Although this passage can be easily overlooked as a necessary interlude between God’s appearance to Moses and the showdown with Pharaoh, what we find is a rich picture of Moses’ first faltering steps of obedience and much foreshadowing of the wonders yet to come. The theme that ties these passages together is Moses’ long-awaited return to Egypt, the beginning of the exodus.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE // VERSES 18-23
Our text begins with Moses going back to Jethro with the request to return to Egypt. As the patriarch over the people of Midian and especially since Moses had become his son-in-law and the shepherd of his flock, this was the proper thing to do to honor and respect his father-in-law. We should consider the same pattern. Obedience to God should very much be paired with honoring father, mother, and in-laws. While it is true that Jesus warned us that no one could be His disciple without first hating his mother and father by comparison, we would do well to remember that obedience to God is not an excuse for blatantly dishonoring those whom God has also commanded us to honor.
Of course, Moses’ excuse for going is rather questionable: Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive. Didn’t God already tell Moses that the Israelites and his actual brother, Aaron, were all still alive? This seems to be a fairly straightforward case of deception against his father-in-law, since he conveniently left out the actual reason why he was returning to Egypt. I strongly doubt that Moses felt the need to slip away from Jethro’s headship in the same way that Jacob did of his greedy father-in-law, Laban. From all that we read in Exodus, Jethro was a wise and kind father-figure to Moses (see especially Exodus 18). Why then did Moses deceive Jethro? Philip Ryken makes this suggestion:
Why didn’t Moses tell the whole truth? Perhaps he was afraid that if he went into too much detail, his father-in-law would start raising questions about his trip. More likely, Moses still wasn’t entirely sure himself whether everything God said was true. Like many people, he was wavering somewhere between faith and unbelief. But at least he was still walking down the path of obedience! Even if he lacked the courage to state his intentions, he was doing what God told him to do.
Given Moses’ fears while speaking directly to God, I think Ryken’s thoughts are the most likely scenario. Thankfully, Jethro grants Moses his blessing to go, also relinquishing him of his duties as a shepherd. God then instructs Moses to return to Egypt, for those who wanted to kill him were now dead.
Notice the parallel with verse 18. Rather than finding his brothers dead, Moses would return to Egypt to find the former Pharaoh who sought his life dead. God probably told Moses this for two reasons. First, to further calm his fears. Second, to show that God’s work of deliverance had already begun without Moses. God Himself disposed of the former Pharaoh, and now through Moses, he would dispose of this new one as well.
Verse 20 tells us of Moses’ obedience to God’s command. Moses takes two things with him to Egypt: his family and the staff of God. Moses fled the luxuries of Pharaoh’s palace to dwell as a shepherd in the wilderness. How could that trade-off ever make sense? Yet here we see that Moses is returning to Egypt with far greater riches than he ever experienced within Pharaoh’s palace.
Of Moses’ family, we who are husbands and fathers should remind ourselves frequently that our wife and children are not hindrances to the kingdom work that God has set before us. They are not burdens to be lugged around reluctantly while we long to do what really matters.
Instead, as we saw in Ephesians, the entire order of the cosmos is represented in miniature through the household. Indeed, the church is also miniaturized in the household, which explains 1 Timothy 3:5 as an elder’s qualification. Every husband is a pastor to his wife and children. Every wife is a deaconess to her husband and children. Healthy churches are rooted in healthy families, and, of course, so is society.
Look around at almost every cultural battleground today, and they all return to the family. Sadly, the importance of the family is ground that the church in the West largely devalued, at least in practice, in favor of various church ministries. We let the busy work of building the kingdom replace the far more important work of diligently teaching our children the Word of God, thereby actually building the kingdom. Of course, the mentality makes sense. Generational discipleship requires a lifetime of faith, whereas doing good, but busy, works for God gives an immediate sense of gratification. For too long churches have more resembled (or at least aimed to resemble) carefully pruned gardens that shrivel at the first frost rather than forests of deeply rooted trees. Remembering that families are the bedrock of ministry rather than its competition or hindrance is the first step in planting such a forest.
Of the staff, notice that the text does not call it Moses’ staff but rather God’s staff. God sanctified that piece of wood to Himself as the means by which He would work His signs and wonders. We too should carry, as it were, the cross with us throughout our journey through this life, for upon the cross our Lord worked the greatest sign of our redemption and deliverance from sin.
Verses 21-23 show God speaking again to Moses, reminding him to also work the signs that God has given to him before Pharaoh. But while the elders of Israel would believe upon seeing the signs, Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. We see this same contrast in the miracles of Christ, which caused some to believe and others to only further reject Him. Of course, Jesus also said that His parables did exactly that as well. They revealed the kingdom to some and concealed the kingdom from others. So, it is with the gospel as well. The proclamation of the gospel never results in a purely neutral response. We, of course, often cannot see the response with our own finite eyes, yet we know that each hearer is either draw closer to Christ and His kingdom or else moves further away.
