Time for a Change

by Lois Tverberg

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Exodus 12:1-2

Egyptian CalendarThe very first instruction that God gave the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt was to establish a new calendar that was utterly unlike the Egyptian calendar. This may not seem significant to us, but how we measure time is fundamental for how we look at life. Our calendars define the importance of the day to the entire culture, saying whether we should work, rest or worship, or think about some great event in our past.

This was especially critical as the Israelites left the powerful nation of Egypt, which had strongly influenced their thinking while they lived there. Egypt had a twelve-month solar calendar that was entirely organized around the veneration of their gods. Their year started in late June when the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, arose, about the time of the flooding of the Nile. They spent five days in feasting and worship beforehand, pleading with their gods for a good flood of the Nile and good harvest for that year. Each of the 36 ten-day weeks of the year was dedicated to a different god.

In contrast, God instructed Israel to mark time by remembering their redemption from Egypt. Their calendar no longer focused on idolatrous gods, but on permanently remembering the true God that loved them so much that he freed them from slavery. Every aspect of their calendar repeated this motif. The other major feast of the year, the feast of booths (Sukkot), also focused on reliving their time in the wilderness after God brought them out of Egypt. Even the seven-day week was founded on remembering how God had granted them rest from slavery:

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. Deut. 5:15


Also, the law to celebrate the fiftieth year as a Year of Jubilee was also founded on the idea that they set free those who are in debt, just as God set them free.

If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Lev. 25:39-41

All of their worship and time focused on remembering how God saved them and took them to be their people. In the same way, we as Christians should continually remind ourselves of our redemption in Christ, the Passover Lamb, by his death for our sins. Every day of our lives should revolve around living out of this truth.

Photo: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) and Edward Poynter

Plagues from the God of Nature

by Lois Tverberg

Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the LORD. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. – Exodus 9:28-29

HorusAs the passage above says, God unleashed the powerful forces of nature in the plague of hail to show that he was the true ruler over the earth, not the hundreds of “gods” that the Egyptians worshipped. It was clear that God was in control of other aspects of nature when locusts and diseases destroy the crops and livestock at Moses’ command.

It may surprise you that most of the plagues could be describing natural events that were known to occur in Egypt. The Nile turning to blood may describe the red tide, a type of algae that kills fish when it overgrows, or an excessive reddish silt washed down from the mountains during an abnormally strong annual flood. The frogs might have bred in the stagnant water left behind from the flooding.

Even the “darkness that can be felt” seems to be a description of a dusty sandstorm that comes from the hamsim, strong east winds that blow in from the Sahara Desert that blot out the sun, which can make it as dark as night. (The dust storms during the Dust Bowl in 1930’s were described this same way.)

The thought that the plagues could have had natural causes initially feels disturbing because we assume that God must show his supremacy by turning nature on its head. But what showed God’s power is not the unearthliness of the plagues, but God’s sovereignty over their timing and who they afflicted. They began exactly as Moses announced them, and some did not strike Goshen, where the Israelites lived. While they might have been events of nature, they clearly were controlled by God’s will.

Death of Firstborn

Even the last plague, the death of the firstborn may have had a semi-natural origin. During the Dust Bowl, many succumbed to “dust pneumonia” because inhaling large amounts of dust can cause severe lung inflammation and even death. But the fact that every firstborn succumbed to the illness all on the same night was profoundly supernatural. While God was working through nature, his timing showed that he was utterly in control.

When you think about it, God working through nature is really the most appropriate display of his power, because he is the creator and sustainer of all things. You can see this in that the point at which the magicians realized that their gods were defeated was a seemingly mild plague, that of the gnats. (Ex. 8:18-19) Why? Because God is the creator, not Satan. God’s creation of the tiny gnat was too much for Satan to imitate. It was the God of Israel who held the life of every creature in his hands.

