The providence of God: God at work in our world

Breakfast with the Bible: Chelmsford Cathedral 12 March 2017

Providence is the story of God at work for good. This morning I want us to look at the story of Moses’ early years through the lens of God’s providence.

Interestingly in the first two chapters of Exodus God scarcely receives a mention: Ex 1.20: “God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong“; and Ex 2.24: “God heard their groaning”. And yet God was very much the key player, controlling and overruling events. Why then the omission? Perhaps the author of the Book of Exodus was wanting to point out that God does not simply work in those special events which we term ‘miracles’ – he can also work in the ordinariness of life.

It has been said that “God’s ways are behind the scenes, but he moves all the scenes which he is behind” (John Nelson Darby).

What’s more, we discover that God can work even in the difficulties of life

At the time when Pharaoh was oppressing the Jews and issuing his edict that every Hebrew baby boy should be thrown into the river Nile, it must have seemed that God had forgotten his people. But from a later perspective it is clear that God was in fact transforming a tribe into a nation, whose bonds were being forged together in the fires of suffering and pain.

But that was in last week’s study – Exodus 2.

We also see God’s providence in the early upbringing of Moses in Ex 2 – and this chapter forms our text for study this morning. Long before Moses was aware of it, God was at work in his life in three difference ways

1. GOD WAS INVOLVED IN MOSES’ PRESERVATION

Last week we saw Pharaoh had become alarmed at the rapid growth of Joseph’s descendants – they were breeding like rats. Or as the Bk of Exodus more politely puts it: “the Israelites were fruitful & prolific; they multiplied & grew exceedingly strong so that the land was filled with them” (1.7). After one or two ineffective efforts, Pharaoh sought to put into practice a rather harsh method of birth-control: “Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile’” (Ex 1.22).

It was at such a time that Moses was born to Amram and Jochebed (Ex 6.20). But in Ex 2 we are not given the names of his parents – nor indeed the names of any of the participants in the story of Moses and the bulrushes. I like the suggestion of Alexander Maclaren that the that the ‘actors’ in the story were deliberately kept in the shadow, because the historian saw, and wished us to see, that a higher Hand, viz. God, was at work.

Whatever that be, for the first 3 months Amram and Jochebed managed to hold on to their child – but finally they could hide him away no longer (2.2). Not surprising when you come to think about it – even the best of babies cries from time to time. You can’t hide the advent of a child forever.

So Jochebed made “a papyrus basket for him (AV: “a basket of bulrushes“) and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it ” (2.3).

Incidentally, have you ever wondered why it was the wife, and not the husband, who made the basket? It is an interesting fact that in this story the only heroes (heroines) are women – Moses’ mother, Moses’s sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Not surprisingly this passage has been highly regarded by the feminist movement! E.g. Megan McKenna: “The women take the initiative, form a strategy and carry it out. They take the risks. The mother acts first, then the daughter followers here lead… The women are mentioned, praised, remembered. Where are the men? What are they doing?…The logical and rational or reasonable conclusion has to include the thought that the men were submitting to Pharaoh’s orders and killing the children as they were ordered to do“.

I find it also interesting that the word used here for “basket” is the very same word which was used of Noah’s ark (Gen 7-9). Moses’ basket proves to be for him an “ark of salvation“.

The story goes on to tell that Jochebed “placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river” (2.3) I.e. she placed it in the shallow water, where the current would not carry the basket away, where there would be less danger of crocodiles than on an open sandbank or beach, where there would also be some protection from the heat of the sun.

But was that the only reason for placing the basket there? Did Jochebed know that one of the daughters of Pharaoh was going to bathe there? From the way in which Miriam was stationed to keep an eye on the baby, and then so quickly volunteered the services of her mother as a nurse, it has been suggested that this was all part of a deliberate plan to place Moses in the care of the Princess. Thus one commentator noted that such baskets often served as housing for images of gods: “The mother had devised a means for saving her child which was peculiarly conformable to Egyptian conditions… Her hope was that the princess would, at the lst gland, suppose it to be a chest containing the image of a god, that had fallen from a boat into the river and drifted ashore, and that she would have rescued it forthwith” (AS Wahuda)

Personally I am not convinced. Human scheming does not seem to me to fit into the pattern of God’s providential care. The discovery, far from being planned, was an example of God’s providential care.

