Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 2:11-25
by Erin M. Stout
Sometimes deliverance takes a long time.
The Israelites lived in Egypt for almost four hundred years before God raised up their deliverer. In the midst of forced labor and the murder of their infant sons, Moses was born. Miraculously, God delivered him from what should have been a certain death, because he was the one God had chosen to deliver his people.
As our passage opens, Moses, now grown up, arrives on the scene. Although he had been adopted in infancy by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is aware of his identity. (For approximately his first three years of life, Moses had been nursed by his birth mother. Surely she used this precious time to teach Moses all she could about who he was – as an Israelite, and perhaps even someone special among God’s people.) In our passage’s opening scene, Moses goes out to where his people are laboring. He doesn’t merely observe them in passing, or even stop to study how they are doing. He sees his people (v.11), sees the way they are oppressed, and his heart goes out to them. These are his own people. As Moses watches, he spots an Egyptian assaulting a Hebrew. Moses is filled with both compassion and rage. What is happening is not right. This abuse must stop.
It is easy to imagine Moses’ train of thought: These Hebrews are my people; God has chosen me to deliver them; I am mature – forty years old (Acts 7:23); now is the time to act. Moses does not delay to contemplate what he should do. He hesitates only long enough to make sure no one is looking. Then he avenges the life of the Hebrew by killing the Egyptian (Acts 7:24), and hides his body in the sand.
But Moses’ reckless actions do not achieve his desired results. This becomes clear the very next day, when Moses once again goes out to see his people. This time he encounters two Hebrews fighting. He steps in to break up the fight, saying, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” (v. 13) Instead of identifying Moses as the deliverer of his people, the man in the wrong asks, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” (v.14) Far from being perceived as an agent of justice and the deliverer of his people, the Hebrews see Moses as a rash meddler with a violent temper. “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (Acts 7:25).
Not only is Moses misunderstood by his own people, he is also the object of Pharaoh’s wrath. When Pharaoh learns of the blood on Moses’ hands, he wants this rebel dead. Moses must flee from Egypt to preserve his life. In a matter of days, Moses goes from The-Deliverer-Who-Is-Ready-to Act to a frightened fugitive.
Moses finds refuge in Midian. His dreams are dampened, but his concern for the oppressed remains. One day, as Moses sits by a well, he sees seven young women come to draw water for the flock of their father, Reuel. Although some shepherds come and try to drive them away, Moses rises to their defense, ousts the shepherds, and takes the extra step to water the flock. When Reuel hears of Moses’ courage and generosity, he invites him into his home and offers his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage. Agreeing to this means a lot for Moses. At best it means waiting for an undetermined amount of time to return to Egypt to act on behalf of his people. At worst, it may mean giving up on that aspiration altogether.
Moses lives in Midian a long time – forty years (Acts 7:30). He lives as a Midianite for as long as he had lived as an Egyptian. Yet he wasn’t at home. Although Moses ‘settled down’ with a wife and children, he was never actually settled in Midian. Voicing his experience of displacement, Moses names his first son Gershom, which means ‘an alien there.’ With resignation he sighs, “I have become an alien in a foreign land” (v.22). Moses’ grand attempt at deliverance failed miserably. It has landed him as an eighty-year-old fugitive far from his people and apparently powerless to rescue them. And what of all that lost time?
The narrator doesn’t simply let the reader infer, but underscores that it has indeed been a long amount of time. It has been “a long period” (NIV), or, literally, “those many days” (v. 23). But during that period of apparently wasted time, God was active.
On one level, God was active in the life of Moses. When our passage opens, Moses is a self-confident man in a position of privilege. What he believed to be his inaugural act of deliverance turned out to be an underhanded act of defiance. But God does not give up on Moses. During “that long period” in Midian, perhaps even while Moses was unaware, God was shaping Moses’ character. During those many days, God added to Moses’ compassion an experiential understanding of what it means to be an alien in a foreign land. God tempered Moses’ self-importance with the realization that he can’t accomplish deliverance on his own. God softened Moses with a family and matured him with time.
During those many years, God was at work in Egypt, too. The king who sought Moses’ life eventually died, making Egypt a place where Moses could return.
And God was at work among the Hebrews. During that period of latency, “the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God” (v. 23). Here, the action slows way down, and the narrator finally reveals what God is doing. God hears his people’s groaning – the kind of hearing that implies not just listening, but readiness to act. God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – not just a mental recollection, but the kind of remembering that inspires action. God looks on the Israelites the same way that Moses had – with deep compassion. And God is concerned – demonstrating a personal knowledge of and mercy toward his people.
From a human point of view, Moses’ forty years in Midian look like wasted time: the deliverer isn’t delivering. In both Moses’ life and the situation of the Hebrews, their circumstances aren’t changing. But by the providence of God, waiting time is never wasted time.
This is good news. As Christians, we are a waiting people. We wait for God to act in a world that is filled with disaster, depression, and disease. We wait for God to break through injustice. We wait for God to transform us from the inside out. Like the creation itself, we “wait in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” and “[groan] as in the pains of childbirth” while we wait (Rom 8:19, 22). We wait for Jesus to return and put all the wrongs of this world to right.
God hears our groaning; God remembers his promise to us; God sees us, and is concerned. God is patient. And God is faithful.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance . . . But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:9, 13).
In 2:11, Moses goes out to where his people are, and he watches or sees them at their hard labor. In Hebrew, this word is ra’a, and it is the same word used to describe God’s seeing his people in verse 25. (The NIV translates this, “[God] was concerned about them.”) In context, this word means more than merely looking at or observing. Commentators say that ‘to see’ here means “to strike a responsive chord” 1 or “‘to look on’ with sympathy and real emotional involvement, the opposite of turning one’s back on them.” 2 This word is so important that it recurs in 3:7, 9; 4:31; and 5:19 to describe and emphasize God’s deep concern for his people.
In verse 23, the narrator uses four Hebrew words to describe the Israelites’ dire situation: they groaned (‘anakh ny’aqah) and they cried out (za’aq shav’ah). The narrator then employs four words in vv. 24-25 to describe God’s response: God heard, God remembered, God looked on, and God saw. Although some Bible translations try to smooth out the language by adding the pronoun ‘he’, it is important that the name ‘God’ is the explicit subject of each of these verbs. The narrator is emphasizing that God’s attention on his people’s suffering is focused, and his response is imminent. 3
1.Terence Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.
2.Walter C. Kaiser, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
3.NET Bible notes
I have a friend who is expecting her first child. Early in her pregnancy, she did not have the nausea that many women experience. Instead, for the most part, her body felt and looked like it always had. She found this so disconcerting that she confessed, “I have trouble believing that there’s a baby in there at all.”
For three months, my friend received little evidence of the new life growing within her. For twelve long weeks, she waited and worried. And then one day at a doctor’s appointment – a heartbeat! A couple months later – flutters, and then kicks! And a few months after that, a perfect little son nestled in her arms and gazing into her eyes.
For a long time, all my friend could do was wait. But when the evidence of that little life was unseen, God was at work in the most dramatic of ways – forming a handful of cells into all the organ systems of the body, sparking brain activity, and setting his tiny heart beating.
In the waiting, God was working.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is senior pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in New Brighton, MN.