Photocred: Bibleplaces.com

Why All Ten Plagues?

by Lois Tverberg

ThPlagues of Egypte LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21

It seems odd that God would tell Moses from the very beginning that it would take many plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Why couldn’t God have freed them with one spectacular display of power? Why couldn’t God have skipped the milder plagues if he knew he’d send the more powerful ones later?

One reason was that the purpose of the plagues wasn’t just to convince Pharaoh to free the Sun God RaIsraelites, but to declare that God was supreme over the many “gods” that Egypt worshipped (Ex.
12:12). God was communicating this to Pharaoh, and also to his own people who very likely believed in them after four hundred years in that land. Each of the plagues was a defeat of one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped – the Nile god, the Sun god, the Frog god, the animal gods

Another reason could have been mercy. God didn’t simply come in and destroy the oppressor of his people, Pharaoh, before giving him a chance to let them go on his own. God gave him many chances that he rejected, and only after several times did God harden him from further repentance.

Finally, perhaps it was simply that God realized that after four hundred years of not knowing him, his people had to experience his power firsthand many, many times. He knew that they would soon be in the desert facing trials, and would lose faith quickly enough. He knew they would be there for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, and they needed strong memories to sustain them. He also knew that humans often think they’ve learned a lesson when they need to repeat it many times. He was instilling in his people a sense of his power that would sustain them for the millennia ahead.

Photocred: J. M. W. Turner and Riccadov

The Finger of God

by Lois Tverberg

But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” …. Exodus 8:18-19

When Pharaoh’s magicians convincingly imitated the first two plagues of turning the Nile to blood and producing frogs, Pharaoh had reason to be confident that he could defeat the God who produced these signs. But at the third plague, the magicians were confounded when they saw gnats created from the dust. They declared. “This is the finger of God!”

Plagues of EgyptThey meant that this was the sign of a power far, far greater than they could conjure up. Often God’s power or intervention is described metaphorically by using words like God’s “arm” or God’s “hand.” God’s “finger” also refers to his power or intervention. God is so mighty that all he had to use was his littlest finger to defeat the powers of the magicians in Egypt!

Interestingly, this phrase also comes up in the life of Jesus, and it is in a similar context. Jesus was being challenged by what means he was casting out demons, with the accusation that he was using satanic powers to do so. He replied:

…But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils. Luke 11:21-22

Why did he use the phrase “finger of God”? The situation here is similar to that in Exodus. Moses was in a battle against the gods of Egypt and they were defeated by the “finger of God.” Similarly, Jesus was in a battle with the powers of darkness and was defeating them by God’s power. God’s kingdom was arriving with such great power that with its littlest finger it could vanquish Satan and set people free.

Artist of photo: John Martin

Starting Out Small

by Lois Tverberg

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 7:10-13

It is fascinating that the first sign that God gave Moses to show Pharaoh God’s power is so weak as to be almost humorous. Pharaoh had imagined that the God of Israel was one of the small gods of other nations, and assumed his powerful gods could easily defeat him. This first story sounds like that is the impression that God wants him to start off with, too, initially.

Egyptian DeathmaskGod told Aaron to throw down his staff so that it changed into a snake, fully knowing that the Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same thing. They must have smirked when they saw it, recognizing it from their bag of standard warm-up stunts and laughing to themselves at how easy it would be to replicate. It’s like God was lobbing a slow pitch over the plate for an easy swing – something to draw the attention of the spiritual powers that there was a new “god” in town who
had wandered into their territory.

Interestingly, the word to describe the snake is different that what one would expect. The typical word for snake was nahash (nah-HAHSH), but this was a tanin, (tah-NEEN) a larger reptile, possibly describing the hooded cobra of the Nile. The cobra is the snake-god associated with Pharaoh’s powers as king, the one seen in the golden headdress and masks of Pharaohs in Egypt. The magicians were able to produce it too, either by sleight of hand or by some occult powers.