A further example of God’s providential care was the discovery by this particular daughter of Pharaoh, for Ramesses II had close on 60 daughters, and almost certainly not all of them would have been prepared to disobey their father. But this particular daughter of Pharaoh “took pity” (1.6) on the child.

Was it simply because she felt that every human life had value – or, as some have speculated (e.g. Megan McKenna) was it because she could not have children, or because her child had died or been deformed? We don’t know.

All we can say is that in Pharaoh’s going against the express dictates of her father we see God was at work. It was part of God’s gracious provision that Moses should be saved, and what is more that he should be saved by an Egyptian princess

2. GOD WAS INVOLVED IN MOSES’ EDUCATION

God’s gracious provision is evident in the way in which Moses was brought up within two cultures and in this way enjoy the best of both worlds.

On the one hand, his formative years were spent with his mother. We read that Jochebed “took the child and nursed it” (2.9). Contemporary records show that this period of weaning would have lasted some three to four years. It would have been in this time that he became aware of his Hebrew heritage, that he learnt of the “God of his fathers” (3.15).

Psychologists rightly stress the importance of impressions received during the earliest years. Moses would have been no exception. He was not simply born a Hebrew, he was given the chance to feel a Hebrew. This would have been impossible if he had been adopted immediately by Pharaoh’s daughter.

But if Moses had simply been brought up as a Hebrew, he would never have become the man he became. If Moses had only known the life of a slave, he would never have been able to stand up to Pharaoh and lead his people out of Egypt. In the providence of God Moses received an Egyptian education and was prepared for his later role as leader of the people of God.

As an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he would have received one of the finest of educations of his day. Egypt was then especially noted for her wise men and for her teachings on wisdom. Almost certainly the study of law would have been part of his education – very probably he would have to study the great Hammurabi Code of Law itself. What better preparation for a future Jewish lawgiver could there have been than to have detailed knowledge of the 282 sections of the Laws of Hammurabi covering such areas as theft, assault, commerce, property, and marriage?

It was not by chance that Moses was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7.22). It was in the providence of God.

A similar sort of divine care may be seen in the way in which God prepared Saul of Tarsus.

  • On the one hand, he could describe himself as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews

  • Yet on the other hand he could claim Roman citizenship.

Their twin background enabled both Moses and Paul to function more effectively in the service of God.

3. GOD WAS INVOLVED IN MOSES’ EXILE

The 2nd part of chapter 2 is concerned with the unfortunate incident in which Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating up a Hebrew, “one of his kinsfolk” (2.11) as the Bible significantly puts it.

Here we see that Moses had not forgotten his past – the years of Egyptian education had not caused him to forget his roots.

His kinsfolk” were still the people of the Hebrews.

We also see God’s providence in action. Not that it was providence which was responsible for murder – such a deed can never be ascribed to God. No, here we see God’s providence in the way in which positive good came out of evil. For as a result of Pharaoh learning of Moses killing an Egyptian, Moses was forced to flee.

When Pharaoh heard of it (i.e. the killing of the Egyptian) he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian” (2.15)

It is no exaggeration to say that had Moses not been forced to flee and go into exile, he would never have been the leader he became. For the Midianites lived in the desert wastes.

It was through his association with them that Moses learnt about trails and oases, scattered sources of water and the like – all necessary knowledge for a semi-nomadic leader.

No doubt at the time Moses was unaware of the way in which he would put this knowledge to use in the future. At the time he must have cursed his luck and thought he had really blown it. But here again was the hand of God – preparing him for his task as leader.

Field Marshall Montgomery once described Moses as the greatest leader of all time. But he was only so because of the providence of God. For unbeknown to Moses right from the very beginning of his life God had been preparing him for this role.

FOR REFLECTION

History has been described as “bunk” (Henry Ford), as` “just one damn thing after another” (Arnold Toynbee), or ‘His story’. What might we point to in terms of God at work in the history of our world?

To what extent does the story of Moses’ early life here in Exodus 2 lend weight to Disraeli’s assertion that the Jews are the most convincing proof for the existence of God?

John of Damascus said: “Providence is the care God takes of all existing things”. Gold clearly cared for Moses – but where was God for the other Hebrew boys?

William Cowper wrote, “Behind a frowning Providence/He hides a smiling face”. What experiences of God have you had when life has been tough and initially God has seemed perhaps to be absent?

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