This is the third in a four-part series about Moses and the Exodus.
Moses’ mission was to lead the children of Israel out of bondage. It was not enough to take the Israelites out of Egypt—he had to take Egypt out of the Israelites. Mormon scholar Rodney Turner explained:
Act one of the drama of Israel ended with the death of Joseph. Between that event and the coming of Moses there was a silent intermission of several centuries. When the curtain rose again, Israel was a slave people both temporally and spiritually. It was the mission of Moses to deliver them from this double bondage.
The Exodus Begins
When Pharaoh told the children of Israel to go, he meant immediately— “Take your flocks and … herds … and be gone” (Exodus 12:32). The Egyptians, also, “were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men” (Exodus 12:33). Their flight, therefore, was hurried. Exodus 12:34-36 says:
And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.
And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment:
And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians.
But did the Israelites really borrow from the Egyptians? Bible scholar Adam Clarke commented on the translation of the Hebrew word sha’al as “borrow.”
This is certainly not a very correct translation: the original word … shaal signifies simply to ask, request, demand, require, inquire, [etc.]; but it does not signify to borrow in the proper sense of that word, though in a very few places of Scripture it is thus used. In this … the word signifies to ask or demand, and not to borrow, which is a gross mistake. … God commanded the Israelites to ask or demand a certain recompense for their past services, and he inclined the hearts of the Egyptians to give liberally; and this, far from a matter of oppression, wrong, or even charity, was no more than a very partial recompense for the long and painful services which we may say six hundred thousand Israelites had rendered to Egypt, during a considerable number of years. And there can be no doubt that while their heaviest oppression lasted, they were permitted to accumulate no kind of property, as all their gains went to their oppressors. (Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible … with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 6 vols. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, n.d., 1:307.)
Mormon scholar S. Kent Brown, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, wrote:
With the passing of the plagues, the Israelites doubtlessly departed Egypt in a spirit of joy and euphoria, happy to be free of Pharaoh’s chains. And at their departure, they hastily prepared provisions for their journey into the desert (see Exodus 12:39). But they could neither have carried much nor did they apparently take many weapons for defense.
These circumstances set the stage for the next test of faith—and subsequent miracle— for the children of Israel.
Parting the Red Sea
Pharaoh let the children of Israel leave, but again, he wavered. Mormon scholar Bruce Satterfield, professor of religion at Brigham Young University—Idaho, explained:
God, represented by a pillar of fire and smoke, led the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 13:20-22).
The scriptural account tells us that God did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt by way of the nearest or quickest route which was “through the way of the land of the Philistines,” but instead “God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea” (Exodus 13:17-18). After releasing Israel from bondage, Pharaoh hardened his heart again, and led his army to recapture the Israelites. With Pharaoh’s army to their back and the Red Sea to their front, Israel found themselves hemmed in.
Camped on the edge of the Red Sea, without sufficient weapons to defend themselves, the children of Israel panicked. Professor Brown wrote:
Quite rightly, the Israelites feared for their lives and said so in these words: “Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12).
But Moses said to them, “Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13). Moses lifted his rod and the Red Sea parted, allowing the children of Israel to pass on dry ground. But this is not all. The angel of God, which had been leading them, “removed and went behind them… and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel.” (See Exodus 14:16-20.) Of this, Mormon scholar Todd B. Parker, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, said:
When Israel got to the borders of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire came around behind them. There was first a separation of light and darkness. It was light to the Israelites going through the Red Sea, but it was darkness to the Egyptians.
What happened next was a miracle for the Israelites, but a tragedy for the Egyptians. Jewish tradition illustrates that this dichotomy was not lost on a loving God. Elder Marion D. Hanks explained:
Through Moses, God divided the waters, “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground” (Exodus 14:22). The Egyptians went in after them. Then Moses stretched his hand again over the sea, and the waters returned. The Israelites were safe, and the Egyptian armies were drowning. Triumphantly the people began to sing hymns of praise to the Lord. But the Almighty stopped them and said, “How can you sing hymns of praise and jubilation when so many of my children are drowning in the sea?”
The Lord saved His people through the parting of the Red Sea, but He could not celebrate the loss of Egyptian lives. Pharaoh, also, could not celebrate. Sister Sara Lee Gibb, at the time an instructor at Brigham Young University, said:
In the riveting story … portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s great film The Ten Commandments, Egypt’s pharaoh, Ramses II, stood on an elevated vantage point and witnessed the parting of the Red Sea as the children of Israel crossed on dry land. Subsequently, he watched his prized soldiers and chariots follow in pursuit as the waters closed in upon them and washed them away to perish in the sea. In the movie version, he returned to his palace, where his queen taunted him about the lack of response from the Egyptian gods, and Ramses spoke this great line: “Moses’ god is God.”
Pharaoh’s very trying experiences had finally led him to a previously denied perspective. Perspective is how we see things from where we are. But perspectives may change, depending upon our experiences and circumstances.
And, interestingly, despite the many miracles God had performed in their behalf, perspective is what the children of Israel seemed to continually lose when faced with trials.
Physical & Spiritual Emancipation
The Israelites had been crying for relief from their years in slavery, and the long-awaited time had come. Mormon scholar Sidney B. Sperry explained:
Moses’ mission, however, was just beginning. Professor Sperry wrote:
Once in the wilderness, Moses realized that the Israelites’ spiritual image needed a radical change. Because they had been exposed so long to the Egyptians and heathen religious practices, they had become corrupted.
