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Feb 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

February 11, 2018 – Exodus 4:18-31

Return to Egypt

So Moses went back home to Jethro, his father-in-law. “Please let me return to my relatives in Egypt,” Moses said. “I don’t even know if they are still alive.” “Go in peace,” Jethro replied.
Before Moses left Midian, the LORD said to him, “Return to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you have died.”
So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey, and headed back to the land of Egypt. In his hand he carried the staff of God. Exodus 4:18-20

Intro: Two warnings before we jump into this passage:

First, the sequence of events is jumbled
– perhaps the storyteller squeezes all of it together to create an effect
• biblical authors were not restricted to reporting events in linear time
◦ their narrative does not always go “this, then this, then this”
◦ historical cause and effect was not a rule they felt bound to follow
• their concern was to make a point, bring out an insight,
◦ or to reveal, highlight or illustrate a truth
◦ so we are looking for the truth that is the truth revealed in this passage

Second, embedded in this passage is perhaps the most confusing story in the Bible
– that’s all I’ll say about it for now
– at any rate, God is greater than the stories in scripture can communicate
• I love the stories, but they are here to get us to God
• if we get stuck in the story, we are not allowing it to do its job

Going through these verses will be like turning pages in a photo album
– we thumb through six photographs and each one tells a story
• Moses appears in each of them with someone else
• five of these encounters are positive, only one is negative

18 The first positive encounter: Moses and his father-in-law

Moses wanted Jethro’s permission to return to Egypt
– the reason he gives is to see if any of his people are still alive
• however, he said nothing about the burning bush, and we do not know why not
• I have thoughts about that, but none of them are worth our time
– Jethro gave Moses his blessing, Go in peace
• this peace (shalom) refers specifically to what existed between them
• it did not guarantee a peaceful journey or what he’d find when he reached his destination

19-20 The second positive encounter: Moses and Yahweh

This is a footnote to catch us up on local Egyptian news
– the message was intended to give Moses reassurance
• he had not left Egypt on the best of terms
• God let him know he did not have to worry re: prior issues
– so now Moses has everything packed
• with his staff in his hand and his sons in their donkey seats, they hit the road
◦ only now the staff he carried is referred to as the staff of God
◦ it’s still a stick, but now it belongs to God
• when Jacob was old, and blessing is twelve sons, we’re told he leaned on his staff (He. 11:21)
◦ I think that’s what the staff was for Moses
◦ something to lean on, something to prop him up
(or prop up his faith and confidence)

21-23 The third positive encounter: Moses and Yahweh

It looks like storyteller is taking us back to their conversation at Sinai
– only here there are details God had not mentioned before
• we have the same instructions regarding the miracles,
◦ but now with a new twist
◦ God was going to strengthen Pharaoh’s heart
• God also adds an explanation about Israel being his firstborn son
◦ God sets this out in clear terms Pharaoh can understand
– but the question is, why mention this now and not before?
• why does the storyteller wait until this moment to tell us?
• what is its relevance to what is happening here?

24-26 The negative encounter: Moses and Yahweh (and Zippy)

This encounter is the centerpiece of the entire section of scripture
– it stands out as the only negative encounter–and it is radically negative
• the scene is abrupt and it takes us off guard
◦ it reads like an emergency – the countdown is underway, but then the mission is aborted
◦ in quick, brief movements, Moses’ life is threatened, an immediate surgery is performed, and next the whole ordeal is over
• this is disturbing, because God seems erratic, capricious and arbitrary
◦ and it totally contradicts all that has gone before
◦ we have to assume there’s a backstory
– because it is brief, intense and confusing, we can read all kinds of things into it
• we fee like we need to add details to fill in the gaps
• we have to be careful and hold our speculations loosely

It has been pointed out, that this episode is similar to folk stories
– the hero is given a challenge and sent on a mission
• but on the way, he or she runs into opposition
◦ the hero must be proven by overcoming an obstacle
• the ordeal frequently comes at a border crossing
◦ for example, Jacob when returning home (Ge. 32:22-32)
or Jesus in the wilderness, between his baptism and beginning his ministry
◦ the ordeal generally serves as a rite-of-passage
– some of my assumptions regarding the backstory:
• Moses knew his son should have been circumcised (we’ll see why)
• Zipporah was opposed to circumcising their son
◦ circumcision was fairly common in Egypt, but not elsewhere
• although they disagreed, Moses had deferred to his wife
• Zipporah performed the procedure, but was upset about it

