January 8, 2022 - Moses

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Today we’re going to talk about Moses. At the end of Deuteronomy, we are told, “There has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like unto Moses.” Jesus says that John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived as of the 1st century AD. But the Biblical writer here (whenever this line was written) says that no other prophet has ever come along that was equal to Moses up till then. (Does that include Isaiah, Jeremiah, or even Elijah? We’re not sure.)


But how does Moses qualify to become the greatest prophet who ever lived? Moses has several strikes against him. He starts out by murdering a mean taskmaster. Later on, Moses loses out on seeing the Promised Land by losing his temper. Yet Moses can’t stand up to his own brother and sister because it says he was “the meekest man in all the earth.” Moses himself says he is “slow of speech and of tongue.” And Moses himself plainly doesn’t want the job.


How can God choose this man to be a prophet of God’s people? Is this the best qualified man for the job that God can find on Zip Recruiter? How can God destine Moses to be the greatest prophet of OT times? Let’s take a look at what we know about Moses.


Moses was the last-born of 3 named children in his family. He is the son of a Hebrew slave named Amram (from the tribe of Levi) and his aunt Jochebed, a marriage of an aunt and a nephew, a marriage later forbidden by the Law of Moses. Moses’ parents try to hide Moses, because all baby boys have been condemned to be cast into the Nile. In a last-ditch desperate attempt to dodge Pharaoh’s decree, Moses’ mom puts him in a basket and hides him in the reeds along the river, where he is found by one of Pharaoh’s daughters, who adopts Moses as her own son and names him Moshe, after the fact that she “drew him out” of the water (mashah). Someday, Moshe (“the one who draws out”) will draw his people out of Egypt!


In Moses’ new family, one of his brothers will be the future Pharaoh who will refuse to let the Hebrew people go. But which Pharaoh are we talking about? It’s both amazing and hilarious that, while the Bible preserves the names of the 2 Hebrew midwives who let the Hebrew boys live, the Bible never tells us the name of the Pharaoh, either the Pharaoh when Moses was born, or the Pharaoh during the Exodus. Their names have been permanently blotted out of our memory. The best we can do is guess. While 1 Kings 6:1 points to an Exodus around 1445 BC, other details in the Bible point to the reign of Ramses II. We don’t need to know!


According to Egyptian writings, Moses would not have been the only foreigner in the royal household. Here in the house of Pharaoh, Moses would have learned Egyptian. He also would have learned to write his own language, the same language we find in letters between Canaan and Egypt from Moses’ day called the Amarna Letters. These letters were written in cuneiform. So Moses did know how to write. Also, in Moses’ day, a new alphabet had just been invented, which would become the Hebrew writing system.


Moses’ status in the royal family quickly goes out the window, however, when Moses kills an Egyptian boss for beating a Hebrew slave. The Bible says he “looked this way and that way,” but he forgot to look up. Moses cannot hide, he can only run. And how can God ever use Moses now, if Moses ever wanted God to use him? No sacrifice can take away the sin of murder.


Moses flees into exile, where he becomes a nobody for 40 years in the desert. In that time, Moses gets a job as a shepherd, and he gets a wife and a Midianite priest as a father-in-law. But life will never be the same for Moses after the day he hears the voice of God speaking to him out of a burning bush. Moses sees nothing, but Moses hides his face because (with good reason) he is afraid to look at God. Later, God reminds Moses, “You cannot see me and live.”


God commands Moses to go back to Egypt to Pharaoh and bring God’s people out of Egypt. Moses asks, “What name do I give them when they want to know who sent me?” God says, “I am who I am. Tell them, I Am sent you!” Here God reveals his sacred name, Yahweh (mispronounced “Jehovah”), which is tied to an ancient form of the Hebrew verb “he is.” Yahweh or Jehovah is the same God also known as Elohim. (For more on that, see my post on our websites called “Is Elohim Jehovah, or a Pantheon?”


Moses makes excuses why he cannot be God’s prophet. He says, “I am slow of speech and of tongue.” God says, “Who do you think made the human mouth?” Finally, Moses simply says, “Please, my Lord, send someone else!” And God says, “OK, I’ll let your brother Aaron do the talking! Just go!” Clearly, this man has no desire to be a leader of God’s people; he just wants to be left alone. Why God wants Moses to do the job, who knows?


So Moses goes back to Egypt. (40 years later, it’s safe to come back now.) And God gives Moses signs to back him up in his claim that God has sent Moses to set God’s people free. Moses is the only prophet other than Elijah who does miracles. Not even John the Baptist does – the people say “John did no miracle, but everything John said about this man was true.” Where would Moses have been, without the mighty signs God did to back him up?


