Deuteronomy 29: 10-15
Once upon a time, a man moved his entire extended family—seventy in all—into Egypt to get away from a famine. That man was Jacob, also known as Israel, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, whose story we heard two weeks ago.
Jacob’s second-youngest son Joseph had, through a series of ups and downs, ended up being the most powerful person in Egypt besides Pharaoh, and his forethought had allowed that land to withstand the famine and provide food to people in other countries. Joseph had secured for his father and family some of the best real estate in Egypt, and they lived there in peace and security even after Jacob and Joseph had both died.
But eventually the march of time brought them to the point where a Pharaoh came to power who didn’t remember Joseph or what he had done to save Egypt from starvation. And that Pharaoh was threatened by the family of Jacob, which had been very fruitful indeed and multiplied well beyond the original seventy. So he did what fearful tyrants often do with foreigners in their borders: he enslaved them, and forced them to work on his grand building projects.
But still they multiplied, so Pharaoh took an even more drastic step. He decided to wipe the Israelites out entirely.
He asked the midwives that attended the Hebrew women’s births to kill any babies that were born male. But they refused, and concocted a story wherein they just plain couldn’t get to the women in time. So Pharaoh ordered that every male Hebrew baby was to be thrown in the Nile.
(This is how you can tell Pharaoh’s fear was making him irrational; if he orders the males of his enslaved population killed at birth, who’s going to work for him down the road when the current workers aren’t able anymore? And where will the next generation of Hebrew slaves come from if there are no men to pass along their DNA?)
Around that time a Hebrew woman named Jochebed had a baby boy. She tried to hide him to keep him from being taken and thrown in the Nile, but eventually he got too big to hide.
Technically she was obeying Pharaoh’s edict when she put the wee fellah in a basket sealed with bitumen and set it afloat in the river. She went on home but left the baby’s big sister, Miriam, to watch over him.
Pharaoh’s adult daughter, whose name we don’t know but whom the rabbis named Batyah, or Daughter of God, heard him crying and brought him out of the water. She decided to take him home and raise him as her own. But since she had not actually borne him herself, how would she feed him, at this time when commercial formula wasn’t invented yet?
Miriam went to her and said, “Could I get one of the Hebrew women to come and nurse him for you?” (This is a pretty common practice when a population is enslaved; enslaved women are called on to nurse their enslavers’ babies, presumably so those women can get back to their normal lives sooner.)
Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, so Miriam went and got Jochebed. Now this Hebrew woman would get paid for nursing her own baby!
And when he was weaned, the boy went to live in the palace. Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses—which is interpreted as a play on the Hebrew verb mashah, “to draw out,” but which in the Egyptian language meant “my son.” Moses grew up as a prince, alongside Pharaoh’s own son, who would one day be king himself; but somehow he never forgot that he belonged to the people descended from Jacob and his twelve sons.
One day he happened to see an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and in his anger at this mistreatment of one of his own people, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried him in a shallow grave in the desert. Soon after that, when Moses tried to intervene when two of them were fighting, he discovered that word had gotten out, so he took it on the lam and ended up in Midian, watching over the sheep of the man who became his father-in-law, Jethro.
Tending the sheep on Mount Sinai, Moses saw an amazing sight: a bush burning but not consumed. And out of the bush, a voice called to Moses. The rabbis speculated that the voice sounded like Moses’ father—a voice of authority, but also of love. And that voice told Moses to pack his things and go back to Egypt, to tell old Pharaoh—actually young Pharaoh by this time, the prince with whom Moses had grown up as a brother—to set Israel free and let them leave for their own land. God, to whom that voice belonged, had heard the people cry out from their enslavement and oppression, and decided to act.
Not surprisingly, Moses didn’t want to go. By this point he had a pretty comfortable life there in Midian, with a wife and a son and a good job. He tried every argument he could think of to talk God out of sending him to Egypt, but God wouldn’t budge. God did concede to letting Moses take his brother Aaron with him for moral support and some help with public speaking.
So Moses went back to Egypt, and soon discovered that simply saying, “Let my people go,” to Pharaoh was not going to do the trick. This Pharaoh might not have been as irrational as his father had been, but he wasn’t stupid; why would he just let his entire labor force just get up and walk out?
It took ten plagues, each one worse than the last, before Pharaoh finally relented—and even after that, he changed his mind and sent the army after them as they approached the Red Sea. But God rescued them, and drowned Pharaoh’s army.
The people camped for awhile at an oasis, then went on into the desert, which they discovered was dry and barren, with very little in the way of food or water. And they complained, and looked back fondly at their enslavement, where they might have been worked to death, but at least they didn’t go hungry or thirsty. So God provided food and water for them, and led them on to Mount Sinai, the place where God had first spoken to Moses.
And there, God made a covenant with the people.
The long version of the covenant begins with the Ten Commandments and continues until there are not just ten, but 613 commandments. But there’s a shorter version, and it appears throughout the Bible. Some people say it’s conditional: God will keep God’s end of the bargain if Israel will do their part by obeying all those commandments and staying away from foreign gods. But that’s too simple—which is why we are going to spend the next few weeks with this covenant, sometimes called the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant, walking all around it and looking at it from a number of angles.
That short version shows up all the way from Exodus to Revelation. We haven’t always held up our end of the deal…but somehow that covenant still stands: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”