Who Are You Going to Work For?

by Lois Tverberg

Freedom is the theme of God’s greatest miracles in history. Jews look back on the freeing of Israel from bondage in Egypt as their foundation as a people. They still celebrate this yearly at Passover, when they commemorate the night they were liberated. Christians recall Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act that brought far greater freedom for all people who believe in him, from bondage to sin and death itself.

In light of these two great acts of liberation from bondage, we may be uncomfortable with the fact that instead of speaking only of freedom, Jesus and Paul often speak about being “slaves” to God or Christ. Jesus says that “You cannot serve two masters, God and money” (Matt 6:24), and Paul says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19 & 7:23). Paul and other New Testament authors also introduce themselves at the beginning of each book as being “slaves of Christ.”1

It seems paradoxical to speak about slavery and being set free simultaneously, but if we look back and understand God’s first redemption of Israel, we will see how this really is a theme from the beginning of the scriptures to the end. God set his people free from cruel masters to become his own, as their rightful Lord. Both at the first exodus and in Christ’s fulfillment, this picture teaches us much about what our relationship to God really is.

Set Free from Cruel Masters

The common belief of people in the ancient near east was that the world is filled with many spiritual beings that control nature and prosperity. These “gods” were unpredictable and cruel, and used humans as playthings and slaves to serve their own desires.2 Ancient people understood that all people were the slaves of the gods, and each tribe had its own gods that ruled over them, so that to survive, they had to appease the gods through religious ceremonies and magical incantations.

Because of these beliefs, many ancient writings reflect a perpetual sense of hopelessness, anxiety and fear of the spirit world that was hostile to humanity. Interestingly, this pessimistic worldview of polytheism is widespread, from ancient times even up to today.3

Knowing this helps us read the story of the redemption of Egypt as an ancient person would have understood it. They saw this story as a true spiritual battle between the God of Israel and the gods of the Egyptians. Not only were the Israelites in bondage to physical slavery, they were in bondage to these evil gods, including Pharaoh, who considered himself a god.

Each plague was directed at a specific god of the Egyptians: Hekt, the frog god; Hapi, the Nile god; Ra, the sun god, etc., and the final plague was against Pharaoh himself (Ex. 12:12). The imagery here is that as God fought and defeated each one, God was winning a battle to take his own people out of the hands of other “gods” so that he would be their God, and they would become his people — his “slaves” as it were (Ex. 6:7, 2 Sam. 7:23).

A key to understanding this is to look at the Hebrew word for “worship,” avad, which has parallels in other languages of the near east. Along with meaning “worship,” it also means “serve” or “work,” and the related noun, eved, means “servant” or “slave.” So, the “worshippers,” avadim, of a god could also be seen as the god’s servants or slaves.

When God challenged Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they may avad me” (Ex. 8:1), this didn’t just mean so that they could worship him, but that they were to be freed from slavery to the false god Pharaoh, so that they could avad, serve and worship their rightful God.

God later commanded that his people should “worship,” avad, no other gods, which can also be translated to mean they should “serve” no other gods. They were set free from them to serve and worship the true God alone. Serving and worshipping may not seem related to us, but really, service is the truest expression of worship of a god.4

God’s Compassion on Mount Sinai

After Israel was freed from bondage, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave him his laws that showed how he wanted them to avad, worship and serve him as his people. We hardly think to compare the laws of the Torah to other law codes of the time, but it is interesting to see how God’s rules show that their new “master” was vastly different from their old masters — he governed with great compassion, and cared about the needs of his people.

We modern-day readers hardly appreciate the profound ethical change that the laws of the Torah made relative to other codes of its time, and how fundamental its precepts are to our own laws.5

Other codes had no ethic of equal treatment in regard to rich and poor, so a crime against a person of a high class carried a much greater punishment than one against a low class person. Cheating in a business transaction with a high class person carried the death penalty. In contrast, murder of a lower class person was punishable by a fine based on his social status. In Israel, all were alike under the law, and poor and rich treated equally.

In cases of crime, the Torah was far more humane. In other countries, punishments for even minor crimes were often brutal and mutilating, and often including floggings, amputation and torture. In the Torah, fines were common but physical punishments were rare, and only for severe offenses against the nation or God.

The law that sounds most shocking, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is actually misunderstood. The expression was actually an idiom that wasn’t taken literally, but actually meant equitable punishment that fits the crime. (An eye for an eye — not a scolding for an eye, or a life for an eye.) It was an ancient expression from laws originally meant to limit punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself, because without it, the victim’s clan would want greater vengeance, escalating into feuds. Scholars believe that it was not followed literally in Israel, but monetary fines were given for injuries instead.