Yet we should note that the text does not say that Pharaoh’s would be hardened, as if by the circumstances around him. No, God says, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” Now, we should point out that in the about twenty times that Pharaoh’s hard heart is mentioned in Exodus, it is expressed in three ways: 1) God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, 2) Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and 3) Pharaoh hardened his heart. Thus, in spite of the supposed debate between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, Exodus holds them both up together.
Did Pharaoh harden his own heart?
Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Our inability to understand the mystery of how both can be equally true does not prove either to be untrue. Gravity is a similar mystery. We clearly observe its effects, but what exactly ‘is’ the force of gravity? We know that it is real, even though we cannot fully grasp what it is. The same is true of human responsibility and divine sovereignty here. While there is much more to be said about this important theme, I hope to write an excursus upon it soon.
Being warned of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, Moses was then to give Pharaoh a very dire warning: Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son. This is, of course, a foreshadowing of the tenth and final plague that would leave the firstborn in all Egypt dead with the exception of all who painted their doorposts with the lamb’s blood. Given the resolute stubbornness of Pharaoh that we shall see in the following chapters, this explicit warning is an act of grace to the prideful king. Indeed, so it always is with the judgment of God. He very often gives warning after warning before finally pouring out His wrath.
We should by no means miss the deep significance of God calling Israel His firstborn son. Hosea 11:1 reflects upon this revelation with God further declaring, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Since God’s covenant with Abraham, we have known that God had specially chosen his descendants to be His people; however, this imagery brings paternal love into the picture. God wanted Pharaoh to understand that He did not desire to steal the Israelites away to become His own slaves. No, like a father intervening on his son’s behalf, the LORD was preparing to rescue His son from their captivity in Egypt.
Perhaps this also contributed to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh considered himself to be a son of the gods, yet here was the LORD, who claimed to be the Most High God, calling the worthless Hebrew slaves His son!
Do not miss, however, that He called Israel His firstborn son, implying other children. It is a mistake to believe that God only cared about saving all nations in the New Testament. In Exodus 19:5, God will tell Israel that they would be a kingdom of priests, meaning that they were to be a beacon of God’s light to all the nations around them. Indeed, a picture of this will been seen in Egypt as God spares Israel from the plagues that He pours out upon the rest of Egypt, and when the people do leave Egypt, “a mixed multitude also went up with them” (12:38), which was presumably Egyptians and slaves of other ethnicities who decided to permanently join Israel. God’s heart has always been for all nations to be glad in Him.
A BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD // VERSES 24-26
At last, we come to what is likely the most famous passage of Exodus, perhaps just narrowly passing the parting of the sea. And we will certainly refrain for lack of time from debating whether The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt depicted this passage better.
Joking aside, even if you have read Exodus several dozen times, you probably glance over these three verses, think to yourself, “That’s weird.” And then you promptly forget that this section of the Bible even exists. We should remember, however, that no portion of Scripture is accidental or without purpose. “All Scripture,” wrote Paul, “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, we should ask why these verses are here and what they are meant to teach us.
Probably the most difficult aspect of this passage is that it is so ambiguous. Verse 24 does not make it clear who exactly God was about to put to death, either Moses or his son. Nor does it explicitly state why the LORD was going to kill him at all. The actions of Zipporah seem to indicate that Moses had defied God’s covenant by not circumcising his son. But why would God be so angry about that?
One commentator notes that “Moses can argue, pout, whine, and hold his breath about going to Egypt and God will deal patiently with him– but circumcision is another matter.” Recall that circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. It was a physical indication of belonging to the LORD and of being distinct from all other peoples. Another commentator states the matter quite well: “If he was going to lead the people out of Egypt, he himself had to keep the covenant. How could he be Israel’s prophet if he neglected his spiritual responsibility to his own family by failing to include them in God’s salvation?”
The day is saved again by a woman. Zipporah circumcised her son and touched the foreskin to Moses’ feet to satisfy God’s wrath. I believe that John Sailhamer is right in thinking that Moses’ son was the one nearly stricken by the LORD, for “God said he would slay the firstborn son of Pharaoh when he disobeyed. Here we see the Lord doing the same thing to the firstborn son of Moses when he disobeyed.” Here was a very potent reminder that only God’s grace stood as the differentiating mark between Moses and Pharaoh, which is precisely what circumcision was meant to represent. Moses’ sin was no less of a grievous offense to God’s holiness. Only by God’s rich mercy was his son spared.
