Editor’s Note: This is a little longer than our typical post, around 1400 words, but a lot pack in what is still a considerably short space.
The Exodus story is a story of new birth. Looking at the bare bones of the narrative, this might be a surprising reading, but when you look at the details, everything points in that direction.
The story begins with the Israelites growing in Egypt, having so many children that Pharaoh, concerned that the Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies, enslaves them. When that has no effect on the birth rate, he instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill all of the baby boys. The midwives, who feared God, saved the boys alive, deceiving Pharaoh. After the failure of that plan, Pharaoh then instructs his men to cast the sons of the Hebrews into the river. End scene.
Cut to a young married Levite couple. The wife bears a beautiful son, who is hidden for three months. When she is no longer able to hide him, and seeking to protect her infant son from being cast into the river, the child’s mother places him in an ark of bulrushes laid in the reeds by the river’s bank. Miriam, the infant child’s older sister, watches on as Pharaoh’s daughter discovers her brother. The child is delivered from the water and given the name Moses – ‘Drawn Out’.
Like a number of key biblical stories – not least the stories of Hannah, Ruth, and Mary – this is a story of how the courage of faithful women leads to the birth of the seed who will defeat the serpent. It is the story of the midwives, Jochebed, and Miriam that kicks off the Exodus. It is the story of Hannah that kicks off the story of Samuel and the establishment of the kingdom. It is the story of Mary and Elizabeth that kicks off the story of the gospel. When history seems to have broken down, it is through the courageous faithfulness of these young women that God gets it started again.
Eighty long years pass.
And then the story of new birth appears on a larger level.
God appears to Moses in the burning bush. He declares that he has seen Israel’s affliction, the pains, the sorrows, the groaning. The language is evocative, reminiscent of a woman in labour, struggling to give birth. He sends Moses with a message to Pharaoh: Israel is God’s firstborn son, and Pharaoh must let him go (4:22-23).
If the story of the Exodus began with the burgeoning fruitfulness and multiplication of the Israelites, the story of the plagues is its opposite: a story of the unstoppable and unrelenting spread of death and disease.
In a series of successive blows, the entire land of Egyptians is brought down to death. The Nile, the source of Egypt’s life, turns to blood. The land is filled with the stench of the dead bodies of the frogs. The dust – associated with death and curse – is transformed into lice, which then covers the bodies of man and beast. Swarms of flies then infest and corrupt the Egyptians, attracted to the land as to a rotting carcass. All of the livestock of Egypt die. Moses scatters ashes, again symbolic of death, and they become corrupting boils on the bodies of the Egyptians. Hail strikes all of the crops of Egypt. Locusts consume that which is left. The life-giving light of the sun itself is extinguished over Egypt, as the land is transformed into a tomb.
The great final plague is announced: all of the firstborn of the Egyptians will be killed. It is in the context of this plague that the Passover is instituted. Blood was to be put on the doorposts and lintel of the house, they were to eat the Passover meal, and no one was to leave the house until the morning. At midnight, all of the firstborn sons of Egypt were killed.
In the morning, the Israelites passed through the bloodied doors and left Egypt. At this point, God establishes a new law, setting apart all of the firstborn of their animals and every son that opens the womb. The doors of the house are associated with childbirth elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 18:10; 1 Samuel 1:9; 2 Kings 4:15; 1 Kings 14:6-17); their opening is the occurrence of a new birth. As God brings his firstborn son to birth, he dedicates all of Israel’s firstborn sons to himself, and the firstborn sons of all who seek to destroy them die.
Travelling out from Egypt, God brings the Israelites to the Reed Sea. The waters break and, through a narrow passage, the Israelites emerge blinking into the dawn of a new world of freedom, drawn out from the womb of Egypt. The waters then close over the sons of the Egyptians. As with the birth of Samuel and the news of Jesus’s birth, this event is greeted with rejoicing and song (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55).
Miriam, the one person present who witnessed the events on the banks of the Nile eighty years previously, leads the women in praise. The sons of those who once drowned the sons of Israel in the river have perished in the sea. The baby boy drawn out of the reeds in the water has drawn his people out of the water of the Reed Sea. The rescued infant has helped to deliver a nation from its womb.
God’s great works have quiet beginnings and long gestations. Who could have known that the deliverance of a little Levite infant was the conception that would, eighty years later, lead to the birth of a great nation? Who would have suspected that the courage and faith of a mother and her young daughter would lead to the salvation of their enslaved people and the defeat of their oppressors? Yet this is the way that God works.
In the deliverance of the infant Moses from the waters, God accomplished in embryo the deliverance that would one day include the whole nation. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, the Apostle Paul describes the Israelites as ‘baptized into Moses … in the sea.’ At the Red Sea, the story of Moses – the story of the infant drawn out of the water – became Israel’s story. In the story of Moses – his rescue from the destruction of the waters, his wandering for forty years as a stranger in the wilderness, his meeting with God at Sinai – the destiny of Israel was contained.
And so it is with us. Through pangs far more bitter and a womb much more hostile than that of Egypt – the womb of the grave itself – Christ became the firstborn from the dead. Like the Israelites at the Reed Sea, we are baptized into the one in whom our destiny is found.
As the Israelites, we find ourselves in a womb (Romans 8:18-23). A place of darkness. We find ourselves in a world of increasing pangs and suffering. Like the Israelites, we see the judgment of decay and death around us. However, in the pangs we find assurance of our coming delivery.
The power of life and the power of death lie in God’s hand. Nothing man can do can stop the growth of the life that God is creating. Not even the power of death itself can extinguish it. Even the strength of Egypt, the greatest power of the day, was gradually brought down to the grave as it sought to oppose the new life that God was bringing forth in their midst.
Very little may seem to separate the womb from the tomb. Naked we come from the former and naked we return to the latter. However, as we serve the God who creates from nothing and gives life to the dead, even the tomb can become a womb. Out of the cruellest afflictions can burst forth the irrepressible life of a coming world.
Like any loving father, God had prepared a world for Israel to be born into, a land of milk and honey. We cannot yet see it, but a world is prepared for us too. The dark world of this womb is not worthy to be compared to the world that we will enter as, in the great resurrection from the dead, we follow our firstborn brother, the one in whom our destiny is found, who has opened the way into the new creation.