Last week, a desperate Hebrew mother gave her child up into the hands of the God of Israel, in order to save him from the gods and government of Egypt.
Now, the gods of Egypt moved quickly to make sure the child fell directly into the hands of the Egyptian government, so that he would be destroyed. But the God of Israel had already made his move years earlier, and so the baby boy was saved instead! — adopted by one of Pharaoh’s daughters, who named him Moses, and brought him up as her own son.
So at the end of last’s week’s episode the score stood at: God of Israel, 1. Gods of Egypt, 0.
Let’s read on now and find out: what happened to Moses?
Well, another part of the bible tells us that Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. In modern terms we would say he went to the University of Egypt, he graduated with high honours, and he became a social influencer in the royal courts.
Until,  one day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.  Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
Hmmm. What exactly was Moses trying to accomplish here?
Well, again, in another part of the bible we are given a little more insight into Moses’ thought process: we are told that when he saw this Hebrew being mistreated by an Egyptian, he went to his defense and avenged him. Because Moses thought his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them.
So, apparently, Moses — powerful in speech and action — did not simply lose his temper, he was striking a self-conscious blow for justice. He knew he had been born Hebrew. He believed the Hebrews were suffering a social injustice. So he believed he was doing the work of God by killing the Egyptian, just like his ancestor Levi had thought 400 years earlier when he murdered an entire city to avenge an attack on his sister.
And it seems Moses believed that word of his avenging action would spread quietly through the Hebrew population, they would recognize him as God’s champion, and they would all rise up together with him in revolution against the evil empire.
So  the next day he went out again, no doubt expecting the men of Israel to drop their work and join him in some kind of Bersih rally. And he did see two Hebrew men drop their work — but only so they could fight each other. So Moses steps forth, the born leader and champion, and he asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”
 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Uh oh. What I did must have become known.”
And by this Moses means: known by the Egyptian authorities.
Obviously there was at least one Hebrew witness to yesterday’s killing: the man he defended and avenged. And clearly that witness has spread the word among the Hebrews, just as Moses hoped. But now the Hebrews are refusing to step up and join him, and the only explanation Moses can think of is that the Egyptians have already heard about this potential uprising, and this must be why the Hebrews are afraid to openly adopt Moses as their revolutionary leader.
And Moses knows that, if the authorities have heard about what he has done, they will recognize it as a political action against the government. He knows that even the fact he is a prince will not save him — actually, it could make matters worse, because treason by a prince is infinitely more heinous than rebellion by slaves.
That is why Moses looked this way and that before acting, and why he hid the body in the sand: he wants to maintain his cover as a loyal son of the royal house of Egypt for as long as possible. He wants to “change the system from the inside”. He wants to save the sons of Israel from slavery while still operating from a position of power and privilege as a son of Egypt.
But God has other plans: he make sure Moses’ fear comes true, he makes sure Pharaoh does hear of it.
And, sure enough,  when Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.
Ooo, wait a moment! This is actually the second time the god-king of Egypt has tried to kill God’s chosen messiah and failed, isn’t it?
I guess if we were keeping score — and we are — it sounds like the score now stands at: God of Israel, 2. Gods of Egypt, 0.
But back to our story: Moses has fled into the land of Midian, which is east of Egypt in the northern part of what is today Saudi Arabia.
However, the location of Midian is not especially important. What is important is the fact that the land of Midian is a wilderness, and the fact that Moses sat down by a well in that wilderness.
Why are these facts important?
Because they are supposed to make us look at each other and say, “Hey, why does all this sound so familiar?”
Isn’t there a story in Genesis about a man who flees eastward into a wilderness to escape from someone who wants to kill him, and after a long journey he arrives at a well? And then something significant happens to him there, what was it? …oh yeah! He meets the woman who will become his wife. That was the story of Jacob and Rachel! And didn’t Isaac, Jacob’s father, also find his wife Rebekah at a well?
This mention of a well in the wilderness might be a literary signal that we have just stumbled into a love story here!
Let’s read on and find out:
 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock.
So, women are showing up in the story. That is promising!
 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
Still the activist and idealist, isn’t he! When Moses sees something that needs fixing, he acts! — nemind the consequences.
And in this, Moses is very much like his ancestor Jacob, isn’t he? Because Jacob also impressed a young woman at a well by performing a mighty physical feat and then going on to water her flock — and that young woman later became his wife.
