Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs … ‘” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the streams and canals and ponds, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.'” So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land … Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the LORD.” Exodus 8.1-8.
I suppose, without ever having given it too much thought, I have always been vaguely troubled by the deception that, on the face of it, lay at the heart of all the dealings between Moses and Pharaoh. The purpose of God was clear from the start: the Hebrews were to leave Egypt for good and were to re-settle in Palestine. God told Moses that in perfectly clear terms at the burning bush: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites …” (Exodus 3.7-8). So what was Moses doing in merely asking Pharaoh for a three-day leave-of-absence for the Hebrews to worship God in the desert (Exodus 5.3 and this morning’s reading as well as 8.25, 8.28, 10.11 and 10.24)?
Well, for a start, God had told Moses to ask Pharaoh only for a three-day leave-of-absence for worship (Exodus 3.18) so, if there was deception, God was behind it too … But maybe all was not what it seems.
First, “three days” is a vague Hebrew term and is more an indication of distance than time. In this context, it probably means no more than “outside the borders of Egypt”, and that is certainly how Pharaoh seems to have understood it. After the first four plagues, he says that they can have leave-of-absence but must stay within Egypt (Exodus 8.25); then he relents a little and says that they can go into the desert “but you must not go very far” (Exodus 8.28). He does not want the Hebrews leaving his jurisdiction. And even after a further four plagues, when Moses insists on taking the Hebrews outside of Egypt, Pharaoh first says “men only” (Exodus 10.10) and then “only men, women and children; no flocks or herds” (Exodus 10.24). He is determined to keep a hold over these people, whereas the fundamental demand of God through Moses is that he should relinquish that hold over them — the three-day journey.
But, secondly, the first thing God does indeed want of his people once he has taken them out of Pharaoh’s control is indeed “worship”. We tend to forget that the burning bush where Moses spoke with God was at Mount Sinai or “Horeb, the mountain of God” as it is called in Exodus 3.1. They are one and the same place. And, at the burning bush, God tells Moses: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exodus 3.12). Worship is central to God’s purposes for his people. It is what they are being set free for.
And once I understand that, I see that there was no deception in what went on between Moses and Pharoah. The issue was: Who do the Hebrews belong to? … and Pharaoah understood that. The very demand of God is to let “my” people go — though Pharaoh saw them as his people. And worship is about belonging. The people of the ancient world perhaps understood that better than we do. It is essentially a transfer of ownership. It is a handing over to God of one’s self and everything one has. The first use of the word “worship” in Scripture is when Abraham takes his only son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him to God. We are going to “worship” he tells the servants (Genesis 22.5). And Paul agrees: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12.1).
This morning and every morning, the big question I must answer is: Who do I belong to? And if I belong to anyone else but God, in any way, his cry is still “Let my people go, so that they may worship me”. I need today and every day to make that three-day journey out of the tyrrany of the world, the flesh and the devil into a place where I worship God afresh — give myself to him as a living sacrifice. For I am not my own, I was bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6.19-20). And whatever “promised land” he has in store for me, his primary concern is that I should acknowledge his ownership of me — that I should worship him.
I am your sacrifice
I am your offering
I was created to worship you
There’s nothing I could bring
That would mean more then this one thing
I was created to worship you.