Trust in the Lord: Exodus and Faith

By S. Kent Brown

Brown, S. Kent, “Trust in the Lord: Exodus and Faith” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 154–163.

Trust in the Lord: Exodus and Faith

S. Kent Brown

 

S. Kent Brown is a professor of ancient scripture and director of ancient studies at Brigham Young University.

Everyone knows that the experience of the Israelites both before and during the Exodus formed a major focus for their faith in God from the age of Moses until our own day. For it was in this series of events that God revealed His mighty arm—and profound mercy—on behalf of an obscure, enslaved people whom He chose and then freed in order to bear His covenant of life and salvation to the nations of the earth. To illustrate, one needs to recall only a few events of the Exodus that serve to underscore this point.

Initially, it is worthwhile observing that, among the recitative formulae which constitute some of the earliest Israelite devotional celebrations, we find a clear, ringing reference to God’s many acts in Egypt standing at the center of the expression of faith.[1] We turn first to an injunction in Deuteronomy chapter 6. Here not only were parents to teach God’s law to their children but, when children asked about the origin of the statutes and judgments given by God, the reply was to run as follows:

We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand:

And the Lord shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes:

And he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers.

And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive. (Deuteronomy 6:21–24)

One next recalls a second recitation, found in Deuteronomy chapter 26, which each Israelite was to utter at the altar when bringing the first fruits of the land as an offering to the Lord.[2]

A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous:

And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage:

And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression:

And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders:

And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5–9)

The last example that I shall cite from a biblical celebration occurred at the important covenant ceremony conducted by Joshua at Shechem shortly before his death. It is recorded that when all the people had “presented themselves before God” (Joshua 24:1), Joshua spoke in the name of the Lord, saying:

Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [Euphrates River] in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods.

And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the flood, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac. . . .

But Jacob and his children went down into Egypt.

I sent Moses also and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt, according to that which I did among them: and afterward I brought you out.

And I brought your fathers out of Egypt: and ye came unto the sea; and the Egyptians pursued after your fathers with chariots and horsemen unto the Red sea. . . .

The Lord . . . brought the sea upon them, and covered them; and your eyes have seen what I have done in Egypt: and ye dwelt in the wilderness a long season. . . .

And ye went over Jordan. . . .

And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.

Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.(Joshua 24:2–7, 11, 13–14)

When we combine these notices of ancient celebration, along with that of the Passover commemoration, we see that Israelite worship was founded on a vivid memory of God’s mighty acts, an inspiration for faith among Israelites that the God of their fathers would continue His merciful care of His people.

It is worth noting further that, by the time of Jeremiah, the Lord was frequently referred to as the Lord “which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 23:7; compare 1 Samuel 14:39; 2 Nephi 25:20). This honorific epithet, applied to Jehovah, serves to highlight His redemptive act of freeing Israel from suffocating bondage. It is thus made plain that, in terms of Jehovah’s dealings with His people, the one act that characterized Him in the minds of ancient Israelites was His engineering their Exodus from Egypt. In fact, so strong was this memory that it became frozen in speech in the form of a most solemn oath: “The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” Interestingly, it is Jeremiah who, quoting the Lord Himself, tells us that the grandeur of the Exodus would be eclipsed only by one other majestic divine act, that of gathering Israel a second time: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers” (Jeremiah 16:14–15; emphasis added).[3]

It is of more than passing importance to observe that when the Old Testament prophets spoke of the future return of Israel from exile, they frequently cast their description as of a second exodus.

One has only to recollect the words of the prophet, Hosea, who says of the returning exiles: “They shall walk after the Lord: he shall roar like a lion: when he shall roar, then the children shall tremble from the west. They shall tremble as a bird out of Egypt, and as a dove out of the land of Assyria: and I will place them in their houses, saith the Lord” (Hosea 11:10–11).

Furthermore, not long afterward, Isaiah foretold an event centuries removed from himself when he declared: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Isaiah 40:3–5).

The mention of the highway into the desert finds a compatible parallel to the path by which the Israelites first escaped to the wilderness from Egypt and then passed to the promised land, crossing both the sea and Jordan River on dry ground (see Jeremiah 44:26–28).

It is important for Latter-day Saints to observe that the Exodus, standing as the primal evidence for faith in God’s kind intentions towards His people, also appears in the Book of Mormon. In a classic passage detailing Nephi’s struggle to bring his unbelieving brothers back to faith and obedience, Nephi quickly and naturally recalled God’s concern and power manifested in the events of the Exodus:

I, Nephi, spake unto them, saying: Do ye believe that our fathers, who were the children of Israel, would have been led away out of the hands of the Egyptians if they had not hearkened unto the words of the Lord?