It is interesting that when God interacts with humans, even his enemies, he starts out in such a humble way, like a baby laid in a manger. He begins by looking a lot like what was around, like one teacher among many, one Galilean carpenter in the crowd. Only later will his full power be displayed.

Photocred: Erik Hooymans

Known By What I Do

by Lois Tverberg

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites … and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am – This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” Exodus 3:13-14

Burning BushWhen God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asked his name, God revealed many things about his nature through what he said. His answer likely was not what Moses expected, because God is so utterly unlike the gods that Moses had encountered. Other gods had names that were nouns, like “Molech” (actually Melech, meaning “King”) or “Baal,” meaning “Master,” or perhaps descriptive names like “Lucifer” meaning, “Light Bearer,” or “Baal Zebul” meaning “Exalted Lord.”

God didn’t use an adjective to describe himself, or a noun to represent himself, the usual ways to make a name. Instead, he used a future-oriented verb phrase that literally reads, “am that am” or “will be that will be.” Then he says that Moses should tell the people, literally, that “will be” has sent him, and proclaims that “will be” is his name forever. (The pronoun “I,” ani or anochi, is not actually present, but the verb is the conjugation for the first person, so the “I” is inferred.)

Why in the world would God use this name to describe himself? A number of observations can be made. One is that the very form of the name shows how very much unlike God is from any other god humans have ever known. Other gods liken themselves to human kings or lords, but this God does not – he is incomprehensible and indescribable. Just as his sanctuary was devoid of images or idols, his name also does not offer a likeness for us to describe him.

The verb that he uses, “to be,” has several significant aspects. It doesn’t just describe something existent, but can be more active, as if to say “I cause,” meaning, “I am your cause” or “I cause you to exist.” It is also likely a reminder of the reassurance that God gave Moses when he was going to Pharaoh – “I will be with you.” God is the God who will be with his people. This is ultimately God’s goal – to dwell among his people forever.

One other way of reading his name seems to be especially significant. It could be read as “I will be known by what I do,” and this is really what seems to be most fitting for how God reveals himself to us. He didn’t just describe himself to Moses, or appear in a big cloud to impress his people. Instead he redeemed his people from slavery, fed them daily, protected them from enemies, and brought them to the promised land. One day he will most fully reveal himself when he redeems the world through the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross.

Photocred: Itai

Getting to Know Moses

by Lois Tverberg

One day, after Moses … saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. … he killed the Egyptian and hid him….The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” … When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. Exodus 2:11-17

Modern novels often acquaint the reader with the main characters by giving an elaborate description of their personality and approach to life. In the Eastern culture of the Bible, this was often done through a different method, that of storytelling. Often the first story or stories about a person are deliberately chosen to describe the character’s personality to us. For instance, the first time we meet Saul, Israel’s first king who was foolish and disobedient, he had lost his donkeys and was wandering the countryside unable to find them – not a very flattering portrait (1 Sam 9:4). In contrast, early stories of King David are about his success against Goliath and his ability to kill a lion to defend his flocks.

In the first stories about Moses in Exodus, we can see many reasons why God chose Moses to lead his people. By growing up in the Egyptian court it appears that he was not discouraged by enslavement as the rest were, but yet he was loyal to his people and would even risk his life to defend them. He was so passionate in their defense that he would even murder – whether it was justified was not clear. He was also concerned with injustice between fellow Israelites, and attempted to arbitrate for the victim, showing his future leadership. Later, after he has left Egypt, he came to the defense of some foreign shepherd girls, and cares for their animals for them, showing his concern even for those outside his own people.

The theme that runs through these events is Moses’ loyalty to his people and compassion for the weak and passion to help them, no matter who they are. In other passages we learn about Moses extreme humility and feelings of unworthiness for being chosen for this task. We can see that God knew he would need someone with a servant’s heart, who would give his all to lead and care for his people, as Moses did.

