25. Feasts

Lessons from the Law: No.25 : Three Annual Feasts

Ex 23:14-15 Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

If we’ve had a religious upbringing then perhaps a feast simply indicates a particular festival in the church’s calendar. However, a dictionary defines a feast as “to eat sumptuously” and the sense is of a big meal. You have a big meal when you have something to celebrate and that was true of Israel. We have feasts at a wedding or the celebration of a special birthday or wedding anniversary. It is a way of celebrating. In verses 14 to 19 that cover the feasts, the word ‘celebrate’ occurs four times, once in the introductory sentence and then once for each of the three feasts mentioned. A dictionary will tell you that to celebrate something means to make public by rites or ceremonies. Some older versions don’t use the word celebrate and just say “you shall keep….” but the word ‘keep’ doesn’t emphasise so much to us today the sense of honouring by ceremony.

So, says the Lord, three times a year hold a special ceremony based on food, to remember the crucial things that have happened when you came out of Egypt, and then of my provision for you. There is, therefore, a sense whereby these three feasts are all celebrations of God’s provision. The Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrated God’s provision of freedom from slavery. The Feast of Harvest (v.16a) celebrates the arrival of the first crops or fruits – God’s provision of food. The Feast of Ingathering (v.16b) celebrates the completion of bringing in all the harvest – again God’s provision of abundance. These are times of rejoicing in the wonder of God’s provision. Why legislate for these? Because we are notoriously bad at taking things for granted and forgetting the origin of all we have! So let’s look at the law for each of the feasts.

First there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Now the Passover was a one-day celebration but the Feast was a seven day celebration! It reminded them of the hurry with which they had to leave Egypt, not having enough time to use yeast in the usual way to make bread. By spreading it over a week they could fully reflect on the wonder of what had happened when God delivered them from Egypt. If that had not happened then they would not have been able to be constituted a nation at Sinai. They only were a nation because of the Passover. The remembrance of this meant that this was never forgotten for this was no quick one-day memorial but a whole week’s worth of celebrating.

Next we find, Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field.” (v.16a) This feast was otherwise known as Pentecost. Then we find, “Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.” (v.16b)  This was otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles and we’ll see more details of each of these in later studies.

Verses 17 to 19 are all ‘shorthand’ comments about aspects of these feasts. First comes, “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD,” (v.17) a simple reiteration of the importance of these feasts. Men were the breadwinners and the warriors but nothing was to stop them coming to these feasts of remembrance. Then comes, “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.” (v.18a) In the later laws of sacrifice when blood was poured out, it was the sign of life being given and it was often accompanied by flour but, as a continual reminder of the haste of their deliverance, it was never to have yeast mixed with it, especially at the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was followed by, “The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.” (v.18b) The fat, we will see, was to be the Lord’s portion so it would  be disrespectful to feast with the meat in the evening and not bother with the Lord’s part until next day. No, make sure you perform the whole together, especially that which gives respect or reverence to the Lord. Then comes, “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.” (v.19a) Whenever first fruits were brought (especially at the second Feast here) this is a gentle reminder to give the Lord the best. Sacrifices and offerings should never be from the leftovers, but from the best.

Finally comes what appears at first sight a very strange exhortation: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”(v.19b) It is only when we realise that this was a pagan practice believed to be carried out both in Egypt and Canaan as an occultic magical charm, that this makes sense. A broth was made in this way and was poured out on their gardens and fields to make them more productive. This injunction which appears in the Law three times (see also Ex 34:26 & Deut 14:21) is a shorthand warning a) not to turn to occult means of blessing on food provision and b) not to let there come any substitute for the second two Feasts mentioned here which are all about proclaiming the Lord’s goodness in providing for them.

These introductions to the laws of the Feasts are here, simply reminders to be kept year by year of the Lord’s provision for them. Thankfulness to the Lord keeps us from the sin of taking Him and His provision for granted. May we too remind ourselves of His constant goodness to us!

26. Short Memories

Lessons from Israel: No.26 : Short Memories

Ex 16:1-3 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Chapter 16 is all the more sad because it follows chapter 15! In chapter 15 you will find the song of Israel about Pharaoh’s defeat (Ex 15:1-18), and then Miriam leading the women in singing and dancing to rejoice before the Lord over His triumph over Pharaoh (Ex 15:19-21), then a miraculous cleansing of some water (Ex 15:22-22), then the Lord promising them that they would never suffer the diseases of Egypt but would always know the His healing (Ex 15:22-26), and finally arriving at a wonderful oasis with plenty of water (Ex 15:27). Chapter 15 has been all about rejoicing and of provision.

