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Where the Wild Things Are: Developing a Working Wilderness Theology

Lesson 3 — Moses and Israel | A Nation Birthed in the Wilderness

Last time, it was determined that the God of the wilderness is a God who sees (El Roi) the downtrodden, and hears the cries of the afflicted. This week, these same attributes of God will be on display not just for individuals, but for an entire nation.

The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have grown into a multitude, but they have fallen under the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, King of Egypt. Back in Genesis 12, God made a promise to Abram to make him a great nation, and to gift this nation with the land of Canaan. The time is at hand for this promise to be enacted for the descendants of Abraham.

The God of the wilderness is preparing to move.

Movement 1 — Recruitment of Moses, a Wilderness Rendezvous

Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush. (Exodus 3:1–2 NASB)

A familiar setting with familiar individuals. Here is a descendant of Abraham at the edge of the wilderness who is confronted by the angel of the LORD.

This repetition is certainly not a coincidence for the biblical author. Neither is what the angel of the LORD says to Moses:

I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham… (v. 6)

God is pulling Moses into the promises He made to Abraham. What God promises to Abraham will now be activated under Moses.

The Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. (v. 7–8)

Now, this is fascinating. The first time the angel of the LORD met with someone (Hagar the Egyptian), it was in the wilderness and this individual was fleeing an oppressive context (Sarai’s harsh treatment of her maidservant). The same angel of the LORD is meeting with someone again in the wilderness, but notice that the victim and the oppressor are inverted.

It is Moses and his people who are now being oppressed by an Egyptian! The tables have turned. The name Hagar gave to God in the wilderness, however, still applies in a new scenario. Hagar named God El Roi “the God who sees.” Remember also, God named her son Ishmael (God hears).

And God declares to Moses that He has seen the affliction of the Hebrews and heard their cries. This is a repetition in the narrative the careful bible reader is not supposed to miss. God sees and hears the affliction of Hagar and the Hebrews. This is meant to reveal to us that the God of the wilderness hears and sees all, because He is going to redeem all.

How God goes about this redemption is unique, though. God worked through Hagar in what appeared to be a position of weakness. God will do the same by recruiting Moses.

Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh… Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (Exodus 3:10,12 NASB)

Moses is recruited in the wilderness, by the God of the wilderness in order to bring the people of Abraham into the wilderness for a holy rendezvous.

Wow.

Moses, however, is not enthused:

Then Moses asked God, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what should I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13–14 HCSB)

Last episode Hagar named God based on the attribute she saw displayed by Him. Notice this time Moses wants God to give Himself a name. Why?

Names in the Ancient Near East meant far more than names tend to mean today. Names in this ancient context carried immense meaning. Your name was your attribute. Your name was your destiny. So, when Moses asks God for a name, he is in essence asking God to describe Himself to the people of Abraham. In a sense, Moses is offering God a box in which to place Himself. Moses is aiming to domesticate and describe God in a way that will register with Abraham’s people. What is God’s response to this invitation? It is indicative of a God who initiated creation in the tohuw bohuw of Genesis 1:2. God does exactly what you’d expect the God of the wilderness to do. He gives Himself the wildest and unconfined name imaginable.

YHWH

And YHWH is calling the people of Abraham out to Him, and out to His turf, via Moses His mouthpiece.

…come to the king of Egypt and you will say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ (v.18)

The tension in the narrative will come down to what role the oppressor will play?

Movement 2 — YHWH vs Pharaoh

And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1–2 NASB)

The difference between YHWH and Pharaoh cannot be missed. We have the God of the Wilderness, wild and unconfined. We have Pharaoh, the groomed, manicured King of Egypt. Both believe they are in the seat of authority. One of them is fraudulent, and one of them is authentic. It is no wonder Pharaoh has never heard of YHWH, how could from such a posh vantage point?

