So far in our story, we have learned about how God made a good and beautiful creation. Into this creation, God placed humans, made in God’s image. Serving as image-bearers, the humans were to continue the work of creation, caring for and cultivating the world. Sadly, humans turned away from this purpose and rebelled. This rebellion, called sin, broke all our relationships. Humanity’s relationship with God was broken and they hid from their Creator. Humanity’s relationship with each other was broken and throughout Genesis 3-11 we see an escalation of the harm humans do to one another. Humanity’s relationship with creation was broken, as our task to be cultivators now encounters all sorts of problems from weeds to earthquakes. Finally, we can even say our internal relationship with ourself is broken as we now deal with self-doubt, loss of identity and more.
The good news is, God did not leave humanity behind. Instead, God launched a rescue operation by calling Abraham. Abraham’s purpose was to bring blessing to the nations. Abraham was the instrument through whom God would save. Yet as we see, Abraham is also broken. He suffers from the same sin as all humanity. Thus, while he is able to bring blessing he is also able to bring hurt. This is the story of Genesis: Abraham’s family in special relationship with God, with the promise that through them the world will be blessed being repeated over and over. At the same time, Abraham’s family is a mess and they fail in their call over and over through lying and deceit and more.
Genesis ends with Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, and his twelve sons in Egypt. Jacob’s son, Joseph, had been sold by his brothers to Egypt but had risen to power. God used Joseph to bless the Egyptians, and all the nations. His own brothers mean to harm him, but God uses this for good. Yet the good times to do not last.
The story of Exodus is one of liberation and salvation. Before we get into the story then, it is worth asking these questions:
First, let’s pause with a question: How do you define “salvation”? How does your understanding of salvation relate to what you think God cares about?
How would you explain salvation to a skeptical friend? Is salvation just about getting your sins forgiven and what happens after you die? Is salvation about fixing this world now and living your best life?
As we said, Joseph brings his family to Egypt where he has managed to become ruler over all Egypt, just under Pharaoh. After Joseph dies, the new Pharaoh does not have the same friendship with Joseph. The Israelites, foreigners in this land, are seen as a threat. Soon the Pharaoh enslaves them and the Israelites remain slaves for centuries. After centuries of enslavement, desperate to be free, the Israelites cry out to God to save them.
23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them – Exodus 2:23-25
God hears their cries. That, in itself, is awesome. Here we learn something vital about God: God is not deaf to pain and suffering felt by his creation. God is not a deity who remains far off, removed from the suffering of creation. God hears.
Even though the Israelites are enslaved, the Egyptians fear them. They are being fruitful and multiplying and in this, Pharaoh fears their numbers could lead to a slave revolt that would overwhelm the Egyptians. To quell this population growth, he institutes a policy that all male babies born among the Israelites will be killed. One set of parents do all they can to hide their baby, but after a while the danger is too great. This baby’s mother then puts him a basket and sends him down the river, praying for God to deliver him. Her prayers are answered as the Pharaoh’s sister, childless and wanting a baby, discovers and adopts this baby. He grows up to be one of the most famous figures in scripture: Moses.
Moses grows up among the Egyptians, but eventually learns he truly is an Israelite. The details of his life in Egypt are sparse, though Hollywood has taken artistic license to add quite a bit. Some of you grew up with the animated Prince of Egypt, but I remember watching the old Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston. This movie portrays Moses as a dashing popular prince. The Bible simply moves from him being adopted as a baby to “one day he went out to his own people.” We do not know what sort of identity crisis, growing up Egyptian but being Hebrew, Moses dealt with. The details are spares. We do know Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Moses kills the Egyptian. Fearing punishment, he flees from Egypt to the land of Midian where he marries, settles down as a shepherd, and has children. After many years, the life of the slaves seems far away from him.
Moses is done with the Israelites and their God who does not seem to care about them. But God is not done with Moses, the Israelites or the plan to save the world.
There is a day when Moses is tending the flocks, probably much like any other day, when he sees a bush that is burning, but not consumed. When he approaches this curious sight, God speaks to him. God tells Moses that the cries of the Israelites have not gone ignored. God is going to save the people and Moses has been chosen. Moses, however, wants nothing to do with this. The conversation between Moses and God takes up nearly all of Exodus 3-4 and is worth reading in its entirety.
Moses continually comes up with excuses and reasons not to go, finally throwing up his arms and asking God to just find someone else (3:11; 4:1, 10, 13). God agrees to send Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help him.
This dialog is deeply significant, for God reveals his name to Moses as “I AM.”
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[d] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“ This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)
God speaks to Moses as the God who simply is. The name God gives – “I Am” or “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” depending on your translation. Different scholars have offered different interpretations. The name in Hebrew is known as the tetragrammaton, for it is four letters without vowels: YHWH. We pronounce it Yahweh. Because the Hebrews held the name with such reverence, and because vowels were not added to the scripture till much later, the precise pronounciation is uncertain. They would often say Adonai instead, to avoid taking the name in vain and violating the commandment. So when you see LORD in all caps in English, this is Yahweh, and when not in all caps, it is Adonai. The point here in Exodus 3-4 is God has revealed God’s self to Moses and given Moses a name: I AM.