But then within a few days of travelling we find ‘the whole community’ grumbling against Moses and Aaron because they now seem in a desert place with no provisions. The most obvious thing we should observe here, surely, is the short memory being revealed in this people. It is exactly one month since they have been delivered from Pharaoh. Just a month ago they had witnessed the last of the plagues and then followed (probably some days later) the complete destruction of Pharaoh. Just a month ago they had seen the mighty works of God. Just recently they have seen Moses cleansing the water and God promising a life of health for them. If God promises health, is He going to allow them to die off from lack of food?????

Before we think too badly about Israel, can I ask you if you ever suffer the same sort of experience? Here is the person who goes to a Bible Week and comes back full of the wonder of God and then, after a few days of crisis back in the office, they are wondering if God even exists! (Well you know what I mean!) Even more simply, you go to church on a Sunday morning and it just seems like heaven comes down. It is a wonderful morning and the Lord seems so close and so powerful. Again a couple of days later you go down with a cold, life seems difficult and God seems a million miles away! What is going on?

The reality is that the Lord allows us to go through ‘dry times’ or through trials and tests because He wants us to learn the reality of our faith and the reality of the truth that He has said He will never leave us or forsake us. The apostle James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (Jas 1:2,3). He understood that trials were tests of our faith – to prove our faith and to develop perseverance in us.

Once the apostle Paul had occasion to write: “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” (1 Thess 3:2-5). He knew that trials sometimes come in the form of persecution, again to prove our faith, and the trial will include temptation to give up, which we are to learn to stand against.

The apostle Peter similarly knew this: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet 1:6,7). Similarly he knew that trials were to prove to us that our faith is genuine and that as a result of our standing firm, the Lord Jesus will be praised and honoured. Do we get the message? The Christian life isn’t always easy; sometimes it is difficult, sometimes it does seem dry and sometimes the Lord does seem miles away, but this is all to allow you to persevere and overcome and triumph.

Our difficulty, and it is important that we face our human frailty, is that ‘today’ always seems the most critical and when today is not going well, it is easy to forget yesterday’s glory, but that is the one thing, in this context, that we have got to learn to do. Isaiah challenged the people of his day, when they were questioning, To the law and to the testimony!” i.e. look to what God has said (the Law) and what He has done (the testimony). We are to be encouraged in the present by what the Lord has said and done in the past. We must not have short memories!

(We will be taking a rest from this series for a while, while we consider what we can learn from the Law of God.  We have been looking at the ‘testimony’ in this series, so in the next series we’ll consider the Law. We will return to what we can learn from the life of Israel at a later date.)

25. The Lord

Lessons from Israel: No.25 : It was the Lord

Ex 15:1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.

There are mysteries about the acts of God. Sometimes His activities are very clear and other times not so clear. In Britain in this first decade of the twenty first century, Christians are rather coy or low key about speaking of the Lord’s acts for fear of being derided by the unbelieving majority, but it isn’t like that everywhere in the world. In fact it wasn’t like that at this point of history with Israel, for Moses and Israel knew without a doubt what had happened to them and so they made it into a song: God had delivered them and God had destroyed Pharaoh and his army. Of that they were quite sure.

It is a funny thing but the unbelief of sinful self-centredness always seems to be looking for explanations that rule God out and try to find a ‘natural’ reason. In today’s age atheistic scientists torture themselves mentally and do mental gymnastics to deny God. They have scientific laws that simply say for there to be movement there has to be an originating force. Then they try to explain the origin of the world by a ‘big bang’ but cannot climb over the intellectual impossibility of such a thing without an originating force because logically you cannot create a bang (of any size) that creates matter when there is absolutely nothing beforehand. The only logical answer is to acknowledge God made everything.

I used to have a friend who tried to explain away the fall of the walls of Jericho by pointing out that an army has to break step when crossing a bridge because of the vibrations set up by co-ordinated marching. The only problem is that Israel weren’t a trained or disciplined army, they weren’t marching over a rigid structure and Joshua wasn’t a trained army leader.

Then we have the people who maintain that the story we have recently read couldn’t have happened because, they maintain, the Red Sea or Reed Sea was only inches deep at that point. Well that just makes it an even bigger miracle that a whole army perished in a few inches of water! Why do we have to constantly try to deny these things, why do we have to constantly try to deny the Lord’s involvement. Merely because we understand a little of thermal movements causing changes in weather, do we have to try and explain away storms that the Bible say God brings to thwart the enemies of His people.

