If you're curious about God, Exodus is the book for you. More than anywhere else in the Bible—Hebrew Bible or New Testament—we get a real close-up on God. And boy is he an odd duck. Sometimes he seems to be super in touch with human needs and emotions, and other times he just wants to kick us to the curb.
Just Like Us?
We're not quite at the Greeks yet; deities aren't just super-humans with exaggerated personalities and superpowers. But we also aren't at the point in history when God becomes all-present, all-knowing, and universal. Exodus's God is kind of a mixed bag.
Let's take a look at humanish God:
After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. (2:23-25)
Think about that for a second. Go ahead. We'll wait.
If he remembers, doesn't that suggest that he forgets, too? How does that work? Isn't forgetting about the Israelite covenant kind of a violation of his deal with them? What else was God up to that made him forget? Was he too busy shooting pool to think about it?
These seem like basic questions, but the text doesn't really address them. After all, the writers are trying to tell a story that makes God look good. And skating over these issues makes God look better than an in-depth discussion of the plot holes would. That's our job.
Humanish God strikes again when he sees how bad things are getting:
Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings." (3:7)
God is practical and measured: he observes something, empathizes, draws a conclusion, and acts on it. Sounds a lot like a human, right?
I Will Be With You
Having a humanish God has its benefits, that's for sure. When Moses asks how on earth he's going to free the Israelites, God gives him a simple, comforting answer: "I will be with you" (3:12).Thanks, Dad.
When God frees the Israelites, it's almost like an adoption. He says, "I will take you as my people, and I will be your God" (6:7). Remember, the Egyptians already have a god and a guide—Pharaoh. All these gods are trying to hold onto their respective posse. Which makes us wonder: are there just deities floating around, waiting for the right crew to show up?
Apparently, once you adopt a god as your own, you get speaking rights. Yep. Moses, abandoned baby, gets to talk to God, and even change God's mind once or twice (32:11-14). This is a two-way street, and it's a pretty cozy street: "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (33:11). Doesn't get more intimate than that.
If you're going to sit down and have a chat with someone, you've got to be present. And God has a decidedly physical presence in Exodus. He appears to Moses in the burning bush, leads the Israelites by fire, and literally lives in the Tabernacle.
Plus, he has a back (33:23).
"I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (3:6)
When God introduces himself, he often bothers to identify himself as the God of each individual person. He's not just "the God," he's Jacob's God, Isaac's God, and Abraham's God. This implies that he was a different thing for each person, depending on what they needed.
And when Moses and God first meet, God does not say, "What's up, man? I'm your God." Instead, he says, "I'm not your God yet, but I'm applying for the job."
God, in a sense, must continually re-prove himself to each generation. But by the time we get out of Egypt, people's tunes have changed quite a bit. In 32:11, Moses implores "the Lord his God" (italics ours) when he wants something. Keep your eye on these pronouns as you read.
If God has to prove himself to each generation, how does he do it?
It might seem like a simple or a cheap explanation, but really, that's what it comes down to. God doesn't woo anybody with words, proclamations, or documents. Even the Ten Commandments are accompanied by huge displays of supernatural power. So, why does magic have such power in the ancient mind?
If you lived in the ancient world, every natural event was connected to religion. That's just the way people thought about things. Now, we know how thunder and lightning work. We know that weather operates according to certain, semi-predictable models that follow the laws of physics. But think about how much scarier a thunderstorm would have been if you didn't have a good explanation for it. So explain they did—and they turned to religion. Weather, natural disasters, and crop outputs were all accounted for in religious terms. So that's where God has to compete to win followers.
And boy does he compete. In 3:20, God tells Moses that he will free the Israelites by showing Egypt his "wonders." Moses is granted the ability to turn his hand leprous, his staff can become a snake, and he can turn water into blood. And, sure enough, the Israelites only let Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh once the pair has shown off their wizardry skills in 4:31. God needs a shock and awe mission to get what he wants, and Aaron and Moses help him out.
Throughout the exodus, God's magic gets the Israelites out of some sticky situations. And in really cool ways:
- The pillar of Fire (13:21-22)
- The parting of the Red Sea (14:15-19)
- Dropping manna from the sky (16:13-15)
- Ushering water from rocks (17:5-6)
Imagine if you were an ancient, and you saw all this happen. Wouldn't you be wowed, too?
I Am Who I Am
What exactly is this superpowered figure's name? Well, when Moses asks this question, crazy stuff goes down:
Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.'" (3:13-14)
Hmmm. Thanks for clarifying, God.
The Hebrew phrase (a pun on YHWH, the verb "to be") translates as "I Am What I Am," "I Am That I Am," or "I Will Be What I Will Be." It's a nifty way of using this ever-malleable state-of-being verb. Loads of books have been written about this phrase, but we'll keep it brief.
In a nutshell, we're supposed to understand that God is indefinable on any terms but his own. The phrase doesn't actually describe God (tall, dark hair, dreamy eyes, maybe?), it just lets us know that God is all that he does and all that he is for the Israelites.
How does this witty little statement compare with all the other descriptions we get of God? And why doesn't God just say, "Hi, I'm God. Here's what I look like and what I can do"? Is he just trying to put Moses and the Israelites in their place? Tell them it's his way or the highway?
"This is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth." (9:16)
We're going to go with yes.
It's pretty clear that God is trying to prove himself to the Israelites. But he certainly does it in some strange ways. Once in a while, the Bible slaps us with these bizarre, unexplained textual moments that just defy convention: "On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him" (4:24). Um, why would God try to kill Moses or his son?
Want another example? How about the whole manna episode? (Check out the summary of "Chapter 16" for more details.) Essentially, God gives them a manna manual; there are regulations on how much they can take and when they can eat it. If God created man in his image, wouldn't he understand an urge to overeat or store food while you're in the desert?
But no. God loves creating rules that contradict human nature, and he tends to get pretty annoyed when people predictably break those rules. He wants absolute loyalty, and he tests people quite a bit. Is he a tyrant? A sociopath? Or just a totally un-understandable figure?
The confusion continues later in Exodus:
The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (34:6-7)
God wants to be seen as merciful but hardcore at the same time. He wants people to both love him and fear him. Who is he, Machiavelli?
What we have to remember is that God's means and ways are often obscured from the Israelites' (and readers') understanding. God just seems to have a certain way of doing things, and since we can't comprehend it, we're supposed to just accept it.
He's Not Alone
You might hear people say that Exodus represents the first moment of monotheism in a polytheistic world.
Well, people are wrong. It doesn't.
In a nutshell, God is trying to prove himself amidst a vast ancient pantheon of gods—including Pharaoh. Exodus is saying that God is the most powerful god, but it isn't necessarily saying that God is the only god. God himself said it: "On all the gods of Egypt, I will execute judgments" (12:12), and the Israelites agree when they sing, "Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?" (15:11). From the horse's mouth, people.