And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.
This year's reading through Exodus has brought to my attention, more than before, how much is new in Exodus when compared to Genesis. Not only does God introduce himself by a new name, the Name (Exod. 3:15, 6:2), but much else that is easily taken for granted is introduced here for the first time.
What’s new in Exodus?
Here for the first time we find a fully formed community, a people ('am), an "ethnic group" formed of the descendants of Jacob's family, identified by two different names, the sons of Israel and the Hebrews.
But even here they are more than another "ethnic group" identified only by a common genealogy; they are a religious community devoted to God and blessed abundantly by him (Exod. 1:7, 20) in spite of their circumstances. This God is a particular God, the God of their ancestors, as we are reminded in chapters 2 and 3. They are a community in exile, reduced to cruel servitude by the decrees of Pharaoh, yet they do not worship the God of Pharaoh: they are called to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and follow his decrees. They cry out to this God for deliverance, and God remembers his covenant with their ancestors (Exod. 2:23-25).
At the same time they are more than a religious community; they are in the process of forming a new nation with laws and customs that reflect their historical experience as well as as their understanding of God's heart. For example, their very experience of oppression as "strangers in the land of Egypt" will be incorporated in decrees and laws protecting the rights of strangers who reside with them in the land of Israel (see Exod. 22:20 MT, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:19). I am especially struck by Exod. 23:9, where the people of Israel are reminded that they know the soul (nefesh) of the stranger -- knowledge gained only by experience.
What’s new in Exodus?
Service to God: Does this concept occur before Exodus, where it becomes a theme of the redemption from Egypt? Only once, and then only as a title for an individual, when God calls Abraham “my servant” (Gen. 26:24).
Service to man is found often in Genesis (e.g., one brother serves another), also at the beginning of Exodus (Exod. 1:13, 14; 5:9, 11, 18), and again after Israel departs from Egypt (Exod. 14:5, 12). Compare also the first half of the Sabbath commandment, "six days you shall serve" (Exod. 20:9; Deut. 5:13), i.e., serve human masters and ends.
But the full notion of service to God (as far as I can tell) first appears at Exod. 3:12 and then is repeated at least 12 times in the chapters that follow:
3:12 "…you will serve God on this mountain"
4:23 "[Thus says the Lord], 'Let my son go, so he may serve me'"
7:16 "The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, [says], 'Let my people go, so they may serve me in the desert'"
7:26 MT [8:1] "Thus says the Lord, 'Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
9:1 "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
10:3 "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
10:7 "Let the people go so they may serve the Lord their God"
10:8 "Go! Serve the Lord your God"
10:11 "…the men go and serve the Lord"
10:24 "Go! Serve the Lord"
10:26 "…we must use [our livestock] to serve the Lord our God, and we will not know with what we must serve the Lord until we get there"
12:31 "Go! Serve the Lord"
To define Israel's relationship to God as service (avodah): this was a radically new concept, just as new as the Name revealed to Moses, and just as new as the "people" then in formation.
Deut. 11:13 instructs us to serve God with all our heart and soul. Another familiar passage emphasizes this aspect of our relationship to God, and warns against serving other gods:
Now fear the Lord and serve him wholly and faithfully, and throw away the gods your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if it is undesirable in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve....But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
That the word translated "serve" can also mean "worship" is seen in the parallel references to holding a feast (Exod. 5:1, 10:9) and to "sacrifices and burnt offerings" (Exod. 10:25; cf. 5:3, 8:25-28). Nevertheless, this word goes beyond formal worship; the obvious analogy is their service to Pharaoh in Egypt, in the "house of servitude" (Exod. 13:3, 14; 20:2).
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I have formed you, you are my servant, O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
If Israel is the servant, then God is the master. So the cipher traditionally used in place of God’s new name, Adonai or Lord, seems very appropriate.
The attitude of the servant toward his master: what is expected of the servant?
1. That he will humble himself before the master. [Cf. Exod. 10:3..."How long will you (Pharaoh) refuse to humble yourself before me?"] Arrogance does not become a servant.
2. That he will fear (demonstrate reverence for) the master.
3. That he will obey the master's instructions [torah].
4. That he will be faithful to the bond he shares with the master [covenant].
And the attitude of the master toward his servant? That is where the analogy may break down, for God is no ordinary master. The conclusion of the haftarah (prophets) reading illustrates this point well:
But as for you, do not fear, O Jacob my servant, and do not be dismayed, O Israel. For, behold, I will save you from far away, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and have rest and quiet, with no one to trouble him.
As for you, do not fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord, for I am with you. For I will make a full end of all the nations where I have driven you, yet I will not make a full end of you. But I will correct you in due measure, and by no means leave you unpunished.
The God of Israel is not a harsh master like Pharaoh, who treated his Hebrew slaves "ruthlessly" (b'farekh, Exod. 1:13, 14), without concern for their welfare or even their lives. God promises to his servant to provide “rest and quiet” from toil and trouble (contrast Pharaoh’s attitude, Exod. 5:5-9), and while correcting him, to use “due measure.”
Solomon Schechter’s words concerning the rabbinic understanding of God’s relationship to Israel show what a different sort of master we have in God:
For God suffers with them in their suffering and is with them in their distress. Their subjection implies his subjection, and his presence accompanies them through their various captivities among the Gentiles. Therefore their redemption is his redemption, their joy is his joy, their salvation his salvation, and their light his light. (Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, p. 50)
Draw us near, our King, to your service.