Sometimes the word of God is very specific about God’s activity, for example, the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.” (Gen 20:18) As a means of discipline to draw the king’s attention to something wrong, the Lord did this. How? I haven’t a clue. Sometimes the judgment or discipline of the Lord is stated without explanation, for example, “fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.” (Num 16:35). Again, how that happened I don’t know, but some catastrophic fire or lightning killed these men and it was clearly attributed to the Lord. Perhaps we don’t like attributing it to the Lord because we don’t like talking about punishment or justice or thinking through the bigger picture, or simply we don’t like talking about people’s guilt or of being held accountable by the Lord. In a day when every man does what is right in his own eyes, such language is uncomfortable.

Sometimes in Scripture we have references to the Lord having closed the womb of a particular woman. We’ve already seen it as a form of judgment or discipline but sometimes it just is stated without any moral judgment – e.g. Hannah (1 Sam 1:5,6). At other times women were just barren and it is not attributed to the Lord – e.g. Sarai (Gen 11:30), Rachel (Gen 25:21), and Elizabeth (Lk 1:7), i.e. they are just things that happen in a Fallen World. Now there is the truth: sometimes God acts to bring discipline or judgment; sometimes He seems to act for much wider purposes that only become clear in the fullness of time, and sometimes things just go wrong in this world that has to cope with the presence of Sin and Satan.

Possibly, therefore, when things appear to go wrong we would do well to seek the Lord and ask, “Lord, why is this happening? Are you trying to teach me something? Have I brought this on myself, or is this just one of those things that happens in a world that goes wrong?”  And even more, “Lord, please grant me your grace and wisdom to cope with this as you would want me to.”

There are often cynical comments made by atheists about Christians who seem to have an open communication with God and who attribute a lot of ordinary things to God. Well, we are called to be childlike and I would much rather people attribute good things to God and praise and thank Him for them, even if He didn’t specifically move to bring them. James said that every good and perfect gift comes from God (Jas 1:17) and I would rather give thanks to God for everything that comes along that is good, rather than keep quiet. God has made this world and made us in such a way that we can enjoy it, so let’s thank Him for every time we have enjoyment – in whatever way it comes. I like the comment of a friend of mine many years ago: “I feel sorry for atheists who, when something really good happens, have no one to thank.” We are made to be thankful and we are frustrated when we cannot give thanks. We harmonise with heaven when we realise the goodness of God and praise and thank Him for being recipients of it. Let’s be a people of praise and thanks!

24. Trust

Lessons from Israel: No.24: Trust

Ex 14:11-14 What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

What happens when everything seems to be going contrary to the way you expect or want or hope it would go? How do you act when the sky seems to fall on you? It has been said that a measure of maturity as a Christian is the length of time that it takes to move from panic to serenity. The problem with things going wrong is that mostly they happen without any warning. If we had an angel appear at the foot of our bed each morning to give us a ‘warning bulletin’ for the day, we might possibly cope better. It is the fact that stuff happens when everything had been going well, peace reigned and you were thinking just how good life was. Then the car broke down, someone ran their car into your car, you fell down and broke a hip, and so on!  It gets worse when you went to someone you trust for advice, they gave it, you followed it, and it all turned out badly! It gets even worse when the one you were consulting was God, you were certain of His guidance, and then it all went wrong when you followed that guidance.

We have an expression: “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” That’s how Israel reacted when they realise that Moses (at God’s leading) had led them into a place where the sea was before them and the enemy were coming up behind them and there was no way out. “See,” they said, “we said we should have stayed in Egypt! Pharaoh, who is as angry as can be, is going to kill us all, out here in the desert!” It is at such times that leaders are revealed. Moses speaks out of his total assurance that God is going to do what He said He would do. The penny dropped, as we say, for Moses. Suddenly he knew that all that God had been saying about Pharaoh was about to happen. He had heard the Lord again and again speak about Pharaoh’s downfall and now he knew that this was the time. It’s all right, was what he basically said to his people, hang on in there. Just watch and see what happens. God will deliver us (somehow) and it will be in such a way that we’ll never the see the Egyptians again! God will do this. You don’t need to do anything; just watch. You see part of growing up is learning to trust Father!

So what happened? “Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel‘s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.” (Ex 14:19,20) The first thing was that God separated Israel from the Egyptians by means of the pillar of fire so that that night it was dark for the Egyptians but light for Israel.

