Shemot – “Names”

Our Torah reading this Shabbat bears the same name as the book it introduces: Shemot meaning ‘names’, since it begins with a recitation of the names of Jacob’s 12 sons, who, with their father and their families, had settled in Egypt after being reunited with Joseph. The English name for the book, Exodus, is borrowed from Greek, and means ‘the way out’. It reflects the real, historical, monumental event of Israel leaving Egypt as a free people.

I’m all the more delighted to give some thoughts on the opening chapters of Exodus on this particular Shabbat, Christmas Day, because we are looking at the two greatest redemptive events in all of human history: the rescuing of our Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, and the rescuing of mankind from bondage to sin and death. Moses accomplished the first, Messiah accomplished the last. The parallels are stunning, and evidence of God’s fingerprint on this. I hope to address a few of these.

That generation, including Joseph, all passed away. For a time, we flourished in Egypt. But years later a new king arose (unnamed, and for good reason), one who had no regard for the historical fact that Joseph literally saved Egypt. This pharaoh became paranoid at the increasing Jewish population, and enslaved us, thinking it would reduce our numbers. The opposite happened, and that’s when fear gave way to brutality in the form of attempted genocide.

Pharaoh, now in a panic, issues an infamous edict: all Israeli newborn boys are to be put to death; an atrocity which would be repeated 1,400 years later, and for much the same reasons, by another wicked king named Herod. Pharaoh orders the Jewish midwives to carry out his plan. The midwives, however, courageously defy that order. Consider, that in a book and parasha entitled ‘Names’ we aren’t given the name of the king of Egypt, but the names Shifrah and Puah, are forever memorialized in the Scriptures! What they did is called pikuach nefesh – rescuing human life. Kudos to all who, even today, put themselves in harms way to do that!

Moses is born in this perilous situation, and soon his existence can no longer be concealed. So his mother sets him in a basket on the Nile, committing him into God’s hands. The basket floats right into the presence of Pharaoh’s daughter. In a humorous twist, she unknowingly pays Moses’ own mother to nurse him. Once weaned, Moses is brought to the royal palace and raised there. Talk about flying under the enemy’s radar – one of those marked for death becomes one of the elite!

As an adult, Moses is grieved at the plight of his people. One day he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and strikes the Egyptian down. When Pharaoh learns of it, he wants Moses put to death. Moses is forced to flee Egypt. He arrives in Midian, where he helps the daughters of Jethro, the priest there, and is given Zipporah, as a wife. In complete contrast to his first 40 years as royalty, Moses’ next 40 years are spent shepherding his father-in-law’s flock – a thankless and difficult task in a rugged environment. All the while, our people continued to suffer terribly under Egypt’s taskmasters. But God knew, and his man was now prepared.

In chapter 3 Moses has Jethro’s flock at Mt. Horeb. The word chorev means “dry” or “desolate”. It doesn’t sound promising; yet this place will, from that time on, be known as The Mountain of God. Adonai appears to Moses in a bush – burning yet miraculously unharmed – and directs him to return to Egypt and deliver Israel. Did you ever wonder why a burning bush? Perhaps God was showing Moses (and us) that He identifies with us in our suffering, and the sons of Israel were presently suffering in the furnace of Egypt, yet not consumed. Both Deuteronomy 4 and Jeremiah 11 refer to Egypt as an iron furnace from which Adonai delivered us.

To put it mildly, Moses is reluctant. The entire second half of chapter 3 and most of chapter 4 are an exchange between God and Moses, filled with “What if’s” as Moses searches for some way out of this assignment. But God promises him that Israel will emerge, and the proof of it will be that all together they will return to this very same mountain and worship! He also gave Moses signs to perform, to authenticate his calling to the sons of Israel.

Amidst this exchange, Moses says, “What if they ask ‘What is His name?’ What should I tell them?” And in that moment, God reveals Himself by the ineffable name (the Tetragrammaton), saying “I am who I am. So you are to say to the sons of Israel ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.”

God forewarns Moses that Pharaoh will not comply, except under duress, and that through Pharaoh’s stubbornness, God will pour out signs and wonders on Egypt, and the whole world will learn of it, and come to acknowledge the God of Israel.

God also promises that Israel will leave Egypt with great riches! Moses is still hesitant, so God appoints his brother Aaron to be his spokesman. Moses informs his father-in-law, packs up his family, and begins the journey back to Egypt.

But Moses’ house is not in order. He hasn’t circumcised his son according to the Abrahamic covenant. At a lodging place along the way, God sought to put Moses to death. Skeptics love to take pot shots at this passage. “What kind of God,” they contend, “would call Moses to lead the Israelis out of Egypt, then try to kill him while he’s on his way there?”. It isn’t hard to explain. Evidently, Moses became deathly ill at the lodge, interpreting it to be just judgment from God for violating the Covenant. Remember, Moses himself wrote this! Zipporah, not Moses (who was probably too debilitated), circumcises their son. That apparently was the issue, as Moses recovers, and resumes the journey to Egypt. It is likely that Zipporah took the children and returned to her father at that point, having been upset about the issue of circumcision all along.

Events in Egypt unfold just as God promised. Moses assembles the elders, performs the signs God gave him, they believe him, they go to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh refuses to release them. In fact, the king is so angered at their request that he effectively doubles their workload. Their reaction? They blame Moses!

And so our parasha ends at what appears initially to be abject failure – we’re worse off than before. But God foretold it, and this will set the stage for the showdown, the demonstration of His cosmic power, as plagues will be unleashed on Egypt. And what do we learn of God through this parasha? We learn that He cares about the welfare of His people, and that He keeps His promises.

A few final thoughts:

Israel’s redeemer, Moses, had to flee from Egypt to escape a king who wanted to kill him. Israel’s ultimate Redeemer, Yeshua (with His family) had to flee to Egypt to escape a king who wanted to kill Him. In both cases, they returned once those who sought their lives were gone, and in both cases, God’s great purposes were accomplished.

Moses was rejected at his first offer to help, and treated with contempt. But he later proved to be God’s chosen servant to set us free. Messiah Yeshua was likewise rejected at His first offer to help, and treated with contempt. But when He returns for the second time, the whole world will know that He is the Chosen One of God sent to set us eternally free!

Did you know that Yeshua referred to Himself as “I AM” when challenged by the religious leaders of His day. He is more than a carpenter. He is more than a teacher. He is more than a prophet. He is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is the time to decide where your loyalties lie. At His Second Coming it will be too late. May Adonai give everyone listening to this message the wisdom and courage to make that commitment now – today.