By Edward Dennett
THE narrative of the exodus from Egypt is suspended to bring in certain consequences - responsible consequences for the children of Israel - consequences which flowed from their redemption out of the land of Egypt. For although they are still in the land, the teaching of the chapter is founded upon their having been brought out, and is indeed anticipative of their being in Canaan. If God acts in grace for His people, He thereby establishes claims upon them, and it is these claims that are here unfolded. A redeemed people become the property of the Redeemer. We thus read, "Ye are not your own; for ye are bought with a price" (1 Cor.6:19,20). It is on the same principle that the Lord here speaks unto Moses, saying, "Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine" (v.1). But another thing is introduced in this connection. The feast of unleavened bread was enjoined in the last chapter immediately after the sprinkling of the blood. That was to show that the two things - shelter by the blood, and the obligation of a holy life - can never be separated. It is now given again, with instructions for its observance when the Lord should have brought them into the land of the Canaanites, (v.5), in connection with the sanctification of the firstborn.
"And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten. This day came ye out, in the month Abib.
"And it shall be, when the Lord shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He sware unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee; neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters. And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes; that the Lord's law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt. Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.
"And it shall be, when the Lord shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as He sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee, that thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou bast; the males shall be the Lord's. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem.
"And it shall be, when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt " (v.3-16).
Two or three remarks may be added upon the feast of unleavened bread to include the additional particulars here given. It was to be connected for ever with the remembrance of two things. First, with the day of their redemption. "Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (v.3). The Lord would ever have His people remember the day of their deliverance, the day in which they were brought out of darkness into light, out from under the judgment due to their sins into the perfect favour of God in Christ. Secondly, they were not to forget the source of their deliverance. "For by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place" (v.3). To Him alone had they been indebted. No other arm could have riven their fetters, smitten their oppressor, protected them from the destroyer, and given them deliverance. He alone could have ransomed them from the hand of the enemy. Thus the Lord Jesus read, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18,19). It is therefore exceedingly significant to find that, immediately upon these two things being recalled to their minds, it is added, "There shall no leavened bread be eaten." If the Lord acts for His people, it is to redeem them from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works (Titus 2:14 ). Since He is holy, He looks for holiness in His redeemed, and throughout the complete period (seven days) of their lives. No leaven must be seen in any of their quarters. Not only so; but upon every recurring festival the father was instructed to teach his son the significance of the feast. Responsible for his children, he must carefully explain to them why no leaven could be permitted. It would be inconsistent with the ground of redemption on which he stood. "This is done," he should say, "because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand," etc. (v.8, 9); and all this that the Lord's law might be in his mouth. Here is the secret, both of separation from evil and separation unto God. "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to Thy word." Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee" (Psalm 119:9,11). It is thus that believers now can truly keep the feast of unleavened bread, by heeding and obeying the word of God.
Thereon follow the directions for the sanctification of the firstborn. Devotedness, consecration, must also mark the redeemed, and will be ever a fruit of true separation; and hence the feast of unleavened bread precedes the setting apart of the firstborn. First, we may notice the exception to this general law. "Every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem" (v.13). The conjunction of the firstling of an ass with the firstborn of man is most striking, and the more so that both alike were to be redeemed. There is also another thing. The firstling of the ass was to be redeemed with a lamb; the firstborn of Israel were redeemed with a lamb on the passover night. Add, that the ass was to be destroyed if not redeemed, as the Israelites would surely have been when the Lord smote the Egyptians, and the parallel is complete. What then do we learn by it? That man, as he is born into the world, is classed with the firstling of an ass; that both alike are unclean, and as such doomed to destruction, unless redeemed with a lamb. Can anything be more humbling to the pride of the natural man? Boasting of what he is, and of his intellectual capacities, let him here behold the divine estimate of his condition. A more degrading comparison could not be made, and yet it is a comparison to which every believer readily sets his seal as divinely true. For that was our state by nature - lost and helpless - and we had surely perished if, in the riches of God's grace, we had not been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. On the other hand, how it magnifies the grace of God in condescending to such as we were, in meeting us when in that state, bringing us to Himself, and associating us for ever with the Lamb by whom we have been redeemed! If by nature we could not have fallen lower, by grace we could not have been raised higher; for He has predestinated us "to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the Firstborn among many brethren" (Rom.8:29).
