You've been there, like me, if you have been reading and studying the Bible for any length of time. You read a passage that you've read dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. You heard the story in Sunday School, you could recite it from memory. But this time, a verse, a phrase, a word jumps out at you like you are really seeing it for the first time - because you are.
That happened to me recently with one of the most familiar accounts in the Old Testament, if not the entire Bible - the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
After all of the plagues, and the stubborn willfulness of Pharaoh, he finally relents when the Lord begins to take the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, including Pharaoh's own - just like the previous Pharaoh had taken the lives of the firstborn of the Hebrews - a holocaust from which Moses was spared. So now Pharaoh says, "Go, take the people, take what you will, but leave!" And so the Israelites celebrate their first Passover, because the angel of death had passed over any door with blood from a spotless lamb on its lintels. After eating the meal, the people took more unleavened bread for the journey, plus gold, silver, and jewels from the Egyptians, gathered together and prepared to head to Sinai. And here is where I saw it.
Beginning at Exodus 12:37: "The Israelites journeyed from Rameses ro Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. (And here it comes, sports fans!) Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and hers." (emphasis mine)
Did you see it? Many other people. The group that left Egypt that day was a mixed group - not just Hebrews. In his fine biblical theology volume from Intervarsity Press entitled From Every People and Nation, African-American theologian J. Daniel Hays, writes:
"Many non-Israelites were integrated into the community of faith." He then quotes Walter Bruggeman, saying, "The phrase suggests that this is no kinship group, no ethnic community, but a great conglomeration of lower class folk." Hays goes on: "Who were these foreigners? Were they Egyptians? Other nationalities? Where did they come from and what were they doing in Egypt?" He then explains how ancient Egyptian records show how Egypt was replete with foreigners during this period, many having been brought back as conquered prisonsers to be slave labor. He concludes, "The group would include both Semitic and non-Semitic peoples." Hays then continues from here to show how Cushites (Black Africans) would have certanly been included in the crowd.
The Jewish nation was never intended to be defined strictly by race. They chose that designation later, but it was not the will of God. Think about it. Where did Abraham, the founder, come from? Ur of the Chaldees (later Babylon, and today, Iran/Iraq). The first Jew was a Gentile!
Besides, this group of ragtag persons was not yet a nation when they left Egypt. That did not happen until Sinai. God's people are never identified ultimately by race or ethnicity. They are identified by covenant! And so it is today. Our identity as the people of God is in the New Covenant ratified by Jesus Christ and sealed with His own blood. This is that covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, which speaks of willingness to follow God's Law because it is on our minds and hearts, of forgiveness of sin, and, most of all, of relationship ("I will be their God, and they will be my people.")
So the next time you teach the Exodus story in your Sunday School class or preach on it from the pulpit, remember not to say that Israel left Egypt, but that a mixed group left Egypt - a group that foreshadows Revelation 7:9, where there will be "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb ... and who "cried out in a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'" (Revelation 7:9-10) This group will have experienced the great Exodus from sin that the first Exodus typifies. Will you be part of that glorious gathering?