Text: Exodus 2:11-22
Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand…
Our Scripture passage this week is very interesting but more than a little strange. It’s challenging to know just quite what to do with it. Moses breaks away from his Egyptian family and attempts to assume a leadership role with the Hebrews. But they reject him, and he flees to Midian for forty years of exile. Many pastors have spent a lot of time looking for Moses’ big sin in this story. They have argued for many different “flaws” in the early Moses which we are then told to avoid. But as I studied this passage, I found something very different. There’s a whole lot more going on, and the best guide to understanding it is by seeing what the New Testament has to say.
It might surprise you to hear it, but Moses is actually a picture of faithfulness in this story. In fact, he is a picture of God’s prophetic messenger who is then rejected by a sinful covenant people. He is a sort of picture of Jesus. We can learn important lessons from what Moses gets right, and we can learn important lessons from what Israel gets wrong. Through it all, we should learn more about our deliverance by God’s grace.
Let’s look at the story quickly. Notice that it’s actually quite unified. It covers a number of conflicts. First, Moses makes an internal break with Egypt. “He went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren” (Ex. 2:11). This is his first conflict. He identifies with his people, and he sees that they are being oppressed by the Egyptians.
Then Moses kills the Egyptian. “So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (vs. 12). This was a dramatic action. It was dangerous. He hides the body. What will happen next?
The next day he goes back to see his brethren, but things seem to be worse. They are now fighting with each other! Moses tries to intervene, “Why are you striking your companion?” (vs. 13). But the people are not gracious. They do not follow Moses. Instead, they resent him and say, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (vs. 14). Moses now faces conflict from his own countrymen. They turn against him.
This rejection wounded Moses, but more than that it scared him. It let him know that his secret was out. And sure enough, Pharaoh quickly tries to kill Moses. Thus another conflict arises. Moses has to flee to Midian.
When Moses gets to Midian, he immediately finds more conflict. The shepherds are not allowing the priest’s daughters to draw water from the well. The Midianites are at conflict with themselves. And so Moses, acting consistently with what we know of his character, intervenes again. “Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock” (vs. 17). The priest’s daughters explained it this way, “An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds, and he also drew enough water for us and watered the flock” (vs. 19). Moses has put an end to this conflict, and he is received as a welcome deliverer.
The priest’s name is Reuel, later called Jethro, and he receives Moses with favor and gratitude. Indeed, he dines with Moses and eventually offers one of his daughters to Moses in marriage. Thus Moses has a new family in a new land. When he has a son, the name says it all, “Gershom: for I have been a stranger in a strange land” (vs. 22). Moses has a bit of relief at last, but he is still separated from Israel. He has rest, but it is a rest in exile, in the wilderness for forty years.
Differing Opinions Held About Moses at this Time
As I was reading the commentators, both old and new, on this part of Scripture, I was struck by all of the critical opinions. Most of them want to focus on where Moses got it wrong, how this story is a picture of his sin, and therefore why he had to spend an extra time in the wilderness to learn his lesson. Modern commentaries are the worst on this, but older commentators also tend to do this.
An all-too common interpretation of Moses’ actions is that he was driven by rage and essentially murdered the Egyptian. They say that this was clearly sin, and they argue that the text gives us reason to think so, since Moses looks “this way and that” and then hides the body. Some will pile on and say that Moses was jumping the gun and trying to save Israel too soon, or even that he was trying to save Israel on his own power, without waiting on God to do it for him. One very famous Evangelical pastor said that this shows Moses’ short temper which will later come out in the wilderness.
Well, there’s no other way to say it. That style of reading is entirely wrong. While Moses does lose his cool much later on, at the second “water form the Rock” experience (and he is punished for that), he is normally not short-tempered. Indeed, the Bible says that Moses was the meekest of all men (Numbers 12:3). If anything, we will see a sort of timidity in Moses early on. He was not blowing his top. I also don’t think he was trying to save Israel by his own power, and I don’t think this because of what Stephen says about it in the book of Acts. But we’ll come to that point a little bit later.
A second view goes in exactly the opposite direction. John Calvin argues that Moses was too timid. Calvin interprets the looking around and the hiding the body as cowardice. He argues that Moses was justified in killing the Egyptian, because Moses was God’s chosen deliverer, but then he says that Moses should have done it all proudly and out in the open. Moses should have led a kind of heroic battle right away and trusted the Lord to carry the day. He didn’t, and so we see that he wasn’t ready for the struggle and hardship that the true deliverance would require. He had to be trained further in the Wilderness.
Now, that view might strike you as a little too fanciful. It’s certainly different! But Moses does appear to be timid and afraid when God calls him at the Burning Bush. As we will see when we talk about Exodus 3, Moses tries to get out of his calling a number of times, coming up with excuse after excuse. So Calvin might be on to something. Instead of this being a picture of Moses flying off the handle, it might show us that he’s not aggressive enough. But I don’t think that’s the main point of this story. It’s certainly not what the New Testament picks up on.
The New Testament Interpretation
No, even though our natural instinct is to find Moses’ big sin here, that’s not what the rest of the Bible does with this passage at all. This story comes up at least twice in the New Testament, and in both places Moses is said to be the good guy doing a good thing. In Hebrews 11, we are told that Moses is a picture of faith. He saw a choice between identifying with the evil Egyptians or joining the people of God, and He choose the latter.
