THE BOOK OF EXODUS
June 20, 2021 | Exodus 1:1-22 | John Merchant
The writer of Exodus begins this story by looking backwards, listing the key family names from whom the people are descended and connecting them to the history told in the book of Genesis.
In preparation for learning with others, you might like to do the following:
Read Exodus 1:1-22 and notice anything that puzzles you or speaks to you as important or fresh. The first six words of Exodus 1:1 in the Hebrew are an exact quotation of the first six words in Genesis 46:8.
Now read Genesis 50:22-26. This is an important link in helping us make sense of the events which will be described in the narrative.
Observe the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviours of Pharaoh and the Egyptians which are described in Exodus 1, thinking about where you see similar things in our world today and how people engaging in this type of behaviour justify it to themselves.
Exodus is a story. It should be read as part of a continuing story. It follows on from what had started back in Genesis with God’s purposes for humanity through his creation of the world and creation of the people Israel. The book actually begins with the words ‘and these are the names’ which would be a strange way to start a new tale! Exodus explicitly connects us with what happened in the Garden of Eden, with Abraham, and then with his descendants as we left them in Genesis 50. It is the story of who Israel is as a nation, how they began, and what God is doing in and through them. The exodus story does not end in the last chapter of the book but takes us onward into the rest of the Pentateuch and then the unfolding First Testament of God’s history of promise, until it finds fuller meaning and fulfilment in Jesus and his people.
Exodus is a story of action. These actions reveal the identity and purposes of God and the people who are related to him. This ‘narrative’ frames and gives proper understanding of the other elements within the book. The ‘laws’ which are given as responses to the God they are now connected with and the instructions and significance of the tabernacle which is built must be interpreted by how they fit within the context of this story. They should not be read in isolation from it as stand-alone elements for us to use today. In the action of Exodus we encounter for the first time in the bible key motifs which will develop through its story: for example the words and ideas of ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’, or a song of praise in response to God’s deeds and being. These lay the foundations for our understanding of such things – and this might not quite be what we assume!
Exodus is a carefully constructed story. We can be helped in understanding how its different parts fit together by keeping in mind the structure of the whole book. We might think of the main sections and themes in this way (with some summarising passages):
chapters 1-18 Redemption (Ex 6:2-8; 14:30-31)
chapters 19-24 Covenant (Ex 19:3-8; 24:3-8)
chapters 25-40 Presence (Ex 25:8-9; 40:34)
Interwoven with each of these wonderful realities are ‘complications’ and failures. These must also be appreciated as part of the story. They are also a warning to us and explain why more events must follow. For despite such wonderful redemption we see complaining and fear (chapters 15-17). At the very beginning of the covenant and despite the people’s promises to be faithful we watch corruption and disobedience (32). And after the tabernacle is finally completed to accommodate the promise of access to God’s presence, we are confronted strangely by exclusion from it (40:35). There is a deeper problem still, which in part is answered by the next book, Leviticus, and then most wonderfully in Jesus. And of course, despite all of God’s wonderful acts, most of the newly-freed nation will die in the desert and never enter the land of promise! We are caused to wonder what God is doing, and what will happen next.
Exodus is a united story. Often Christians are tempted to emphasise only one section (e.g. the story of liberation or the importance of the ten commandments); ignore another as largely irrelevant to us (e.g. all the information regarding construction of the tabernacle); or misuse some sections by ignoring where they fit within the history and theology of salvation articulated by the narrative (e.g. applying the laws directly to us without considering their place within the old covenant and our place within the new covenant). But all these sections are necessary to grasp the message of the book, and each must read alongside the other parts to gain a proper understanding. We need the whole story. It is then that its words, correctly handled, become divine communication in Scripture through which we also can come to know and serve God better.
Exodus was not initially our story. We are not ancient Israel. Yet it forms part of God’s story of acting in the world through Israel, and then that true Israelite, Jesus, so that this story does eventually include us. We read it first in its own context, but then in light of what happened next in Jesus, who brings about a greater exodus through his own exodus experiences.
Exodus is therefore also our story. Through reading and reflecting on it together God still speaks to us today! Do you want to know him and relate with him in good ways? Can you help others encounter and understand him, as he calls them into his great story? Then let’s help one another enter into this story, seeing its implications and enacting its applications. God can and will speak to us through his inspired story in Exodus. We trust his Spirit and the community of those walking in step with him to help all of us interpret it well and be guided by Scripture, as we take it to heart and live by it each day. In doing so, we will ‘moved’ ourselves, finding our ‘way out’ of all that limits or diminishes in the bondage of our age into the fullness of life which God in Jesus brings. We will know the God of redemption, covenant, and presence. We are also longing for something better, experiencing God’s liberation, embracing a new lifestyle, and entering a glorious new place. We will be a people who ‘Possess our destiny’.
LONGING FOR SOMETHING BETTER
‘"About half the book (chapters 1-19 and 32-34) is a gripping narrative of an obscure and severely brutalized people who are saved from slavery into a life of freedom. The other half (chapters 20-31 and 35-40) is a meticulous, some think tedious, basic instruction and training in living the saved, free life. The story of salvation is not complete without both halves."
— Eugene H. Peterson, The Invitation: A Simple Guide to the Bible
Beginyour time by starting with prayer. Pray as you would like, or use this prayer below.
Heavenly Father, you offer us a refuge within the trials of life. As we wait in these places, prepare us to see and recognise glimpses of you and what you are doing, even as we long for the full appearance of your goodness in all the earth. Amen
Celebrate The Lord's Supper(You might speak briefly about this meal and what it means for us to share it, praying as you eat and drink together. Otherwise you could use these words read aloud.)