What happens next? The Lord parted the water to let Israel through (v.21,22) and then the Egyptians tried to follow them but were thrown into confusion (v.23,24), they suffer mishaps (v.25), and then the waters came back and they were all drowned (v.26-28). What was the result? “And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (v.31) Now Israel began to realise a little more as to who it was who was with them and for them. Up until then they had been largely just observers of the plagues but this time they were right in the midst of it. This had been a matter of their lives being under threat – and God had saved them – and they knew it!  This had been a major miracle. Yes, all the plagues had been miracles, but this was the final chapter and now they were free and now there was no one pursuing them!

What’s this story all about? It is about learning to trust God. There is an oft quoted verse from Paul’s writings which is most apt here: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). Note that God is working for our good in ALL things, i.e. at all times. We may say, ‘Oh yes, I believe that,’ but it is easy to say it when you are not going through the trial. When your child is seriously ill, when a loved one has just died, when you have just been made redundant at work, when things break and you don’t seem to have enough money, will you still be able to say, ‘Yes, I believe it!’? I believe the truth is that we will all spend the rest of our lives learning it. I suggested earlier on, a measure of maturity as a Christian is the length of time that it takes to move from panic to serenity, and that is something you are going to be able to watch in yourself for years to come, for the Lord will test you on it many times before you go to heaven.

Is that a gloomy prophecy? No, it’s a recognition that living in a fallen world, things go wrong and the Lord allows those things both to test and train and build faith in us, and also to display His love and glory. Holding back, when Jesus was told about Lazarus dying, he told his disciples, “for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” (Jn 11:15) for he knew the outcome would involve them believing in him more strongly. When confronted with a blind man and the disciples’ questions, Jesus declared, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (Jn 9:3) No, God’s didn’t bring it about, but He would certainly use it. He’s here for our blessing; He’s here working for our good. Let’s learn it and cut down the time between panic and serenity!

20. Remembrance

Lessons from Israel: No.20 : Remembrance

Ex 13:3-6 Then Moses said to the people, “Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the LORD brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast. 4Today, in the month of Abib, you are leaving. 5When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites–the land he swore to your forefathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey–you are to observe this ceremony in this month: 6For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the LORD.

At first sight you may be tempted to think we are covering the same ground as we have covered in a previous meditation, for we have previously considered Israel’s instructions to pass on the memory of what has happened to their future generations. Here, however, we focus much more on the need to remember.  A much missed truth about Christianity is that it is a faith that is built on history and that is true of the Jews and Judaism as well. Thus we find the Lord, and later the prophets, continually speaking about the past. We have already seen the Lord at the burning bush describing Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, i.e. the One who had had dealings with those men, dealings which had been passed down through the generations. It was vital therefore to remember those things.

One of my favourite sayings, and I don’t know who said it originally, is “the one thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing”, i.e. we are notoriously bad at learning from the past. History was never a favourite subject of mine at school, although I have came to appreciate it much more in latter years, especially so as I have come to realise its importance as far as the Christian faith is concerned. The truth is that God has revealed Himself to us through history and that history is recorded in the Bible, and it is very important therefore that we read it and remind ourselves of what is in there, again and again. That, really, is the purpose of these meditations.

Speaking of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Moses is instructing the people to “commemorate this day,” i.e. remember it and celebrate it in the future. At the moment they are just on their way out of Egypt, but he is looking forward to the time when,the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites,” i.e. when they eventually enter the Promised Land. In the verses above he spells out what they are to do – hold a seven day feast when they don’t eat any bread containing yeast: “Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders,” (v.7). Then he explains why they are to do it: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (v.8) That is the essence of why they are to do it, so that it will act as a reminder to them and to future generations that, on that day in the year, they left Egypt so hastily that they had not had time to properly prepare bread, letting the yeast rise in it.

Thus ‘unleavened’ bread or bread without yeast became the symbol or reminder of the haste of that exodus. He continues, “This observance will be for you like a sign ….For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (v.9)  Israel existed as a nation because the Lord had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt and made them into a special nation. When He gave them the Ten Commandments, they were prefaced by, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)  Yes, there had been dealings with the Lord with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the big issue as far as them being a nation, was the fact that the Lord had come down and delivered them from being slaves and made them into a unique nation through whom He could reveal Himself to the rest of the world.