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, otherwise He will fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you draw the people away from their work? Get back to your labors!” (Exodus 5:3–4 NASB)

Moses and Aaron try again — notice this time without the name YHWH — and the results are essentially the same. These requests are keeping the Hebrews from their work. This is wildly ironic, since it is the harshness of the work that YHWH has already seen, and the cries of Abraham’s people from the work that the God of the wilderness has heard.

For this reason, God is prepared to move in stupendous fashion.

The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.” (Exodus 7:5 NASB)

Tim Mackie is Pastor of Door of Hope Church in Portland, Professor of Biblical Studies at Western Seminary, and co-creator of the Bible Project. On a recent podcast episode, Mackie offered the following analysis for what God is doing following His statement in Exodus 7:5.

“So begins the famous story of the ten plagues. They all begin with ten acts of God speaking, just like Genesis 1 where there are also ten acts of God speaking … The plagues are a kind of de-creation of Egypt. The vocabulary of the plagues is all hyperlinked to the days of creation … You are supposed to view the ten plagues as God uncreating Egypt.” (Bible Project, Episode 162 — Nov. 4th, 2019)

With each plague, YHWH is furthering His decreation of Egypt. And, each plague is also a labor pain of sorts for the nation of Israel. Throughout all of this, God’s resolve never changes. Pharaoh, however, begins to waver.

Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” (Exodus 8:25 NASB)

Here we have the first concession from the King of Egypt. The Israelites may sacrifice to this God of theirs after all, but it has to happen here in the Kingdom of Egypt. Can the people of a wild God worship Him in a domesticated setting like Egypt? Will a wild God be glorified in such a context? Moses knows the answer:

We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He commands us.” Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away. Make supplication for me.” (vv 27–28)

Pharaoh, so eager to have relief from the plagues agrees to let them go (but not too far) if YHWH will relent from all the signs and wonders. However, the moment God lifts His hand, Pharaoh returns to his previously hardened position. Only a drastic event will prove to be enough with such an oppressor.

It took The Passover — the death of all firstborns in Egypt for Pharaoh to finally allow the Israelites to go.

Movement 3— Israel birthed in the Wilderness

Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea; and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 13:17–18 NASB)

God intentionally leads the Israelites into the wilderness.

There is a small piece of irony in the passage above. God reasons that the Israelites, only recently liberated, do not yet have the stomach for war. And so, God sends them out into the wilderness…in battle position! Why? Because the God of the wilderness, now on his home turf, has one last battle to wage with Pharaoh.

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell the sons of Israel to turn… For Pharaoh will say of the sons of Israel, ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. (Exodus 14:1–2a | 3–4 NASB)

God, using His people in battle position as an enticer, is drawing out Pharaoh. The decreation of Egypt is nearly complete, just as the birth of Israel is nearly complete. One will be destroyed at the same place the other is birthed.

The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. (Exodus 14:19–21 NASB)

Back in the wilderness the angel of the LORD is once again in play, holding back the Egyptians and protecting the people of Abraham. But it isn’t the angel of the LORD that needs to be drawing out attention, but the other setting… The deep!

Do you remember from lesson 1? Three elements in play at once?

1- A wild God

2- The wilderness

3- The Deep

This is where God creates, and this is where MAJOR biblical moments occur.

Here we are again, in the Tohuw bohuw. This is where God originally dwelt prior to creation. Is it an accident that we are back where the Bible began just as one nation is being decreated and another is being born? What occurs next should not surprise the bible reader at all:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and their horsemen.” Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. (Exodus 14:26, 30 NASB)

Israel is born in the tohuw bohuw.

“God is reducing Egypt back to the Tohuw bohuw of Genesis 1:2.” (Mackie, Bible Project)

The God of the wilderness has redeemed a people of His own in the tohuw bohuw. This is the birth narrative of the nation of Israel. Next week, the God of the wilderness will begin to lead Israel through the wilderness, where many tests abound.

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Ty Benbow

Ty Benbow

Doctor of Ministry — Assistant Professor — Biblical Studies Department, Warner University