Israel in Egypt: Free to Go or Free to Worship

One detail that has always bothered me about the story in Exodus of Moses and Yhwh demanding the release of Israel from Pharaoh is the tidbit that the demand is that the children of Israel receive permission to travel three days out into the desert in order to worship Yhwh. The negotiation surrounding this request/demand gets heightened in chapter 8. In chapter 8 with the plagues of frogs, gnats/lice and flies Pharaoh tries to compromise by having them do their religious thing in Egypt and then maybe not so far away from Egypt.

The question that always bothered me was whether the religious errand was a ruse or whether a lie just to get them out.

The Manner of Departure

Throughout the story there have also been two ways of describing how Israel will leave:

  1. Yhwh will bring them out
  2. Pharaoh will cast them out

Looking ahead both will be true. God will bring them out through the plagues and Pharaoh and Egypt will demand that they go, offering gold and gifts that they might leave. Israel’s presence in Egypt which is first jealously guarded as a labor asset that Pharaoh wishes to keep soon becomes a calamity that Pharaoh wishes would go away.

“Try Worshiping Here”

One of the compromises Pharaoh’s offers is that the Israelites worship Yhwh in Egypt. Moses’ reason for rejecting this offer is interesting. The Egyptians themselves would be offended by the sacrifices and might stone the Israelites. Commentators debate the age of the text given some knowledge of the relative tolerance and intolerance of Egypt for reverence of certain animals (calves).

When Israel does in fact leave their worship of Yhwh at Sinai will of course not just include some sacrifices but will lead to the giving of the law and the total renovation of life for Israel.

Worship and Life

For secular Americans who regard worship as some isolated, private, relatively unimportant act of self-expression, this text seems strange. Worship for Moses and Yhwh seem to be about all of life and worshiping Yhwh will in fact mark the end of Israel’s slavery not simply in Egypt but under the Egyptian way of living.

Life in Egypt was of course utterly religious in every aspect. The gods were in charge of flooding the Nile, providing the crops, etc. Pharaoh was of course key to the maintenance of ma’at. 

Worshiping in Egypt, seen as a half measure to Pharaoh would not have been tolerated. The Egyptians would be prone to violence against Israel in how far they would step out of the way you make life work.

Worship of Yhwh, and all of the life change that would involve would be so strange and new that it would first be undertaken in the desert, where there would be no other populations to offend, and then would be established in its own land, where it would become the way.

My problem with the request/demand to let them go to worship was not that God was lying, it was that I failed to understand what worship is and what it requires.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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