Without any doubt, the history of mankind has been one of gradual development and we have had to go through each previous stage to get where we are today. If you stop and think about it, the world could not have suddenly had nuclear energy two thousand years ago, say, because to create such energy requires an incredible amount of knowledge and technology, and both have been developed gradually in the human race. Now the same has been true in a large measure, in respect of the revelation of the Lord. He has revealed Himself to us through history but that has been a gradual process. At certain points in history there have been specific things that gave a great leap forward in our knowledge of Him. His encounters with Abraham brought some knowledge, but this period of history with the bringing into being of the nation of Israel is a major leap forward. The coming of Jesus, the Son of God from heaven, was the biggest revelation, but our understanding of Him has continued to grow as the centuries pass, as we come to take hold of His word and see more and more how it applies to our lives and to this world. We are STILL learning what it means to be to be the children of God, the church, and that is evidenced by the many weird and wonderful expressions of church that there are around the world. The counter to these are to go back to His word and check out what we find there. We don’t add man’s traditions or our own bright ideas!

Again and again we must go back to our history as recorded in the Bible and, even, check it against how the church over the past two thousand years has sought to apply it. Only thus do we learn what it means to be the people of God. We need continual reminders, we need to be continually provoked by the past that we may learn how better to live in the present. No wonder Moses went on, You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year.” (v.10) No wonder, again and again, he says, “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (v.14) It is all about remembering what God has done and learning what it means for us today, for He is the same today as He was yesterday (Do you remember the sixth meditation, ‘The Eternal One’?) Don’t despise history; we need it. Don’t mutter when your preacher brings the same teaching again and again; we need it! Let’s learn from history!

23. Strategy Again

Lessons from Israel: No.23 : God of Strategy – Again

Ex 14:1-3 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2″Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’

As we have been considering what we can learn from the revelation of the Lord with His activity with Moses as he prepares to make Israel into a nation, we have seen a number of things about the Lord which overlap. For instance we have seen that the Lord knows all about us, and He knows how we will act. He also has plans, things that He wants to achieve to reveal Himself to the inhabitants of the earth. Knowing how we will respond, He works through those plans to take account of that. He has seen His people being enslaved by this idol-worshipping despot in Egypt and determines to bring judgment upon him, but it is not as simple as that because He wants the world to see and know and understand.

As we’ve noted before,  the Lord could have killed Pharaoh outright at the beginning but instead He chose to give Pharaoh the choice – again and again – to submit to Him and avoid each of the ‘plagues’, but Pharaoh revealed his pride and stupidity and allowed his nation to suffer. Yet at the end of the last plague, Pharaoh is still alive! Why? Because God is yet going to show once more his folly, and this time it will be folly that will destroy him. In the annals of history you can never say Pharaoh wasn’t given every chance. At the end of the day his death was his own fault, as it is for every person who refuses the Lord again and again throughout their lives today, and thus fail to enter heaven. It is entirely their own folly!

Now, to return to the account of Israel leaving Egypt: so far we have seen them leaving and everything looks well but, as we’ve just noted, the Lord knows us and know how we will react and so sees that Pharaoh has never come to a place of repentance and so is still a candidate for judgment, but it will be a judgment he will bring on himself. How is that going to happen? The Lord is simply going to make Israel look vulnerable so instead of escaping directly out of the land by the easy route to the north east, He has Moses lead them down the ‘coast’ so it looks like they are hemmed in by the shore, and appear to not know where they are going. Surely they have made a mistake, surely they are wandering aimlessly, surely they are vulnerable and weak.

See what the Lord says about Pharaoh. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.” Yes, Pharaoh will see and Pharaoh will reason – wrongly! Why? “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them.” (v.4a) All it needs is for the Lord to whisper in Pharaoh ear, ‘Why don’t you go after them,’ and the pride in his heart will rise up and he will steel himself against all that he knows has happened recently and will go after them.

If we have never put to death the old self-centred sinful nature in us when we came to Christ, we will always be vulnerable to the temptations that the Lord allows to come through the enemy. The path is quite clear: we surrender our lives to the Lord – and that means totally – and so we crucify and put to death the old sin nature (Rom 6:11,12) because it has already been crucified and put to death; we’ve just go to believe it and act accordingly and make that an act of will that brings our experience in line with God’s will. Until we do we will be vulnerable to the attacks of temptation.