It is important to observe the ground on which God claimed the firstborn. It is expressly connected with the destruction of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (v.15). As we have seen, Israel was spared on that dreadful night solely on the ground of the sprinkled blood of the slain lamb - on the ground of the death of another. It was therefore on the principle of substitution; and this in fact is the ground of God's claim in this chapter. If God spared the firstborn because of the Paschal Lamb, He thereafter claimed them as His own. It is so now. We belong to Him who has redeemed us, because He took our place, and bore our sins in His own body on the tree. He died for all, that they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again. (2 Cor.5:15). It is well to ask ourselves frequently if we are recognizing His claim - His claim upon us, upon all that we are, and upon all that we have? This truth also the father was to impress upon his son (v.14-16); for thereby he would be taught the Lord's claims upon him equally with his father - that both alike, as redeemed ones, owed their service to the Redeemer. It is an immense point gained when the believer looks upon himself and his family as belonging to the Lord. Whether they are individually owning that claim is another matter, and it cannot be pressed too much that there is no salvation apart from individual faith; but it is of great moment that the head of the household should continually remember that he and all his are the Lord's. Only then will he be able, by God's blessing, to bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to govern them for Him, and as in His sight; and it is only as the children perceive this truth that they will look upon parental rule as expressive of the authority of the Lord. Let believers, therefore, not weary in telling their children of the Lord's claims upon the ground of redemption.
The narrative is now resumed.
"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people" (v.17-22).
The first thing this part of our chapter brings before us is God choosing the way for His people through the wilderness. If He lead His people out into the wilderness, He will undertake for them in every respect; He will expect nothing from them but obedience to His word. Mark, moreover, the tenderness He displayed in choosing their path. He had respect to their weakness and timidity. He "led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt."
Beautiful exhibition of His tender compassion - revealing to us how fully He enters into and feels for His people in all their feebleness and fears. True He had other purposes for them; but it is sweet beyond expression to notice that He determined the particular way by which He would lead them out of regard to their condition. " Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust" 1(Ps.103:13,14).
After the statement of the manner of their march, mention is made of the bones of Joseph. This is most beautiful. Turning back to the deathbed of Joseph, we read that he "took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence" (Gen.1.25). In the epistle to the Hebrews God's estimate of this action is recorded. "By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel ; and gave commandment concerning his bones" (Heb.11:22). In our chapter we find God's response to His servant's faith. There was surely enough to occupy the mind of Moses on this passover night - in arranging for the departure of so large a multitude. What leisure could he have had to care for the bones of Joseph? But Joseph had taken an oath of the children of Israel in dependence upon God. He believed, and therefore he spoke; and putting his trust in God it was impossible that he could be ashamed. To the natural eye there was little probability indeed - when Joseph was dying - of his people leaving Egypt. But this dying saint rested upon the sure word and promise of God, and therefore with confidence "gave commandment concerning his bones." Years had passed away - nearly four hundred (for the Israelites were in Egypt altogether four hundred and thirty years; Ex.12:41) - and God did visit His people, and the oath was remembered, so that the bones of the patriarch accompanied them in their exodus. It is surely a noteworthy example of the faithfulness of God, as well as the preciousness in His sight of the faith of His servant.
The next verse (20th) records the names of their first camping places. "They took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness." They started from Rameses ( 12:37 ), then came to Succoth, etc., as here described. These places were all in Egypt, and although much learning and research have been expended upon the subject, their identification has scarcely reached the limits of conjectural probability. What is of more importance is to notice that they were divinely guided on their march. He who selected their path, guided them in it, went before them in the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, in all their wanderings. These gracious symbols of His presence He never took from them as long as they were in the wilderness. This is only an illustration of the truth, that the Lord is ever the guide of His people. He who leads them out of Egypt may ever be seen before them in the path on which they have entered. He never says, "Go;" but His word is always, "Follow me." He has left us an example that we should follow His steps (1 Peter 2:21 ). He Himself is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). It is quite true that we have not the visible guidance which the children of Israel enjoyed; but it is no less discernible and certain to the spiritual eye. The Word is a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path (Ps.119:105).
It is interesting to remark that there was no such guidance in Egypt or in the land. This brings out the important truth, that it is only in the wilderness that the indication of a way is needed. And there it is in His tenderness and mercy that the Lord takes the lead of His own - showing them the way in which they should walk - where they should rest, and when they should march, leaving nothing to them, but Himself undertaking all for them, only requiring that their eyes should be kept fixed on their Guide. Happy are the people who are thus led, and who are made willing to follow, who by grace are enabled to say -
"Only Thou our Leader be,
And we still will follow Thee."
1) Much discussion has been raised upon the statement that the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt (v.18) - as if of necessity the word meant, armed as warriors. But this is a mistake. It does not seem to imply more than that they were in regular marching order, as would be necessary in conducting the movements of so large a host.