(Invitation)Come to this table, not because you must but because you may,
not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come,
but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ, for we are his Body.
(Distribute the elements so that everyone has them in hand. Then before you eat and drink say)Your death, O Lord, we commemorate.
Your resurrection we confess.
Your final coming we await.
Glory be to you, O Christ.
(Spend a moment in silence, being still in the presence of Jesus or listening to the song above.)
LearnLearning happens best with others where we can discern and apply what God highlights to our lives. Spend some time learning and discerning together using one or more of the questions below as discussion starters:
Is there something from today's readings or teaching where you sensed God speaking to you, or us?
Ask one person to share about a challenge they face in their work in the week ahead, and commission them into this work as a group.
A closing prayer:May the goodness and loving-kindness of our God sustain us in our longing, and transform the desert of our waiting into a garden of fertile hope. Amen
— Some words in this order of service are taken from 'A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk With God' by Rueben P. Job, Norman Shawchuck and John S. Mogabgab.
Watch the above video by The Bible Project which gives an overview of the first half of Exodus.
Read and reflect:
A Baptist Church called ’57 West’ has emerged among rough sleepers, addicts, and vulnerable people within Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England. They include individuals who have been exploited and abused. It is estimated that there are 136,000 people in the UK who are currently being kept in slavery. Read this story of one such man, named ‘Richard’ (as described in The Journal of Baptist Theology):
Richard, became homeless in his early twenties while suffering with poor mental health. He was housed by a well known homeless charity in the North West of England. One day he was called to the charity’s reception and offered a job by a traveller family. In return for labour, Richard would receive money, accommodation and travel. Richard accepted the job and travelled with the family to Germany.
Richard’s work involved paving and tarmacking people’s driveways within Germany, France, and the UK. Richard frequently worked fourteen to eighteen hours each day. Days off were rare. He was barely paid. Accommodation was in a caravan, shared with the large dog of the family.
Sometimes he was fed only a sandwich a day. His health suffered. Although Richard tried to escape, he and his family were threatened. He was told ‘we know where your family live’. He stayed.
The family used Richard’s identification documents many times without his knowledge or permission. Companies were set up in his name in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium. These companies would take out financial loans not to be repaid. Expensive equipment and cars were rented and not always returned. The police arrested Richard in France He was sent to prison for the crimes his captors commit. Having served two years in prison, he was released and it was the first time he was able to get away from his captors in twenty years. Richard returned to Southend and was homeless once more. He started attending 57 West’s Community meal.Eventually he became housed with a homeless charity. He is trying to re-build his life.
Unfortunately, Richard’s case is not an exception. Stories from other rough sleepers share similarities of Richard’s story: treated as slaves, exploited for labour and forced to commit criminal acts for the financial gain of their exploiters. Sometimes these men were sexually and physically assaulted as a means of control and domination by the captors. Exploitation occurred for years and decades at a time.
What similarities and differences do you notice between Richard’s story and that in Exodus 1? What might Exodus 1 say to Richard? What might Exodus 1 say to others in the church 57 West?
An Activity: Personal Histories
The book of Exodus was put together in its final form when the nation of Israel had collapsed and many of its people had been carried into exile under the new superpower who controlled life: Babylon. All the promises and purposes for their nation were now called into question, and the people wondered what future – if any – they had. And of course, they desperately needed to find and know God in all of this. The book of Exodus helped answer these questions and nurture a faith to sustain and direct them. Their history told them who they were; helped explain why these things had happened; and therefore offered hope for the future. The ancient story of their origins gave them understanding vital for the present: of themselves and of their God, as they mapped the story of their corporate life.
We are all shaped by our own personal histories too. To know and reflect deeply upon our own story helps us in our self-understanding, and can be a window into seeing the ways of God with us through our lifetime. Here is a simple activity which can help you do this: Draw a timeline from your birth to the present and list or draw pictures of key events along the timeline.
Include things like births, deaths, or separations in your family (you might include things even before you were born which happened in your family that impacted how you were brought up). Note key moves of location, education, employment, etc. Mark important relationships and friendships which began or ended, and events or circumstances which stand out to you. You could include significant conversations or insights which you know shaped your life. Locate along the line times when God’s presence or absence was especially apparent.
Now that you have your history in front of you, imagine telling this to a friend as the story of your life. You could do this for real with a friend, where you each take a turn at telling and listening.
How does putting these different life-events into a single story help explain who you are now?
What feeling does your life story (or hearing that of your friend) give you?
What thoughts emerge as you reflect upon God as part of your story?
Group questions to discuss:
What questions, surprises, or things of importance from the readings or sermon do you want to discuss with others in your group which will help you act on what you heard?
Imagine you are part of an Israelite family growing up in Egypt at the time described in chapter one of Exodus, but you all live and die before Moses comes on to the scene. In your group describe the thoughts and feelings you might have. Now imagine you are an Israelite parent talking to your children. What might you say to them as you instruct them about how they can live in these circumstances? Consider what might be helpful and unhelpful for them as they watch and listen to you.
This chapter is a story of trauma. How does trauma impact people? Where is such trauma (including intergenerational trauma) seen today, and what impacts does it leave? Reflect on any experiences of this in your own life (or those of your close friends). What steps might help you (or others you know) process this well?
Why does the writer bother to name the midwives? If we call their actions ‘civil disobedience’ in defying a corrupt authority, what hesitations and considerations might we have in following their example? Where might God be calling us to act in our society today in similar ways? What fears might stop us, and how can we learn from the bravery and ingenuity of the midwives?