The Lord knows Pharaoh is still full of pride and so He is going to deal with him: “I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” (v.4b) God is going to create a miracle to enable Israel to leave Egypt but that miracle is not there for Pharaoh and so it will be the means of his death, but that is of his own choosing.  So the Lord has laid out his strategy to Moses and so we read quite simply, “So the Israelites did this.” (v.4c) At the moment they don’t realise the significance of what they are doing. We’ll see in the next meditation their agitation when they realise what is happening but for the moment they are at peace – which is more than can be said for Pharaoh: “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him.” (v.5,6)

Here they go!  It’s just as the Lord said it would be – not because He made them do it, but simply because He knew that that’s what their sinful, foolish hearts would do.  Pharaoh, you really don’t want to do this! Oh yes, I do, I’ve had it up to here with these Israelites; now I’m going to sort them once and for all! You really don’t want to do this! Oh yes I do! Here in today’s world is the man who starts letting his eyes stray from his wife to other women. You really don’t want to do that! Oh yes I do. Oh you foolish man! Have you never read, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction.” (Gal 6:7,8) Be warned!  Whatever the sin, the same is true. You won’t get away with it. Step back, step away from it while you can and before it’s too late!

22. Guidance

Lessons from Israel: No.22 : God of Guidance

Ex 13:21,22 By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people

I suspect a thought that might run through anyone’s mind, when considering responding to the Lord’s call, might be, “How will I know how to do this? How will I find the way?” or something akin to those questions. The answer will always be the same: “I will be with you.” (Ex 3:12) and “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Ex 4:12) The former answer indicates that the Lord’s presence will always be with us and the latter answer declares that He will be with us to help us.  After Sinai Moses was again worrying about how to lead this people and again the Lord tells him, “My Presence will go with you.” (Ex 33:14).

A great deal is written about divine guidance but ultimately it all boils down to the truth that the Lord is with us and it is His presence that will guide us. Yes, we may consider how He speaks to us – e.g. through His word, during prayer, through prophecy, through preaching, through a gentle prompting, through other people etc. – but each of these is simply a way that the Lord who is WITH US will communicate.

Perhaps we take for granted the Christmas story and hardly note when Matthew notes after the angel in a dream has spoken to Joseph about Jesus, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) which of course was a reference to that original prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 where the Lord again declared He would be with them. In each of these cases we are stating something that most of us who are Christians take for granted and give little thought to – that God is with us.

Now whenever the Bible tells us that, it does not mean that the Lord is with us passively; it means He is here to do stuff! Thus above we’ve already noted that He has told Moses that He will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But that wasn’t the only thing He had said He would do. He also said, “I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them,” (Ex 3:20) and so His presence with Moses meant far more than Him simply speaking to Moses. Oh no, He was going to do some serious stuff that would wreck Egypt when Pharaoh rejected Him.

Thus when we come to today’s verses, we find a very simple thing almost, by comparison: By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way.” i.e. God would be there to guide them. He would go ahead of them and His presence would be visible in the form of a pillar of cloud, and all they had to do was follow it. Thus every day, there was this obvious column of cloud that slowly moved ahead of them, leading them, showing them the way to go. The responsibility for where they went was the Lord’s. All Israel had to do was follow Him.

Does this have echoes in your mind in respect of the Gospels? “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mt 4:19,20). Being a disciple meant following the person. That was Jesus’ call to each one of them who we read about. But for Moses it wasn’t just the cloud for we find, “and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.”“Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” i.e. this guidance never left them as is then recorded: That was the assurance they had – that God was visibly there with them by the signs of the column of cloud or the column of fire. They must have been awesome sights, but they were very clear and very obvious.

In the New Testament we find, “God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5) which refers back to Deuteronomy: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut 31:6). Thus the promise to Israel stands today, for all of God’s people. It is the promise of His presence which will never leave us. Of course that presence today is His own Holy Spirit who now indwells every believer (see 1 Cor 3:16, 1 Cor 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16). Yes, we have His written word, the Bible, but He Himself lives within us and prompts and guides us. Perhaps one of the most important things we can learn to do is to learn to be sensitive to His guiding presence – the prompting to move ahead, or the disquiet when we are going the wrong way. In a variety of ways the Spirit within will guide is. It is His very own presence and so guidance flows out of the relationship we have with Him. Isn’t that wonderful!

21. Understanding

Lessons from Israel: No.21 : God of Understanding

Ex 13:17,18 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.

Having just finished with the explanations for holding the annual Feast of Unleavened Bread, as a reminder to future generations, the text takes us aside to a small piece of godly strategy which is clearly stated here, but which also has some further repercussions which will become obvious in a future meditation. The strategy that is stated is simply the way God led Israel and why. There was a direct route up to Canaan from Egypt but that would have taken Israel through the country of the Philistines, to the south west of Canaan, and this was guarded by a number of heavily guarded fortresses. Now what is interesting about this is the Lord’s understanding of His new people: For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” The Lord knew that this people who had been sheep farmers were not yet ready to be turned into an army. The Lord understood His people.

