Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. Exodus 1.8 But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is Yahweh that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go.’ Exodus 5.2 They said to Moses and Aaron, ‘May Yahweh look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us. Exodus 5.21 So Moses spoke to the sons of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage. Exodus 6.9
One of the more striking things about the details found in the book of Exodus is the similarities and differences Israel has with the Egyptians. As we begin reading the book, it seems like Pharaoh is the biggest hurdle for Israel. But as the drama goes on he is just a small problem in this 40 chapter book. Instead, we come to find out that even though it is problematic that Pharaoh doesn’t remember Joseph and that he doesn’t acknowledge Yahweh as God, the Israelites run into the same predicament. They too do not remember Joseph and the promises of Yahweh to him. Although they are physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they have forgotten their God. The glaring problem in the book of Exodus is that this new generation of Israelites does not really know their covenant God, and it is clear that they would rather serve Pharaoh in Egypt building earthly cities than serve Yahweh in the wilderness building a copy of the heavenly tabernacle.
So when Pharaoh says, ‘Who is Yahweh that I should obey his voice,’ the Israelite taskmasters grumble- matching the ruler’s disdain at Moses, God’s prophet, and Aaron, his mouthpiece. Neither Pharaoh nor the Israelites are open to the mighty and miraculous work of Yahweh. Instead, they are content with their own man-crafted worship and way of life. We see a picture of the Egyptian gods in plagues which should have destroyed any confidence the Egyptians had in their gods (whether the sun god or river god among others). But the Israelites too seem to have completely forgotten Yahweh and at Sinai when Moses was on the mountain, they were content to have a gold calf to worship. Being content with an idol at such a monumental time and place shows us that they had lost the faith of their father Abraham. They didn’t have the shame to hide the family idols like a Rachel. Instead they boldly rejected Moses, ‘That man who brought us out of Egypt,’ and asked for an idol to satisfy their idolatrous hearts.
You sort of wonder at the end of the day why God would want to deal with such an uninterested people. If they don’t want to leave Egypt, why is he making them? At some point, won’t he punish them by handing them over to their own sin? At the end of the day the Exodus isn’t about the Israelites. The Exodus is about Yahweh keeping his promise to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Moses defends the cause of Israel, when all hope was lost after the golden calf, recalling God’s unilateral promise to Abraham.
So in Exodus, Israel’s greatest problem was their own ignorance of Yahweh the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and therefore Sinai is a stumbling block to them. Although we can see God’s goodness in Sinai, it really becomes, as a commentator points out, the biggest roadblock to the Israelites. They are unwilling and unable to fulfill the instruction God gave at Sinai. At least before Sinai, God only reprimanded them for disobedience. After Sinai, disobedience leads to death, even for something as seemingly innocent as a Sabbath violation.
What we come to understand is that there is a greater plan of salvation. The laws of Sinai and their judgments really are anticipating a resolution to the God-ignorant heart of the Israelite, which we know is found through what Jesus did on the earth and in his new covenant. Before, where the Israelites knew not their God, in the new covenant God’s people know him. We see this exemplified in Paul, who says in Phil. 3:5-8 that though he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews…under the law blameless, [yet] whatever gain I had, I counted… as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”