The obstinate rebelliousness of the Israelites is one of the most striking themes when one first reads Exodus. Yaweh performs wonder upon wonder, miracle upon miracle, and yet in every other chapter the people either complain or rebel. “Surely,” thinks the reader, “I wouldn’t have behaved like that.” But when the reader makes an effort to see the unfolding events of Exodus through the eyes of the Israelites, their response to God seems all too human.
Exodus records the Israelites’ acute wrestling with the issue of trust. An unfamiliar God shows up out of the blue and says, “Come with me. We are going to the desert.” This kind of chutzpah reminds me of an unusual incident. I had just sat down to eat at McDonald’s when a young boy I had never seen before crawled into my lap. He turned and looked up at me with a toothy grin and said, “I’m gonna hep you eat yo lunch.” My first thought was, “Who invited you?” The Israelites must have had a similar response. At the outset, they had no real basis for trust.
To suggest that Yaweh was unfamiliar to the Israelites may seem strange. I had always assumed that the Hebrews had preserved the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; that they had preserved God’s prediction that He would lead them from Egypt back to Canaan; that they had faithfully continued to worship Yaweh throughout their stay in Egypt. Certainly some did. For instance, the midwives who refused to kill the baby Hebrew boys “feared God.” But the responses of the masses of Israelites points to ignorance about Yaweh. Moses’ objection to God’s sending him to lead the people is revealing: “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” Apparently, if the Israelites retained a memory of the God of Abraham, He had become just one of many they acknowledged. Forcing Aaron to build a golden calf indicates that the Egyptian culture in which they were raised had shaped their religious impulses.
If the Israelites did not remember God, then the story of the exodus is an account of Yaweh introducing Himself to His chosen people and forging them into a distinct culture with a worldview very different from those of other ancient Near Eastern societies. Moses introduced God to the Israelites; then God began to make himself known to His people through acts of supernatural power. By dramatically acting on their behalf time after time, God sought to earn His people’s trust.
From the beginning, however, God demonstrated that He is not a simple God. When Moses told the people that God would lead them out of Egypt, the initially receptive Israelites soon had second thoughts. When Moses first asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrews worship God in the desert, Pharaoh not only rejected the request, but made them work harder to teach them a lesson. So the first act of Moses, who claimed to represent the God who intended to free the Hebrews from slavery, increased the weight of their chains. It appeared that God either did not love them, or He was incompetent. Either way, He could not be fully trusted without a wary eye.
As if to show how complicated He is, God chose this moment of discouragement to set in motion a whole series of sensational plagues that finally forced Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave Egypt. Egypt owed its great wealth to the forces of nature. Gentle annual floods and consistently sunny weather allowed the Egyptians to raise more grain more easily than any other kingdom, and the Egyptians credited a whole pantheon of gods for restraining the forces of chaos and maintaining the orderliness of nature in their land. Therefore God devised ten plagues that dramatically demonstrated not only to the Egyptians, but also to the Israelites, that the gods of Egypt were impotent and no match for the sovereign God. At this stage in their relationship, God simply had the Israelites sit and watch, while He worked His wonders.
When Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go, they must have heaved a huge sigh of relief as they trudged away from Egypt. But trouble mounted almost immediately. Pharaoh had changed his mind. When the defenseless Israelites saw Pharaoh’s pursuing army bearing down on them, they became very frightened and cried out to Moses. Once again God responded quickly and graciously by destroying the entire army without the Hebrews lifting a finger.
God had given the Israelites ample evidence of His power, but did God really love them? In the desert the Hebrews were out of their element. They had grown up in the wealthiest country in the world, with plenty of food and water, even for slaves. In the desert very few things could live. How could this God, who was taking them away from a land of plenty into an area with very little food and water, be good? Whenever things became uncomfortable they yearned for the comforts of Egypt. Bondage with plenty seemed better than freedom with scarcity.
When water or food became scarce they feared for their lives. Driven by this fear, their accusing fingers looked for a target. Invariably Moses, not God, was the object of their scorn. Two reasons may account for this. First, God did not speak to the Israelites directly. Although God had provided the people with many evidences of His personal involvement, not the least of which were the cloud and the pillar of fire that led them, He gave His instructions only to Moses. The Israelites had no way of knowing for sure what God had said to Moses. Perhaps Moses had taken actions not sanctioned by God.