Now, this may seem so simple and so obvious that you may be wondering why we are taking time to even consider it. Well the truth is that often in life when things seem to be going wrong for us, or we are confronted with difficulties that seem to be beyond us, we grumble within ourselves, wondering why it is that the Lord is either leading us this way or why He is allowing this to happen, with the inference that the Lord hasn’t a clue about how we’re feeling and about our inadequacies. No, we need to readjust our thinking because the Lord does understand everything there is to know about us.

In Psalm 139 David reveals incredible insight when he writes, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” (Psa 139:1-4) He knew that the Lord knew him, knew everything he did, knew every thought he had, knew how he reasoned and acted and spoke. Oh yes, the Lord knew him through and through – and He knows us similarly.

Oh yes, the Lord knew this people and He knew they were not yet ready for battle. He knew that He had to build their faith and their trust in Him, and that would mean that He would have to take them through a number of circumstances that would deepen their understanding of Him. Yes they would have to cross the Sea of Reeds, they would have to journey through the inhospitable desert and they would have to meet with Him at Mount Sinai to be constituted a nation. All these things would be part of a long learning process that the Lord would take them through. By the time they come to the end of their time at Mount Sinai they should have learnt sufficient of the Lord to be able to step out in faith and take the Promised Land.

If you study the moaning, groaning and rebellions of Israel in their time in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land, you will see that the Lord tolerates those ones before Sinai, but not the ones after Sinai. It is as if He says, “I understand before Sinai you were still learning, but by the time you left Sinai, you had received so much revelation of me, you should now know better than to grumble and rebel.” The lesson that should perhaps come out here, is that although the Lord understands us and understands our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, that doesn’t give us an excuse to be disobedient. Have you noticed that the Lord in His grace allows His new children to get away with a lot it seems, but as they go on in their walk with Him, His requirements for a holy life become more stringent. Part of maturing is coming into greater understanding of who we are and what we should be. The Lord understands us and so as we mature His discipline seems to become more obvious (though many of us don’t realise it.)

The writer to the Hebrews understood this when he wrote, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” (Heb 4:13) having just warned his readers to persevere in the faith. Shortly afterwards he added, “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness,” (Heb 5:2) and then added at the end of that chapter, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:12-14) Yes, God understands us, but He also expects us to mature. While we are ignorant (v.2 above) He deals gently with us, but then He expects us to learn as the days pass and with that learning comes responsibility. We need to learn the significance of two words: ‘understanding’ and ‘accountability’. God understands us, but He does hold us accountable as we grow (or should be growing). Let’s remember that.

19. Ownership?

Lessons from Israel: No.19 : Ownership?

Ex 13:1,2 The LORD said to Moses, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.”

When we come to this next chapter, there appears this particular claim by God on the lives of certain children. Let’s examine it and see why and what are the implications. This, of course, follows the last of the ten plagues whereby every firstborn male in every family across Egypt died in God’s judgment on this land. “So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. (Ex 11:4,5) This death toll had thus been entirely inclusive – no family escaped – except those who followed the Lord’s instructions and who killed a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their homes. That night of the Passover saw a dead body in every home; either a first born son or a lamb.

Now why the first born son? We aren’t told specifically so we must speculate. First the question, why not every single Egyptian? There were other times in Israel’s history when the command was going to come to slaughter every person and as one theologian has commented, the big question is not why God judges but why He doesn’t wipe us all off this planet. If we were master beings and were growing creatures in a laboratory and we saw that they started turning on each other and killing each other, we would cull them and quite happily destroy the aberrant ones, but God doesn’t seem to do that much of the time; He seems to give second chance after second chance as we’ve noted in a previous meditation. It is a sign of His mercy and His desire to bring Egypt to their senses that He only takes the first born.

But why the first born? Well, as we said, we can only speculate, but is it because all the hopes and dreams and pride of a family are wrapped up in the first born? Why males only and not firstborn girls? Perhaps it is because in that period men were clearly dominant and were seen as the name bearers of the next generation. Even today the woman usually takes the man’s surname at marriage. So in taking the first born from every family, the Lord was taking their hopes, their dreams and their pride. For the rest of their years the survivors would remember that they had been a humbled generation.

Now when we come to the Israelites they still have their first born, but it is only by the grace and mercy of God and so the Lord lays claim to their lives. Does He really want them? Probably no more than He wants the hearts of all His people, but He wants them to remember this, that they still have their hopes and dreams for the future and their pride and family name, purely by the mercy of God. The killing of a lamb was not magical and had no power in itself, but it was an act of faith by the Israelites. That was all they contributed to the salvation of their children. Their children were alive because God, in His mercy, had given them a way to avoid premature death.

