Right at the beginning of the biblical book of Exodus an Egyptian boss locks a yoke of slavery onto Israelite necks and shoulders. The nation chosen to be God’s people is back-bent under forced labor.
In response to tyranny designed to break and undo them, Israel grows and multiplies, bringing consternation to the heart of a tyrant, and leading him to intensify his oppression.
Moses, future liberator of these slaves, shows up, if babies show up, at a time when national law requires every male child born of Israelite women to be killed. Egypt’s boss is murderous, but the midwives fear God. They will not kill the boy children.
Moses’ mother conceives of her own peculiar means of aligning with the order for ethnic cleansing, infanticide for all males: “Throw every male child into the river.”
Besides the virgin who delivers and bears the Lord Jesus, Savior of all humanity, no woman in history will ever surpass Jochebed’s genius as mother.1 When Moses arrives, she has already birthed her nation’s future high-priestly lineage, and his sister—a singular prophet, musician, praise team leader. With Moses, her maternal genius commits a son to the river where he is to be drowned. Then, instead of being drowned, he is found. Found and elevated to royalty. The future emancipator of Israel receives training and nurture in the palace that issued the order for his death. So, and in other ways all His own (Job 26:14), God shows that He is God.
Moses grows up in the palace as “son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Heb. 11:24), while his heart beats to rhythms synced with slaves, creatures unworthy to hold his hand or sit with him to eat. So clear is his sense of who he is, so strong is his bond with his people, that he murders an Egyptian one day (Ex. 2:11, 12). But it is not simply, as widely held, because he sees the offender ill-treating another Israelite. Such a telling declares a mere portion of the truth. The whole truth is that the abuse of Hebrews by their slave masters is everywhere, seen or unseen: it is the law of the land, and nothing new to Moses. The greater portion of the truth behind this murder is that its perpetrator at last finds—or perhaps more likely, situates—himself in a location that permits him, if only for this once, to pour out the profound passion of his soul on behalf of the people he knows are his own.
His identification with his slave brothers doesn’t go well. This is because the perversity of human nature is neither limited to nor controlled by our social circumstances. There may—or may not—be good masters of slaves: your rage against me for stating such a notion proves its own point; our cancel culture may deprive me of even the brief seconds it takes to complete my odious declaration. Nevertheless, I say: every human deserves their suspicion of innocence. There may or may not be goodness in the ranks of slave masters. Should there be, it may well derive from their having once been tyrannized; slaves who know the evil it is to be so, but then have earned their freedom, and will on no account subject another human, no, not even an animal, to the cruelty that they once lived. There may be good among slave masters. There surely is both good and bad among slaves, oppressed who will, if they can, further abuse their fellow oppressed; miscarriage of justice can be pretty standard in life: crushing and being crushed is the common lot of most; someone is always either above or below someone else, pushing and shoving and tugging and pulling (Eccl. 5:8).
Conscientious Moses rebukes a misbehaving fellow Hebrew; but this Hebrew is a bad slave. Were his tables capsized so that he should rule instead of render forced labor, so that he should be granted power over his fellow humans, whether Egyptian, American, Guyanese, or Hebrew, he would be a bad slave master. Speaking out of the abundant perver- sity of his heart (Matt. 12:34), he brazenly and outrageously accuses Moses of being a bully (Ex. 2:13, 14). The thought is frightening to the well-meaning , wannabe liberator: his own people may be his undoing. Moses escapes to Midian, some 600 miles away—enough to get this writer back to Andrews University, where he once worked, from the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference headquarters building, where he now does.
Moses’ murder was for a good cause: he figured “that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them” (Acts 7:25, NIV). His next-day encounter with the bully showed him that he had figured wrong. From that bully and otherwise, God got His message through to Moses that as much as He needed him, as surely as He would be working with him to grant him the desire of his heart—the liberation of his people—He wouldn’t be doing it by making men murderers: Moses knew, Israel’s elders knew, that Moses was God’s man.2 But God’s man would have to learn to do God’s work in God’s way. The God who is Lord of schedules, whose Son appears at just the time scheduled for the salvation of humanity (Gal. 4:4), also works in what He knows is the correct way of saving: He has His own thoughts and His own ways (Isa. 55:8). Humans too have ways, ways that seem right to us but end in disaster (Prov. 16:25). God’s way does not: His way is perfect, and ever the best for us (2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 18:30).
