I have always had a tendency to see the book of Exodus as both a beautiful story of hope and faithfulness and also one full of troubling scenes that I can’t readily, or easily, reconcile with the God of love and grace I know through Jesus. I suspect that, like many people, I have read past some of the more difficult passages and dismissed them with an understanding that God was steadily revealing himself to Israel and so somehow his mercy and love, while present, were not yet as manifest as his justice and holiness.
This has always bothered me, though, because God is both holy and loving, both judging and merciful. It is in this perfect tension that God’s majesty has been manifest in the person of Jesus Christ as our savior and judge.
But if this has always been true, and it must be given that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then how should we go about reading scenes from Exodus where God seems unmerciful? In particular I am referring to the early chapters of Exodus, where God calls Moses and Aaron to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Let’s take at Exodus 1 to get started.
At the beginning of the book we learn that Joseph’s family, which joined him in Egypt after he had become regent, multiplied and were prosperous. They grew into a numerous people. But for some reason God, who had acted mightily through Joseph and whom Pharaoh had come to fear, became an unknown in Egypt.
Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. (Exodus 1:8 NIV84)
The implication here is that, if Pharaoh did not know Joseph he did not know the Lord either and no longer feared him. Because the new Pharaoh did not fear The Lord he forced the Israelites into slavery. This went on for many years and Exodus recounts the story of Moses’ birth, exile, and calling in the midst of this slavery. Exodus 5 catches up with Moses and Aaron as they confront Pharaoh for the first time and seek to have him free Israel. This is the message God gave Moses and Pharaoh’s response.
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.” (Exodus 5:1, 2 NIV84)
It is clear here that Pharaoh still does not know or fear God and is unwilling to waiver in his cruel enslavement of Israel. In fact, he takes this request as a personal affront and increases his harsh treatment of the Hebrew slaves.
It is at this point that God unveils his plan for what is to come next, and this is the part that has always troubled me a bit.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. (Exodus 7:1-4 NIV84)
At first glance this passage reads for me as a judgment on Egypt as a result of their enslaving Israel. But while they may have deserved this judgment, I have be left wondering where in all of this God’s mercy can be found. And then today I re-read verse 5 and God’s love and grace became so evident to me I’m not sure how I ever missed it before.
And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (Exodus 7:5 NIV84)
In the very act of judging Egypt for their transgressions against God and his people, God was also extending them mercy by revealing himself to the Egyptians as he is revealing himself to Israel. He was giving a people who once knew and feared him an opportunity to do so again.
God’s greatest acts of love and grace come to us when he reveals himself as he has done through Jesus Christ. While he is a holy God who seeks justice, he also loves mercy. And while his judgment comes swiftly to those who turn away from him, we know that this judgment is always just, because it is enacted in the midst of his grace.