God is omnipotent—He possesses all power. Whatever He wills comes to pass, and sometimes the way He does things tells us something about Him. The exodus from Egypt is the story of one of these times. The way God interacts with man to bring about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt shows us something about God.
The story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt begins with the birth of Moses and his unusual upbringing in Egypt (Exodus 2) and, later, a command from God to Pharaoh, delivered to the Egyptian ruler by Moses and Aaron: “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Pharaoh refused. Israel was valuable to Pharaoh because they provided slave labor for his kingdom.
From a human perspective, it makes sense that Pharaoh would refuse to comply with these two Israelites. It would be a bit like two small-town pastors walking into the White House and telling a pro-choice President to end abortion now because God says so. The President would dismiss them. He isn’t going to make policy decisions based on what he sees as the whim of a couple of politically insignificant, powerless cranks.
Pharaoh was angered by Moses and Aaron’s demand, and he accused them of trying to stop the Israelites’ labor. As a punishment, Pharaoh cruelly made the slaves’ work more difficult: “Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies” (Exodus 5:9).
God was rightly unhappy with Pharaoh, and He tells Moses what will happen next: “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land’” (Exodus 6:1, ESV).
Essentially, God was telling Moses that, when He’s done with Pharaoh, not only will Pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave, but he will forcefully drive them out of the land of Egypt. God also gave Moses a message for the Israelites, telling them that He will deliver them from slavery and redeem them with “an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment” (Exodus 6:6, ESV). But the people didn’t listen to what Moses said “because of their discouragement and harsh labor” (verse 9).
At this point in the events leading to the exodus, neither the oppressor nor the oppressed are listening to God. The Israelites aren’t listening because they are broken and miserable and unable to believe that anything good can happen to them. Pharaoh isn’t listening because he trusts in his own power and thinks nothing bad can happen to him. These two perspectives are corrected over the next few chapters.
What follows is a succession of plagues sent by God upon the Egyptians. At first, Pharaoh doesn’t believe the plagues are coming from God. He thinks Moses and Aaron are somehow creating the trouble, because his own magicians can use dark arts or trickery to do similar things (Exodus 10:10–11, 21–22, ESV). But when the third plague came (the plague of gnats) the pagan magicians began to say, “This is the finger of God,” because they could not replicate the gnats (Exodus 8:18).
Over the next few chapters of Exodus, God continues to send horrifying plagues on Egypt. Despite the fact that his land was being systematically destroyed, Pharaoh still would not obey God and let the Israelites go. As the plagues get worse, Pharaoh pleads with Moses to tell God he’s sorry and that, if the plagues will stop, he will comply. But each time God takes away the plague, Pharaoh again hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go.
Not only did Pharaoh harden his heart, but the Bible says that God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 11:10). It may seem strange that God blamed Pharaoh for his actions when God was hardening his heart to disobey. The key is to remember that Pharaoh’s first action was to dismiss God and cruelly oppress God’s people, which he did all by himself without God’s involvement. It could be that, as a result of Pharaoh’s hardheartedness, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart even more, allowing for the last few plagues and bringing God’s full glory into view (Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27). The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a judgment for his initial rejection of God’s command. Furthermore, it is God’s prerogative to have mercy on or to harden whomever He will: “For Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17–18).
Finally, God told Moses that there was one more plague to come, after which Pharaoh would relent and drive out the nation of Israel from his land (Exodus 11:1). And that is exactly what happened. Moses prophesied to Pharaoh that the next plague would be the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh again stubbornly persisted in disobedience. So God initiated the Passover and told the Israelites to mark the lintels and posts of their doorways with lamb’s blood. Every door marked with the blood would be “passed over” when the Lord came to take the firstborn of every household in Egypt (Exodus 12:23–27).
Everything happened as God said it would. On the night of the exodus, the marked houses of the Israelites were spared, but the firstborn of Egypt died in every Egyptian household, from Pharaoh’s household to that of the lowest, poorest Egyptian. And this time, just as God had said, Pharaoh relented and drove the Egyptians out. In fact, they were made to leave so quickly that “the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders” (Exodus 12:34, ESV). This is an interesting detail, because before the last plague struck, God had told Moses that Passover would be always celebrated with a feast of unleavened bread (verses 17–18). Further, as “the Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country” (verse 33), the Israelites “asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, . . . and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians” (verses 35–36).
After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh chased after them, thus sealing his fate. In one of the greatest miracles, God split the Red Sea to allow His people to escape the Egyptians and reach the other side on dry ground (Exodus 14). Then, when Pharaoh and his army attempted to follow, God closed up the sea again, and the oppressors of Israel perished. “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (verse 31).
The account of the exodus assures us that what God says will happen, will happen. Sometimes people are like Pharaoh, so proud and stubborn that they resist God to the very end, despite the evidence that His will always comes to pass. And sometimes people are like the Israelites, so broken in spirit and exhausted that they just can’t believe God will bless them. But in both cases, as the exodus from Egypt illustrates, God still has the power to do exactly what He promises.
The meaning and importance of the exodus from Egypt are encapsulated in the annual observance of Passover. The fact that God rescued His people from slavery and revealed His mighty power is a recurring theme in Scripture, and the exodus is mentioned in many places (e.g., Deuteronomy 5:6; 1 Samuel 12:6; Psalm 77:20; 78:13; 105:26; Isaiah 63:11; Micah 6:4; Acts 7:36). Because of the exodus, the Israelites could always see themselves as redeemed by God, rescued from slavery, and blessed with God’s favor.
The importance of the exodus is felt in the church, as well. The Lord Jesus, like Moses, set His people free. Like Moses, Jesus confronted a slave owner (Satan) and through the manifest power of God forced him to relent. Like Moses, Jesus leads His people through the wilderness of this world, intercedes for them, and provides for their needs. And through both Moses and Jesus came a holy covenant between God and His people: the covenant of Moses was temporary and could not ultimately save, but the covenant of Christ is eternal and “superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). The New Covenant results in salvation for all who trust in Christ (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 9:15). Jesus is the one “worthy of greater honor than Moses” (Hebrews 3:3).