So let’s keep reading and see if the pattern repeats itself!
 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”
 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
 “…And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Wait, don’t tell me: you ran away giggling and left him sitting there. Are you crazy, girls? Go! Get him! At least invite him to have something to eat.”
So they did. And apparently the meal turned into something more, because  Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.
This has turned into a love story! Just like Jacob, Moses — at the very lowest point of his life — has somehow tripped and fallen face-first into a household full of eligible women, and emerged with a brand-new wife!
What kind of good luck is this?
Well, it’s not good luck. This is God’s work. And God is making a particular point here, the same kind of point he made last week by inspiring Moses’ mother to hide him in a basket in the water. Last week we discovered that, in literary terms, Moses is Noah reborn: that he has been sent by God to repeat what Noah did by saving God’s people through water.
Now we are discovering that Moses is also Jacob reborn. He has been sent by God to repeat what Jacob did: to become the father of a nation.
And, yep, sure enough:
 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”
But now I have to pause and ask: did he say, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”? Or did he really say, “I have been a foreigner in a foreign land”?
And the reason I ask this question is because, when we compare different English translations of this verse, we find that in some translations Moses says, “I have become a foreigner”, while other translations say, “I have been a foreigner.”
And this is important because these two different translations mean two very different things, don’t they!
For instance, if Moses said “I have become a foreigner,” then his son’s name is expressing sadness, a feeling that he is now far away from his family, living in exile here in the wilderness.
But if Moses said, “I have been a foreigner,” then his son’s name is a celebration, a realization that he actually grew up as a foreigner in Egypt, but now — finally — he has found his true family here in the wilderness.
So what did Moses actually say? Why are the translators confused about this?
Here is the answer: in the Hebrew language, Moses’ words can carry both meanings at once. But the English language does not work that way, so translators have to pick one option — though sometimes they will put the other option in a footnote.
Soooo: that is interesting. Is Moses sad or glad? Does he miss Egypt, or is he happy now where he is? Is he in exile here in the wilderness, or has he finally come home?
Here is a question: do we have to choose?
Is it not possible that Moses is experiencing both at once: sadness and celebration?
After all, growing up in Egypt as the adopted son of a princess must have been nice. At the same time, knowing that he had been born into a feared and despised low-class ethnic group must have resulted in some internal tension. Really, Moses had two mothers: the one who birthed him and nursed him, and the other who educated him and raised him up to the royal house. And as he grew up into a man of strong opinions and decisive action, Moses must have known that one day he would have to choose which mother’s people to identify himself with. Is he a prince, or is he a slave? Is he a son of Egypt, or a son of Israel?
And we have already seen that, when the moment came, Moses tried to split the difference: he tried to fight on the side of Israel from his position on the side of Egypt. Moses wanted to save God’s people from slavery while also operating from a position of power and privilege.
But it did not work! And God knew it wouldn’t work. But God let Moses try and fail because he knew that failure would force Moses into a position where he would have to choose one or the other: death in the palaces of Egypt, or life in the wilderness far away from the centers of power.
And God’s actions here seem completely backward to us, don’t they? By the standards of our world, Moses was already optimally placed, as a prince of Egypt, to do mighty works of social justice for God!
But God’s standards are not our standards. It was no part of God’s plan for Moses to redeem God’s people from a position of power and privilege. No: God knew that his chosen messiah would need to descend from his royal throne and be made like those he was destined to save. God knew that if Moses could learn to suffer when he was tempted, then one day he would be able to help those who are being tempted by suffering.
So God drove Moses out into the wilderness, where he was tempted — !
But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves there. Come back next week to hear the bit about the temptation of the messiah in the wilderness.
The point of today’s episode is this: God is testing and preparing his messiah for the great work of redemption to come. He has chosen a champion to save the sons of Israel from the sons of Egypt — but, ironically, his champion is one of the sons of Egypt. So, before God can use this son of Egypt, he needs to restore him back into a son of Israel. This prince needs to become a slave before he will be ready to act as champion.
And we can see from the way Moses has named his son Gershom that he is learning this difficult lesson. By naming his son Gershom — “I have become a foreigner” — Moses is signalling that he has accepted God’s will for his life, even if that means life far away from home and family. At the same time, by naming his son Gershom — “I have been a foreigner” — Moses is also acknowledging that now, by finally submitting to God’s will for his life, he has found a home and a family where he least expected it.