Trying to outpace God was not new with Moses. Exalted father Abram had done it before—out of earnest desire to see the fulfillment of a divine prediction that the world would be as overrun with his descendants as the sky is with stars: The Lord had taken him out under the night sky and instructed, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them” (Gen. 15:5, NIV); and He had added, “So shall your off- spring be.” So Abram knows the goal. Knows where his God is going. And he’ll work with Him toward one more proof of His divine reliability. He’ll work as a true believer: “Abram believed the Lord” (verse 6, NIV); and the Lord knew it and rewarded him, “credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6, NIV).
For at least a decade and a half thereafter Abram hoped, prayed, and pleaded that his effort be accepted and honored by his God.3 He colluded with his beloved wife, Sarai, to produce the seed who must start God’s course toward multiplication: Sarai had a good servant, a woman whom she trusted. The text identifies her as Egyptian—implying that her ethnicity matters. We should not mar- vel that we cannot see how or why at her first identification. Later, in Moses’ time, we may under- stand better. For now, it’s Hagar the Egyptian, and she can help Sarai do her part to fulfill God’s promise to Sarai’s husband, Abram. Sarai’s intent is explicit from the beginning—unlike textual reason for stating Hagar’s ethnicity: “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her” (Gen. 16:2).
Neither Abram nor Sarai nor their instrument Hagar seems to have any idea how unhappy the Lord is about their brilliant, cooperative initiative or how much it will cost: “Polygamy had become so widespread that it had ceased to be regarded as a sin, but it was no less a violation of the law of God, and was fatal to the sacredness and peace of the family relation.”4 It had become very wide- spread—implying, to use the words of Jesus upon the associated question of divorce, “it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8, NIV). “The world is too much with us,” William Wordsworth might say,5 as Pharisees lose the real and argue for the fake. But the God of valid, wondrous, and flawless beginnings had done everything right the first time—light, lights, foliage, worship, work, everything. At the climax of His work with matter, He built the woman as the perfect resolution of the man’s earliest known dilemma, human companionship. He wrought that resolution with intent: “That is why, . . .” the text (Gen. 2:24, NIV) says; so that human and supernatural observers might know from what follows, how, and on what basis, marriage is established and is to be established.
Marriage ceremonies vary wonderfully through country and culture. This is all as it should be. Ceremonies and participants may celebrate affection, creativity, and tradition in a thousand ways. But the institution of marriage itself is, for Jesus, formed and settled from Genesis. In Genesis and in Matthew and Mark, in the Old Testament Torah and in the New Testament Gospels, the terms of marriage are solid, permanent, and unvarying. Thinking otherwise, even invoking the divine as sanctioning variation, expresses the unconverted state of the human heart (Matt. 19:5).
Despite the admirable purpose of the transactional variation on marriage that connected Abram and Hagar, the God they tried to please could not approve of it as a way to accomplish His goals. Good human intent cannot trump divine order. And our innovative violations of the divine original are no more pardonable merely because we do not see their baleful consequences at first glance, or even after much reconnoitering. Consider now, millennia later, the fruit of the tree whose seed Abram and Sarai planted: “Abraham’s marriage with Hagar resulted in evil, not only to his own household, but to future generations.”6
Moses’ zeal that fired his run ahead of God ended up costing him a delay of 40 years! And how much the Abram-Sarai-Hagar triangulation cost our Lord I cannot say. Nor do I know how much my own perverse efforts at being in a hurry for Him have cost the truth. I now know for sure, though, that it does us much more good to tune in to the psalm- ist’s counsel: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord” (Ps. 27:14, KJV). “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way” (Ps. 37:34); “Wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee” (Prov. 20:22, KJV).
1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 61.
2 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 245: “The elders of Israel were taught by angels that the time for their deliverance was near, and that Moses was the man whom God would employ to accomplish this work.”
3 “And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’” (Gen. 17:18, NIV).
4 E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 145.
5 William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” https://www. poetryfoundation.org/poems/45564/the-world-is-too-
6 E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 145.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor at Adventist Review Media.