Yea, do ye suppose that they would have been led out of bondage, if the Lord had not commanded Moses that he should lead them out of bondage?

Now ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne. . . .

Now ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work; and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground.

But ye know that the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, who were the armies of Pharaoh.

And ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness. . . .

And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land. (1 Nephi 17:23–28, 32)

According to his own record, then, Nephi appealed to the Exodus as the most profound evidence that his brothers needed to recall in order to come to trust and obey the Lord, as well as their divinely led father, while the Lord guided them during their own exodus to a promised land apart.

Notwithstanding the enormous emphasis and wide thematic treatment of the Exodus in scripture as a foremost focus of faith, it should also be recognized that the book of Exodus itself reveals an effort made by God to engender within the Israelites an absolutely firm trust in Himself.[4] Let me sketch some essential features of this process.

The idea of Israel’s inclination to doubt was already present in Moses’ interview with Jehovah during his call (see Exodus 3–4). This notion first appeared in Moses’ question about God’s name, for Moses was certain that the Israelites would not believe his announced purpose to deliver them from bondage if he could not repeat a name which the Israelite elders would recognize (see Exodus

3:13). Further, the signs which Moses was to perform—changing his rod to a serpent, making his hand leprous, and changing water to blood (see Exodus 4:1–9)—constituted a second indication of natural Israelite skepticism. And it was this tendency to doubt which the Lord set about to reverse by a series of unusual but orchestrated circumstances.

The book of Exodus, one must understand, makes it clear at the outset that God was in charge of events and that nothing could stay His hand. This becomes plainly visible in the fact that the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) was unable to stem the tide of Israelite male births, no matter how he tried. In the long view, in fact, it did not matter much what Moses or the Israelites or the Egyptians thought or did. The story of this book forms an account of God taking charge of events and bringing them to a conclusion that satisfied Him, even when the costs were high.[5] Let us now turn to the evidence for this observation.

After his return to Egypt, Moses’ first encounter with disbelief did not come in his initial meeting with the Israelite leaders but, remarkably, in his opening clash with Pharaoh. In that scene, narrated in chapter 5, we read that Pharaoh asked, “Who is the Lord [i.e., Jehovah], that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).

Pharaoh believed, it is clear, that he knew all the gods who mattered as far as Egyptian affairs were concerned. And then turning despotic, he decided to crush the Israelite’s unrest by requiring them to gather their own straw.[6] We all remember the response of the Israelites when the proclaimed deliverers, Moses and Aaron, were returning to the Israelite villages after that first disappointing meeting with Pharaoh: “The Lord look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us” (Exodus 5:21).

The upshot of this scenario with Pharaoh and its resulting difficulties for the children of Israel was that even slaves, to obtain freedom, would have to suffer, in the language of Paul, “the loss of all things” (Philippians 3:8). Unbeknownst to the Israelites, they were beginning to be forced by God to rely neither on the now capricious Pharaoh and his foremen nor on their own abilities and resources. Said another way, the mainstays of their secure world, such as it was, had begun to collapse. Instead, God had begun to propel Israel toward a situation in which they would have to rely on Him alone, not upon anything or anyone else.

In answering the now grief-stricken Moses (see Exodus 5:22–23), God quietly assured him and his fellow Israelites that He would surely bring events to their proper end. We notice the series of statements in the first verses of Exodus 6, which all appear in the first person singular:

Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh. . . .

I am the Lord. . . . I appeared unto Abraham. . . .

I have also established my covenant with them. . . .

I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel . . . I have remembered my covenant. . . .

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, . . . and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm. . . .

I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God. . . .

I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage: I am the Lord. (Exodus 6:1–8)

This unusually heavy stress by the Lord on His own actions, both past and future, must have begun to open Moses’ eyes to the important concept that he and his fellow Israelites were to rely totally on God, He being in control of the destiny of succeeding events. As a matter of fact, by means of two signs God soon made it plain to the Israelites that He could effectively differentiate them from the Egyptians and was thus to be trusted fully. First, beginning with the fourth plague, that of the flies (see Exodus 8:20–32), God kept the Israelites safe from the plagues and their deepening consequences by making Goshen into something of an island of safety (see Exodus 8:22; compare 11:7). Second, the plague of death, obviated for Israelites in the Passover, not only was to remind them in a somber manner where their trust was to lie, but was additionally to be commemorated perpetually as a memorial not of death but of their deliverance by God from a circumstance from which He alone had power and mercy to deliver (see Exodus 11–12).

