We were slaves. We had no freedom, no power, no hope. Evil ruled over us, and we were subject to its regime. We groaned and cried out. All around us was a system of injustice and oppression, and there was no way out, or so it seemed.
God heard our cries, God saw our suffering, and in God’s compassion God planned our escape. It was by the blood of a slaughtered lamb that we were delivered from our slavery. God brought us out of slavery, gave us hope and set us on a new path to a promised land. Yet we are not there yet. At times it still feels like we’re in a desert; at times we miss our old slavery – how absurd! But God maintains God’s faithfulness to us, and God teaches us God’s new way of life, until we finally reach God’s land.
This is the Christian life. And this is the story of the book of Exodus.
From Slavery to Freedom
The book of Exodus begins with the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. We’re told that the Egyptians ‘put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour’. This picture mirrors not only the various models of physical oppression still exercised in our modern day, but also the common condition of human moral weakness, what Paul of Tarsus later describes as ‘slavery to sin’. Though some people’s slavery in the modern world is more visible than others, we all in fact are in need of salvation in one way or another. And in Exodus, we see that when the Israelites cry out, God hears.
And so salvation comes to the Egyptians. We all know the story; who could forget the great set-pieces; of plagues of frogs and locusts, of rivers of blood, of walls of water crashing down on Pharaoh? But, significantly, the second-half of the book is not perfect serenity in paradise. God frees the Israelites from slavery, but their journey has only just begun.
After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites must learn God’s law, learn to rely on God’s provision, learn how to live with each other, and learn what happens when they make mistakes. And the same is true for us. After accepting salvation through Jesus, we still have much to learn and it is not going to be easy; it is, as Jesus calls it, a ‘narrow path’.
Trouble Along the Way
Not long after escaping Egypt, the Israelites start complaining that their lives were better before they were free; ‘at least in Egypt we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve!’ Oh, how I sympathise with this complaint! Many times I have lamented the difficulty of this Christian life. Many times I have harboured jealousy of those who can do what they want and live their own way. But of course, my complaint is as foolish as that of the Israelites. Following Jesus is not plain-sailing, but he promises to share our burden, he promises to remain with us, and it is only through his salvation that we can enter the Promised Land.
Pretty soon the Israelites start forgetting what God has done for them, and start worshipping false gods. This again mirrors the modern Christian life. We can all too easily forget God’s gracious salvation, and become distracted by other habits and desires. The Israelites are commanded to regularly celebrate their freedom from slavery, and we too would do well to remind ourselves regularly of our salvation.
The Burning Bush
At the core of this epic parable of the Christian condition is an extraordinary encounter with a burning bush. It is the moment God steps in. It is God’s reaction to the cries of God’s people that changes everything. Without God’s intervention, there would be no Exodus to speak of.
It is a breath-taking scene. Moses’ life has fallen apart. From the heights of Egyptian aristocracy he has fallen to the lowliest of jobs – shepherding. He is a criminal, a broken, self-effacing man, yet it is he that God chooses to use. ‘I have seen the misery of my people’ God declares, and ‘I am concerned about their suffering.’ I am sure Paul had this scene in mind when he wrote that ‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. Here, God not only engineers the escape plan, but speaks God’s timeless, defining statement: ‘I am who I am’.
This is the mind-blowing, history-changing, identity-defining story of the book of Exodus. Do you realise that you too are on this Exodus? You have been saved from slavery, you have had your chains broken, and you have been put on a new path. Let me encourage you to learn God’s way, celebrate God’s salvation, and march towards God’s Promised Land.
Stephen Atkinson was SCM's Faith in Action intern in 2014/15, focusing on food waste issues. You can find his blog here.