After this, Moses returns to Egypt to speak God’s word to Pharaoh. Pharaoh, unsurprisingly, is not interested in releasing his slaves. To change Pharaoh’s mind, God sends ten plagues on the Egyptians (Exod. 7:14-11:10). The story of these plagues is a story of war between two Kings, the Pharaoh and Yahweh. Who is the King who has the right to ownership of the people? Yahweh defeats Pharaoh, demonstrating that the God of the slaves is more powerful than the God of the Empire. The Israelites are saved from a bad king (Pharaoh) by a good King (Yahweh). This salvation from Egypt becomes the model for salvation in the rest of the Bible. “Who is God?” the Israelites would ask. The answer was clear. “God is the one who saved us from slavery in Egypt.”
Next week we will learn about God’s law, but it is worth noting now that the law is not some arbitrary command which Israel will follow to get God to love them. The Law comes as a response to God’s act of liberation. Deuteronomy 5 is one of the places where the Ten Commandments are listed and before listing them God states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 5:6). Obedience has always been a response to grace.
Looking at this in the big picture, the liberation of the Israelites in Egypt defines how we understand salvation. Combining those terms – liberation and salvation – is intentional. We tend to imagine salvation as solely a spiritual act, getting our sins forgiven. We think of Liberation as more material – freeing slaves from captivity. Such a dichotomy is not found in the story of scripture: Salvation and Liberation in Exodus are one complete act that encompasses all levels of human existence. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright calls the Exodus, “God’s total response to Israel’s total need.”
In the beginning, humans were created as a unity of the material and the spiritual. From the beginning, creation and bodies and physical matter is good. At the same time, humans are more than mere bodies. Humanity’s spiritual component is what set us apart from the animals. Creation encompasses body and spirit and Exodus shows us that any salvation worth being considered scriptural will encompass both as well:
Yahweh frees the Israelites from literal slavery and oppression. God does not keep them in Egypt and just expect them to pray differently. Their physical and social nature matters and God liberates them to a new social life.
Yahweh frees them to worship and be in relationship with their Creator. God does not free them and let them go do whatever they want. Their spiritual life matters and true freedom is not to do as they like but to live in relationship with their Creator.
The story of Exodus sets the tone for our understanding of salvation throughout the rest of scripture. Throughout the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, God continues to be revealed as a God who is concerned with both liberation and salvation, with both meeting people’s physical and social needs as well as their spiritual needs. Any description of salvation and what it means to live in relationship with God that ignores one or the other is deficient.
The story of the Exodus is in the background of Jesus’ life and ministry. Often the gospels read like retelling of the Exodus as Jesus is liberating the people and leading them to a new way of life. Jesus came to meet the needs of the entire person, both spiritual and physical. Jesus healed the sick and fed the poor and announced justice as well as inviting people to forgiveness and spiritual wholeness.
If we forget the over-arching story though, we can make Jesus’ message only about the spiritual. For a variety of reasons, and the history is quite long so I won’t get into it here, some Christian churches have told a story of Jesus that jumps right from sin in Genesis 3 to salvation in the New Testament. This truncated view of Jesus makes little of liberating slaves and helping meet material needs. This is the Christian tradition I grew up in – the white evangelical and fundamentalist church. Growing up, it seemed that Jesus’ role was to save you from sins and bring forgiveness so you could go to heaven when you die. To be fair, it is not that white evangelicals did not care at all about helping people meet their basic needs. Like all things, there is much more to the story than I can tell here. Yet my perception was that meeting people’s physical needs was used as a way to convince people of Jesus (a sort of pragmatic means to my end). In other words, the motivation behind programs to provide food for those in need was not rooted in the simple fact that God created a world with the dream there would be no hunger, but instead the hope was if we feed them they will listen to us talk about forgiveness. Meeting material needs was reduced as a means to an end.
This is why keeping the story of scripture in mind is so helpful. In Exodus, liberating the slaves and meeting material needs is not a mere means to an end, it is an end itself. God’s creation is deemed good, so matter and nature are not evils to escape or ignore. Rather, God made a good world and is redeeming it. God has always acted in salvation towards the whole person and the whole community – both spiritual and physical.
Thus, when we put our faith in Jesus and join the community of God’s people, being adopted into the family of Abraham, we inherit the mission of joining God in the work of restoring creation. This mission, rooted in what the Exodus story tells us salvation and liberation looks like, means we care about social justice and mass incarceration and racism and global hunger and global climate change. We care about these not merely to be relevant but because this is what our Creator and Liberator God cares about. Of course, we do not stop with these material matters, we also speak of forgiveness and restored relationship with God because we are spiritual beings and these realities matter as well.
May we be people who experience the fullness of God’s salvation and liberation and may we join God in the mission to restore all creation on all levels encompassing spiritual and material.
I am going to end with a few questions:
Who in your life needs material help?
Who in your life needs spiritual restoration?
What can you do to help that person?
Of course, like Abraham and Moses and the rest, you are broken. So what do you need? May we both work to help others but not neglect asking for the help we need.
Creating and Saving God, I praise you for listening to the cries of suffering and injustice from your people. Thank you for your mighty acts in saving the Israelites from slavery. God, even amid a dark world today, I know you still listen and care about suffering. I think of all those suffering in slavery, abusive relationships, poverty and much more. I also think of those suffering depression, anger, hate and other spiritual illnesses. I pray that your salvation would come to those in need, as it always has. I pray you would help we who call ourselves disciples of Jesus to be agents of your salvation, that you would give us opportunities to help people and through your Spirit that people would experience both physical and spiritual restoration and wholeness. Amen.