There was a joke in high school, a one-liner, that was repeated over and over. “Do you know Sally?” someone might ask. The one-liner would come back, “Yes, but not in the biblical sense.” Giggle giggle. I usually laughed, but I didn’t get it.
Then at some point, early in my own faith journey, I read in the early chapters of Genesis, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1). Oh. Giggle giggle.
As I have grown up and become oh-so-much more mature, I have come to see that the biblical sense of knowing someone is indeed intimate. It is not necessarily sexual, but there is a connotation of such depth, such stirred emotion, such mutual exchange, such trust and friendship that it becomes an easy metaphor for sexual union between husband and wife. Biblical knowing is not mere acquaintance.
Our chapters from Exodus are the book’s introduction. They set the stage for the Moses narrative, which picks up a full head of steam in chapter 3. But today’s reading is bookended on either side by the word “know.” The author, historically believed to be Moses himself, sets an early contrast.
As you will remember, the book of Genesis ended with the sons of Israel (Jacob) and their families prospering in Egypt because of their brother Joseph’s vaulted position. Pharaoh knew Joseph in the biblical sense: he fully trusted Joseph to steward and lead his entire kingdom.
However as Exodus begins, verse 1:8 looms over the entire scene, letting us know that though Israel has multiplied greatly, the trust and mutual affection is no longer there: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
What we see in the ensuing description is the natural fruit of ‘not knowing.’ The text describes a fearful mistrust on Pharaoh’s part, leading to intense ethnic division and manipulation of power. Rather than living in peace alongside one another, the Egyptians enslave the Hebrews, with Pharaoh even ordering the murder of all Hebrew infant males.
At the end of chapter 2, now nearly 80 years (EIGHTY YEARS!) later (cf. 7:7), we see that the Hebrew people are crying out to God because of their slavery; they are calling out for rescue to the God who covenanted with their forefather Abraham.
Verse 2:25 says mysteriously, “God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.” He knew! Pharaoh did not know these people, but God did. Intimately, with depth and emotion, with commitment to relationship, God knew his people; and the knowing of God is not mere acquaintance.
In between Pharaoh not knowing and God knowing, between government enforced murder and the divine promise of rescue, we see the birth of Moses. Moses’ name means “One who was drawn out.”
He was of course drawn out of the bulrushes along the banks of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, who would become his adoptive mother. Yet he would also become the leader through whom God would draw his covenant people out of slavery.
Yet it is not merely a good, well-framed story. Here in Exodus 1 & 2 the stage is set to point us dramatically forward to his greatest story. For God has also heard our cry, the cry of all humanity burdened by and enslaved to our own sins.
And God knew. So he drew his own son, the greater Moses, out of heaven to earth, out of perfection to a livestock trough, out of life to a cross, then out of death to victory and everlasting life. And by this new Moses, Jesus Christ, he has drawn us out of the assurance of death and replaced it with the restored and atoned assurance of everlasting life with him.
The Rev. Canon Joe Gibbes is Canon for Christian Education at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama.