Fighting violence with violence (Exodus 2:11-14)

Open Exodus 2:11-14.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house. He sees how human government operates. The Hebrew slaves weighed down with burdens (2:11, the same word as 1:11).

He identifies with them: the Hebrews are his brothers. Moses feels a responsibility to act against the injustice. He sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, so Moses strikes the Egyptian. The same Hebrew word (nā·ḵāh) is used to describe both actions. Moses has fallen into the trap of trying to resolve violence through violence. We have already seen how destructive this approach is (compare Genesis 4:23; 6:11).

This temptation will dog God’s people throughout their history. It still does. By responding to oppression with oppression, Moses has become the agent of death rather than the agent of YHWH. He is using his power the way Pharaoh uses it. Killing is not the path to saving. Moses knows his actions are wrong: furtively checking that no one is watching, and hiding the body in the sand (2:12).

In fact, Moses is not the only Hebrew who has learned the ways of the worldly powers to resolve conflict. When he sees two Hebrews fighting, he questions the aggressor, “Why do you strike your neighbour?” (2:13) Yes, the verb is nā·ḵāh, the same word used of the Egyptian taskmaster striking a Hebrew and of Moses striking the Egyptian. The Egyptian rulers, Moses, and this Hebrew aggressor are all behaving as agents of evil rather than agents of the heavenly ruler. The behaviour of this Hebrew aggressor exposes Moses’ hypocrisy.

The defence offered by the Hebrew aggressor is twisted, designed to get Moses off his case rather than to justify his own actions. Nevertheless, his question stands. Translated literally, the question he throws back at Moses is, “Who appointed you as a man to be an official and judge over us? Killing me—is that what you intend, as you killed the Egyptian?” (2:14) Most translations omit as a man, translating only the other two nouns. Durham catches the emphasis in his commentary: “Who made you, only a man, into a prince and a judge over us?” [Exodus, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1998), 19.]

Further, the second noun—translated ruler (NIV, NRSV) or prince (KJV, ESV, NLT) is the same word used for the officials Pharaoh appointed over the slaves in 1:11. Moses might be a prince of Egypt and that’s how he is behaving, but he is not behaving as a representative of God’s rule, the kingdom of God. Consequently, he has no authority to act as a judge. This third noun is used of one who restores justice by setting right what is wrong. This can mean judging disputes between God’s people like these fighting brothers, but it can also mean setting right what is wrong by delivering God’s people from oppression (as in the book of Judges).

The Hebrew aggressor is covering up his own evil behaviour, but he is exposing the reality that God is the ruler over the Abrahamic family. Moses is only a man, without authority to rule over God’s people or to deliver them from oppression. The narrator knows that his audience has the highest regard for Moses, yet he lets the question of Moses’ authority stand. Moses has behaved like an oppressor. His attempt to use force has backfired. He is not acting as a representative of the divine ruler. The divine monarch can and in time will appoint Moses as his spokesman. But it will be YHWH who overturns Pharaoh’s authority, freeing the Hebrews from oppressive earthly rule to be the kingdom of God. They will not be transferred from the kingdom of Pharaoh to the kingdom of Moses, and certainly not by the power of Moses’ hand.

Pharaoh wants Moses dead. Moses could kill one Egyptian oppressor, but Pharaoh’s entire army stood behind his taskmasters. That’s how earthly powers work. Moses knows you cannot beat them like that. He flees to a place outside Pharaoh’s realm (2:16). Pharaoh is rid of his rebel, and so the Hebrews remain oppressed under his power for now.

Evil can never overcome evil.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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