In short: Moses lost everything. But in losing everything…he gained the whole world. Just as his mother did last week, Moses has learned that when a desperate person gives everything away into the hands of God, God gives everything back in unexpected ways.
The point Moses is making here is that he is home! and he is not yet home. He finally has everything he needs, everything he has ever wanted! and yet, somehow, there is more to come.
Moses grew up in the low country, in the plains where the rivers run wide and thick with rich soil, he grew up in the garden land of Egypt! And who would not want to call a place like that “home”? So Moses called Egypt “home” — while at the same time wrestling with a tension that kept telling him he did not quite belong.
Now Moses has been driven out of Egypt’s garden into the wilderness, where the rivers scarcely run at all. He is in the desert of Midian. And who would want to call a place like that “home”? But Moses is calling Midian “home” now — while at the same time wrestling with a tension that keeps telling him that he has not quite arrived yet.
And, by the way, this is not the first time the sons of Israel have experienced this tension of belonging while also not belonging.
Back in the Book of Genesis, more than four hundred years earlier, Joseph arrived in Egypt as a slave. Son of Israel though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and he was eventually promoted to Prime Minister. Like Moses, Joseph was a son of Israel who became a son of Egypt. Like Moses, Joseph married a woman who was not a daughter of Israel. Like Moses, he had sons. And like Moses, he gave them names that express rejoicing as well as sorrow.
He named his oldest son Manasseh, which means “Forgetfulness”. Forgetfulness can be good: God was helping Joseph forget his many years of slavery and imprisonment. But forgetfulness can also be bad: Joseph was also beginning to forget his father’s household and the mountains of his youth. Joseph could feel himself becoming…Egyptianized, drifting slowly away from his primary identity as a son of Israel. And Manasseh’s name reflects this tension.
Then he named his second son Ephraim, which means “Fruitfulness.” And again, fruitfulness is good: Joseph was grateful to God for raising him up, out of slavery and death into new life. But fruitfulness can also be painful: because Joseph was in exile in the garden land of Egypt, forced to raise his sons far away from the mountains where he grew up. This is how he said it when his second son was born: “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” — a tension reflected in Ephraim’s name.
Joseph was a son of Israel’s mountains who became a son of Egypt’s rivers…and he died dreaming of his lost mountain homeland; he died only after he made his family promise to carry his bones back home with them when they went!
So on an even deeper literary level, by naming his son Gershom like this, Moses is highlighting how he is not only Noah reborn and Jacob reborn, he is also Joseph reborn: sent by God to finish the journey Joseph started.
Really, we could say that Moses has been called to reverse the story Joseph started. Moses, this son of Egypt’s rivers, has now been driven out of the Egyptian garden into the wilderness. He is half-way home, and he has discovered a kind of contentment there. But soon he is going to face yet another difficult choice: is he going to go on, through the wilderness, to the mountains on the other side, and finally complete Joseph’s story? Or he going to go back to the garden of Egypt, even though he knows now that it is a counterfeit garden, that there is no true life to be found there?
Come back next week to find out!
Meanwhile, back in Egypt,  during that long period, the king of Egypt died.
Oh. Oops. Isn’t this the same guy who declared war on the God of Israel and on his infant messiah? So it seems that the king who claimed the power of death for himself could not even save himself from death!
God of Israel, 3. Gods of Egypt, 0.
But despite this failure, apparently the policy of the Egyptian government toward Israel did not change. And so the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
One final note here: when it says that God “remembered his covenant” and then “was concerned”, Moses does not mean that God was unconcerned about his people until they cried out, and then went, “Oh! Oh yeah! I forgot I left that little project running down there!”
No. The emphasis here is on the covenant, the promise that God made to Abraham. And when we look back at the details of that covenant in Genesis, we find that God said, “for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and mistreated there.”
The Israelites have been groaning and crying out the whole time. God has been hearing them the whole time. He has been concerned about them the whole time. But he also set a 400-year countdown running from the very beginning of this crisis, and he is bound by covenant to honour that whole time.
So when Moses says that God “remembered his covenant”, this is his way of describing, in human terms, how God purposely bore with great patience the objects of his wrath, prepared for destruction. He gave the Egyptian gods and government 400 years of chances to repent and change their policy toward Israel.
Now that gracious countdown has reached 0, and it is time for God to rise and shake the heavens and the earth so that only what cannot be shaken may remain.
So stand back, everybody!