Professor Turner wrote:
Physical emancipation was accomplished by the power of God…. Even so, the Israelites were a faithless people. In spite of the miracles wrought in their behalf, they were quick to complain when they saw the armies of Pharaoh approaching, and upon their arrival in the wilderness of Sin about a month after the miracle of the divided waters, they murmured again.
The Lord could free the children of Israel from physical bondage. But only the children of Israel could free themselves from the spiritual chains. Elder H. Ross Workman explained:
Many think of captivity only in terms of imprisonment by other people. Physical captivity is abhorrent, but the effects may not endure eternally. The greater bondage is to the father of lies—a form of captivity that is far more devastating and potentially longer lasting. …
A particularly powerful source of captivity is tradition. … Even individual and family traditions can lead to spiritual captivity. Traditions that are contrary to gospel principles offend the Spirit and, if followed, obscure one’s ability to be guided by the Spirit to recognize righteous choices that would expand freedom.
This is what happened to the children of Israel. Little by little, over the years and then centuries, they forgot the religion of their fathers. It became corrupted and enmeshed in the idolatry of the Egyptians. Elder Workman continued:
Freedom to choose all that is “expedient” is a gift given by God to His children. … It is often said that we are free to choose whatever course we desire, but we are not free to avoid the consequences of that choice.
Spiritual captivity rarely results from a single choice or event. More often, freedom is surrendered one small step at a time until the way to regain that freedom is obscured. …
Some seek to explain spiritual captivity as something out of their control. Is it really out of their control? Typically, freedom to make righteous choices is measured by a willingness to sacrifice that which is the object of desire or passion. Hence, sacrifice is a guiding principle and is the key to setting oneself free from captivity.
Freedom is not free. It requires sacrifice. But the children of Israel either didn’t realize this or weren’t prepared for it. Thus, freeing the Israelites from the bonds of slavery was an easier task than freeing them from the spiritual chains that had corrupted their religion and faith.
Manna in the Wilderness
With the miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the Lord was trying to show the children of Israel that He was in charge and He would not let them down. Professor Brown wrote:
When the Israelites miraculously survived this rather difficult circumstance, it should have been signal enough to them that, if they would only ask and have faith, God would succor them.
Soon after, the children of Israel came to a place in the wilderness of Shur called Marah, which means bitterness. (See Exodus 15:22-26). Of this time, Professor Brown wrote:
… We all know that when people travel in the desert, the most critical necessity for life is water. It is moreover the most burdensome to transport. In the case of the Israelites, by the time they reached Marah, they had spent their water, both for themselves and for their animals, and found themselves in dire need. But the water at Marah was unpotable, and this led to a questioning complaint: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). Once again, the Lord, through Moses His prophet, mercifully demonstrated to the Israelites that He could be trusted. And when the bitter waters were wonderfully healed, the children of Israel would have learned that God would and could also heal them.
But, it appears that it was difficult for the people to have continued faith. Professor Brown continued:
It was diminished provisions which brought a further crisis, this time in the wilderness of Sin. In chapter 16 we are told that six weeks after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites had run out of food: “the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2–3).
At this point, of course, there was no turning back out of the desert. God had led them into a place where they would have to depend wholly on Him for their daily needs. And once more the Lord did not abandon them, proving to be trustworthy. Compassionately, the Lord came to their aid and provided them with manna, not for that day only but for the entire period of their stay in the desert. (See Exodus 16:1–35.)
The Lord also provided quail in the desert for the children of Israel (Exodus 16:13). Miracle after miracle, the Lord was teaching the children of Israel that they could rely on Him.
The Purpose in Their Afflictions
Some of the children of Israel lacked perspective and faith, and could not see the reason behind their suffering and afflictions. This is as true for the Israelites as it is for us today. Elder Paul V. Johnson said:
Many have wondered why we must face difficult challenges. We know that one reason is to provide a trial of our faith to see if we will do all the Lord has commanded. Fortunately this earth life is the perfect setting to face—and pass—these tests.
But these trials are not just to test us. They are vitally important to the process of putting on the divine nature. If we handle these afflictions properly, they will be consecrated for our gain.
Elder Orson F. Whitney said: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. …”
The Lord was not punishing the children of Israel, nor had He forgotten them. Rather, He was refining them and preparing them to become His covenant people and receive the blessings of the gospel. Professor Brown wrote:
Part of the Lord’s program for the Israelites was to force them to come to trust and rely upon Him for all of their needs. This process took place over time, beginning with the first interview of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh and ending several weeks after they had left Egypt. The point of the growing lesson was that the Lord could be trusted and, indeed, had to be trusted. In effect, He left the Israelites without any resource upon which to call except Himself. It is my own view that the Israelites had to be brought to this state of mind and heart to become fully free. …
The children of Israel were on the road to becoming fully free. Professor Satterfield wrote:
It was the Lord’s intent to establish the descendants of Abraham as a unified people with one God and one religion. To the Israelites, the Lord said: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar [Hebrew, valued property] treasure unto me above all people . . . and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exodus 19:5, 6). It was also the Lord’s design to get the Israelites ready to “behold the face of God” or bring them into his presence (Doctrine & Covenants 84:23).