Open Exodus 3:16-22.
It’s a terrifying assignment. Moses is commissioned as ambassador for the heavenly king. He must confront Pharaoh with YHWH’s demand to release the Hebrew people.
But first, Moses must convince Israel of their identity as YHWH’s people, not Pharaoh’s. Moses is instructed to do this in partnership with the elders of Israel (3:16).
That implies that the descendants of Jacob have some level of self-understanding and organization. Christian preachers who care only about theology (and not history) sometimes characterize the Hebrews as slaves who’ve been oppressed so long they have little sense of their identity as descendants of Abraham. That’s a caricature:
- While they’ve been in Egypt for centuries, they haven’t been slaves very long. The Pharaoh who enslaved them was a contemporary (1:22–2:2).
- They still exist as a community in Goshen, their own territory within Egypt (8:22; 9:26).
- They still remember their lineage back to the twelve sons of Jacob. When Moses sorts them by tribe (Numbers 1), they know where they belong.
- Each tribe has its elders — men of respect who sort out issues within their community. These tribal elders support Moses throughout Exodus (12:21; 17:5-6; 18:12; 19:7; 24:1, 9, 14).
They are not disorganized rabble who have been oppressed so long that they have no sense of identity.
When Moses is sent by “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”, the people know who this is. In their suffering they are desperately in need of hope, and their greatest hope would be for the God of their ancestors to remember them in their anguish.
This is precisely the message that the great ruler entrusts to his spokesman Moses:
16 Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’
Supported by the elders, Moses is to request permission to take the Hebrews on a three-day journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH. This is not a ruse, as if they asked for three days but planned to nick off and never return. Rather, it is the first step in introducing Pharaoh to the God of the Hebrews. With this request, they identify themselves as the people of YHWH. Pharaoh does not yet view them as subjects of YHWH, so there is no way he will accede to this request. It is a provocation, designed to get Pharaoh to begin to think of them as the subjects of YHWH rather than subjects of Pharaoh. Earthly rulers do not release their slaves without a fight. YHWH will need to demonstrate his authority over these people before the king of Egypt will release them (3:19-20).
So, the heavenly sovereign is about to reveal his kingdom authority. He revealed himself to this wilderness shepherd on the slopes of Mount Sinai. Moses is to be YHWH’s spokesman, and the Hebrew people will listen to him. Together they are to introduce YHWH’s demand to the oppressor who will not listen.
But the one who claims to be king of Egypt will be brought to his knees by a hand that is mightier than his. So, when Israel finally leaves Egypt, they will plunder the Egyptians (3:22). That’s the language of a great victory, of a people who establish their identity independently of Egypt.
They are finding their identity in their the king who will lead them to victory.