Covenant to the Patriarchs

12 “Let My People Go!”

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

And the Lord said unto Moses, Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. Exodus 9:13.

In the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God promised them the land in which they then lived. It was a land that was fertile, productive, and located at the crossroads of the world. Israel was to be the place where the world would learn about the Messiah and about the salvation given through His sacrifice on the cross.

To accomplish this purpose, Israel must first be delivered from Egyptian slavery. God called Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt. It was an unequal contest: Egypt, the greatest kingdom in the world, against Israel, an enslaved race. However, Israel had an advantage-the sovereign God was on their side!

Pharaoh demonstrated the classic spirit of rebellion against God. As a result, God allowed the plagues to fall on Egypt. Even though Pharaoh could not modify the plagues, or lessen the damage they caused, he refused to let the people go.

God’s Power Over the False Gods of Egypt

The plagues called down upon the Egyptians showed the ineffectiveness of their gods (Exod. 12:12). Many individual Egyptians recognized this and joined the Jews, becoming “the mixed multitude” that followed the Israelites in the exodus (Num. 11:4). The plagues, in their order, were:

Nile turned to blood   Exodus 7:17, 18
Frogs   Exodus 8:2-4
Lice   Exodus 8:16, 17
Flies   Exodus 8:21
Animals die of Murrain   Exodus 9:3
Boils   Exodus 9:9, 10
Hail   Exodus 9:18, 19
Locusts   Exodus 10:4-6
Darkness   Exodus 10:21, 22
All firstborn die   Exodus 11:4, 5

As one plague after another took its toll on Egypt, it became clear to the Egyptians what was happening. When Moses and Aaron threatened Pharaoh with a plague of locusts, the servants begged Pharaoh to let the people go (Exod. 10:4-7). They said, “How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exod. 10:7). Pharaoh consented to let only the men go. Not accepting this partial answer, Moses stretched out his rod, and God covered the land of Egypt with locusts, which ate every green thing. Pharaoh begged for forgiveness and relief from the locusts. A strong west wind came and blew them into the Red Sea. Then, following his habitual pattern, Pharaoh hardened his heart again.

The most significant of the plagues was the tenth and last. After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had initially relented then hardened his heart and refused to let the people go. Pharaoh’s persistent rebellion ended his probation, and now God worked mightily to accomplish His purpose. With the tenth and final plague, the crown prince was slain. Pharaoh finally let the people go. Yet, even then, when Israel left Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued Israel with his armies. Under the mighty hand of the Lord, the pursuing army drowned in the Red Sea.

The Passover

The tenth plague began after the celebration of the first Passover feast. On that incredible night, the firstborn died in every house that was not marked by the blood of the lamb. Even among the cattle, there was death (Exod. 11, 12). The firstborn in houses marked with the blood of a lamb were protected. The Egyptians knew about the threatened plague; they could have been protected had they circumcised their men and united with God’s people.

God had specified the procedures for the Passover: On the tenth day of the month, they were to provide a lamb of the first year, without blemish, and keep it as part of the household until the fourteenth day of the month. In the evening of the fourteenth, they were to kill the lamb and use hyssop to strike the blood on the doorposts and the lintel of the door.

They were then to roast the lamb with fire and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The meal was to be eaten in haste with everyone dressed for travel and with shoes on their feet and a staff in their hand (Exod. 12:11). After this, they were to continue eating unleavened bread for the following seven days (Exod. 12:15).

This became a regular festival every year for Israel, the most meaningful of their yearly feasts.1 The lamb represented Jesus Christ and His blood, which was shed for the remission of sins. The lamb’s four days with the family represented the almost four years that Jesus would minister among the people.2 The unleavened bread represented the Bread of Life in which there is not the least impurity or sin. The festival was to be a constant reminder of the gospel of salvation, the focus of the covenant.

Jethro’s Visit

After the exodus was well on its way, Moses had a visitor. It was his father-in-law Jethro. What a pleasant surprise!

“Jethro! O my father, Jethro! Are you here?”

“Yes, my son, I am here. And I have brought Zipporah and your two sons with me.”

“Oh, my father Jethro, you do not know how glad I am to see you.”

Immediately, Moses was taken back to his youth. He ran, bowed low, and threw his arms around the father of his wife. In the days to follow, Moses and Jethro were constant companions, talking, talking, and talking some more. So much had happened since they were last together. As Jethro sat with Moses during the day, people in unending lines came to him with their problems. Jethro noticed Moses’ tired eyes, the deep lines of fatigue in his face, and the sagging of his shoulders. Finally, he had to speak:

“Moses, you are doing too much! You sit all day long listening to these people.”

“Yes, father. This is a nation of slaves. I am trying to teach them God’s laws and ways.”

“But, Moses, you are killing yourself. You cannot do it all by yourself.”

Jethro then conceded that Moses had done a good job in organizing the camp and the march. Yet, he needed to organize a government as well. There were able men in the camp. These must be chosen and made to be rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They would judge the ordinary problems of life. Only the tough matters would then be brought to Moses.

Moses listened. The plan was eminently logical. Moses put it immediately into practice, with good results. Standing to one side, Miriam and Aaron talked quietly to one another, “Haven’t we been telling Moses to do that for weeks? Now Jethro shows up and Moses listens to him and does what we were saying right away. Go figure!” (See Num. 12.)

Arrival at Sinai

Israel came now to rest at Sinai. Here they would have time to listen to God and become familiar with His will and covenant. While the civil law helped them to organize a society and the ceremonial law provided a framework for their worship, the moral law showed them the character of God, an ideal that they, personally, might reach through grace.

The “gods” that were everywhere in Egypt were anything but holy. Close association with people, who were immersed in wanton pleasure of all kinds, made the Israelites become very much like them. God purposed to demonstrate to them His majesty and holiness. They needed to understand the sinfulness of sin and their own inability to rise above their sinful nature. The people needed to know the life-changing power of God. They needed grace.

The history of the creation and the flood were now stories that had lost their impact. The miracles of the plagues in Egypt and even of the deliverance through the Red Sea meant for them that Jehovah merely had more power than the gods of the Egyptians. The people needed to know that there is only one God, the God of love, and they needed to appreciate His character.

The people learned about the judgments of God as they observed the effects of the plagues on the Egyptians. They learned about His mercy in the provisions of the Passover and about His power as they crossed the Red Sea on dry land. Every day they experienced His guidance from the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. They ate manna from heaven, drank water from the rock, and were secured from raiding bandits after they defeated the Amalekites. The new plans for organization gave them a sense of pride about who they were.

Now it was the right moment for God to declare His covenant to the nation and for each person to make a commitment to Yahweh, the one true God.


1. Passover and unleavened bread were to be a “sign” and a “memorial” for Israel throughout their generations (Exod. 12:14; 13:9, 16).

2. Jesus’ ministry was actually three and a half years, according to the harmony of the Gospels’ account and according to the half “week” of Daniel 9:26, 27, marked by His being cut off and Israel’s sacrifices coming to an end. The three and a half years would have been four years by inclusive reckoning because they counted parts of a day or a year as an additional day or year.