In other codes, very little protection was given to those who were vulnerable to exploitation. The main goal of other law codes was to protect the assets of the wealthy from the lower class by threatening them with punishment for theft or destruction of property. Israel’s laws were instead very concerned for the protection of the poor, the alien, the widows and orphans.

People were to tithe their money to give to the poor, and let them glean from their crops (Deut. 18:29, Lev. 23:22). They were not to mistreat an alien, but to “love them as themselves” (Lev. 19:34). Much of the code of Israel is specifically written to protect the weakest members of the society, unlike any other nation of the time.6

With these differences in mind, the laws of the Torah show great fairness toward all levels of society, compassion for the vulnerable, and amazing concern for the sanctity of human life. Our own culture has been so transformed by these basic principles that we can hardly imagine the world without them.

The more we see the contrast between God’s ways and the rest of the ancient world, the more we see that the love of Christ in the gospels was fully present in the God who revealed himself on Sinai. In essence, we see the Father and Son as one and the same. The God who Israel was to avad, worship, cared deeply for humanity, and his servants were to mirror his concern as well.

Being God’s Slave to be Free

The most striking difference between God’s ethics compared to other nations was the laws regulating slavery, which teach us a lot about how God viewed his people as his own avadim. In the ancient world, slavery was a given. Knowing that humanity can only change so much, God did not outlaw it, but he gave laws that made it far more humane.

Many of the Torah’s regulations were unheard of in any other culture, and ultimately aimed to undermine the practice altogether. Only six days a week could a master demand a slave to serve him — all slaves had a day of rest every week, and celebrated holy days, too. If a master permanently injured a slave in any way, even causing him to lose a tooth, the slave was given his freedom. Women slaves were to have equal rights as other daughters and wives.

If the slave was a Hebrew who had sold himself because of debt, he had to be freed in six years and given a substantial gift of crops and supplies when he left (Deut. 15:14). If he loved his master he could pledge himself in permanent servitude, and his ear would be pierced to show his commitment. But the most amazing law was that if a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be returned, but allowed to live free anywhere in Israel!

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose… you must not mistreat him. (Deut. 23:15)

In every other law code, the penalty for not returning a slave was death. This radical reversal of ethics shows God’s great desire for freedom for his people. In fact, most of the time when God speaks of his people as his slaves, it is to protect their freedom and keep them from being enslaved to anyone else! For instance:

If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. For they are My avadim (servants/slaves), whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. (Lev. 25:42)

The year of Jubilee was also for that purpose — to redeem all of God’s people from bondage to anyone else, because they were his alone. If a person sold himself to a foreigner because of debt, the reason they were set free at the jubilee was because, “the sons of Israel are my avadim, they are my avadim whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God!” (Lev. 25:54-55). God set his people free to be his own, and for this reason they shall remain free.

Slaves of Christ

Many places in the New Testament use the image that just as God “purchased” or “redeemed” his people from slavery in Egypt, all who believe in Christ have also been “purchased”:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19)

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor 7:22-23)

In this second verse, the ideas of being slaves but being free are once again interwoven. We have been redeemed from the evil masters of sin and death to become slaves of Christ, who actually won our freedom. When we are his, he will not let us be slaves to anything else.

Who will we serve?

How do we live this out? In Exodus, after God redeemed his people, he gave them his Torah so that they could know how to serve him. God didn’t give them the law before he redeemed them and then expect them to earn their freedom — he redeemed them entirely out of grace.

Afterward, he gave them his law so that as his avadim, worshippers and servants, they would live in a way that would show the world his justice and love. In the same way, Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry giving us his Torah, his teaching, to show us how to serve him. Jesus’ laws didn’t negate the Torah, but rather he made it more encompassing and brought it to a higher level. If we say we worship Jesus, we must also serve him by doing his will.

It may come to us as news that every human is the servant of a greater master — whether an idolatrous god or our own appetites. We really don’t have a choice to be utterly free of any master, any more than we have a choice to quit a bad job in order to do absolutely nothing, because we need to support ourselves to live.

In the working world, we are “redeemed” from a bad employer when we find an employer who gives us fulfilling work and cares for our personal welfare. We move from one kind of serving to another kind of serving, not to be free from serving anything at all.

In the same way, we all need to choose our master, and in doing so, we should look at a potential master’s character to see whom we should choose. Will we serve pagan gods whose people lived in terror of them? Or will we serve a God who has great compassion for even the weakest of his people? Will we serve the demanding idols of success and money, who destroy our families and lives? Or will we serve our Master who sacrificed himself for our sins, and came not to be served, but to serve instead?

