Throughout the Bible, God prides Himself on leading Israel out of Egypt. God’s prophets point to the event incessantly, God highlights His own power by pointing to the event, and the Bible repeatedly links this event with God. Israel seems to have even incorporated the event into God’s normal name (“God who brought us out of Egypt”). Here is a small sample of verses:
1Sa 12:6 And Samuel said unto the people, It is the LORD that advanced Moses and Aaron, and that brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.
2Ki 17:36 But the LORD, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and a stretched out arm, him shall ye fear, and him shall ye worship, and to him shall ye do sacrifice.
2Ch 7:22 And it shall be answered, Because they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath he brought all this evil upon them.
Psa 81:10 I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
Jer 32:21 And hast brought forth thy people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with great terror;
Both God and Israel link this event (the Exodus) with God’s power more than any other power event, including creation itself. The events themselves are described in Exodus 3-12. These chapters are extremely important in how God defines Himself. But the interesting thing is that this defining event has little to recommend itself to the classical depiction of God.
In Exodus 3, God introduces Himself to Moses. The text shows that God defines Himself relationally: “I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. The Bible could have just written “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” but the text stresses the personal relationships of each patriarch. God then spends some time convincing Moses that Moses should be God’s prophet (which still does not fully work, as evidenced in chapter 4).
God then tells Moses to go to Egypt and lead Israel free. But God expects hesitance from Pharaoh:
Exo 3:19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.
Exo 3:20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.
Exo 3:21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty,
Because God knew Pharaoh’s character, God was sure that Pharaoh would not let Israel go easily. This is not God saying “I see the future and have exact knowledge”. This is God saying “I know who this prideful Pharaoh character is and what he will do.” This is not conducive to a classical understanding of God.
To use Pharaoh’s pride, God explains to Moses that He will accomplish “mighty works” such that not only Pharaoh’s pride is broken, but also the pride of the Egyptians. God wanted to use Pharaoh’s pride to illustrate His great power. In this context, God wants to “harden Pharaoh’s heart”.
Moses is not quite convinced even Israel will believe him (not to mention Pharaoh). God builds Moses a contingency plan of might works to first convince Israel and then perform before Pharaoh (Exo 4:21).
God first tells Moses to throw his staff onto the ground:
Exo 4:2 And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.
Exo 4:3 And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.
Exo 4:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail” (and he reached out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand),
Exo 4:5 “that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
God shows Moses that Moses can accomplish miraculous signs. God helps Moses overcome his fear by commanding him to touch a viper. This is God’s first sign to the people (and then later to Pharaoh). God has just test ran His plan with Moses.
The text states the purpose of this plan. The reason God gives this sign is so that Israel may believe God (God takes this opportunity to define Himself relationally again). God expected Israel’s belief as a real possibility after this very first sign.
When Moses changes venues and attempts this sign in Exodus 7, the court magicians duplicate the event (casting doubt in Pharaoh’s mind about the power of God). This seems to lead to God skipping His second contingency plan (at least to Pharaoh): leprosy. Although God commanded Moses to perform “all miracles” in his power before Pharaoh, Moses and God used discretion in which ones would be the most effective. Pharaoh is never shown the leprosy although God uses it as a sign:
Exo 4:6 Furthermore the LORD said to him, “Now put your hand in your bosom.” And he put his hand in his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, like snow.
Exo 4:7 And He said, “Put your hand in your bosom again.” So he put his hand in his bosom again, and drew it out of his bosom, and behold, it was restored like his other flesh.
Exo 4:8 “Then it will be, if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign.
Although Moses might have used this sign to Israel (the text makes it sound like Aaron was actually the performer), this second sign was not used by Moses to Pharaoh. It could be that because Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the first sign that God skipped this sign because it too was easily duplicable. God (or Moses) seems to have decided that the second miracle was not worth their time. Instead, God uses a stronger variant of a third contingency He devises.
Notice the “if they do not believe”. This is a theme in the text: God building conditionals in case of contingencies. God was unsure how many signs it would take to elicit the desired response from Israel. But God states that He is sure that they will believe the second sign: “that they may believe the message of the latter sign.” But in case they do not, God even builds in a third contingency:
Exo 4:9 And it shall be, if they do not believe even these two signs, or listen to your voice, that you shall take water from the river and pour it on the dry land. The water which you take from the river will become blood on the dry land.”
Although this sign might have been preformed by Moses before Israel, God opts for a more powerful variant when confronting Pharaoh. A day after Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated rods turning into snakes, Moses confronts Pharaoh at the river. Instead of turning water from a vase into blood, God seems to up the ante and turns the entire river to blood. A vase of water might not be very convincing with Pharaoh’s magicians undermining every event. Moses turns the river to blood, killing all the fish. The magicians seem to duplicate this too, at least on a smaller scale. Perhaps the magicians used vases of water. It could be the case that God was ensuring that even if the miracles were duplicable, the scale would make the duplication silly.
Back in Exodus 4, God’s final act to Pharaoh is death: killing Pharaoh’s son:
Exo 4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.
Exo 4:23 So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.
Of course in Exodus 12 this also does not happen in the manner described. Instead of just killing Pharaoh’s son, God kills the firstborn of all of Egypt including the livestock. God made this miracle His grand finally to really strike at the heart of Egypt. It is this miracle that succeeds in changing Pharaoh’s heart (only to revert to pride, allowing Pharaoh to be destroyed in the Red Sea). The text is real interesting. It cuts off as if a threat against Pharaoh’s son would have succeeded in changing Pharaoh’s mind and been unnecessary to actually carry out. The final showdown, where Pharaoh himself is killed, is never mentioned.
The Exodus is the defining event for God and Israel. God defines himself by leading Israel out of Egypt. God first recruited Moses (although Moses showed resistance) and then established a game plan. The text then shows God building multi-layered contingency plans, plans which were modified, partly discarded, partly augmented, and supplemented with new contingency plans. Here is an overview:
In Exodus 4: God tells Moses to show the rod turning into a snake, show his hand turning white, take a jar of water from the river and show it turning to blood, and tell Pharaoh that his son will die.
In Exodus 7-12, what happened is that Moses showed the rod turning to a snake. Moses skiped the hand turning white. Moses turned the entire river into blood (as opposed to a jar being poured onto dry land), Moses brought frogs, then lice, then flies, kills livestock, brings boils, then hail, then locusts, then darkness, then all of Egypt loses their firstborn (not just Pharaoh).
God’s plan works, and Israel takes all the spoils of Egypt with them into the desert.
God was extremely innovative in effecting the Exodus. That is God’s power at work, not fatalism or micromanagement. God is powerful because He can accomplish His purposes in spite of human resistance.
[edit 6/30/2014 to add in that the signs were first to Israel]