Now, every week, when we read a passage like this, we like to finish with this question: what does it all mean? What is Moses trying to teach his people by writing this down? And: what does it have to do with us?
Well, so far in Exodus we have noticed that Moses likes to draw literary lines from the past through his present and then project them forward into the future.
For instance, in the opening episode he connected the midwives Shiprah and Puah backwards to Eve, so that — going forward — his people would continue to remember God’s promise that he will save them through childbearing.
In last week’s episode Moses connected his mother’s action backward to the baptism of Noah, so that — going forward — his people could know for sure that God can and will save them through water.
In this episode Moses has connected his own life experiences backward to Jacob and Joseph. Here is the pattern: Jacob was specially blessed by Isaac — then chased into the wilderness. Joseph was specially blessed by Jacob — then sold into slavery in the wilderness (to Midianite merchants, sommore)! Well, last week Moses was specially blessed by God, then this week: chased into the wilderness.
Okay. But what is the bigger point Moses is trying to make by highlighting this pattern?
For one thing, as we noticed last week, Moses wants his people to know for sure that he is God’s messiah. How can they tell? Because his life has followed the same pattern as the messiahs of the past: Noah, Jacob, Joseph. Even the lives of Abraham and Isaac follow this same structure: first comes some kind of anointing, followed by testing in the wilderness.
But even more importantly, Moses is setting a pattern for the future. He wants his people to understand that this pattern is also how they will be able to sort out God’s true messiahs from the false ones. False messiahs will always operate from a position of power. They have not suffered themselves, and they will always promise God’s people an easy way out of suffering. But God’s true messiahs will always know what it means to really suffer: they all pass through a time of testing in the wilderness so that, later, when they are lifted up into their position of power, they know how to help those who are being tempted by suffering.
And Moses was right. This pattern does repeat in the lives of various messiahs throughout the Old Testament. But the clearest one is found in the life of David, who began as a young man powerful in speech and action, was eventually anointed king by Samuel the prophet, only to be driven away into the wilderness where God allowed another evil king to test and prepare him for the kingship to come.
Ultimately, though, we find this pattern perfected in Jesus of Nazareth. Last week we noticed how, like Moses, Jesus was set apart as Messiah from birth, then hunted by an evil king, then raised with his true identity concealed. This week, the pattern has been extended and deepened: like David, Jesus proved to be powerful in speech and action even in his youth. But his true royal destiny was only officially revealed when he was finally anointed king by John the prophet — just in time to be driven away into the wilderness where God allowed an evil king to test and prepare him for the kingship to come.
Moses did not know all the details of how this pattern would play out in Jesus’ life, but this is what he was trying to teach his people here: how to recognize the true and final Messiah when this pattern reveals him.
And so now, when we ask again what does all this have to do with us, the answer is clear: we are supposed to recognize these patterns in Jesus’ life, and follow him as God’s true and final Messiah for all mankind.
So let’s get practical now: what are we supposed to do with this information?
Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, then this is what you should do: study Jesus’ life, compare it with the stories of all the other gods, and discover that Jesus is the only God in history who actually became like you, like me, like us.
Every other god in the world operates from a position of power and privilege. They have not suffered the way we do. Seriously: take a look! Compare the gods of Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, every other faith out there, and you will see the difference between them and Jesus. Even in the ancient myths about how gods came down and took on human form for a while it is obvious that they are harsh and imperious, and even when they try to be kind it is clear they do not really understand what we are going through, they cannot sympathise with the burdens we carry. Even the secular gods of modernism are distant and cruel, they stand far off saying, “You better figure this out, you little bastards, or you’re all going to fry!”
But Jesus is different. He came down from his royal throne in heaven, and became a human being by being born to a human mother. He suffered in every way, just as we do. He experienced the tension of living between the worlds: belonging to one but living in the other, the strain of being home but also not at home, just as we do…the only difference between him and us is that he did it all without sin.
That is your first step: study Jesus’ life and confirm for yourself that there is no other God like him. Then, second step: join him, and come home to a place you have never been before.
Right now you are caught between identities. You were born to be a child of God, a child of the mountains where the rivers run cool and clear, where the trees grow heavy with fruit. But very early in your life Satan lured you down into the plains, down into a garden land beside a river that runs wide and winding, thick with rich soil: a river that promised you prosperity and contentment. Only later did you discover that you cannot actually drink the water of that river without getting sick; only later did you discover that you can bathe in it but it will never make you clean.
