Exodus is one of those stories that every other biblical story revisits in one way or another. It serves as a template for interpreting Israelite history and the repeated story of God’s people. God’s people are oppressed, God’s heart is locked in on redemption, his people have to figure out who God is and what it is to be free. It’s not a story of smooth sailing unless you’re a detached reader. The end might be worth it, but the journey is difficult. It’s easy for us to read about belonging to God but unbelievably difficult to live as God’s.
It’s much like a couple’s love story. They meet, they fall in love, they get married and grow old together. But between the lines the story reads of dead-end fights, counseling, cell phones hurled at each other, broken glass and 911 calls, sick children, money problems, rampant infidelity and trust that must be earned over and over again. There’s a lot that is missed when you just say two people have been married for 60 years. The story looks different in the journal than it does in the Facebook album.
In fact the only reason the Israelites are ever freed from this extreme oppression, genocide and slavery is because God has set his heart on liberation. There are moments when God is wildly undeterred by Israel’s lack of belief. It is Israel who cries out to God because of their harsh slavery, but it is God who has the vision for freedom.
God heard the cries. God paid attention to the plight of Israel. And God came down.
We skip too quickly to the end where Israel walks anxiously across the ground of the Red Sea. But the between-the-lines story isn’t so pretty.
Plain and simple, the Israelites didn’t believe that God would or could do it. The freedom plan was an irrational pill to swallow. The initial visit from Moses bred excitement and hope, but when Israel woke up the next morning in Egypt with a bigger burden to bear, their hope felt strangled.
So God began to shepherd Israel through their unbelief. He eventually brought them not just to a place outside of Egypt, but he brought them to a place where they could believe—a place where this God could be their God.
Often we roll our eyes at the continued grumbling of the Israelites, as if we don’t understand the blows our faith takes when life is terrible. But the point to this story is not the complaints of a people but the God who is persistent. The God who guides his people into trust. A God who uses water and manna and plagues to show himself as Redeemer.
God seems to understand how traumatized and discouraged the Israelites have been. God has heard Israel’s cries. God has paid attention. God will deliver. He doesn’t demand a faith his people aren’t capable of. But he does claim these people for himself.
God has not asked Israel for anything up to this point. God makes it clear that Israel is his child, his first born, his people, but it will be a long time before the people are willing to call I AM “their” God.
But even points of deep disbelief are a part of our journey to trust the God to whom we belong, even if they are the messy, between-the-lines parts of the story.
God must have known that his people couldn’t have crossed the Red Sea the first day Moses appeared to the elders. Instead, God helped a forgetful people remember their place in the covenant. He shepherded his people into deeper belief.
God uses the plagues to dust off Israel’s faith. Undoubtedly, these signs alert the Egyptians to the reality of Someone greater than Pharaoh, but the plagues are also for the Israelites. With every sign, the legendary God becomes more real. The mythical God of Abraham becomes an active Presence right before their eyes. And during the waiting period, Israel finds they have been given faith-legs—legs that are growing stronger and more certain—legs that will eventually be ready to walk across the dry ground of the sea.
Israel begins to catch God’s vision for deliverance. They begin to believe that there is something more to life than building up the enemy’s empire. And they are beginning to feel that when God asks them to trust him, they might have strong enough faith-legs to say yes.