Stories are sometimes diagrammed by identifying:

1a. A Sender (who sets a person on a mission)
1b. An Object (hero)
1c. A Receiver (the person who benefits from the hero’s mission)
2a A Subject (i.e., the hero is Subject)
2b. A Helper (who assists the hero)
2c. An Opponent (who attempts to block the hero)
So the shocking thing about this story is the fact that God is not only Moses Sender and Helper, but also his Opponent. How is it God can have that long conversation with Moses, answering his objections and insisting that he was the one to lead Israel out of Egypt, then when Moses is on his way to Egypt to fulfill his mission, God decides to kill him?

– why does this issue become a matter of life and death at this stage of the story?
• why would God threaten to kill Moses?
• How can God be both for Moses and against him?
◦ how could Israel ever feel safe with such a God?

The issue appears to be linked to what we have just read about God’s firstborn son
– verse 20 speaks of “sons” (plural), but only one son (singular) is circumcised
• Moses was on his way to Egypt as the representative of God and God’s firstborn son
◦ what defined Israel, was God’s covenant with Abraham
◦ that covenant was sealed with circumcision
• in some way Moses disqualified himself by his neglect of his son’s circumcision
◦ he was a poor representative
– later on, by another act, Moses will disqualify himself from entering the land

Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them! (Nu. 20:12)

• God’s will for a person’s life does not run in a straight line
◦ it’s more like a chess game where Moses made a move and God countered it, “check”
◦ before moving again, Moses learned something from God’s counter move
• this is how the hero moves forward with God

27-28 The fourth positive encounter: Moses and Aaron

It is not clear if this encounter took place because
– Moses had to pass Sinai again on his way back to Egypt
– or if the storyteller is backtracking to an earlier time (cf. Ex. 4:14)
• the embrace they share immediately renews their brotherly bond
• now that the team has been formed, they are ready to proceed

29-31 The fifth positive encounter: Moses, Aaron and elders

The initial response is very encouraging
– and that is a good place to leave them for now

Conclusion: As I said earlier, Jesus’ temptations could be considered his ordeal

However, before going into the wilderness, Jesus did something that made no sense
– in fact, John the Baptist thought what Jesus did was wrong

But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you, so why are you coming to me?” (Mt. 3:14)

• Jesus’ answer was, in effect, “It is appropriate for us to fulfill all righteousness”
• John and Jesus came to proclaim the way of righteousness
◦ if they were going to proclaim it, they had to live it
– circumcision and baptism were rituals of identification
• Moses’ identification with Abraham and his descendants
• Jesus’ identification with all of humankind
◦ Jesus did not need John’s baptism (Mk. 1:4, Jesus had no sin)
◦ he was baptized as act of identification with all those he came to make righteous

For the last few days, I’ve been taking my Christianity very seriously
– on Friday I attended a funeral for the son of a friend – I love them both
• a video montage was played of the son’s life
• driving away, I wondered,

“When the time comes and my video rolls, what story will be told? What does my life amount to?”

– coming up close to death can force us to get serious about God

As the wise man said,
Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies–so the living should take this to heart. (Ecc. 7:2)

Helmut Thielicke, “God can encounter us in terror—at least we take him seriously and come to terms with him: if we experienced from him only good … as we know it, if he acted human in our mind then we would be snugly close and there would be no fear from him. But is this the way he deals with us?”

• this quote may sound disturbing
◦ but God is less concerned with how well we understand his ways than how we feel about them
◦ many times he says, “Don’t be afraid” — rarely does he say, “Don’t be stupid”

Somehow, some way God will qualify us.
He will reduce us to what matters most.
as he did with Abraham (Ge. 22:1-2) and Paul (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
God wants to know the answer to a question–
or perhaps more accurately, he wants us to know the answer.
The question he puts to us is the one Jesus put to Peter:
Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? (Jn. 21:15)
Jesus asks, and then he helps us find the answer


Leave a comment
  1. Bill Livingston / Feb 17 2018

    The ultimate question. Bill, do you love me more than these? Not as easy to answer as it seems when we ponder what some of “these” are.

  2. Chuck Smith, Jr. / Feb 21 2018

    Yes, Bill. That is exactly the point at which his question turns into a serious challenge.

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