Moses goes to Pharaoh and lays down God’s command: “Let my people go.” It’s not that easy! Pharaoh not only says no, Pharaoh makes their job worse. “You guys are lazy! You have too much time on your hands. OK, no more straw for bricks! Go find your own straw. But you’d better produce the same quota of bricks as before.” The leaders come back and tell Moses, “You’ve made us stink before Pharaoh! You’ve put a sword in his hand to kill us.” And Moses asks God, “Why’d you ever send me here? You’ve made their suffering worse, and you haven’t delivered your people at all.” Evil fights back! Sometimes, when we set out to correct injustice, the problem gets worse before it gets better.


But then God kicks into high gear and delivers 10 plagues designed to get Pharaoh to cry Uncle. Yet the Bible says that God uses these plagues to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Perhaps we would say that God brought out Pharaoh’s stubbornness. God never hardens the heart of an unwilling victim. Perhaps we might say that God brings out the hardness that’s already there. The harder Pharaoh’s heart gets, the more we see God’s power displayed.


Finally, the tenth plague makes Pharaoh cry Uncle: the angel of death passes over the Israelites, but slays the firstborn of every family in Egypt. Pharaoh finally lets Israel go free, but as soon as they’re gone, Pharaoh changes his mind and says, “What have we done, letting Israel go free?” So Pharaoh takes his army and chases Israel and catches them at the Red Sea. Israel panics and cries, “Was it because there are no graves in Egypt (are they kidding?) that you brought us out here to die? We would have been better off serving the Egyptians!”


But Moses says, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord! The Lord will fight for you, and all you have to do is stand still.” Then God pushes back the water by a strong east wind all night. Israel is able to cross, but when Egypt tries to pursue them, God brings the waters back on top of the Egyptians, who drown in the sea. Talk about a mighty act of God! The Passover and the Red Sea, combined, become the 2 mighty acts of God on which Israel’s faith is based.


You’d think Israel would never forget what God has done for them. It only takes 1 month for them to forget. In Exodus 16, Israel cries, “Would that we had died back in Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full! You’ve brought us out here to kill us all with hunger.” Soon it happens again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us with thirst?” They’re not just asking “What shall we eat (or drink)?” (That would be a fair question.) They accuse God of trying to kill them. Moses gets a front row seat to see God amazingly provide for those needs: manna from heaven, quail, water from the rock. Even these miracles get forgotten as Israel hungers and thirsts again later on.


Soon the people become too dependent on Moses. When his father-in-law Jethro meets up with Moses to celebrate God’s victory in Egypt, Jethro finds that the people have to stand in line all day to get answers from God. The problem is that most of these are questions that God has already answered. They don’t need to ask God in cases where God has already spoken. So Jethro gives God’s prophet some advice: pick some qualified leaders who fear God, who are dependable and not greedy. Teach them what God has already spoken, and put them in charge of settling cases where you’re not needed. Any case that God has not already settled, let them bring it to you, but otherwise, there’s no need to consult God on cases where God has already spoken.


While Israel’s journey with Moses through the desert itself becomes a major part of God’s word, and many times Moses serves as the prime channel for God’s word to Israel in their journey, Moses becomes a major source of revelation for us when God issues his Law on Mount Sinai. Such a monumental collection of authoritative teaching requires a prophet to deliver it.


God had never revealed his Law to any other nation before. Many of the principles of God’s Law have been written on people’s hearts, but here at Mount Sinai, God spells them out in writing, plus God adds some commands that are only for Israel that are not timeless and universal. How do we know which parts of God’s Law are just for Israel, and which parts are timeless and universal? I’ve written a whole book on that subject called What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? Find out more at www.biblicalethic.org.


The centerpiece of God’s Law is the 10 Commandments. All Israel gets to hear these 10 commands straight from God, as God speaks in fire, smoke, and thunder from the top of Mount Sinai. 40 years later, Moses reminds the next generation that they saw no human form when God appeared that day, they only heard a voice. (So don’t make God in the form of a man!) God’s appearance is so frightening that the people tell Moses, “You talk to God, and we’ll do what God says. But let not God speak with us, lest we die!” But Moses says, “Fear not, for God has come to prove you, and so that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.”


So Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments on tablets from God, and to receive the rest of God’s laws. In Exodus 21-23, God gives Moses some specifics on how to love God and our neighbor, tailored to the life of ancient Israel. They read like a collection of constitutional law. (We’ll talk about them next week.) God also gives Moses a blueprint for how to build the Tabernacle, and laws for how the priests are to do their jobs. All of this is part of the covenant or agreement that God makes with Israel if they are to be God’s people.