The more important reason, however, for the Israelites blaming Moses was their desire to influence him and thereby to influence God. Being human, Moses was subject to the psychological pressures that can be brought to bear on a person. Either the Israelites dared not approach God directly or they despaired of being heard, so they tried to use guilt to force Moses to use his influence with God to alleviate their suffering. But Moses saw this manipulation for what it was. He was just a servant acting in conformance with God’s instructions. The Israelites’ grievance was with God not Moses, and they had ample evidence that this was so. Clearly, God had ordained the route that took them into the wilderness; inescapably, God had led them into places void of food and water. They grumbled because they did not trust God’s guiding hand.
In spite of the people’s poor attitude, God graciously responded to their suffering. When Moses conveyed their complaints to God, God miraculously supplied their need. Although the Israelites worried about starvation and dehydration, they were never without food and water. But God’s provision was not enough to erase the memories of abundant food and drink in Egypt. And with time, the Israelites began to take the gifts of manna and quail for granted. In their minds, these gifts ceased to be God’s miraculous provision and became just the way things are in the desert.
As time went on, the Israelites’ response to hardship changed. At first they responded with concern and even fear, seemingly too stunned by the hardships themselves to think about the wider implications. Later they began to respond with anger and hostility. They seemed to think their hardships were evidence that either God was abusing them or He was not taking their suffering seriously. Their hostility became so intense that on one occasion Moses feared the people would stone him.
The golden calf incident must be seen in the light of this mistrust of God. The Israelites were scared to death of the desert. Only Moses knew desert ways, and he had gone away for much longer than they had expected; maybe he was gone for good. Furthermore, this God who had adopted them had never provided for them at the level to which they had become accustomed. So, in desperation, they forced Aaron, the only other person who might be able to lead them through the desert, to solicit divine help. The people wanted help; they did not much care which god provided it, just so they were taken care of. Aaron vainly tried (and thought he had succeeded) to curb the people’s rebellion by restoring their commitment to the God of Abraham. Having made the golden calf, he organized a celebration to honor the God he meant it to represent—Yaweh. But God was not fooled; the Israelites were worshipping whatever divine power would provide them with what they needed. The Israelites were willing to follow Yaweh if He were willing to serve them in that way—otherwise they were in the market for a more responsive god.
The issue the Israelites faced is one we all face. They had seen many impressive demonstrations of God’s power. They had seen Him miraculously provide food and water in times of great need. But it was hard to reconcile this with the fact that God had taken them from relative comfort in Egypt and subjected them to great hardship. Could such a God be concerned about their well-being? They could understand God subjecting them to hardship if it served some greater purpose. But how could they know this was the case?
As if to answer this question, Exodus frequently repeats a very significant statement: God freed the Israelites from slavery. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. He had told Abraham that his, Abraham’s, descendants would become a great nation, they would inhabit the land of Canaan, and through them God would bless all the families of the earth. God had informed Abraham of the very noble purpose for which the sons of Israel had been brought into existence. Several centuries later, in the exodus, God was acting to fulfill this promise. Humanly speaking, God did the impossible by freeing the Israelites from enslavement to the most powerful kingdom in the world. The exodus was God’s down payment on the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. If He had freed the Israelites from slavery, surely He would carry through and lead them into possession of the Promised Land. God had moved so mightily, surely nothing could deter Him from keeping His promise. The Israelites could have reasoned, therefore, that any time it appeared that God had abandoned or forgotten them, it must not be so. The glitches and delays must all be part of a bigger complex of purposes that God is determined to fulfill.
In retrospect we can see that God never did abandon the Israelites. He carefully guided them through the desert and constantly looked after them like a shepherd watching His flock. God did bring them into the land He had promised to give them; it took forty years, but He did it. God also led the Israelites to possess the land; this took several hundred years. So God did all that He had promised. But He was in no hurry, because He had other purposes to achieve along the way—purposes beyond the imaginations of the Israelites.
One of those bigger purposes was to create a helpful analogy for us. Just as God had given the Israelites a promise of glory, God has also promised glory to all believers. Just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt as the first step towards fulfillment of His promise to them, God has also freed believers from the slavery of sin as the first step toward fulfilling His promise of eternal glory. When life gets difficult and we feel that God’s long silence must indicate He has abandoned us, we must remember the lesson of the exodus: God is not simple, but He does keep His promises.