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Abraham's posterity in Egypt
As regards the bulk of Abraham's posterity, by the time they had become numerous enough to be a nation for rescue from the Egyptians who enslaved them, they were in little better condition than the Egyptians themselves. We learn this from God's message to them by Ezekiel (chap. 20:8), from which it appears they were addicted to the worship of the idols of Egypt.
God had said (verse 7), "Defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt . . . But", He says, "they rebelled against me, and would not hearken unto me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt".
It is a question insoluble, on all human principles of action, why God should have redeemed Israel from Egypt under these circumstances. Human thoughts can imagine a fitness in the rescue of a deserving nation; but why should God have interfered on behalf of a nation to whom Moses said:
"Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess the land . . . for thou art a stiffnecked people" (Deut. 9:5);
to whom David said:
"Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt" (Psa. 106:7);
and concerning whom Isaiah was commanded,
"Write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever, that this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord" (Isa. 30:9).
There is an answer; but it is an answer whose force is not felt till the mind has learnt in the furnace of deep affliction that man is nothing but a transient appearance, and that God is the only intrinsic reality. God gives the answer through His prophet Ezekiel (20:9):
"I wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, among whom they were, in whose sight I made myself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt".
This answer is identical with what we read in the above-quoted psalm:
"He saved them for his name's sake that he might make his mighty power to be known" (Psa. 106:8).
It is a first principle of the subject, therefore, that Israel's deliverance from Egypt and organization into a nation was irrespective of Israel's state, and was wholly a measure with divine aims, with the promotion of which Israel as a nation in the first instance had very little sympathy. Yet it was needful that they should be brought into a state of willingness to co-operate, and finally into a state of fitness for use as an instrument in the work.
These two objects were secured by the admirable methods adopted. As regards the first, Israel was brought into great affliction. Egypt's jealousy was excited in reference to Israel's increase and prosperity; and Pharaoh's suggestion found a ready response among his people, that they should "deal wisely" with the alien race and set over them taskmasters to afflict them.
"And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour, and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field."
Finally they ordered the destruction of all male Hebrew babies in the hope of stopping their increase. No wonder that
"the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God".
The persecution continued at least 80 years, for we find Moses himself cast out as a babe under the edict for the drowning of the children, and we find the oppression in full rigour when he stands before Pharaoh at 80 years of age to demand their release.
Such a prolonged experience of extreme hardship was well calculated to humble and predispose the nation for what was to come with the arrival of Moses, and it was probably also a punishment for the state of practical apostasy into which Israel had sunk.
Interpreting the symbolism of the law
and its moral teaching
To cultivate the art of this close-focus reading is really the purpose of this study. It thus brings us at once face to face with the very problems which confronted Israel. How shall we understand what we read? To us, as to them, the allegorical character of the Law comes as a challenge to our powers of spiritual discernment: They, in order to behold those "wondrous things" contained within it, had first to decipher and translate its symbols into plain language. So have we; and it is precisely this which constitutes the peculiar difficulty of our study.
Our path as we proceed is strewn with pitfalls. So much in the first place depends purely on interpretation. Secondly, because of the peculiar idiom* [an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements ] of the Law, the process of interpretation has to be largely intuitive, thus dangerously subjective.
Thirdly, intuition varies so considerably from person to person that a solution which commends itself to some as clear and conclusive strikes others as being fanciful and inadmissible. At every stage in our study we are all alike in danger both of seeing too much in the Law and of seeing too little.
Our difficulties therefore are considerable. An initial error of interpretation can have the gravest consequences. If we assign a false meaning to any given symbol and then proceed to interpret other related symbols in terms of that first mistake, confusion will increase at every stage. The actual decipherment of the symbolism must therefore be undertaken with the utmost caution.
The only safe technique to adopt is one which allows of the periodic testing and retesting of the validity of each interpretation which suggests Itself.
The following are the actual principles which will guide us as we endeavour to convert the symbolism of the Law into that plain moral instruction which it was meant, in the first instance, to give to Israel.
1. It shall be axiomatic [self evident], throughout, that the idiom of the Law has a rational and consistent basis.
2. No interpretation which commends itself on the grounds of inherent probability shall be adopted (except tentatively) for that cause alone.
3· Only if the Law happens to yield no clues to the meaning of a symbol shall such clues be sought elsewhere in Scripture.
Law and Grace Ch 2