:12; 14:4,18.
xii 8:15, 32; 9:34; 13:15.
xiii 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,7,17.
xiv 7:13,14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35.
xv 8:22,23; 9:4,26; 10:23b; 11:7b.