The first few chapters of Exodus are some of my favorites in all of Scripture. The story is told in such a way that it yields treasure for the discriminating (ie, slow and attentive) reader. For instance, the opening scene takes us back to Genesis 1 where a divine council is plotting life and order and meaning. Exodus 1 begins with a “divine” council as well, with Pharaoh and his attendants plotting death and chaos and shrewdness. The descriptors are telling. The Hebrews are living in the blessings of a life giving God. Again, recalling Genesis 1, they were “fruitful and prolific, they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, and the land was filled with them.” Even when Pharaoh opresses them, “they multiplied and spread.”
In contrast, Pharaoh invites his people to deal in something other than the blessing of life. “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them… they set taskmasters over them who oppressed them with hard labor…the Egyptians were ruthless in imposing tasks on them and made their lives bitter… (and in case you missed it) They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” Think they were ruthless?
This opening scene sets up the early chapters of Exodus, not as a contest between Moses and Pharaoh, but between Yahweh and Pharaoh, between authentic divine sovreignty which leads to life and blessing, and counterfit sovreignty which operates out of fear with shrewdness and ruthlessness. While the subsequent liberation of the slaves (again revealing Yahweh’s superiority) frees them for life toward the God who rescued them, this life is defined in many ways over and against the experience of Egypt and the ruthless rule of Pharoah. Life before Yahweh is to be very different than life under other sovreigns. The Hebrews have not been freed so that they can in turn rule over others. Rather, special provision is to be made for the powerless, for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.
This idea that God’s rule is counter to Pharoah’s rule, I believe, goes a long way to defining the term holiness in the book of Exodus. God is not like Pharoah, or any other rulers (It is interesting that Pharoah is never named, in contrast, for instance, to Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. This anonymity allows Pharoah to serve as a stock character, to stand in for all others who rule differently than Yahweh).Yahweh is other, and so are his people to be. Be holy, as I am holy.
So, with this contrast in mind, it is interesting to go back and look at the way Pharoah and Yahweh are characterized in the opening chapters. The first thing the narrator tells us about Pharaoh is that he “did not know Joseph.” There is no memory of the way that Joseph and his God prepared Egypt for the life threatening famine that came over the land. Apart from memory, apart from a narrative, the Israelites are now only a threat. They are an abstraction, a force, a resource, a tool.
The first time God is mentioned in the story is at the end of chapter 2. The Isrealites slavery caused them to cry out. The two verses that follow are so important:
“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
The intensification of the verbs by which the narrator lets us know that the cries of the Israelites has reached the ears of God is telling. God heard their groaning, AND he looked upon them, AND he took notice of them. But even more fascinating to me is the mention of God’s memory. While Pharaoh does not remember Joseph, God does remember Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. While Pharoah does not remember a common story with the Hebrews, God does. For Yahweh, the Israelites are not an abstraction, a threat or a problem to be dealt with, they are a people with a story, partners in history. Yahweh’s memory allows him to take notice in a way that is different than Pharaoh, underscored by the intensifcation of the of verbs of attentiveness used in these verses.
The implications of all of this are huge and run in many different directions. For instance, it might be interesting for churches to ask themselves if they see their neighbors as an abstraction, as only a set of problems or as prospects to pad the bottom line of the institution, or if there is some attempt to place them in a story, to allow memory to build empathy and connection, and ultimately the right kind of attentiveness. But the big point I want to make is about God. At least in part, and I think in a big part, what distinguishes Yahweh from Pharaoh in Exodus, and, therefore, what makes him holy, is his attentiveness. He remembers. He hears and looks and takes notice. And his people should do the same.