Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 6:1-12
by Randy Blacketer
Deep discouragement, even discouragement with God. That is the background to Moses’ grievance against the Almighty. Moses complains bitterly to the Lord that he has mistreated his people. He has sent Moses on a fool’s errand. In sum, Moses charges: “you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:23).Some pious interpreters of previous eras (like St. Augustine) denied that Moses was really complaining. On the contrary, he was simply offering a reverent prayer, patiently checking in with God to see how the plans were progressing.
John Calvin admits that Moses is actually bitter. But Calvin proceeds to rebuke Moses for daring to question God. This was typical of the stoic attitude and resistance to lament of Calvin’s age. But it is neither biblical nor what God’s people need to hear. Unfortunately, this kind of stoic resistance to honest lament still continues. People’s frustrations with God are compounded by feelings of guilt about that sense of frustration with God, with his apparent lack of action when his people are hurting.
But Moses’ complaint, just like the psalms of lament, is hardly unique in scripture. Witness Job. Witness Abraham’s bold bargaining over Sodom. God’s people, because we are in a covenantal relationship with God, can be honest to God, even when we are disappointed and frustrated with the Lord.
God, are you ever going to get around to doing anything? We are suffering down here! Don’t you listen to our prayers? Don’t you care? Do you care that our marriage is falling apart? Does it matter to you that my daughter has left the faith? Do you notice that my brother won’t speak to me anymore? Is my unemployment a matter of too little importance for your time and attention? How can you let me go through this chemotherapy, and why did you let me get cancer in the first place? Oh, why should I bother? You don’t seem to do anything anyway!
Or sometimes our laments are about a world in which God does not seem to be in control. Lord, why don’t you ever do anything about the racial hostility that divides our land? How long, O Lord, will extremists kill in the name of God? And how long will it take before you do something about it?
What kind of God are you? That’s the question that prefaces our text.
In the original Star Wars, the young Luke Skywalker learns that the eccentric old hermit that he knows by the name of Ben Kenobi has been hiding his real identity. He reveals to Luke that his actual name is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Suddenly the old man is much more than just a peculiar recluse. His real name reveals his true nature: he is in fact a great leader, an enemy of oppression, and defender of justice.
In the same way, God’s answer to Moses seems cryptic: I am the Lord. I am Yahweh. Four times he repeats the phrase. Yet somehow that Name speaks infinite volumes not only about who God is but about his relationship to his people. Of course, God has been revealing himself to Abraham and his descendants for centuries now, with titles like El Shaddai, the Almighty God. But, just recently, he has revealed himself as the God who is who he is, and will be who he will be, and most importantly, the God who will be with you (3:12). And that makes all the difference.
Unlike Calvin, the Lord does not rebuke Moses. Instead, he says: Just you wait. I know you’re afraid of Pharaoh, but he’s about to meet his match, namely, my mighty hand. Pow! Right in the kisser! It’s like a fist raised in challenge to the king of Egypt, who fancied himself divine. Bring it on, Pharaoh! Let’s see who’s really divine, here. The Lord plans to demonstrate that Pharaoh is no god, and to demonstrate for all to see that Israel’s God is worth boasting about, worth getting to know by Name.
In the movie The Avengers, the Hulk slams the naughty Norse deity Loki around like a rag doll, and remarks in his typically laconic way: “Puny god!” The Lord will prove the puniness of little Pharaoh with what he has in store. And why? Because God has thrown his lot with this ragtag band of people, the Hebrews, for better and for worse. And as this relationship continues, they will learn more about this God who is who he is, a God who is faithful, even when it doesn’t seem like it. They will learn more about themselves, more than they perhaps wanted to know. And there will be plenty more surprises ahead.
All of this will be to fulfill an old promise, to repay an old debt that God made to Abraham (vv. 7-8). God promised him land and numerous descendants—but this promise was about much more than real estate and census figures. It was not about national pride. It is about the I Am dwelling among his people; and that itself is the good news. “I am the Lord” is the gospel. And this good Word will become incarnate, Immanuel, God with us, in the great deliverer Jesus Christ, who will lead many nations out of their bondage to sin and the powers that compete for our worship. The hope that the Lord brings to Moses is the same hope of God’s people today, as John envisions it: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” because the I Am, made flesh, is making all things new (Revelation 21:3-5).
There is a strong missional theme in Exodus: the Lord’s amazing acts of deliverance will announce to Egypt and the world that he is God. But there are times when God’s own people need to be convinced, and re-convinced, of that truth. Even the faithful need to be evangelized, to be reminded of the good news, when the news seems unrelentingly bad. And the Lord is fine with that. He is willing and able to demonstrate to his own people that he is indeed the Lord (v. 7). Reminding them of his age-old promise to Abraham, the Lord pledges: “I will be your God.”
But hope is not the response we see from the Israelites. Or from Moses for that matter. Instead, it’s cynicism. “We doubt it,” they say (v. 9).
It would be wise to avoid blaming the Israelites, or Moses, and sit with that discouragement and doubt, that resistance to faith, and own it. The people did not doubt simply because they were stubborn and stiff-necked, though they certainly had that propensity. Moses did not hesitate simply because he was insecure about his public speaking skills. Discouragement, accumulated over time (v. 9), creates a defensive shell that is hard to crack. To hope again is to risk disappointment and even deeper discouragement. When, after many attempts at reconciliation, a marriage finally falls apart. When long-term unemployment eats away at a husband and father’s sense of self-worth. When every new school year a child still finds herself excluded or bullied by her peers. The shell becomes harder, and it takes something extraordinary to break that shell and let hope stream in again.
One could rebuke the Israelites and make them into a negative example. Or one could sit with that disappointment, that persistent, weary doubt, and honor it. Because the people of God need to hear, to know, that God is faithful, even when we doubt. That the good news is not all about how faithful I am, how resilient my faith is, how positive my attitude is, how well I “trust and obey.” The good news is that God is faithful. And that makes all the difference.