And ever since then there has been a longing within you to return to the mountains, to the land of cool valleys and clear waters and fruit. It sits within you like an ancestral memory: this secret knowledge that originally you came from a better country than this.
But against this longing there is a fear that keeps you from leaving the plains: what if that mountain homeland is not real, nothing but a childish dream? Besides, isn’t there a wilderness just beyond the boundaries of this garden land?
And so you cling to the low-country, you remain by the river that is poisoning you even as it pretends to give you life. Like all of us, you want to minimise your suffering, you want to operate as much as possible from a position of power and privilege, you do not want to become a slave or an exile in the wilderness.
Friend, you do not realize that you are already a slave. Just like Moses did, you are clinging onto things you think you cannot live without. In your deepest desires you want to be a beloved child of God, but you also want to be a beloved child of this world. You call this world “home”, but always you are wrestling within yourself against a tension that keeps telling you that you do not quite belong here — and that tension is killing you.
So please, hear Jesus voice when he tells you that “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Groan in your slavery and cry out, and your cry will go up to God. He will hear your groaning. He will remember his covenant with Jesus Christ — his promise to offer redemption to people from every nation, every tribe, every ethnicity. He will look on you and be concerned about you, and he will give you peace.
Do what Moses did: lose everything. Give up your identity as a child of this world, become a child of God, and you will discover that when a desperate person gives everything away into the hands of Jesus Christ, Jesus really does give everything back in unexpected ways. It is counter-intuitive, I know, but the road to freedom really does pass through the valley of death and loss.
It all comes down to this: which one is better, the certainty of being a prince in hell? or the chance of being a beggar among the fruit trees of heaven?
Friend, please take the chance — because really it is not a chance. This promise of peace and freedom in a better country is as certain as God’s covenant, as certain as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I do not want to spoil the story of Exodus for you, but…let me say this at least: there is a mountain waiting for you on the far side of the wilderness. I know you cannot see it from where you are now, down by the poisoned river. But you can see us, can’t you? We Christians have already passed through the waters that mark the eastern boundary of this world’s counterfeit garden. We are already following Jesus Christ into the wilderness — but we are not yet out of sight. So come on! Join us. Follow us as we follow Christ, and you will find, just as Moses did, that it is possible to find a home in the wilderness even before you arrive at your eternal home on the mountain of the Lord.
Now, as for the rest of us who have already passed through the eastern sea with Jesus Christ, what are we to do in response to all this?
Let’s do this: let’s remember that, just like Moses in the wilderness, just like Jesus during his time on earth, we live in tension between the worlds of heaven and earth. And let us embrace the tension. Let us learn to love this wilderness. The New Testament tells us that Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. So let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
In other words, we all want to be princes in Egypt! We all want to operate from positions of power and privilege — for the glory of God, of course! Like Moses, we want to defend and avenge the oppressed people of the world, so that all nations will realize that God is using his Church to rescue them. Like Moses, our motivations are good! — but our method is wrong.
Because that is not how God has chosen to rescue the world. We want to avenge the oppressed, but we do not want to be the oppressed! But God chose to redeem the oppressed by becoming the oppressed, and he expects the same of everyone who claims to follow him.
It’s just as Jesus once said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” He also said this: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the nations lord it over them…Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So, brothers and sisters, when we find ourselves struck down, deprived, driven into the wilderness by the gods and governments of our world, let us remember this truth: it is actually God’s Holy Spirit who drives us into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And let us take comfort from this truth: that our Saviour and brother Jesus Christ was driven there before us, that he was tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.
It is in the wilderness that we first find our new home in Christ, and our new family in each other, this odd collection of foreigners. So let us embrace the tension, and embrace one another. Let us join our Messiah outside the camp, knowing that our story does not end here. Like Jesus, we are being tested and prepared for kingship. Like Jesus, we experience sadness and celebration at the same time. Like Jesus, we are home! and we are still on the way. We finally have everything we need, everything we have ever wanted! and yet, somehow, there is more to come.
Brothers and sisters, every day of our lives we face this difficult choice: are we going to go on, through the wilderness, to the Mountain on the other side? Or are we going to go back to the garden we left, even though we know it is a false garden? Sometimes…I do not know. Sometimes I step forward boldly. Sometimes I lose my nerve and go backward. A lot of times I feel like I am crawling, barely moving at all. And I know it is the same for all of you.
So let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need and temptation.