Verses 3 to 10 that immediately follow refer back to the Feast of Unleavened Bread which in turn refers back to the exodus after the Passover. The consecrating of the first born comes immediately before that and immediately after it in verses 11 to 13. It is to be seen as all linked together, and then the following verses again were instructions on how to tell the future generations about it when they asked what this meant. The ‘consecrating’ or setting aside as holy to God of the first born son was a reminder or acknowledgement that their lives had been spared by the mercy of God and they owed their hopes, dreams and family name to Him. They were what they were; they were still families, because God in His mercy had made it so.

Do we, I wonder, view ourselves similarly? Do we who are Christians see that our lives belong to God because it is only the grace and mercy of God that allows us a future? All our hopes and dreams are wrapped in our salvation that has come because The Lamb of God was slain in our place. There is a very practical outworking of all this, as the apostle Paul was to see: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” (Rom 6:13) We too, he was saying, have been saved from eternal death and given eternal life and so we belong to God. Later in the same book he reiterated it even more clearly: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Rom 12:1). Did you see that? “In view of God’s mercy.” That is the key!  God’s mercy means that now we have been saved we belong to Him. Is that how we see our bodies?

18. Inclusive God

Lessons from Israel: No.18 : Inclusive God

Ex 12:48,49 “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”

I find again and again as I read the Bible, I come across verses that I have surely seen before but have never really taken in.  Our two verses above are a little like that. They appear quite inconsequential until you start thinking about them. Indeed these verses might give the unthinking unbeliever grounds for shouting, “See, a contradiction!” because a few verses earlier we find, “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover: “No foreigner is to eat of it.” (Ex 12:43) which appears to convey the oft believed statement that everyone less than a Jew is excluded by God, which is, in reality, as far from the truth as you can get!

So how do we reconcile these verses? Well verse 43 clearly indicates that the Passover is only for God’s people to remember; it would be meaningless for anyone else. But then, when we come to our verses today, we see the Lord making an allowance for, “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’S Passover.” i.e. if there are foreigners who want to become part of the community of God, then they may join that community, but it will be on the terms of the community. So, a sign of community membership, if we may put it in this way, was for all males to be circumcised (Gen 17:10) and so if the foreigner wanted to join Israel, then they would need to show their commitment by doing this. All this is somewhat painful for adult males, so it was not something they would do lightly. They wouldn’t do it for superstitious reasons; they would only do it if they really did want to join the people of God and really become part of them.

Now when we go through the Old Testament for the first time, we may be tempted to think that God is just concerned with the nation of Israel and that the rest of the world don’t matter, but that is very far from the truth. Going right back to Israel’s origins, right back with grandfather Abraham, we find God’s first recorded words to Abraham declaring, all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:3). That was God stating His intention that through this family He was going to bless the whole world, or at least the part of it that would respond to Him. What is interesting, when we refer back to the Passover is that we find, “Many other people went up with them.” (Ex 12:38). We have already commented in a previous meditation that the nature of the plagues meant that there were already two groups of people in Egypt: those who believed the Lord and those who didn’t: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Ex 9:20,21). Thus we find that along the way the Lord was attracting many people by what was happening already.

Later on through Israel’s history we find lots of interaction with non-Israelites (see the lives of David and Solomon in particular)  During the time of Elijah the  widow of Zaraphath in Sidon (1 Kings 17:9 – see also Lk 4:25,26) was an example of God and a Gentile, as was the instance of Elisha and Naaman (2 Kings 5 – see also Lk 4:27). Later Isaiah was to prophesy in the ‘servant songs’, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” (Isa 42:6) and “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6) i.e. not merely the Jews but to all the earth.

In the beginning of the New Testament, we find Jesus’ family tree including: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.” (Mt 1:5) Rahab and Ruth were both Gentiles who joined the family of God. In Jesus’ ministry we see him interacting with a Canaanite woman (Mt 15:22) and a Roman Centurion (Lk 7:1) among others. As the church began to grow, it soon included more Gentiles than Jews and the word spread around the whole world.

The simple lesson that is here in Exodus, and seen throughout the Bible, is that God uses His people as a light to the rest of the world, for it is His intention for the rest of the world to hear about Him and people from all nations to come to know Him. His intent is not that just one small group should know Him, but the whole world. No one is excluded, no one is substandard, no one is beyond God’s love; all can come as He calls them.