By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Heb. 11:24-26)
Now this doesn’t mean that everything was good about Moses, not even in the passage from Exodus 2. But it does mean that we should make a general conclusion that Moses was being faithful here. He chose God’s community over the “passing pleasures of sin,” and he knew that the affliction he would suffer was “the reproach of Christ.” Moses is a picture of the kind of faith we should have today.
In Acts 7, things are explained in more detail. Stephen is preaching, and he says,. “Seeing one of them suffer wrong, Moses defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:24-25). If you know the rest of Stephen’s sermon, you know that the main point is that the covenant people have a long history of rejecting and even fighting against the prophets God sends them. Moses is one character in a line that includes Abraham and David, and the “bad guys” are the faithless Israelites. Stephen concludes his sermon this way, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:51-52).
Far from being in sin for killing the Egyptian, Moses was acting the part of the righteous prophet, and the sin was in the Hebrews’ rejection of Moses at this time! That’s quite a different reading of the story, isn’t it?
If we believe that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture, then we should conclude that Moses is demonstrating faith. He is God’s chosen man at this time, and he was attempting to bring the message of divine deliverance to Israel. “He supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25).
And so being rejected by Israel, Moses goes into the Wilderness and joins with Gentiles. They receive him. And do you know what? That is actually something we see quite a bit of in Scripture. Moses is repeating an activity that Jacob has already done—leaving his family to live in a sort of exile, but managing to marry a distant relative. Later on, David will be forced to live in a state of exile from Saul, and he will even live among the Philistines for a season. The whole people of Israel will live in exile in Babylon, and then in the New Testament, Jesus will do something of the same. Jesus lives in Egypt for a season, but even after He returns to Israel, “He came into His own, but His own received Him not” (John 1:11). The Christian Church will be a sort of final embodiment of this, as the true heart and soul of Israel will move out from one nation into the world.
Indeed, the main punch line might well be the name of Moses’ son, Gershom. That name means stranger or pilgrim, as we are told in Ex. 2:22. And it’s not just Gershom who is a pilgrim. Moses is a stranger living in a strange land, and this will continue to characterize the rest of his life. He is a pilgrim throughout the whole Exodus story. He will spend even more time in the Wilderness. And he will never get to enter the Promised Land. He must walk the whole way by faith, not by sight,
So what do we make of all of this? What does this turning point in Moses’ life mean for us?
Frst I want you to take the time to be as surprised as I was. How come we are tempted to read the Bible so differently than the Bible reads itself? It’s often said by Reformed pastors that the Bible is not just a series of moral examples. We are not supposed to simply want to imitate the characters in it. That’s true. But it’s also true that the Bible is not a series of moral failures and nincompoops who are always getting it wrong until Jesus comes along. That’s absolutely not the point of this story in Moses’ life!
Instead, the Bible is much more interesting and much more complex than either of those approaches. The Bible shows us characters with both strong points and weak points, and it very often shows those characters going through parallel experiences and living out a repeating sequence of events. This is because God is working in a specific way to teach us the story and prepare us for the story of Jesus. Moses is repeating, though not exactly, the experiences of Jacob, and he is foreshadowing the experiences of Israel as a people and the coming messiah many years later. He shows us a picture of Jesus. He shows us God’s deliverer. We see a miraculous birth, early rejection, exile, return, and deliverance.
This passage of Scripture shows us the sovereignty and genius of God’s grace. As we have been saying again and again, God is always in control, and He is always working out His purposes on purpose. He is teaching Moses something through this experience, but He is teaching us something through Moses’ experience.
That means we should also learn to imitate Moses where Moses is good. According to the New Testament, Moses was good in that he saw a choice between faithless riches and faithful affliction. He could have stayed with Egypt and enjoyed the passing pleasures of sin. Instead, he chose to leave that and join God’s people. This is a choice that each of us is constantly faced with. A life of sin is appealing, after all. It feels good. It brings quick rewards. Following Jesus is hard. It brings suffering. It brings self-denial. We can’t have everything that we are hungry for. And it brings rejection from others.
Jesus tells us just how hard it will be:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:19-20)
Moses was persecuted not only by the Egyptians, but also by the Hebrews! And that might also be our experience. We will face rejection by those who are obviously godless, but also from scared and selfish men within the Church. Can we choose God and His righteousness, even at those stakes? We must. It will take faith.
And we ought to learn a lesson from those Hebrews who rejected Moses as well. Let us not be like them. Let us not reject God’s word, nor those messengers who bring His word to us. There is a great sin in this section of Moses’ life after all, but it’s with those stiff-necked Israelites who resist God’s messenger. Let us repent of being like them. Let us not have hard hearts that resist the Lord’s correction. “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.” (Heb. 12:5-6). Let us then not be like those stiff-necked Israelites, even when we go through the experience that Moses went through, being rejected by the people who ought to be God’s people. Instead, let us trust the Lord and see His loving correction.
And through all of this, let us see deliverance, the deliverance from God’s mighty hand. He did it first through Moses, and He has done it now through His Son, Jesus. Even though we look and feel as strangers in a land that is strange to us, we know that we have been delivered by God. Believe that and then be faithful as we continue to go forth living those strange lives.
Let us pray.