The event of Exodus is often understood as God’s liberation of Israel from Pharaoh’s oppression in Egypt. But if you read the text carefully, you may find that the event is not as simple as you thought.
First of all, according to Ex 5, when Moses and Aaron met and talked to Pharaoh, they didn’t talk about Israel’s permanent literation from Egypt; they merely said that they were going to take a three days’ journey to sacrifice to the Lord.
Ex 5:3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.”(NRSV)
Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh that they should take a three days’ journey to sacrifice to YHWH to avoid disasterous pestilence. However, The intention of Moses and Aaron was to leave Egypt forever. Moreover, the ones who might eventually experience the pestilence were not Israelites but Egyptians. But they hid everything to get a chance to leave Egypt.
Pharaoh did not like what Moses and Aaron said. So he oppressed Israelites harder so that they don’t even mention “leaving” ever again. YHWH sent Moses to deliver Israelites from forced labor, but the consequence was the exact opposite. Israelites who suffered more than before blamed Moses and Aaron for the situation. Moses had to petition the Lord for help, because the Lord sent him to save the people, but things didn’t work out as he expected.
Ex 5:22 Then Moses turned again to the LORD and said, “O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”(NRSV)
As Moses’s petition indicates, Pharaoh mistreated Israelites, but unfortunately, it was in YHWH’s bigger picture. YHWH didn’t plan to take Israelites from Pharaoh right away and let them live in Canaan. The Lord was going to deliver them after all, but God originally intended to let them suffer more as God hardened Pharaoh’s mind so that he did not let Israel go. God also intended to bring plagues and disasters to Egypt after hardening Pharaoh’s mind; God would drown Pharaoh and his army at last. YHWH, of course, was able to deliver Israel immediately without all these difficult situations. Then what was the intention?
We can find one of the answers in Ex 14:4. The passage says that God’s intention to go through all these hassles was to let Egyptians know Israel’s God is YHWH and let YHWH gain glory.
Ex 14:4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.(NRSV)
The liberation of Israel was God’s primary and ultimate intention here, but God’s other intention in the process of liberation was to reveal YHWH’s power and glory to the world and let the world know YHWH is YHWH. Indeed, Israel didn’t have to encouter Pharaoh and his army before the sea without such an intention. Israel was marching to Canaan, but God turned their way around to the sea to make the Red Sea event happen.
Ex 14:1 Then the LORD said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea.(NRSV)
We do not know the exact route of Israel’s journey, but, certainly, Canaan is not located in a place where Israel had to go through the sea. Nevertheless, they turned their way around and encamped beside the sea; then, they had to face Pharaoh and his army. Only because of that, were they able to see God’s power to part the sea on both sides or dry the sea. This event was to let Israel know the power of YHWH. Likewise, Egyptians also experienced the power of YHWH. They should have thought they could capture Israelites and make them their slaves, but the end was their death instead. As they were drowning, they should have known, “this is YHWH’s power.” After all, the event of Exodus is not only to liberate Israel but also let YHWH’s name be known and let YHWH gain glory.
At the end of the story, Moses’s song appears in Ex 15, and the song describes YHWH as follows:
YHWH is a man of war (=warrior); YHWH is his name(my own translation)
Indeed God is a warrior. Israel had no power to fight. YHWH alone fought and won the victory. And the result was to let YHWH’s name be known and let YHWH gain glory.
In ancient times, war was one of the main means of survival, security, and prosperity. All nations wanted their gods to be their warriors more powerful than other gods, and they were proud of that. The text of Exodus reflects such a perspective. We, on the other hand, do not want war. We want peace. We want our God is love and says our God is love, not because we know for sure that God’s only character is love but because we want to romanticize God’s image. So we must carefully think about who God is. Ancient Israelites’ image of God is a “warrior” more powerful than other gods, and we know the limitation of the concept. Then our image of God as love could also be an image we ourselves created and fixed. God should be more than that. Remember. One of the Decalogue indicates that we should not make an image of God in any form.