Indeed, this again is a foreshadowing of the Passover. During that dark night over Egypt, nothing distinguished the people of Israel from the people of Egypt before the angel of death, except the blood of the lamb upon the doorposts. The firstborn of Israel were spared only because God provided redemption by blood and the path of obedience for the destruction to pass over them. This moment, therefore, ultimately provided Moses with an experiential preview of the Passover.
We should also consider how the work of Christ is prefigured here. Like Moses, we were also under the just judgment of God for our disobedience, and as with both here and at the Passover, we are saved through the shedding of blood. However, our redemption through Christ differs from these accounts in a very significant way. Rather than the firstborn being saved through blood, Jesus is the only begotten Son of God who freely shed His blood to purchase our adoption. The LORD sacrificed His Firstborn so that we might become His children.
Moreover, we are told that Zipporah called Moses a bridegroom of blood because of the events that transpired. Yet that title could very well be applied to Christ. In Ephesians 2:13, Paul wrote that we who were once alienated from God “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” He has reconciled us to the Father through the cleansing of His blood as well as united Himself to us. In chapter 5, after calling husbands and wives to their duties in marriage, Paul makes this profound statement: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Marriage is an earthly shadow of the reality that is Christ’s union to His church. Christ is our husband; we are His bride. Our Bridegroom is presenting us “to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” through His own atoning blood (Ephesians 5:26-27). Jesus, therefore, is very much our bridegroom of blood, for He made us His bride by His blood.
BACK TO EGYPT // VERSES 27-31
The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do.
We are now told that the LORD sent Moses’ own appointed prophet into the wilderness to meet with his younger brother, and they met at Horeb. Just as the LORD laid claim to Moses’ staff, so also did all of Horeb become the mountain of God. Of course, what else could we expect after the presence of God had come down upon it? All who come into God’s holy presence are consecrated unto Himself or are consumed by His holiness.
Given that Aaron was to act as a prophet to Moses with Moses being “as God to him,” the parallel of Aaron meeting Moses at Mount Horeb is fitting. Furthermore, just as Moses received his commission from God upon that mountain, so too did Moses tell Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do.
Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.
We should not be surprised at how easily and quickly the belief of the elders is reported once Moses and Aaron do as God commanded. Even though the LORD told him otherwise, Moses was fearful that the elders of Israel would not believe him. The simple and brief reporting of the obedience of Moses and Aaron, followed by the declaration that the people believed, reveals that Moses never had any reason to fear. The LORD said they would believe, and they did. All that He speaks comes to pass.
Indeed, the people do more than believe. Once they hear that the God of their fathers has heard their cries and seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. Tony Merida writes that “even before their freedom, they knew that God was worthy of worship and exaltation. They worshiped God because He ‘paid attention to’ the people of Israel in their misery.”
The same ought to be true of us. Greater than the affliction of physical taskmasters, Adam’s sin plunged all mankind under the tyranny of our own sinful hearts. Although the slavery that the Egyptians held over the Israelites could be broken with enough force, who can break off humanity’s very hunger for sin?
Only Christ, God’s only begotten Son, could work such a redemption through His cleansing blood. And the proper response to this good news is to likewise bow our heads and worship. In deep, humble thankfulness to our God (which is what their bowed heads displayed), we too are called to a life of worship. In Romans 12:1, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Jesus sacrificed Himself for us, and our proper worship is now to sacrifice ourselves for Him. As the hymn rightly says, “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.”
Again, this is exactly what marriage is meant to display. A healthy, loving relationship is never found when the husband and wife attempt to divide responsibility for their marriage 50/50. When the scales shift (and they are always shifting), seeds of bitterness are planted as we feel that we are contributing more than our spouse. Yet such scorekeeping should be put away, for both husband and wife are called to mutually pour themselves out, to live sacrificially for the good of one another. Husbands ought to give themselves fully to loving their wives, and wives ought to give themselves fully to respecting their husbands, for in doing so we point to the greater reality of Christ and His church.
Our Bridegroom of blood has given and continues to give Himself fully for the good of us, His bride. We, then, are called to give ourselves fully for His glory and for the exaltation of His holy name, to become living sacrifices constantly poured out for the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 113.
 We seem to typically think that the inverse is true. While the church most certainly should be a place where broken families come to find healing, it is an emphasis upon strong families that gives a church strong enough roots to weather the aches and pains of helping broken families heal.
 Peter Enns cited in Ryken, Exodus, 118.
 Ryken, Exodus, 118.
 John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 249.
 Recall from 3:1 that Horeb was located “to the west side of the wilderness” and, thus, between Egypt and Midian.
 Tony Merida, Exalting Jesus in Exodus, 32.