Exodus 12-14: Leaving Egypt

By Mary Jane Chaignot

While the people are gathering to leave, the Lord reiterates to Moses the importance of the Passover by stating several “regulations.”  Only circumcised males could eat it, so if a foreigner or slave were to be circumcised, they would be able to participate. The meal, itself, must be eaten inside the house; nothing can be taken outside. And none of the bones of the lamb could be broken.  “The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.”  While this might seem repetitious to many, it is meant for future celebrations after they have settled in the Promised Land, clarifying those who may participate.  Right now, they are the slaves.  After they have settled, they will be living among “strangers,” and many slaves will come and go.  All may participate as long as they meet the requirement of circumcision.  They all agree, and on that very day, “the Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.”

Following this, the Lord gives instructions regarding the firstborn – human and animal.  These instructions are interrupted by additional comments about unleavened bread. Or, to put it another way – the discussion of unleavened bread is framed by the Lord’s instructions about consecration of the firstborn.  Such framing always highlights what’s in the middle. 

Literally translated, the general principle is “whatever is the first to open the womb.”  It recognizes the Lord as the author of fertility.  Yet, despite the literal rendering, this only applies to male offspring.  While this highlights the sacredness of the male, it also has practical side in that fertile females were essential for increasing one’s herds.  Most scholars argue that the Lord is not suggesting that firstborn sons be, literally, sacrificed, but the words are uncomfortably used that way in other situations. The word “consecrate” can have the meaning of actual “sacrifice” (when referring to animals) or “consider as belonging to” (when referring to humans). This is made clearer in verse 12ff. where Moses continues by saying, “After the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you…you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb.”   

He continues, “All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord.  Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck.  Redeem every firstborn among your sons.”  Special instructions are given about donkeys because they are considered “unclean.”  Scholars speculate that they might have been worshipped by the surrounding pagan cultures, leading to their classification as unclean.  But the seminal book by Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, suggests they were so classified because they neither chew their cud, nor do they have cloven hooves – the characteristics of other clean animals.  Being outside the parameters of what is expected from a four-footed animal with a hide renders them “unclean.”  Obviously, given their status, they could not be sacrificed.  A lamb could be substituted, but the first male still needed to be killed, just without any loss of blood. 

Which brings one back to the final directive: “Redeem every firstborn among your sons.”  The threefold repetition of “redeem” has caused no little research in the history/possibility of child sacrifice.  Most agree such a practice would have been devastating to an emerging nation.  Some scholars have suggested it means giving the child over to serve the Lord in some capacity.  That would be credible only for a few months because the Levitical priesthood will be instituted before they leave Sinai.  Others have suggested a monetary payment, but nothing is said about that here.  It is clear that more research needs to be done in this area.

In the midst of the discussion about consecration, Moses once again tells the people to “Commemorate this day…because the Lord brought you out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  Eat nothing containing yeast.  Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders.” This is the ritual that will be imprinted upon their minds for the ages.  It is the living memory of what happened in Egypt, and as such, must be reenacted every year.  In so doing, they not only show gratitude for what God has done, but they also experience the event in real time.  It becomes a living reality for each successive generation.

Moses continues: “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that this law of the Lord is to be on your lips.”  It is thought that many cultures featured a tattoo of some sort honoring their deity.  Scholars debate whether or not this is in view in this passage.  It is true, however, that at some point (possibly after the exile) a Jewish custom arose in which phylacteries were worn on their wrists and foreheads during prayers.  These phylacteries were comprised of small boxes containing scriptural verses.  It is also the first instance of “the law of the Lord is to be on your lips.”  Technically, God’s law has not yet been given, but it is also possible that some of God’s teachings are so authoritative that they are just known by the community.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter.  Some scholars believe this to be a well-defined road used by armies and opened them to attack by the Philistines.  If an army were to move quickly and overtake them, they would be at great risk.  Understanding this, God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”  So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea, which literally means “Sea of Reeds.”  There is no consensus on its exact location.  “The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.”  It is unlikely they had access to weapons of war, since they have lived as slaves.  But they could have had primitive gear, which would have enabled them to fight and resist.

