By the end of Exodus chapter four, Moses has fled from Pharaoh; taken a bride in Midian; spoken to God on the sacred mountain; met his brother in the desert and returned to Egypt, to deliver his people from bondage. In the last passage of that chapter (v31b) we read, “And when [the Israelites] heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.”
We see these people asking questions about God that we ourselves sometimes ask. As they suffered four hundred years of bondage it was natural to wonder if God cared about their suffering, or even heard their prayers and petitions. To understand this relief, we must understand their fear. They did not have the benefit of thousands of years of monotheistic thought and divine revelation as we do today. They would have only the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph to hold on to. At the same time they were surrounded by various polytheistic cultures. We know the Israelites had themselves resorted to worship of some of the local deities because they carried their images with them in the Exodus. Upon their victory in the land Joshua had to charge them to choose which god they would serve. The concept of one universal God was as alien to them as the concept of child sacrifice is to us today.
At this time they were not true monotheists and their fears about God hearing and caring (according to what they would have understood) were well founded. They were at best henotheists (believers in local deities or tribal gods) at this time with YHWH being seen as their tribal deity or a deity of Canaan and Haran. The idea of local gods meant that some deities were bound not to a people, but to a local geographic region. Their sovereignty was limited to this region alone and those who lived in the region had to learn to please this deity, regardless of whom they served elsewhere. We see this, many centuries later, when the Assyrians move foreigners into Samaria to replace the displaced northern tribes. The newcomers approached the locals to learn of the god that was worshipped in that area and adopted that worship as their own—thus was born Samaritan Judaism. The Israelites in Egypt would wonder if YHWH had authority in Egypt; is it possible his powers stopped at the border of Egypt? Is it possible that God did not live in Egypt and therefore couldn’t even hear their petitions? Of course they knew of the Egyptian sojourns of Abraham and Joseph, but four hundred years is a long time.
The other side of the question, “Does God care?” has been asked all through history and is common for us today. In their world the gods did not care for man. They performed for man because man did sufficient acts to appease them and earn their favor. The gods could be capricious and cruel. In the Babylonian flood story, found in Gilgamesh, we see this capriciousness when the gods caused the flood to destroy all humans because people are too noisy, making it is difficult for the gods to sleep. This is their view of deity. Moses brought word of a very different sort from their God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God cares and hears.
We today ask the same questions: Does God care? Does God hear? We go through situations of life and we wonder if God even knows what we are going through. Is he even there, or has He withdrawn himself. Even when we know better, we still question. If we understand that God hears and knows about our suffering, we question whether He cares. If He cared, He’d act. Wouldn’t He? We understand that if our child were suffering we would do whatever it took to alleviate that suffering and as God’s children we expect the same from Him. Of course we overlook the times that we permit or even inflict certain forms of suffering on our children for their own benefit.
In times of suffering what we require is not deliverance but the knowledge that God cares and hears. Knowing this, we can withstand anything; resist anything; suffer anything. God loves you; His word assures you He hears and cares. Prepare for suffering, tribulation and deliverance—all three are the birth-right of God’s children.
“Consider it pure joy, my brother, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4 NIV.