THE ONLY LIFE they knew was slavery. But now, with Moses as their leader, the people of Israel were preparing to leave for the Promised Land. Plague after plague had brought Egypt to its knees, as Almighty God demonstrated to the Pharaoh that it was time to let His people go. After the seventh plague the king’s advisers had urged him to agree to God’s request: “Do you not yet know,” they said, “that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7). But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t see, so more devastating acts of destruction followed, culminating in the death of the firstborn son in every home, the king’s included.
That was the night when God’s angels of destruction went through the land of Egypt and only spared those houses where the doorway was daubed with the blood of the Passover lamb. For the Israelites had been told about God’s escape plan and had been given strict instructions about finding a lamb, keeping it in the house, then killing it, daubing its blood around the doorway, roasting it, and eating it. They were ordered to stay in their houses that night, nobody must step out of the door. That experience was the origin of the Passover meal that Jews keep to this day, as they remember God’s gracious provision for their ancestors.
Finally Pharaoh gave in. His son and heir dead, and a wail of grief erupting throughout his land, he told the Israelites to leave.
It was midnight when the infant nation of Israel departed and headed for freedom. What a scene that must have been as hundreds of thousands of people gathered their stuff together, herded their animals and their children, and set off en masse by the light of the moon. They followed Moses into the unknown and began their journey.
Slaves are used to being told what to do, and live under strict control and daily discipline. Now they were free, but what did freedom really mean? Where were they going, and how far away was it—this promised land? The sense of adventure would soon wear off to be replaced by anxiety, insecurity and fear. For things were destined to get worse quickly.
Nations which introduce immigration controls soon find that they need workers to do many things that foreign workers used to do. In the UK after Brexit, farmers asked whether British nationals would help them harvest their produce; hoteliers asked whether they would be waiters and kitchen staff; nursing homes needed replacement carers and cleaners.
Egypt was losing hundreds of thousands of slaves: people they hadn’t needed to pay and skilled workers who had been trained over many years for a wide variety of important jobs. So, notwithstanding the remarkable display of divine power as the ten plagues had crippled the nation, Pharaoh had second thoughts about setting them free. He decided to bring them all back, mustered his army and set off in pursuit.
The journey out of Egypt was slow going for the Israelites, who were travelling with animals and children. Pharaoh and his army of charioteers caught up with them quickly. No doubt he meant to frighten them with his show of military might and then herd them like cattle and bring them back to Egypt. So they were trapped.
They had camped by the side of the Red Sea, and behind them were Pharaoh’s forces. It was a time of crisis and at such a time there was only one thing they could do. People who are trapped can easily lose their confidence and fall into despair.
At the time of writing people in many nations across the world are being told to isolate themselves at home whilst their governments and health services wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic. No one knows how long it will last. Concerns are being expressed about the effect this could have upon people’s mental health and their general wellbeing. So, what can be learned about the dilemma that faced this infant nation in their time of crisis?
They were God’s people, and this was His escape plan and, not for the last time as it worked out, He had brought them into a situation where they had to be dependent upon Him. They weren’t very good at that —a bit like some of us—because they had been living in a world that did not recognise Him. Ancient Egypt was crammed full of gods and religion was a huge part of their national life, but the Egyptians had no regard for the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. The ten plagues with which God devastated Egypt were each designed to show His mastery over the supposed gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). Now there was to be another opportunity for the Egyptians, and the Israelites, to learn about the Almighty God of Israel.
The Israelites themselves had little experience of what God can do to achieve His purpose. They had witnessed some of the ten plagues, but had been spared many of them, located as they were in the land of Goshen. The death of the firstborn in each house had not affected them, because they had been saved by the blood of the Passover lambs. In all probability, many of them had not really understood what the Passover was all about, a detail the New Testament discloses when it describes Moses as the only one who really believed what was about to happen (Hebrews 11:28). Now they would learn something that was vital for their spiritual wellbeing, and it was Moses who acted as tutor. The people were terrified and complained that “it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). What Moses said in reply is good counsel for all of God’s people, at any time, when they are facing problems that seem insurmountable:
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace”
The God who created the world can do anything: He is that powerful! Exodus 14 goes on to relate how that night God blocked the path of the Egyptian army, opened a way through the sea and allowed the Israelites to cross dry-shod to the other side. In the morning, when the Egyptian army tried to follow, they were destroyed. It was as simple as that: amazing to us, straightforward for Almighty God. The Israelites were impressed as their spiritual education took a huge leap forward. Years later, an inspired Psalmist would sum up that experience in these words:
He rebuked the Red Sea also, and it dried up; so He led them through the depths, as through the wilderness. He saved them from the hand of him who hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy. The waters covered their enemies; there was not one of them left. Then they believed His words; they sang His praise (Psalm 106:9–12).
This was an event which carries special significance and has been deep-rooted in Israel’s national memory ever since. Well over a thousand years later, the apostle Paul looked back to that remarkable day and explained that this was also meant for our spiritual education: “Now these things became our examples” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
When we are in difficult circumstances, and unsure what the future holds, and perhaps fearful as were the Israelites, we can either despair or we can do as Moses suggested—“Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord”. We can take some time to think about God, to read His inspired Word, to learn about His escape plan for us which is centred in the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and believe that we can be rescued from all those things about which we may be afraid.
God is about to save the world from sin and death by sending His Son—the Lord Jesus Christ—to set up a new world government. It will be an adventure even more startling than the one that faced the Israelites as they left Egypt, and we can be part of it if we want to be and if we learn about the things that really matter—the gracious purpose of God revealed in the Bible. Make it your resolution to spend some time now getting in touch with God.