With the passing of the plagues, the Israelites doubtlessly departed Egypt in a spirit of joy and euphoria, happy to be free of Pharaoh’s chains. And at their departure, they hastily prepared provisions for their journey into the desert (see Exodus 12:39). But they could neither have carried much nor did they apparently take many weapons for defense. These two situations, taken in reverse order, led to the next two crises of faith. In the first scene, we see the Israelites encamped at the edge of the sea when suddenly the chariot army of Pharaoh appeared at their rear. Quite rightly, the Israelites feared for their lives and said so in these words: “Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12).

But again God delivered His people by leading them to safety while destroying the Egyptian hosts, thus negating their fearful distrust that He had led them out of bondage only to stand aside while they were slaughtered. When the Israelites miraculously survived this rather difficult circumstance, it should have been signal enough to them that, if they would only ask and have faith, God would succor them.

In the second scene, we find the children of Israel in the wilderness of Shur at a place called Marah, a name which means bitterness (see Exodus 15:22–26). We all know that when people travel in the desert, the most critical necessity for life is water. It is moreover the most burdensome to transport. In the case of the Israelites, by the time they reached Marah, they had spent their water, both for themselves and for their animals, and found themselves in dire need. But the water at Marah was unpotable, and this led to a questioning complaint: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). Once again, the Lord, through Moses His prophet, mercifully demonstrated to the Israelites that He could be trusted. And when the bitter waters were wonderfully healed, the children of Israel would have learned that God would and could also heal them.

It was diminished provisions which brought a further crisis, this time in the wilderness of Sin. In chapter 16 we are told that six weeks after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites had run out of food: “the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2–3).

At this point, of course, there was no turning back out of the desert. God had led them into a place where they would have to depend wholly on Him for their daily needs. And once more the Lord did not abandon them, proving to be trustworthy. Compassionately, the Lord came to their aid and provided them with manna, not for that day only but for the entire period of their stay in the desert (see Exodus 16:1–35).

What I have been leading to is this. Part of the Lord’s program for the Israelites was to force them to come to trust and rely upon Him for all of their needs. This process took place over time, beginning with the first interview of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh and ending several weeks after they had left Egypt. The point of the growing lesson was that the Lord could be trusted and, indeed, had to be trusted. In effect, He left the Israelites without any resource upon which to call except Himself. It is my own view that the Israelites had to be brought to this state of mind and heart to become fully free. Without being able to trust in the Egyptians and now having only the Lord to rely upon, whether in Egypt or in the desert, the Israelites had to bring themselves to trust God more than man. The book of Exodus carries the profound message, then, that the Lord can in fact be trusted; for He alone is perfectly reliable.

 

[1] Gerhard von Rad, in The Problem of the Hexateuch, and Other Essays (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 1–78, argues in an interesting vein that it was these recitations, all spoken on ritual occasions, which formed the skeletal frame of Israelite history. Moreover, this history was written only later by employing this general outline, which highlights events from Genesis to Joshua. Thus, von Rad urged an original hexateuch, a primal history of six books, rather than an initial pentateuch. Though his hypothesis has not received wide support, I am intrigued by his suggestion that it was ceremony—more precisely, what was said during certain important rites—that shaped Israel’s view of its past.

[2] This occasion is also known as Shavuoth, or the Feast of Weeks.

[3] Also Jeremiah 23:7–8, a passage which the Septuagint version places at the end of chapter 23, an observation made by both Wilhelm Rudolph (Jeremia, 3rd ed. [Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1968], 148) and by John Bright (Jeremiah [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965], 144). Bright also believes that the passage originally belongs in chapter 23, and not in 16 (see also Monte S. Nyman, The Words of Jeremiah [Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982], 53–54).

[4] I am indebted in much of what follows to the observations of J. Coert Rylaarsdam, “The Book of Exodus: Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952).

[5] Rylaarsdam, “Book of Exodus,” 857: “Despite Israel’s troubles, the God who is its redeemer always has the initiative.” Compare 853–57, 869; also Karl Friedrich Keil and Franz Julius Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1865), 424–26.

[6] Properly, the Hebrew teven is leavings from threshing (see F. H. Wilhelm Gesenius, Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949], 856; and Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968], 1061–62).