When Moses gets down from the mountain, he finds that Israel has already broken this covenant as badly as they can break it. They’ve made an image of God that looks like a golden calf. They’ve fallen down and worshipped it, and now they’re throwing a wild party that makes Israel an embarrassment in the eyes of their enemies.


Moses throws down the tablets and breaks them. He burns the calf, spreads it into their drinking water, and makes the people drink it. Then Moses asks Aaron, “What did these people DO to you, that you’ve brought so great a sin on them?” Aaron says, “You know how hard to please this crowd is! They gave me gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 3000 people die that day because of Israel’s idolatry, by plague and by the sword of punishment.


It’s not just the golden calf. God gives Israel a law they were never able to obey, a covenant they can’t keep. Eventually, God says in Jeremiah 31 that he’ll give them a new covenant. Jesus calls it the “new covenant in my blood.” God saves us, not because of how well we have kept God’s Law, but by grace alone, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ.


So why does God give us his Law, then? It’s like what happens when boy meets girl and they fall in love. Both parties want to know what pleases the other: what makes them happy, what makes them sad? It’s the same with us and God. Christ has taken away all of our sin. We want to live in gratitude for what Christ has done. So what pleases God? What grieves the heart of God? God’s Law tells us what we could not have figured out on our own. We can be truly thankful for the treasure full of vital revelation God gives us through the prophet Moses.


When Israel worships the golden calf, God is ready to disown them, but Moses pleads with God not to do so, and when God agrees not to, Moses asks God for a huge favor: “Show me thy glory.” Now, God makes it clear right in this passage that no one can see God without experiencing meltdown. Part of the problem is that God does not have a physical body like ours. (We talked about this in our program “Does God Have a Bod?” on 3-28-21.) Here, God gives Moses just a glimpse of his glory, not at full strength (which is what God seems to mean by his “face”), but just a shadow of it (which is what God apparently means by his “back”). According to Revelation 22, only in heaven will we see God’s face, the glory we can’t handle on this earth.


After the people leave Mount Sinai, God’s prophet Moses endures one rebellion after another. The worst is in Numbers 13-14, where Israel refuses to enter the Promised Land and starts planning to go back to Egypt. At first, God threatens to destroy the whole nation and make Moses into a great nation instead. But God’s prophet intervenes, and urges God not to do so. God accepts Moses’ plea, and God decrees instead that the whole nation shall wander for 38 years in the wilderness until they die, all but the 2 spies, Joshua and Caleb.


Sometimes there were leadership struggles. In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses for marrying an unnamed African woman (we don’t know if he sent his first wife away or if she died, but we have no evidence that Moses is practicing polygamy here). Aaron and Miriam say, “Has the Lord indeed only spoken by Moses? Has he not also spoken by us?” Here is where we are told that Moses was “very meek,” more than anyone on earth. Moses can’t stand up for himself. But God steps in and defends Moses. God has no problem with Moses’ interracial marriage (he doesn’t decree “death on the spot” for it). In defense of Moses, God says he speaks to all other prophets through dreams and visions. Not so with Moses: “with him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speeches. Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And God strikes Miriam with leprosy until she learns her lesson.


In Numbers 16, we have another rebellion: 250 princes, led by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, claim that the whole congregation is holy, not just Moses and Aaron. Moses declares that if the earth swallows up the tents of these 3 men, then they will know which side has provoked the Lord. Immediately, a sinkhole opens up and buries them alive (it’s an area with many mudflats that cave in), and fire falls from the Lord to consume the others in the rebellion.


There’s a lot more to be told in the history of Moses. But we just can’t miss how God uses Moses greatly, more than any other prophet, and how unqualified Moses is to be that prophet. Why does God choose him, out of all the people God could have chosen? How could God choose a murderer, a guy with a temper (and yet the meekest man in all the earth), a guy who was tongue-tied and did not want the job? Because God alone gets the glory in this case. Without the signs God did, Moses had very little else to recommend him. How do we know that this was God speaking through Moses? We know because the words he speaks come true.


Moses dies on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan. Moses sees the Promised Land, but because of his outburst of temper when he lost patience with God, Moses himself was unable to go there. It says that God buried Moses, but nobody knows where. Later on, Moses reappears with Elijah at the transfiguration of Jesus. Since Jesus will be the first to be resurrected with a new indestructible body, Moses and Elijah have not yet been resurrected when they appear here.


We need to take a closer look at the Law God gave to Moses. There is so much revelation here that we can’t do without. Even those laws that are just for Israel have so much to teach us. Next time, we’ll take a look at some lesser known laws of Moses, followed over the next 10 weeks by a look at all 10 Commandments. Join us for this series on Biblical Words and World!