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1See the beginning verses of the books of Romans, Colossians, Titus, 2 Peter, Jude, and others. The writer of each book refers to himself as a doulos (“slave”) of Christ. Even though English translations often soften the word to “servant,” it really refers to a slave, not a servant.

2Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 16-18.

3See Christ’s Witchdoctor, by Homer Dowdy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1994) p. 7, 23, 46. This is the fascinating autobiography of a witchdoctor in a South American native tribe who came to Christ in the 1950s. He said that even though his tribe was prosperous and safe, they lived with constant fear of the spiritual world around them that they saw as mostly evil, and aimed to destroy them.

4Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema, (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) p. 21-22.

5See Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), p. 171-189. This is a fascinating comparison of the ancient near eastern laws to the Torah that shows the enormous ethical difference between the laws of Israel and other lands.

6Ibid, p. 179

7JPS Commentary on Exodus, by N. Sarna (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 125

Photos: Kyle Frederick on UnsplashColor Crescent on Unsplash, Location of Mt. Sinai from bibleplaces.comJames Barr on Unsplash

God Unleashed

Plagues of Egypt

by Lois Tverberg

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'” Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” Exodus 5:1-3

During Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh, God told him to tell Pharaoh that the Israelites needed to take a three-day journey into the desert to worship him (Ex. 3:18, 5:3, 8:27). This is confusing because it sounds as if they are asking for a long weekend off, and then they’ll come back. But in fact, in no place does Moses say that they will return afterward.

Another suggestion is that the phrase “three-day journey” is actually not about the length of time they plan to be away, but the distance they need to travel from Egypt before they worship God. In the Scripture, measuring distance in “days of journey” was common. (See Gen 31:33, Num 10:33, Deut 11:1, 1Ki 19:4, etc.) Moses was likely saying that people must be far away from the false Plagues of Egypt“gods” and oppression of Egypt before they worshipped God, or their awesome God might release plagues and destruction. The Egyptians were the ones in danger!

It seems that Pharaoh was undaunted by Moses’ warnings about the power of his God, and he refused to let the Israelites go a safe distance from Egypt. It is easy to imagine that as this holy God approached his people, getting nearer and nearer, the plagues on Egypt became increasingly worse. First the river ran red from some distant danger sweeping downstream, then the insects started swarming, then the animals started dying, then the sky blackened with hail and locusts and utter darkness as this awesome God approached Egypt.

Finally, when the Israelites went ahead and sacrificed a lamb and worshipped their God right in the midst of Egypt, his full power was unleashed on the Egyptians and destruction poured out on the oppressors of his people. Because Pharaoh would not release Israel to worship their holy God, he came to punish their captors and release them himself.


Photo: John Martin

That You May Know

Plague of the Firstborn

by Lois Tverberg

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Exodus 5:2

“For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.” Exodus 9:14

A key theme in the book of Exodus is “knowing” who the Lord is. When God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses seemed to be asking who God was when he asked for his name. Then, when Moses went to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s response was that he did not “know the LORD,” so why should he obey him?

Plague of the FirstbornIt is important to understand that in Hebrew, the word for “know,” yada, is more broad than in English, describing personal experience, not just intellectual knowledge. To “know” God in this sense is not just to have heard a name, but having awe for him from encountering his power directly. Pharaoh had no fear of this God because he had never experienced God’s power.

Many places throughout Exodus God says that he would send his plagues and free his people so that both Egypt and Israel would know him:

Ex. 6:7 `Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians

Ex. 7:5 “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.”

Ex. 14:4 “Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.

Ex. 16:6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the sons of Israel, “At evening you will know that the LORD has brought you out of the land of Egypt; When Moses first came to Pharaoh, Pharaoh had no idea who the God of Israel was, and he could only find out from his own personal experience of the power of this God.

Do you know who the LORD is, that you should obey his voice?


Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema

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 be a surprise to some 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 sandstorm that comes from the hamsim, strong winds that blow in from the desert at certain times of year that blot out the sun by filling the air with dust, which can make it as dark as night.

This observation initially can be disturbing, because it seems to be more spectacular to turn nature on its head. The key is to realize, however, that what showed God’s power is not the unearthliness of the plagues, but God’s sovereignty over their timing and who they afflicted. While they might have been events of nature, they clearly were controlled by God’s will. And, the last plague really has no natural explanation – how every firstborn could be chosen to succumb to an illness all on the same night. God can work inside of nature or outside of it, and he can choose when and how.

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. We 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

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

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 on the concept of “Measure for Measure,” see the article at this link.

Photocred: Bibleplaces.com