Moses and the Exodus – “Let My People Go”
Among the details of the biblical account of Moses and the Exodus that are pointed to as possible contradictions in the Bible are the details of God’s mandate -- as delivered to Pharaoh by Moses and Aaron -- to “let My people go.”
Is this a little weekend outing, an extended vacation, or a permanent departure? Was it to sacrifice to God, to “serve” Him, or to completely leave Egypt? And then, were they promising to go only three days away and return, or to fully jettison themselves from the land? Or was Mt. Sinai only three days away from where they lived in Egypt? And then, what’s up with the unleavened bread thing -- the seven-day (not three-day) observance that was dropped right in the middle of the Exodus event?
Some critics have used all of these seemingly contradictory details to question the reliability of Moses and the Exodus in the Bible. But is there a way to reconcile them into a unified, trustworthy, historical account?
Moses and the Exodus – A Review of the Biblical Account
Without too much detail, let’s review some of the statements about Moses and the Exodus. First and most important, when God initially spoke to Moses from the burning bush at Mt. Sinai in Midian, He told Moses that His ultimate purpose for the Hebrews was that they would return to that mountain and “serve” Him. The word “serve” here is the same word that is used of the Hebrews’ role as Pharaoh’s slaves. In other words, by the time the Hebrews returned to Mt. Sinai in Midian, they would be in a position to “serve” God in the same totally owned and possessed way that they had been “serving” Pharaoh for 400 years.
But later, when Moses and Aaron first confronted Pharaoh about the status of God’s chosen people, God’s demand was that he let God’s people “go,” that they may hold a “feast” for Him in the wilderness. That doesn’t sound like a complete exit from the land. Or does it? It’s obvious from Pharaoh’s possessiveness that he knew the Hebrews could not serve two masters -- or gods -- at the same time. And God did everything necessary to make certain that Pharaoh knew His ultimate plans for the Hebrews. Throughout the Exodus account, two different Hebrew words were used to indicate God’s intentions (as well as Pharaoh’s) for the children of Israel. The first word is “shalach,” which indicates a complete exit or departure. The second word is “yalak,” which means “walk” or “brief journey.” According to the record, Pharaoh clearly knew the difference, as he tried to hang onto the Hebrews rather than relinquish them to their God.
In Moses’ initial request, the word for complete exit, “shalach,” was used, since the holding of a feast to the true God would be completely offensive to the supposed man-god Pharaoh. Of course, Pharaoh refused. Later, he was presented with the option of allowing the Hebrews to “yalak” (or journey) three days out and offer a “sacrifice” to their God. Again, Pharaoh refused. Perhaps it was because he did not expect the Hebrews to return, or maybe he actually feared that the God of the Hebrews was real and would answer their sacrifice with supernatural deliverance.
So on it went, with Pharaoh playing word games against God’s plan, and the prospect of ultimate departure always present in Pharaoh’s mind and in God’s purpose. As we know, God finally “motivated” Pharaoh to forcefully order the Hebrews’ departure all the way out of the land (shalach) after God shows His power and His prerogative through the Passover purchase of all the firstborn, including all of Israel, God’s firstborn. So God’s ultimate purpose was fulfilled through Pharaoh, against his will rather than through it.
Moses and the Exodus – Three Days’ Walk
When reviewing the account of Moses and the Exodus, we still might ask, "What was up with that three days’ walk, and the sacrifice, and the feast, if God was going to take them all the way out anyway? Was God just running a ruse past Pharaoh? And why did God throw in a seven-day observance of Unleavened Bread, which we read about in the middle of His instructions about the Passover?"
Well, I’m no expert, but here’s one possible take on the whole scenario. If we can trust God’s words in Exodus, we have to believe that He really did offer Pharaoh the option of letting the Hebrews go (“shalach”) three days out of Egypt proper, into a wilderness area controlled by Egypt, to offer a feast of celebration to God for their liberation from Pharaoh’s ownership. From there they would have moved on to wherever God would take them as their new Lord and Master. To that, of course, Pharaoh said, “fat chance” -- or the Egyptian equivalent.
Pharaoh was also offered to let the Hebrews go that same distance in an observed journey (“yalak”) to offer a sacrifice to the God. What sacrifice? Undoubtedly it would have been the same sacrifice that was offered on Passover, in order to purchase their freedom from Pharaoh’s ownership through the blood of a substitute. And it can be assumed that the ultimate outcome would have been the same -- complete exit from Egypt.
In both scenarios -- which Pharaoh refused -- the central event that would occur those three days into the wilderness was that they would meet their God at that place. Maybe that was what Pharaoh feared most -- or simply didn’t believe. But either way, the possibility of the Hebrews meeting their God three days out into the wilderness was real, because God made genuine offers to Pharaoh, which he refused. Ditto for the possibility of a feast and a sacrifice.
Moses and the Exodus – Feast of Unleavened Bread
So how long did it really take the Israelites to get all the way out of Egypt -- to completely escape not only Pharaoh’s ownership, but his jurisdiction and military power as well? That’s where the period of unleavened bread comes in. The easiest way to understand the Feast of Unleavened Bread in relation to the Exodus is by reading Deuteronomy 16:3:
Moses and the Exodus – By Cloud and Fire
What’s really interesting about this account of Moses and the Exodus is the reason God led them by cloud and by fire. According to the Bible, it was so that they could travel “day and night,” apparently without stopping to camp again until the seventh day of Unleavened Bread. Talk about hardship! Go ahead and try walking nearly 24 hours a day, for three or four days, with nothing on the menu but unsalted soda crackers! Now, in various places throughout the Bible, we are given clues about the supernatural ways in which God helped the Hebrews travel in extreme haste in such a hostile natural environment. For example, one passage seems to indicate God supernaturally empowered the entire nation, that they would not falter along the way. Another verse declares that He put His Spirit in them to provide that strength. Other provisions, according to the Psalms and 1 Corinthians 10, is that He covered them with a cloud of cool moisture, and dropped plentiful rain to sustain them. And, of course, they had the supernatural light of the pillar of fire to light their way in the darkness of the desert night. Even so, the fatigue, fear, and dread of the Egyptian army that would follow the Hebrews must have been intense. And that steady diet of unleavened bread probably didn’t help.
Finally, after six days, the Hebrews found themselves on the coastline of yam suph -- the Gulf of Aqaba according to 1 Kings 9 -- hemmed in by the mountains and the sea, with a deadly Egyptian chariot force closing in fast. Across the water was Midian (modern-day Arabia), and safety. But on their side of the water, death was imminent. That’s when God stationed Himself between the Hebrews for an entire day -- another holy gathering, and a Shabbat (Sabbath) to boot. God rested; the Hebrews rested (none too easily, I would guess); and even the Egyptians rested -- which gave Pharaoh ample time to re-consider and return to Egypt.
The rest, as they say, is history. That night God parted the waters of the Red Sea, the Hebrews crossed out of all Egyptian jurisdiction into Midian, the Egyptians followed, God closed up the waters, and the Egyptian bondage chapter of Israel’s history was finally over – just as God had promised it would be. And a new chapter of their relationship with God began.