Shemot – “Names”

This week’s Parasha is titled “Shemot” which means “Names” and covers Exodus chapter 1 through chapter 6 verse 1.

Exodus shows us how God fulfilled His promise to Abraham by making him very fruitful, how Adonai redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery, and how He provided them with instruction (Torah) for life and worship.

Exodus opens with the names of the tribes that went to Egypt and their number. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all. Interestingly, there are only eleven tribes listed; that’s because Joseph did not enter the land with Jacob since he was already in Egypt. The daughters-in-law, children and grandchildren were not numbered among the seventy; otherwise that number could have been in the hundreds.

After some time, Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died. According to God’s promise, the Jewish people multiplied greatly while in Egypt; from roughly two hundred people to approximately two million which reminds us of God’s command in Genesis to be fruitful and increase in number. One of God’s promises was to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Even though it was four centuries after the promise had been given, God kept His word to Abraham. He always does His work according to His own timetable.

Eventually A new Pharaoh reigned in Egypt. This Pharaoh, however, didn’t view Israel’s fruitfulness as a blessing, but rather as a potential threat. Pharaoh didn’t trouble himself to remember the good things Joseph had done for Egypt, nor did he feel any indebtedness to Joseph’s descendants. Instead, he declared, “Look, the Israelis have become much too numerous for us”. Even though the Israelis had lived in Egypt for four centuries, they had not assimilated into the Egyptian population, but remained distinct. The same holds true today; Adonai will never let the Jewish people disappear.

Pharaoh feared that the Jewish people had become so strong and numerous that they might act as a “fifth column” and join forces with Egypt’s enemies to bring the nation down. So he came up with a plan of oppression.

First he increased their labor quota, and began treating them harshly. Next, he ordered the Jewish midwives to kill all Israeli males being born. When that didn’t work, he ordered his own soldiers to do it – and there was a terrible slaughter. Yet despite his efforts, the people of Israel continued to multiply.

Already in these early chapters of Exodus, we see the real antagonist emerge, whose hostility will become much more pronounced later. The truth of the matter is that this isn’t a battle between Pharaoh and Israel, or even Pharaoh and Moses, but of Pharaoh defying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Pharaoh’s sin was not just enslaving God’s people; the Egyptian king repeatedly places himself in direct opposition to Adonai’s will. In Genesis 12:3 God promised Abraham that whoever blessed the Jewish people would themselves be blessed and whoever attempted to curse the Jewish people would themselves be cursed. Pharaoh’s opposition to God and Israel would inevitably backfire against him and the inhabitants of Egypt. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

In Chapter 4 Moses has an encounter with the Living God, who appeared in the midst of a burning bush. By this time Moses has been working in the wilderness of Midian for his Father-in-Law for 40 years. This bush that was burning, yet not being consumed by the fire, can only be described as a supernatural event. Because Moses had spent so much time in the wilderness, he would have surely ignored something natural. But this bush was so different that it aroused his curiosity and demanded further examination.

When God speaks with Moses from the midst of the bush, He recounts the promises He previously made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In addition He shares with Moses His personal Name; a name whose correct pronunciation has long since been forgotten. Here Adonai demonstrates His desire to have a more personal relationship with His people; revealing Himself more and more, so that Moses and the nation of Israel could eventually come to know Him in a more intimate sense.

This is so important. You see, Israel had been enslaved for almost 400 years, and I’m pretty sure that in all that time some had given up and lost faith in the promises God made to Abraham so long ago. Yet Adonai was concerned, and had already determined to rescue them from their bondage and restore them to Himself.

Adonai commanded Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let Israel go into the wilderness to worship Him. But Moses hesitated because of what he perceived as his own inadequate speech. He was looking at the circumstances rather than looking at God. We find this theme in the New Testament when Peter stepped out of the boat in faith and began walking on water, but then he took his eyes off of Yeshua and began to focus on the waves of the Galilee, and immediately began to sink. It’s easy to be critical of Moses’ reluctance to return to Egypt. But Moses was a man of flesh and blood who experienced human emotions, including fear. The Scriptures are truthful in their portrayal of him as a man with real flaws and weaknesses just like us. If we look deep in our hearts we come to realize that we would have probably acted no differently.

But Adonai had a message for the people of Israel and for Pharaoh, King of Egypt, neither of whom believed the words of Moses. They both needed to understand that the Lord decreed the Israelis to be set free and God’s will is going to be done.

When Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, Pharaoh refuses to let the sons of Israel leave to go worship in the desert for three days. In fact, as a direct result of the request to be allowed to leave, Pharaoh accuses them of laziness, and increases the burden on them by taking away their straw, yet requiring them to maintain the same quota of bricks as before. The Israelis blame Moses, and in turn Moses asks God why He has brought trouble on His people, wondering for what purpose He sent him if He was not going to deliver them. In response the Lord says to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”

In this week’s parasha, there are lessons of faith, lessons of the high cost of a hard and rebellious heart, and examples of the power of the Mighty God that we serve. I submit that one of the biggest lessons to be found in this section of Scripture is that Adonai’s will cannot possibly be thwarted.

Whether or not the nation of Israel believed that Moses was sent by God was unimportant. Adonai was going to free them from bondage anyway. And neither Pharaoh nor the unbelieving Israelis were going to get in His way or stop Him from accomplishing His purpose and will.

Rabbi Paul tells us that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Therefore, the slavery of Israel, the rise of a deliverer, and the struggles with Pharaoh’s obstinate heart that resulted in the miraculous deliverance of the people of God should be an encouragement to us all.

It is comforting to realize that God does not forget us, or the promises He has made to us. He remembers us because it is in His nature to be faithful, and He desires a close personal relationship with us. He truly knows us and can intimately identify with what we endure, whether it be trials, suffering or temptations.

The book of Hebrews tells us that this is the work of Messiah Yeshua. The author writes, “For this reason Yeshua had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Because Yeshua Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted. The God of the Bible is not distant; nor is He unmoved by the cry of the oppressed who believe in Him. He is close to His people, running the universe for their good and for His glory. And now the stage is set. The next act of the drama of Israel’s redemption is about to unfold.