Moses took the “bones of Joseph” with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath to not leave him behind.  In this case, it is more likely that Joseph’s body has been mummified, and that is what they carried.  Even Joseph knew the Israelites would not stay in Egypt forever.  He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” 

After leaving Sukkoth, they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert.  It should be noted that scholars have not been able to determine any exact route.  Options are the northern, central, or southern route.  Place names and details of the journey can be applied to each of these.  Nor do the accounts in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy agree.  Scholars have had to be content with knowing the Israelites eventually arrived at Mount Sinai (the location of which is also uncertain), but not knowing exactly how they got there.

By day “the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.”  This could be seen as a figure of speech, a merism (two opposites that make a whole).  “Pillar of cloud” is literally translated, “something standing.” It is most likely meant to indicate God’s continued presence.  “Cloud and fire” will be used throughout this narrative to indicate God’s presence and protection.  Those who require a natural explanation have suggested some desert whirlwind or smoke from some volcanic activity.  Whatever it was, “Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”

At some point, the Lord says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp…by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon.”  Many scholars have suggested that in so doing, the Lord tempts Pharaoh to enter into a final battle with him.  Pharaoh thinks, “The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.” In other words, they have lost their way.  He knows their supplies are limited, and he might have a chance to round them up and bring them back.  In order to bring things to a head, the Lord “will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them.”  Some people might argue that this is entrapment at its worst.  However, readers already know about Pharaoh’s proclivities toward the Israelites, and any “hardening” at this point is substantively allowing Pharaoh’s basic tendencies to emerge.  As has been stated over and over, the real goal of this final battle is that the Lord “will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” This has been the goal from the beginning – that people will come to know the Lord.  So the Israelites wander backwards.

When the king of Egypt is told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials change their minds about them and say, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!”  This is better seen by the literal translation of “fled,” which means “give them the slip.”  This seems contrary to Pharaoh having previously ordered them to get out of the country.  Perhaps he really did think they would go for a three-day worship ceremony in the wilderness.  But reality has dawned, and Pharaoh suddenly realizes they have truly left.  The majority of his workforce has marched out of the country. 

So he has his chariot made ready and takes his army with him.  “He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.”  This is the best of the best that Egypt has to offer.  The six hundred might be literarily tied to the six hundred thousand that have left.  It is, however, folly to think that a few chariots will be any match for the God of the Israelites.

Indeed, the next line states, “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly.”  It is important to note that Pharaoh has already been gathering his forces before the hardening is mentioned.  It appears that, once again, Pharaoh is merely a player in God’s greater plan.  “The Egyptians – all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops – pursue the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.”

As Pharaoh approaches, the Israelites look up, and there are the Egyptians, marching after them. “They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.”  Not surprisingly, this “cried out” is the same as in 2:23.  They know that the Lord has heard their cry.  They know that the Lord has brought them out of Egypt, against all odds.  Yet, this turn of events has drained all hope and joy from their deliverance.  It is also the first glimpse of how they will behave in the wilderness. 

So they say to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”  From this it might appear that they were happy as slaves, content with circumstances that provided food and stability, even though at great cost to themselves.  They see their choice as “service to the Egyptians,” or “death in the desert.”  After watching the plagues unfold and God’s intervention on their behalf, one can only feel stunned by these remarks.  But this is the reality of the human condition.  They have already forgotten about Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, rituals that are to be handed down from generation to generation.  They have already forgotten God’s commitment to Abraham that his descendants would live in a Promised Land.  They are only thinking about being boxed in between the Egyptians and the sea.  And they believe they are about to die.

Moses, however, knows that God has authored this situation.  He answers the people’s three questions with three responses, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm…be still!” “Do not be afraid” is a word of reassurance, found frequently in theophanic situations.  It firmly states that one’s fears will not come to pass.  God is present and will work on his/her behalf.  “Stand firm” is not the same as “get ready to resist or fight.”  Indeed, the idea is that they should stand and watch.  There is no need to run away; God will act on their behalf.  “Be still” is best translated as “be silent.”  Nothing that they can say or do will affect this outcome.  Again, they are being asked to attentively watch.

They must do this “and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.”  “Deliverance” really means salvation.  The effects will be cosmic in nature.  Just as many of the plagues had a cosmic dimension, so does this moment.  “The Lord will fight for you.”  It is a breathtaking moment with Moses as the intermediary between the people and the Lord.  The stage is set, but no one is prepared for what happens next.