Heroines in Egypt

by Lois Tverberg

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” Exodus 1:18-19

Miriam and Moses MotherIn the first few chapters of Exodus, women play a major role. Pharaoh tells the midwives Shiprah and Puah to kill the newborn boys but let the girls live. His assumption was that while men posed a threat, women would be easily assimilated into Egyptian culture and exploited as domestic and sexual slaves. We also see hints of this in Abraham’s time, when he tells Sarah that the Egyptians would kill him and take her. (Genesis 12:12)

Instead, the first stories of Exodus humorously tell us that exactly the opposite occurred — that the women defeated Pharaoh! After the midwives saved the baby boys, Pharaoh confronted them. They responded with a sly insult for an excuse, that Hebrew women were stronger than Egyptian women and simply gave birth on their own, before they could get there!

Moses’ mother and sister were also heroines, saving his life by floating him out into the Nile where Pharaoh’s daughter would hear his cries and ache for his plight. Not only did women save Moses’ life, but Pharaoh’s own family defeated him, and Moses’ mother even got paid to nurse him!

An ancient listener would have laughed at how God had used the weak to defeat the strong, and realized that already, God was the one coming to rescue his people.

Photo: Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster

Set Free to Serve

by Lois Tverberg

They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. – Ex. 1:14

One of the central themes of the story of Exodus is that of avodah, which is translated work, labor, service, and slavery. In the passage above, the word is used four times in the Hebrew text. When God finally is moved to save his people, it is because of their avodah:

The Israelites groaned in their labors (avodah) and cried out, and their cry for help because of their labor (avodah) went up to God. Ex. 2:23

Crossing the Red SeaWhen God challenged Pharaoh, he challenged him on this very issue. He sends Moses to say, “Let my people go, that they may serve (avad) me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7:16). In this sentence the same word for labor and slavery is being used to describe worshipping God. The reason for this is that the same word, avad, can mean to serve or to worship.

God was challenging Pharaoh who had enslaved his people by saying that he must free them to serve him. Pharaoh was considered a god in ancient Egypt, so this was a direct challenge by the true God of Israel to the false “god” Pharaoh who demanded that they serve him instead.

God later commanded that his people worship no other gods, and this is also translated that they should “serve” no other gods. They were set free from them to serve and worship the true God alone.

Photo Cred: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Nicolas-Poussin/The-Crossing-Of-The-Red-Sea,-C.1634.html

Measure for Measure

by Lois Tverberg

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. – Genesis 37:28

At the opening of the book of Exodus, we learn that four hundred years after the family of Jacob went down to Egypt to live, they have been enslaved. It is ironic that the brothers never would have moved their families to Egypt if they had not sold their brother Joseph into slavery there. In a strange way, when they sold one member into slavery, they were selling their own family into future slavery. Their fate is linked to their sin, somehow.

bronze scaleThe rabbis pointed out that this pattern of the punishment fitting the crime is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures. Because Jacob deceived Isaac in his blindness into giving him the birthright, Jacob is fooled into marrying Leah when he is “blind” – when she is brought to him veiled, and in the night he doesn’t see his new wife. Or, because Pharaoh killed the Israelite boys by drowning them in the river, God defeated his army by drowning them too. Haman was hanged on the gallows that he prepared for Mordechai. The rabbis called this pattern “measure for measure” – midah keneged midah.

While this is the pattern for divine justice, God tells the people of Israel that they should use midah keneged midah in a different way. They are to show mercy on the aliens and foreigners, because they were once foreigners too, in the land of Egypt. Instead of remembering their suffering there in order to be cruel or vengeful, they should remember how it felt to be in a strange land and to be oppressed, and to have compassion on others because of it.

Jesus tells us the same thing — that when we remember how much we’ve been forgiven, it should make us desire to forgive others too. He says that with the measure that we use, it will be measured to us as well.

For more details on this concept, see the longer article, “The Logic of Measure for Measure.”

Photocred: Bibleplaces.com